Premise: A look at Jim Henson’s life, the creator of the most famous puppet franchise of all time, The Muppets.
About: Weekes did not sell this script, but the script has gotten so much attention around town that he landed a lot of work from it, most notably the rewrite of the high profile project “Waterproof” for Legendary Pictures. (This is an important thing to note for aspiring screenwriters. You don’t have to sell a script to make money. It’s far more common that your script(s) becomes a resume of sorts. If someone likes what they see, they’ll give you a job writing one of their films). Edit: Now someone is pointing out in the comments that Henson’s company did indeed buy this and is producing it. I haven’t been able to confirm this so might someone from the project e-mail me and let me know?
Writer: Christopher Weekes
I hate the word “genius”. It’s become so overused I don’t even think it means anything anymore. Like when people call Tiger Woods a “genius”. Tiger Woods plays a sport where you put a ball in a hole. I don’t care if the man hits a hole in one every time he pulls out his driver. Under no circumstances should a golfer be labeled a “genius.” Albert Einstein was a genius. The Wright Brothers were geniuses. J.R. Tolkien was a genius. There’s a reason you rarely see me give a script a “genius” rating, because when I give that rating, I want it to mean something. But as long as we’re on the subject, I think Jim Henson was a genius. He created an entire universe of characters out of an artform many considered to be long dead. There was no roadmap for what he did. There was no “how-to” book. He just made it up as he went along. And to come up with something so complete, so alive, so unique, is one of the greatest achievements in the history of entertainment.
So it was with great interest that I dove into this offbeat screenplay, only to find myself swimming through one of the more schizophrenic pieces of drama I’ve ever encountered. I’m just going to say it straight up: The Muppet Man bored me to tears for 115 pages, then made me an emotional wreck the final 20. I would go so far as to say the final 20 pages of this screenplay would be one of the most memorable and emotional sequences ever filmed. I could not sleep after reading this screenplay, it hit me so hard. So how did I end up weeping like a little girl during a script that initially I couldn’t even muster up the energy to turn the pages on?
Well it starts with the biopic. I hate’em. And here’s why. How do you break down someone’s life into 2 hours? Or maybe this is a better question: Could you sum up your life in two hours? I certainly hope not. That would make for one boring life. But that’s only the beginning of this genre’s problems. Movies like short time periods. A life is a long time period. Movies like 3 acts. A life has 100 acts. In movies you pick when stuff happens to your character. In life, you’re locked into what happens to your character. And I’m not saying there haven’t been successes in the genre, but it usually plays out the same old boring way: We get a glorified documentary of a person’s life. And for a big old chunk of The Muppet Man, that’s how I felt.
It’s not that Weekes doesn’t attempt to dramatize the action. It’s that he doesn’t have a lot to work with. There’s a thin mystery surrounding Jim’s health going on in the present. When we jump into the past, we see his brother die as well as the life-long courting of his eventual wife. But all these things play out like set decoration – like background music in a play we can only hear. And here’s why:
I never cared about Jim Henson.
He’s introverted. He keeps to himself. We never know what he’s thinking. He’s passive. Do these things ring an alarm to any longtime writers out there? Yes, these are the things that you NEVER WANT YOUR MAIN CHARACTER TO BE. Characters who keep to themselves are always boring on film. If we don’t know what you’re thinking, how can we identify with or care about you? Scene after scene you’re dying for Henson to give you something – anything – but it never happens.
The script has a few sparks though. Its best moments come when the original muppets sneak in to have discussions with Jim. They very much mimic Jim’s energy: melancholy, beat up, tired. When we meet Kermit he’s 20 years older with gray hair and a pot belly. These muppets are not the muppets of your past. They’re at the end of their lives, like Jim, and there’s this overwhelming feeling of sadness watching them. Mrs. Piggy has gone on to marry another animal, and Kermit wants Henson’s advice on what he should do about it. I don’t really know how to describe it other than it just feels so…sad. Cartoon characters (puppet characters) aren’t supposed to grow old. They aren’t supposed to be serious. So when we see them experiencing problems just like us. When we see their age and realize that they’re mortal just like we are, it affects you in a way like nothing else ever has.
Which brings us to that ending I’ve been talking about so much. How did The Muppet Man turn into the most emotional finale since a certain giant ship sank ten years ago? It starts with Jim’s death. Jim Henson didn’t have cancer. Jim Henson didn’t have a heart attack. Jim Henson wasn’t in a car accident. He had a bout of the flu which he ignored for two weeks. He was tired all the time. He would involuntarily pass out. But because his personality was such that he never wanted to bother anyone, instead of going to the hospital, he waited for it to pass. But it didn’t pass. In fact, before he knew it he was coughing up blood and even *then* his ex-wife had to convince him to go to the hospital. They made it there before he died, but his condition was so advanced that the doctors couldn’t save him. He went into toxic shock within hours, then a coma, and less than a day later, he passed away.
I didn’t watch Michael Jackson’s funeral. But people tell me it was extremely emotional. From everything I’ve heard, Jim Henson’s funeral was one of the most memorable funerals in history. And if the script’s account is any indication, I have no doubt about the accuracy of this statement. As Jim lay dying in the hospital – hoping that the drugs would take effect in time – he wrote his children a letter. Jim’s son read that letter during his eulogy. When he finishes these heartwrenching last words, he looks out at the crowd. And when we turn around to see what he sees, there aren’t just hundreds of people staring back at him, but all of the puppets Jim Henson had ever created.
From Wikipedia: In the final minutes of the two-and-a-half hour service, six of the core Muppet performers sang, in their characters’ voices, a medley of Jim Henson’s favorite songs, culminating in a performance of “Just One Person” that began with Richard Hunt singing alone, as Scooter. “As each verse progressed,” Henson employee Chris Barry recalled, “each Muppeteer joined in with their own Muppets until the stage was filled with all the Muppet performers and their beloved characters.” The funeral was later described by LIFE as “an epic and almost unbearably moving event.”
And if that scene doesn’t get you, in a brilliant touch, the final scene actually plays out in the muppet world. But not the muppet world of yesteryear. The one of today, with the old muppets, and Kermit The Frog desperately trying to find Miss Piggy to tell her that he loves her. If you don’t need a towel to clean off your keyboard at the end of this scene, there’s a good chance you don’t have emotions.
If you want to go that extra mile and really emotionally invest yourself in this experience, do what I did, go over to Youtube, and watch as many Muppets clips as you can. You begin to see what I couldn’t see at the outset of this screenplay – which is the love for life Jim Henson had, if only through the world of his puppets.
I’ll be interested to hear what you guys think about this one, but in the meantime, since I’m having such a difficult time categorizing the script, I’m going to cheat…
First 115 pages:
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
Last 20 pages:
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
Script link: Link taken down. :(
What I learned: I was recently reading Lucy V’s blog and she had a great article on the dubious second act. The second act is generally referred to as “conflict” because that’s what you want your character to encounter: CONFLICT. If there’s not enough conflict, the second act will feel bland. That’s exactly how I felt about The Muppet Man. There simply wasn’t enough drama to keep us involved in the story. Always remember that in order to propel your story forward, you need lots of conflict in your second act. And as Lucy says, throw your characters into the fire. Make it bad for them. It’s always more interesting watching a character struggle through tough times than seeing him waltz through life without a care.
Premise: The oldest son of the Ashby fortune comes back to take over his family’s billion dollar company. There’s only one problem. He’s supposed to be dead.
About: Not much is known about this project. William Wheeler (The Hoax) was hired to adapt the novel, “Brat Farrar”, which was originally written in 1950. The novel is either a classic or a cult favorite, depending on who you talk to, and has inspired quite a few stage productions, as well as a UK miniseries back in 1986. Producers have been trying to turn it into a proper movie since its publication.
Writer: William Wheeler (based on the novel “Brat Farrar” by Josephine Tey)
If there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, it’s probably on Fishers Island, where financial titans go to battle for the creme de la creme of North American real estate. It also happens to be the home of the Ashbys and their four children: Patrick, Ellie, Simon, and Elenor. Despite owning the second largest company in the United States, the tight-knit group is fairly grounded, as their father is a firm believer in family above all else. We actually meet him on an evening where he reinforces this point to his children. Whatever may happen in the world, stick together, support each other, and love one another. If you do that, you’ll live a happy life. He then proceeds to get on a helicopter with their mother, and crash into the lake. There are no survivors. In an instant, the Ashby children are orphans. Patrick, the oldest and leader of the group, is so distraught that a few days later, he swims out into the lake and allows himself to drown, his body never to be found again.
Flash-forward 14 years and Simon, the second oldest of the children, has just turned 25 and is therefore about to inherit the reigns to his father’s company. The will states very clearly: the oldest of the Ashby boys will inherit the company after the father’s death. That time has finally come and the cold and calculating Simon couldn’t be more excited.
With only days left before the transfer, their Aunt Claire comes rushing into the house, crying. There is somebody out front. A visitor. It’s important that they come right away. Everybody runs to the guest house and are shocked to find none other than…Patrick. Or, at least, the spitting image of Patrick, now 27 years old. But how could this be? Patrick is dead. He killed himself. Everyone is confused, particularly Simon. If this is Patrick, where has he been all this time? Patrick does his best to explain the circumstances. He couldn’t live here after their parents’ death, so he left and has been living a normal life out in the real world. He came back because of his father’s words. That a family sticks together. But Simon isn’t listening. He knows what this means. If this is the real Patrick, then he, not Simon, will be taking over the business.
Stevie, the longtime head of security at the Ashby estate, is already putting a plan into motion. Old family members showing up to claim untold fortunes is a scam that’s been going on since the Caveman days. They’ll surely be able to sniff out the impostor with an extensive background check. And thus begins a painstaking investigation into whether this is or is not the real Patrick Ashby.
So everyone is shocked when Patrick passes the DNA test, the psyche evaluations, and the quizzes Simon and his sisters put into place about their childhood. Whoever this person is, he knows intimate details about their family. Clearly, this has to be Patrick. Even we’re convinced. I mean, how do you fake a DNA test??
He didn’t have to. Turns out Stevie and Patrick have conceived of an elaborate con, planned months in advance. The DNA tests were doctored. Old family videos were meticulously studied. Stevie clues him in on all the family tricks that will come his way. Once Patrick gets a hold of the company, the plan is simple. He will siphon out millions of dollars to himself and Stevie, then after a few months, he’ll declare his return a mistake, and disappear back into his old world, never to be seen again.
Because no family just hands over a 20 billion dollar business overnight, Patrick has to jump through a lot of hoops, and the more hoops he jumps through, the more Simon doubts he’s dealing with the real Patrick. Another problem (which should be noted – things not to do if you’re trying to steal a 20 billion dollar family business) is that Patrick falls in love with Ellie, who is supposedly his sister. And Ellie, in a creepy twist, is just as enamored with Patrick – even though *she* believes that he *is* the real Patrick. Will Patrick slip up before the board anoints him president? Or will he continue to fool everyone and pull off the biggest con in history?
As we barrel towards the end, twists and turns start popping up like whack-a-moles at a carnival and for the most part, they work. But there’s a lingering sense as you’re reading ‘The Sound’ that something like this couldn’t possibly happen in real life. Especially in post-meltdown Wall Street, where things are checked, double-checked, re-checked, then checked again. Although to be honest, that didn’t bother me that much. My big problem with The Sound is its decision to tip us off that Patrick Ashby is a fake. To me, that was the most intriguing mystery of all: Is this or isn’t it the real Patrick Ashby? Instead, the script wants you to focus on “Will Patrick get caught?” Which was interesting, but I’m not sure as interesting as the alternative.
Another issue I had was that the characters didn’t have enough depth. I understand the challenge involved in a story like this. There’s so much plot and so many secrets, it’s not easy to map out a clear and distinct character arc for everyone. Still, all I knew about Fake Patrick was that he had a rough life. I wanted to know more about who he was and how he got to the point where he actually conned people for a living. Had we dealt more with his pain, had we understood the depths of his predicament, we probably would’ve rooted for him more.
Despite these issues, The Sound is a satisfying read. It’s funny because I started thinking of Rob Pattinson and his attachment to Bel Ami, and I thought – this is a much more interesting portrayal of a poor man infiltrating the social elite. Where that world felt stale and uninteresting, this one felt alive and unpredictable. I could definitely see him playing Patrick Ashby. Of course, you’d probably have to add a dozen sex scenes (with his sister?) to get him interested, but it would be worth it.
The Sound was something I knew nothing about going in, but was happy I found it.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Every decision you make in a screenplay has a ripple effect. Make sure you not only understand what you gain by making a choice, but also what you lose. So in the case of The Sound, Wheeler chose to tell us very early on that Patrick and Stevie were conning the family. We gain a sense of fear: “Will Patrick get caught?” But we lose a sense of mystery: “Is this the real Patrick?” Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which is more important in telling your story. But you can’t make an informed decision unless you’re aware of the effect each choice has.
Producer note: It is my understanding that the original book had Patrick and Simon as twins, with Patrick a few seconds older. I’m curious as to why they changed this in the screenplay. It would seem to me that if you kept the twin storyline, you could go out to talent offering both characters to a single actor. And we all know how much actors love playing two parts in the same movie. Easy way to snag an A-lister methinks. Thoughts?
I know this isn’t exactly script news, but it’s so earth-shattering and has such a profound effect on the industry, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t report it. Is this April 1st?? (checking…….no it isn’t) — Uhhhh, is this possible? Disney just bought Marvel Entertainment for 4 billion dollars. Where did this even come from??? My first thoughts are…Disney got’em on the cheap. 4 billion?? For all those super-heroes?
What do you guys think?
It’s Monday so it must be time for another Roger review. Today he jumps in his time machine and tackles a screenplay from the past, which, ironically, is set in the future. Bringing it full circle, I’m writing this from the present. But speaking of the future, the rest of the week should be fun as I plan to review that script with a “genius” label on the final 20 pages, a script I thought would’ve been a thousand times better than Bel Ami for Scriptshadow’s favorite son, R_Patz, and a script for a prominent film playing at The Toronto Film Festival. For now, here’s Roger…
Genre: Post-apocalyptic action-adventure.
Premise: A female courier in a plague-ridden future has to take a cure across state lines.
About: This script became notable as it sold right after the infamous 1988 Writer’s Guild strike (for $500,000 to Columbia) when studios were starved for product. Many years later it was considered one of the best unproduced screenplays in town. Heavyweights at the time Cher, and then Sharon Stone, were attached. It’s apparently swamped in producer fees and Pascal has repeatedly and adamantly refused to allow it to leave Sony in turnaround.
Writer: John Raffo. Screenwriter of “The Relic” and “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”.
Eden Sinclair is the female side to the Snake Plissken and Mad Max post-apocalyptic action hero coin. But before Eden Sinclair and Neil Marshall’s “Doomsday”, there was Mary and John Raffo’s “PINCUSHION”.
America. The post-apocalyptic future. The remaining inhabitants of New York City, St. Louis and Chicago have lost the battle against “DNV 47X toxemia”.
DNV 47X toxemia is a stronger, evolved, more dangerous strain of the plague that has driven survivors to live in fortified, sanitized stalags. The ruins of Americana modified into clandestine bomb shelters, makeshift underground railroad-like stations of the post-cataclysm.
Dust-bowl wanderers try to survive in a world that’s much, much worse than any mere debilitating Depression or recession. Ordinary people are forced to play the role of brigand, of killer, of victim.
America’s highways and bi-ways have become killing grounds. A simple trip from Point A to Point B becomes a trial in a gladiatorial arena. Mutants and dwarves and assorted freaks patrol the desolate roads by gunpoint, by the razor-sharp tips of arrowheads.
It’s a dog-eat-dog-world, and if you’re brave enough to venture onto the charnel tracks you better have a fast car, your favorite shotgun, and a trusted friend to watch your back when shit gets rough.
A weapon of last resort is probably not a bad idea either, because when you’re forced off the road and the people attempting to jack you take your boomstick away, that last trick up your sleeve is gonna be the only thing between you…and life and death.
And try not to stay out of your car for too long, otherwise you might get burned.
It’s a bitch.
But The Cross is worse. Much worse. Those shitbirds that were on the road earlier, who set up an ambush to steal your vaccine? The ones you were scared of? They’re nothing. Even they run from The Cross. And if you’re smart, you will too. Because The Cross? They’re the masters of the road, and you best oblige and hide.
Because there’s a war a-brewing between The Carriers and The Cross. And The Cross is gonna do everything and anything to come out on top.
Mary’s a plague carrier. Might as well be immune. She’s alive and kickin’ it. Trying to eke out a living in a world that has little life.
Mary’s a courier.
You need to move some alcohol, some heroine, some vaccine, some toothpaste, some explosives but you’re too yellow and weak-kneed to brave the roads yourself? Mary’s the gal you want. She gets shit done, son.
Give that precious little package of yours to Mary, and she’ll make sure it gets to its destination. Her vehicle of choice? An antique station wagon she’s painted a dull black and equipped with large off-roadin’ tires. She’s even covered the rear with sheet metal and rivets. Armor like this is kinda required should The Cross ride up and stitch a line of machine-gun fire into your backside.
All this for a price of course.
Besides Tommy, her eye-patch-wearing navigator, compadre, and mentor, the only thing that matters to Mary is the dollar-sign payday that’s waiting for her at the end of each journey. Mary’s destination is currency.
Now, for Mare, there’s nothing she won’t carry. But she’s gotta play the odds, and there are places she won’t go. Only problem is, Mare’s hard up. And when a job she would normally tell to fuck off offers a solution to her financial woes, she’s forced to take it.
What’s the job?
She has 72 hours to deliver some precious cargo to Salt Late City. Big whoop, right? Wrong. To get there, Mare has to cross the Nevada Border. And no one crosses the Nevada Border except for The Cross. Last courier that tried the Border got himself killed, and since then, everyone’s developed the wisdom to stay away.
Why only 72 hours? What’s the precious cargo?
It’s a box. It’s about four feet high, two feet wide, three deep. Looks like an ordinary shipping trunk. Except this trunk is covered with valves, pipes, and scuba-like tanks.
And inside of the box is a cure for DNV 47X.
The storage life on the tank is limited, and the people waiting for the delivery can only safely hold out for 3 days.
He’s known as Number One. Captain Doctor Alwin Spoor. That’s right. You guessed it. The Cross? This is the organization formerly known as The RED Cross. And they have devolved into an authoritarian terror squad.
The Cross shut down the borders, sealed off the city and state lines to non-Cross personnel. To not only stop the spread of disease, but to cut off the free market and freeze out all the other medical groups. They starved out everyone who refused to live under the Cross’ iron fist.
Number One is after Charles Shepard, a molecular biologist, a geneticist who has developed the cure to stop the Ultraplague. Shepard’s the guy who has decided to go rogue, to cross to the other side and petition the help of the plague carries and its couriers to get his panacea to the right people.
Spoor, in true totalitarian-gestapo-commandant fashion, kinda likes the world the way it is. He enjoys being at the top of the post-apocalyptic food-chain, and he doesn’t want this to change. At all. A cure would break the manacles The Cross has cuffed society in. This cannot happen. Because well…Number One would no longer be…Number One.
What’s the cure?
It’s Pincushion. Pincushion is the child inside of the box. He’s a test-tube baby. Genetically engineered. His blood is the serum, the antidote to the plague and its manifest destruction westward.
So this story has an interesting world, an intriguing protagonist, and a cool set-up. Does it work?
It has four issues that keep it from working:
1.) Mary’s arc is underdeveloped. For her journey to have emotional resonance, this story does warrant an elegant character arc. It’s a sinner-to-saint character journey that should connect, but doesn’t. If this is connect-the-dots, we’ve got the dot at the start of the journey and the dot at the end, but we’re missing all the other dots in-between.
This is all dependent on her interaction and tortured feelings for Pincushion, and I feel like there’s not a lot of time for these two to bond. And this is a minor note, but the kid is pretty freakin’ weird. I mean, I’m not blaming him. He’s engineered after all. But he has this weird, unpleasant alien quality to him. If he were CGI he’d be afflicted with Uncanny Valley syndrome.
I think I could live with this if Mary wasn’t so much of a blank slate. Something about her seems void. One interesting character trait is that she’s illiterate. But other than being a pretty bad-ass driver and resourceful shooter, she’s kind of one-note. Two dimensional. Stilted.
There’s not much meat to these spindly, bad-ass heroine bones.
2.) There’s a jarring tangent after the mid-point where our protagonist is M.I.A. The floor is given to the villain. And it’s boring.
For the first half of the script, Mary shares a lot of the decision making with her first-mate, Tommy. And since he has more experience than her, you get the sense that she’s more of the apprentice to his mentor. And you know, we get a really good mid-point where she is forced to take control. Kinda like Ripley in Cameron’s “Aliens”, but the opportunity is wasted here.
Mary is injured and taken in by this convent/coven of crazy post-apocalyptic warrior nuns, and she’s unconscious for a lot of the time. And these are such weird, bizarre characters you become more interested in them than Mary.
And I think this is a bad decision, because this should be about Mary.
Then we get scenes of Spoor monologuing and providing us with exposition that we really don’t need. Yes, we know the kid is the cure. We don’t need a lab scene where Spoor fondles the child’s flesh and terrorizes the nuns with verbose threats. Unnecessary exposition is death. There’s absolutely no need for it. Slows the story to a halt.
3.) It lacks rising action. If your most suspenseful action sequence is in the first 10 pages of the script, man do you have problems. And it’s a great 10 pages! But every single action sequence in this is a chase, for the most part. And every single chase is Mary trying to escape Number One’s massive Red Cross Truck that’s armed with machine rifles and an artillery battery. For an action movie, the lack of rising action is death to your movie.
In a movie like this, what we’re basically waiting for is the big fuckin’ Road Warrior sequence that’s going to blow the top of our skulls off. But no, we’re treated to something we saw in Act 1 and Act 2. There’s no incremental build-up to the action sequences. I mean, actions sequences are basically mini-movies and mini-acts in themselves. Each one should be bigger and better than the last, right? Or at least more interesting with higher stakes than the sequence that came before it.
Pace yourself and –
Up the stakes, up the stakes, up the stakes.
4.) It does not earn its ending. The ending is great. With this one scene, we get everything that this story is about. It has an emotional wallop to it that I kind of adore. It’s harsh, poignant. Imagine being on a clean-up crew after someone is martyred. And all of your co-workers are a hardened lot, just doing a job. Now imagine the type of dialogue that would be said as you clean the mess up. Maybe a quick blue-collar sentiment…but life goes on and you still got a job to do.
It’s sad, but great at the same time.
Except, because of the reasons above, the story does not earn this moment.
Now, I know Jeb Stuart rewrote this thing back in the day, and I’m really interested to see what he did with the story, because despite its similarities to “Mad Max”, “Escape from New York”, and “Doomsday”, I still think the script can be fixed. And when it is, it has all the ingredients to be an awesome flick.
Hell, I’d be the first in line at the theater.
A final aside, this script reminded me a bit of Kurt Wimmer’s “Ultraviolet”. Which begs the question, I wonder how many working filmmakers today have read this script and are influenced by it?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Mid-points. Read a David Mamet interview and I’ll bet he’ll say something like, “Anyone can write a 1st Act.” Inferring that Act 2 is the true challenge. Having a great mid-point can really glue a story together. Especially when it is seamless. And most great mid-points are reversals of some kind. When I read scripts, I’m always really curious to see what the mid-point is going to be. It’s like a game for me. And this script has a great one. It’s emotional. It shakes the story to its core. So much so that you can’t wait to see what happens next. Even if you can predict what the mid-point is going to be, the good ones always seem to be surprising. Something that makes you say, “I can’t believe they really went there! I didn’t want it to happen, but I’m glad it did because it makes the story better.” It’s narrative harmony.
Premise: A U.S. Marshall must go to a maximum security psychiatric ward located on an island to find a missing patient.
About: They’re baaaaaaaaaaaack. Moviemaking BFFs Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio are back at it again with this surprisingly conventional thriller. In addition to DiCaprio, the film also stars one of my favorite actors, Mark Ruffalo, as well as heavyweight Ben Kingsley and the delightfully delicate Michelle Williams. Writer Kalogridis has emerged as one of the top writers in Hollywood, having worked on a ton of big films such as X-Men, Tomb Raider, Wonder Woman, and two films yet to be made by James Cameron. Kalogridis sold her first spec to Warner Brothers (about Joan of Arc) all the way back when she was at UCLA film school. But for those of you who think it’s easy street after selling your first spec, Laeta disappeared off the map for many years and had to pay her dues before she was finally able to get back in the game.
Writer: Laeta Kalogridis (adapted from the novel by Dennis Lehane)
It was recently reported that Shutter Island was being pushed back to February. This was a shocking development for a few reasons. First, this film (or the film’s pieces at least) was on a lot of peoples’ Oscar radar. Second, outside of summer, December is the most profitable time to release a movie, especially if it’s good. And third, February is probably the least profitable month to release a film. To give you some perspective, last February’s big release was The Jonas Brothers in 3-D (by the way, these rumors floating around that I was there opening day are greatly exaggerated). Could the film actually be bad?
Well here’s the confusing part. Even if the film was terrible, it’s still extremely marketable. You have Scorsese. You have Leo. And you have a spooky intriguing concept. So why would you put this in the worst box office month of the year? The studio’s saying that they don’t have the money to promote it properly but everybody knows that’s bullshit. They have the money. Could it be that the suits are afraid the audience will go in with certain “award-worthy” expectations? And that this isn’t that type of film? Do they want to market it more traditionally? All of these questions peaked my curiosity, so I decided to take a look at the script. You can throw all the actors and production value you want at a flick. But you can’t protect a bad screenplay. It was time to find out what these suits were so afraid of.
It’s 1954 when we meet Teddy Daniels. Teddy is a born fighter. The guy’s got danger in his eyes. He’s a U.S. Marshall. Except we’re catching him in his only vulnerable moment, on a boat, puking. The foggy wavy ride has set his stomach crawling faster than a five course Indian brunch. Teddy’s partner is CHUCK, always ready with a joke. This is the first time the two have worked together and it’s clear from the way Chuck treats Teddy, that Teddy’s something of a legend in the business. When you need something solved, Teddy solves it.
The two are being ferried over to Shutter Island, an island built specifically for the most insane of the insane. But Shutter Island is unique in that it’s a maximum security island. In case you didn’t know, there’s no other “maximum security” insane asylum in the U.S. The people on this island are that dangerous. Or at least that’s what we’re told.
After a brief look at the grounds, they meet Dr. Cawley, who informs them that a patient named Rachel Solando has gone missing. Rachel is so fucking crazy that she drowned her three children in the ocean, then dried them off and set them up in their chairs for dinner. Yeah, and you thought your ex-girlfriend was crazy. Anyway, Rachel has constructed a fictitious reality here at Shutter Island that allows her to believe she never came here in the first place. She thinks she’s still back at home, and the orderlies and doctors are post workers and milkmen. What she did to her children was so traumatic, the only way for her to go on was to create a world where it never happened.
Hmmm, I think I know where this is going.
So Teddy and Chuck start searching around, only to find that the patients’ and orderlies’ answers don’t exactly add up. Rachel somehow got out of her max-security cell and then snuck past not one or two, but three sets of guards without being seen. Dr. Cawley and his cohorts are clearly hiding something. And that’s when things really go off the lid. Turns out we don’t know Teddy as well as we thought we did. Teddy’s been doing research on Shutter Island for years now. It so happens that his wife was murdered in an arson fire at their old apartment building by the maintenance man, a lowlife named Laeddis. Laeddis was later sent here. Which means that finally, Teddy has a chance to confront him.
Chuck is skeptical. How did Teddy know that at some point in time he’d be asked to come to Shutter Island? It’s a question that doesn’t bother Teddy, but it’s the beginning of a series of clues that lead us to believe Teddy might not be all there. Or is it we’re only supposed to think that? Is Teddy insane? Or is he being set up? More investigating follows, which leads to more creepy patients, which leads to the same message being offered to Teddy over and over again: “Get off this island while you still can.”
Wow, looks like Teddy’s gotten himself into a TITANIC mess.
The cool thing about Shutter Island is you’re sitting there thinking, “Is Teddy crazy? Is he one of the inmates, imagining all this?” Normally you’d think yes and chalk it up to a generic thriller. But because this is Scorsese, who’s seen just about every iteration of every story ever told, you know he’s not going to make it that simple. You know there’s gotta be another answer. But then again, maybe Scorsese knows you know this, which is why he WILL do exactly what you expect. Or….don’t expect. Or wait a minute. What’s the question again? Basically, Scorsese and Kalogridis are fucking with our heads the same way the doctors and orderlies are fucking with Teddy’s.
In the end, I don’t think Shutter Island gives us anything new, but the way the story is told still feels original. One of the cool things about the screenplay is that it goes much deeper than “is or isn’t Teddy crazy?” 1954 was a huge transition time in the psychotherapy field. Back in those days, they’d use shock treatment and physical violence to treat the insane. But a new approach was gaining ground in the industry – that of medicated treatment. The government is dreaming of a future where people can be medicated right out of their pain and symptoms. “We’re on the verge of medicating the human experience right out of the human experience,” Dr. Cawley’s cohort says. One of the subplots is that Shutter Island is a secret testing ground for this new type of treatment. Teddy, who was there liberating one of the concentration camps back in World War 2, fears that Shutter Island is a concentration camp in itself. The experience affected him so much, he’ll do anything to make sure something like it never happens again. All this plays out very eerily as you don’t have to look far to realize that 50 years later, this medicated form of existence has become a staple of our society. My guess is that this extra element is what attracted Leo and Scorsese. There’s definitely some depth here.
I really dug Shutter Island. It kept me guessing all the way through and it had more twists and turns than I knew what to do with. This should be a fun flick. And my guess is it will move again to a more audience friendly month.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: If it’s possible, try and contain your thriller. By not giving your protagonist anywhere to go, you raise the stakes and the tension of your story. In Shutter Island, we knew Teddy had nowhere to run, and that extra “contained” element made everything scarier. The only thing worse than being caught in a terrifying situation, is being caught in a terrifying situation that you can’t run away from.