Premise: The most feared cop in Scotland comes to L.A. to solve a case and defeat his evil nemesis.
About: From the writers of Pierre Pierre, here comes O’Gunn, a spec that Reliance snatched up during the Cannes Film Festival (Reliance is the Bollywood company that is making a huge investment in Hollywood with the production of 20 new films). It should be noted that this is a first draft and therefore not the draft that sold. Whether there was an attempt to clean it up and make it more focused, or actually push the boundaries of taste and reason even more is anyone’s guess.
Writers: Edwin Cannistraci and Frederick Seton
Edwin and Frederick. I love you guys. I really do. If I could spend a night out getting plastered with any two writers, it would be you two. Pierre Pierre was hilarious. Couldn’t get enough of it. But what just happened here was not good. Finishing O’Gunn was like waking up with a really bad hangover. The kind where you’re in some random person’s dorm room with no memory of how you got there. Oh, and you’ve already graduated college 7 years ago. And the beautiful woman next to you isn’t a woman at all, but a man. The taste of stale beer feels permanently coated to the inside of your trachea. And you swear to yourself. *Swear* to yourself. That you’ll never drink again.
It’s hard to classify O’Gunn. I think I can safely say I’ve never read anything like it. No. No. I’ve *definitely* never read anything like it. Nor do I want to read anything like it ever again. I feel like I’ve lost at least 3 of my senses. Yes, parts of my sensory perception are definitely missing. To try and explain to you what I just went through is like a soldier trying to explain urban warfare to someone who’s never seen a gun before. I feel…violated. Not sure how anyone can physically feel pain from a script. But I felt it. The only thing that I can take away from this is that Cannistraci and Seton are so insane, that they could obviously care less what I think about their script.
Scottish cop Charlie O’Gunn was born without a mother. I know. I know. That doesn’t make a lick of sense. But if you’re going to survive the barrel of O’Gunn pointed in your face for two hours, you better throw sense out the fucking window. O’Gunn is the toughest craziest cop in the existence of mankind. Think Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon with a Scottish accent times a billion.
O’Gunn’s evil nemesis, a feminine-like British laddie named Lovejoy, has just stolen one of the most elaborate telescopes in the world and nobody knows why. O’Gunn and Lovejoy have an extensive and complicated history and it is believed he is the only one who can stop this Wimbledon-loving dentist-fearing Londonite. So O’Gunn flies to Los Angeles to find and defeat Mr. Strawberries and Cream. Once there, he meets his pansy partner, the Spaniard, “Bullet” (yes – O’Gunn and Bullet). Think of Bullet as a whiny useless version of Mandy Patinkin’s character in The Princess Bride (“You killed my father. Prepare to die”).
After O’Gunn beats the living shit out of the albino Chief of Police because all albinos are soulless devil-spawns who only want to feed off the souls of mankind, he and Bullet check out a mysterious character who works at a pet store. For some reason all the pets in the pet store are dressed up in S&M gear and are on mind-control. So when things go bad, they go really bad. The animals are released and try to obliterate the poor Bullet. Bullet barely escapes with his life. Later , they’re summoned to an elementary school where there’s a bomb threat. Unfortunately, it’s a trap, and all the kids are actually on mind control as well and try to attack O’Gunn.
Mind-control Kids are defeated, which natually means that O’Gunn and Bullet must attend a cock-fight. It gets Kentucky Fried Crazy and the cock fight turns into a human fight. O’Gunn “fists” two roosters by sticking his hands up their asses and uses them as boxing gloves. This leads to a huge car chase where O’Gunn jumps a small river. We then cut to the river where we meet two Navy high-tech dolphins with translator headgear. The dolphins start talking to each other in English. Yes, you heard that right. The dolphins start talking to each other.
After O’Gunn bangs Bullet’s sister, they get a tip that Lovejoy is at the docks. O’Gunn, who by this point has overcome his fear of albinos, asks one for directions. The albino rats him out and Lovejoy captures O’Gunn and Bullet as a result. The two are tied up in a box and thrown into the river to drown. The crafty Bullet somehow escapes but poor O’Gunn isn’t so lucky. He sinks to the bottom of the river and dies. Yes, ladies and gentleman, our main character is dead.
Or is he?
Later, at the funeral, we cut to heaven, where O’Gunn and Death square off in a game of chess. When Death is least expecting it, O’Gunn beats the shit out of him, allowing him to WAKE UP AT HIS OWN FUNERAL. Yes, O’Gunn is alive again.
O’Gunn and Bullet then go to a Lesbian strip club where they’re attacked by lesbians. Oh, by the way, Lovejoy also has a clan of ninjas working for him who are involved in most of the fights. Anyway, they finally infiltrate Lovejoy’s lair and find out what the hell it is this insane man is up to. Oh yeah, and Bullet fucks O’Gunn’s wife to get back at him for fucking his sister.
And that, my friends, was O’Gunn.
Was it funny? Ummmm…hmmm. Okay, I did laugh a few times. I particularly liked that instead of parking, O’Gunn would crash into whatever building he was going to. Outside of that, I mostly wore a puzzled expression on my face. If you like complete absurdity with no reason behind it then I’m thinking you’ll like this quite a bit. But man, it felt like Cannistraci and Seton locked themselves in a room and thought up a million things to make each other laugh…without ever checking to see if anyone else was laughing. They needed that referee in the room to say, “Okay wait a minute here guys. You’ve gone too far with this one.” O’Gunn didn’t just go off the rails. It went under-fucking-ground on a one way trip to the San Andreas Fault. This makes Balls Out look like The English Patient.
In order to be fair – because I do like these guys – I got some feedback from a few of our readers. Here are some of the things they had to say:
“I get it, it’s funny. But I don’t know if my mom would get it. Then again, I’d never let her watch this movie.”
“In the wrong hands this sort of thing turns into a Mike Myers “Austin Powers” style vehicle (my heart broke a little when “Pierre” was cast with Jim Carrey) – but in the right hands it turns into “The Jerk”, mixing scatological humor (poo+pee=tee-hee) and non-sequitor anything-for-a-laugh wordplay.”
“The writers are certainly talented, and I’m sure they believed in what they were doing. And why shouldn’t they? they write with conviction and flair. But like a couple of mad scientists they chose to create a frankenstein. A big ugly freak that can barely stand up straight, let alone walk.”
“Carson, never send me a script like this again.”
In the spirit of the recently completed British Open, I’m going to give these two a mulligan and chalk it up to too much Red Bull and the always exploratory first draft . I’m hoping number 3 in their million dollar spec sale trilogy will make up for this rather…strange experience.
Script link: No link
[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Comedy is subjective, but I’m a strong believer in grounding your comedy – no matter how outrageous it is – in some sort of reality. If there’s no reference point, something for the audience to hold on to, it becomes a lawless state of nonsense. At the point where the dolphins started talking to each other I was like, “Okay, that’s it. I don’t know what the fuck is going on anymore.”
500 Days of Summer came out today which means, as an officially released film, it must be officially released from my Top 25. :( So sad. Let me go on the record, however, about the casting of the film, which I think they got all wrong. Summer is supposed to be the world’s biggest bitch. There’s a distance to her. She does not own a heart. Casting Zooey Deschenel is a “Hollywood” attempt to fend off the character’s unlikeability – the thinking being that if Zooey Deschenel is doing all these terrible things, we’ll still love her. But it totally undermines the character. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who’s a great actor, is wrong for Tom for the exact opposite reason. Gordon’s got a tortured James Dean quality to him. Tom’s supposed to be a spineless schmuck that lets people walk all over him. Imagine a slightly better-looking Michael Cera. Gordon-Levitt’s eyes don’t scream out “take advantage of me.” Of course, the financers/producers usually give the filmmakers a list of actors that are marketable enough to justify the budget. So for all I know, the other choices could’ve been Lindsey Lohan and Zac Efron. Maybe these were the best options off a very short list. But anyway, I’ll stop raining on this parade. The movie appears to be getting excellent reviews and still to this day has the best opening three pages of any screenplay I’ve read.
PAGE ONE — NOTE: THE FOLLOWING IS A WORK OF FICTION. ANY RESEMBLANCE TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD IS PURELY COINCIDENTAL.
PAGE TWO — ESPECIALLY YOU JENNY BECKMAN.
PAGE THREE – BITCH.
Check out my brief review of the script from long ago here. I hope to be proved wrong about the casting – very wrong – when I check out the movie this week. :)
Misha wrote and sold the script “Sunflower” last year. The thriller (which is number 7 on my Top 25 list) about two women being held captive at a remote house by a serial killer was adored by just about everyone who read it and made the 2008 Black List. It’s one of those rare screenplay reading experiences where you get so into it, you forget you’re reading a screenplay. William Friedkin (The Exorcist) is attached to direct. Green has parlayed her script sale into a a staff writing position on NBC’s “Heroes” which I can assure you she won’t be telling us anything about. :)
Misha and I will occasionally engage in late night IM procrastination parties. She’s humble and tends to keep a low profile so I had to wait until just the right moment (after I sent her a couple of rare scripts) to inquire about an interview. Heh heh heh. Believe me, this was not easy folks. Misha was entrenched in a Buffy marathon and I had to work all sorts of angles to get her to turn it off. So please thank her for giving us her time and talking about her screenwriting career.
me: So when did you write your first screenplay?
Misha: Senior of high school for my sr. thesis project. It was called, “Maxwell Brenner, Teen Spy” haha
me: Was it any good?
Misha: Horrible, but aren’t all first scripts?
me: So then am I allowed to ask how long ago that was?
Misha: 2002. Not that long ago.
me: How many screenplays did you have to write before you felt like you were “getting it”?
Misha: Around the fourth one, I started to feel my own voice starting to come through, and that the dialogue wasn’t atrocious and cliched.
me: What was the fourth script about? Was that Sunflower?
Misha: No. It was a teenage Thelma and Louise-esque script, called “Dry” that was in the finals for the Sundance Labs. Sunflower was two scripts after that. I guess part of feeling like I was “getting it” had to do with people responding enthusiastically and positively to my writing.
me: How did you get into the Sundance labs?
Misha: I actually didn’t. I was rejected, but the script helped me get my manager.
me: Okay so this is what every aspiring writer out there – this is the part they pay attention to the most. What were the series of events that got you your manager?
me: Is Buffy killing someone right now?
Misha: haha, i’m surfing the internet and answering your questions. buffy will come next
me: I hope she lives.
Misha: I paid 140,000 dollars to attend NYU film school, and luckily had a teacher who believed in me enough to refer me to her manager. I was working at a restaurant in NYC, partying, and having a generally great post college life, and I ran into her at my restaurant, and she was very appalled by the idea that I had a script in the finals for Sundance, and wasn’t capitalizing on that buzz by trying to get a manager. So she sent my script to hers, and the rest is history. Referrals are very key in getting your foot in the door.
me: So important to capitalize on any buzz. You wait just a couple weeks sometimes and bam nobody cares…
Misha: That’s true. But I also think good writing will find a way to get read.
me: So this manager was out in LA or there in New York? Are you still in New York?
Misha: Manager is in LA, and I’m now in LA. My managers emphasized how important it was for budding screenwriters who want to start a career to live in LA. And they were right. To really get a career going, it helps 100 percent to be here to take meetings and such. And if you want to write for TV, you definitely have to live in town.
me: So now a little off-topic here and then we’ll get back to screenwriting stuff. You told me at the beginning of our chat that you were watching Buffy. So I’m assuming you’re a big Whedon fan?
me: So then what did you think of Cabin In The Woods?
Misha: I haven’t read it yet. But it’s near the top of the script reading list.
me: Whaaaaaaaaaaaat? You just lost some Whedon points there.
Misha: Haha. I know.
me: Whedon seems to have a serious female following. Why do you think that is?
Misha: Because Buffy is a great female character. And he’s funny. Girls like funny. And wit. Joss has a lot of wit. And he works with a lot of writers that match him in wit.
me: Hold on. Writing this down. “girls… like… funny.” You know, had someone told me this a long time ago life would’ve been a lot easier.
Misha: Uh oh. Maybe I’m giving away too many secrets here. Us girls like to remain mysterious.
me: lol. Okay, so moving forward. Did you feel like you had something with Sunflower before you showed it to anyone? Were you like, “This is the one.”
Misha: I thought, “Wow, this is cool, I like this…” but I’ve also thought that about the other five scripts I’ve written. Haha. But the response to Sunflower has been amazing, and I could have never imagined it at the time.
me: Sunflower was your first sale, right? How did that happen? Was it relatively quick? Arduously long? Easy? Difficult?
Misha: Sunflower was my first sell. It felt long to me, but I’ve been told it was relatively quick. My agents sent it out to a select few producers, who all passed for various reasons, but they wanted to meet because they liked the writing. While I was taking those meetings, Sunflower was being slipped around by execs at different companies, until finally one company decided to take a chance, and bought it. That was three weeks after it first went out.
me: Okay, just to back up for a second. How did you get your agent? Did your agent come from your manager?
Misha: I wrote Sunflower after I got my managers, and we sent it to the big five (big three now) and I had the fortunate opportunity to be able to pick an agent.
me: So you got the agent before or after it sold?
me: Oh cool. That’s not easy to do. I hear about unrepresented writers on the verge of a big deal not being able to get callbacks from agents.
Misha: Really? I would think if agents know there’s a deal in the bank, they’ll sign you in a second. They’re all about the less work they have to do, the better.
Me: I know. You’d think. Though I hear it happens every now and then. So what was that like when you got that call and it had sold? Did you head straight to Bar Marmount and start rubbing elbows with the stars? How has it been having to fend off paparazzi?
Misha: Haha. When I got the call that it had sold, I was on the bus to work. I was working as a hostess at a restaurant on Sunset at the time, and I didn’t hop off at Bar Marmount, I got off at the stop in front of my restaurant, and worked my shift. Which I continued to work for the next two months while contracts went back and forth between lawyers. The sad truth is, that for most screenwriters, your first sale doesn’t put you on easy street.
me: Yes, once everybody takes their cut, you’re left with just enough your electricity bill for that month. What restaurant did you work at?
Misha: Talesai. Very good Thai food. I was working at night, and going on meetings during the day. And occasionally serving producers and execs I had gone on meetings with. That was a little embarrassing.
me: Haha. “Oh hey, fancy meeting you here. Would this be a bad time to ask you what you thought of my pitch?” Was everybody else who worked there an actor or a screenwriter?
Misha: No actually. It was very strange. Everyone else that worked there were Thai, and they had been working there for like 20 some years. I definitely stood out.
me: How did you land the job at Heroes?
Misha: I was working on “Sons of Anarchy” (a show on FX) and looking forward to the hiatus between seasons, and I got a call that they were looking for a staff writer for Heroes and liked Sunflower and wanted to meet. So I went in and met with the producers, and they asked me to join their staff as well. So now I’m back to back year round on two shows, and it’s a lot of work, but amazing.
me: Oh cool. I know they’re pretty tight-lipped over there but are you allowed to talk about what the show’s going to be like?
Misha: They are very tight-lipped. It’s all kind of insane. There’s a lot of exciting stuff happening this season, but I can’t talk about any of it. We’re outlining my episode right now, and I’m very excited about it. But that’s really all I can say. Haha.
me: You know it took me two seasons to make the connection between one of the character’s names being “Hiro” and the show being called “Heroes”?
Misha: Haha. I caught that around the middle of the first season.
me: And at first, I thought it was a complete coincidence. I actually wanted to write the show and tell them about this amazing coincidence they were missing.
Misha: You should have. That might have even responded. Or it’s something you should have asked at the comic con panel. I’m going for the first time this year. I’m a little afraid.
me: Are you going to dress in like battle gear or some strange outfit?
Misha: No, I’m going to hide in the corner, and hope no one realizes I work for the show, and start asking me questions. There’s a whole Heroes wiki page, where they have pictures and bios about the entire crew! The entire crew! I don’t have one yet, and as I mentioned earlier, I like to remain mysterious.
me: Is that why you worked at a Thai restaurant?
Misha: Haha. No. I worked at a Thai restaurant because they were the first people to hire me. I didn’t have many options then.
me: You told me you’re finally going to write another spec. Have you started it yet? And are you nervous about following up the wildly popular Sunflower?
Misha: I haven’t started it yet, but soon hopefully. I’m writing a lot of notes in my notebook for it. Deep down I think all writers have nerves about what they’re writing, because ultimately you want people to connect with your work, and like it, maybe even love it, but ultimately nerves are useless. You just have to believe in what you’re writing, and write it. The response is out of your control.
me: I feel that way every night at 12 a.m. — I love asking this question because it makes writers’ heads explode. If you could give the aspiring writers out there any piece of advice, what would it be? — And you can’t say, “Follow your dreams.” lol
Misha: haha — I would say read a lot of scripts! I can’t emphasize that enough. Which is why I think your site is great, cause it gives aspiring screenwriters access to Hollywood scripts. The first thing I did when I got my managers was send them a list of scripts to send me. And learn to love rewriting, because that’s a lot of what having a career in screenwriting is. And do more. Experience more. Because ultimately your personal experiences is what’s going to make your writing better. And invest in a nice desk and a comfy office chair, cause you’ll be spending a lot of time in it.
me: Sage advice wise one. Now if I could somehow find a way to make sitting on a couch for long periods of time dramatically compelling.
Misha: haha. Well, having a good imagination helps in that case.
me: What’s your favorite script you’ve read lately (or from the site)?
Misha: I liked Prisoners
me: What about your favorite movie this summer?
Misha: Star Trek. Did that come out this summer?
me: Hey! Me too.
Misha: haha, the sad truth is, once you start working in the industry, you rarely have time to go to a movie. Which is really unfortunate for me: It’s like a rare treat. But you do get sent screeners of them which is nice.
me: you’re so spoiled
Misha: I really am. There are a lot of perks. My DVD collection has doubled since I sold Sunflower. haha
me: What do like to do when you’re not writing? In those slivers of time you have to yourself? Besides our late night IM sessions of course.
Misha: I live for these late night sessions.
Misha: My slivers of time are getting very tiny these days. I’m working on a lot of pitches with producers, and the show, and producing a short I wrote. So when I’m not working, I’m pretty much sleeping, or partying when I can.
me: Ah yes. Do you Heroes writers know how to get down?
Misha: I don’t know about the rest of them, but I do. haha.
It was at that point that Misha said something about too much time away from Buffy so our session had to end. It’s not easy losing out to Sarah Michelle Gellar, let me tell you. And I hope Misha doesn’t read my review of Joss Whedon’s “Cabin In The Woods.” Yikes, talk about wanting back slivers of time.
About: It’s the S. Craig Zahler show here on Scriptshadow.
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Enough of you were interested in Incident at Sans Asylum that I felt it was finally time to give you a review of my number three favorite script, The Brigands Of Rattleborge. Someone once described this script to me by saying, “It burrows into your soul,” and having read it a couple of times now, I can say that that’s pretty accurate.
Well this is sure to get the spec purists all riled up. How bout a Western? How bout no discernible protagonist for over half the script? How bout 138 pages? How bout a script where the inciting incident doesn’t happen until page 80?? I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will prepare their army of “buts” – *but*, the reality of the situation is this: This proves that the most important element in getting recognition as a writer is a great story – plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if you follow the rules, or what genre you write, as long as what you write is entertaining. And boy does this script entertain.
I’m going to go on record as saying that, in my opinion, this would be the greatest Western ever made. That’s not saying a whole lot as I pretty much hate Westerns. I’ve seen most of the big ones but I’ll be honest with you – I usually turn them off or fall asleep before they’re over. That’s not to say they’re bad films but there’s just simply nothing for me to identify with in any Western that’s ever been made. Even the highly touted Unforgiven – I’ve tried to watch it 3 times and still haven’t made it through the entire thing.
So what makes this one different? The writer creates some amazing characters. Each character is distinct and interesting. He takes his time introducing them too – a full 70 pages (yes, 70). I can’t think of any screenwriting book that tells you to take 70 pages to introduce your characters but this script does it. And it’s better for it.
The Brigand of Rattleborge starts interestingly enough. With two cowboys asking an Indian Chief to perform a fierce raindance to bring a terrible storm down on a nearby town. The idea is odd. Is this a fantasy film? Raindances aren’t real. Indians can’t really make it rain whenever they want. And yet somehow, someway…you believe that it’s possible. It’s a huge risk for the writer to take because as we find out later, the storm that is summoned is the driving force behind the entire story.
It’s used as a cover by our band of bad guys to go in and steal from the town’s richest members (not surprisingly, all of the people we were introduced to). The movie then turns into a revenge film. The Sheriff (whose wife was raped and murdered) travels to the town where the leader of this brigand lives in order to settle the score.
The script does two things very well. Knowing that it’s fighting an uphill battle by being a Western, it uses the most tried and true plot device there is to drive the story: Revenge. I literally think it’s impossible to make a movie where a person is tortured and killed by the bad guy, and not want the protagonist to enact revenge on that bad guy. Every time I read a revenge script or see a revenge movie I kick myself for not writing one myself because it ALWAYS works. And the writer does a great job of creating that rape/murder scene that instills in you a desire for our guys to get revenge no matter what the cost.
The second thing he does is create a great character in Abraham, the tortured former doctor whose own wife was raped and murdered by these bad guys and who insists on joining the Sheriff in his revenge quest. He has a suitcase full of instruments that allow him not just to kill, but to torture people (including himself). What he does to the man that killed his wife in the end is something so graphic I don’t know how they can possibly film it. It’s that bad. But the point is, it’s impossible to forget this guy – and a great reminder of how important it is to write at least one great character into your movie. Actors will be kicking themselves to play this role. And once some A-list actor is cast as Abraham, it will be easy as pie to get other great actors interested.
Anyway, I loved this script. I can’t wait for the movie. And I highly recommend it for a read.
So today we have a review of S. Craig Zahler’s script, “Incident at Sans Asylum.” Zahler is the writer of the number three script on my Top 25 list, the Western, “The Brigands Of Rattleborge.” That script is a town favorite, yet everyone’s terrified to make it. I have no idea why. Show this thing to one A-List actor and they’d die to play the part of Abraham, a character that has the potential to be one of the greatest movie characters of all time. We’re talking Hannibal Lecter territory here. But hey, you guys don’t want an Oscar? That’s cool with me. Anyway , this is one of Zahler’s earliest scripts, written in 1998 while he was still in college. He wrote the script as a directing vehicle and was actually going to shoot the movie for 75,000. I’m leaving the review in the trusted hands of Roger Balfour, a young man whose unique perspective on writing digs all the way to the bone of Zahler’s work. So take it away, Roger.
Genre: Nihilistic Horror
Premise: A group of struggling musicians who work as cooks in an asylum for the criminally insane get locked in with the inmates during a massive thunderstorm. Chaos ensues as the musicians/cooks struggle to escape and stay alive.
About: S. Craig Zahler, writer of the 2006 Black List screenplay, “The Brigands of Rattleborge”, wrote this script which has been developed by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures in conjunction with Vertigo Entertainment. Helmed by Spanish director, Daniel Calparsoro. To be released, one presumes…
Writer: S. Craig Zahler
Caveat lector: Forgive me. I’m going to season this review with references to other horror movies and writers of the genre in order to properly convey what this script accomplishes to do. We’re going to explore the coin of this sub-genre a little and look at the ideas that are reflected on both sides of the coin.
I’m one of those struggling screenwriters outside of LA that worships at the stone altar of “The Brigands of Rattleborge”. I live in the Bible Belt. I don’t just surround myself with books that can be categorized as Southern Gothic, I live in the environment. I’m exposed to the Flannery O’Connor and Cormac McCarthy flavor grotesquerie every day. It’s part of the atmosphere here.
It’s the temperature.
And I only read it a few weeks ago. But when I finished, I wanted to hold the screenplay up in the air like the baby Simba and shout its ultraviolent majestic grandeur from the precipice.
“Look, some dude wrote a screenplay and he used the word ‘agglutinated’ in one of the prose passages when describing dried blood and brain matter! Fuck studio readers!”
“Rattleborge” was a bizarre and compelling morality play that explored a cycle of bloodshed and violence and bloodlust. It was about revenge. It was about what revenge does to a man’s soul. It was about the consequences of revenge. It was Shakespearean. It was Greek tragedy. It was Grand Guignol. It was Southern Gothic. It was “Unforgiven” if written by Cormac McCarthy. And I loved every fuckin’ word of it.
So, I was foaming at the mouth to read another Zahler screenplay. Here’s a guy who is obviously both a bibliophile and a cinephile. He knows his literature as well as his movies. And the motherfucker can write. So when I found “Incident” in my inbox, I burned through it immediately like a junkie jonesin’ for the rock.
And if the screenplay wasn’t a PDF file on my computer, I would have hurled it against the wall in frustration and disappointment. But, it was a PDF file on my computer and I need my netbook. It’s not very useful to me if it’s in pieces.
Did you expect to be disappointed?
No. I was supposed to be shaken, thrilled. I was supposed to be aroused viscerally and cerebrally. But instead…I was puzzled. I felt like I was attacked by an angry mob of natives on some alien continent where people don’t possess souls, and they tried to cut my limbs off and fuck me in the eye-sockets. And after the initial shock of that faded…I felt empty. Hollow.
But something had slipped under my skin, kept nagging me throughout the day. I kept turning the story over in my head like a rock in a lapidary, trying to find its meaning. Surely, what I just read had to mean something, right?
Zahler is a writer that seems to be interested in eliciting dread. Which I think is an admirable pursuit in the world of Story. Dread is a useful ingredient, a powerful emotion that burrows past a person’s mental walls and pierces the heart like a stiletto fashioned out of ice. The sensation is like being impregnated with a seed of panic and as it grows and blooms and does war against your conscious and subconscious, the war that fights against this revelation can be best described as a paralyzing sensation, a numbness that tries to protect you from the horror that elicited the dread.
Dread pairs especially well with exhilaration.
Horror movies like “Alien” or “The Descent” are good examples of this. Both stories that are more Lovecraftian in nature than most of the intentional adaptations of his work out there.
They manage to explore the concept of Lovecraftian existentialist and nihilistic horror. The realization that man is an infinitesimally small speck in the order of the universe. Or: man is insignificant in the face of the alien, the other. H.P. Lovecraft, a master at eliciting dread, was an atheist who wasn’t scared by the concept of God and the Devil; Angels or Demons. So he created a pantheon of the other, whose very existence, when exposed to man, was capable of driving the individual mad.
Of course, the stories in “Alien” and “The Descent” have different outcomes…
Sure. Ripley is the light that pierces the darkness of the other. She blows it out of the airlock and wins. In “The Descent”, Sarah’s ordeal and exposure to the other drives her mad with a hallucination of freedom, but her dramatic need to be reborn in order to overcome her family’s death is a still-birth attempt at best. She doesn’t make it out of the cave. She’s left trapped in the caves with the other, wrapped in a bundle of raw nerves and reduced to a gibbering psychological state.
But I would argue that both movies are exhilarating. Cathartic even. We faced the abyss, we ran from the abyss, we fought the abyss. When all was said and done, we walked away from the theater and were entertained. No biggie. Just a fun roller-coaster ride of a story. Go on with our lives, rejuvenated for a while by our escapist encounter with the abyss.
So what’s the moral?
Distribute some darkness and dread with that creator’s wand, and pit it against light and hope, toggle in some thrills, and you have a heady potion of adventure. Adjust the contrast knobs if you want the tone to be dark fare, or lighter fare. If done right, manage to thrill an audience both viscerally and cerebrally.
But what happens when dread is the ultimate victor? What happens when dread is your only ingredient?
“Incident at Sans Asylum” happens.
It is not a ride.
It is not escapism.
It is a cold, serrated knife in the gut.
It’s watching a layer of torn skin be flayed from the bone with a potato peeler, and feeling every moment of it.
These characters are not heroes.
They are victims.
And we suffer with them.
George is a musician in his mid-twenties who moonlights as a chef at the local asylum. Seems to be a new job for him. His band-mate Max is his second-in-command and they spend a lot of time together, working in the kitchen preparing cafeteria-style meals for the populace of the institution. When we first meet them they’re pissed at a younger, undisciplined drummer of the band, Ricky. Why? Ricky was a no-show for a studio session that they all saved up hard-earned money for because of his questionable taste in women. Ricky also works with them in the asylum as a cook, and most of the humor in the script (which is kept to a minimum) is derived from George and Max making fun of Ricky and his dubious taste in the female gender. We’re also introduced to William, a likable Hispanic employee who works diligently for George as a kitchen grunt and is a bit ostracized by the other guys, especially Max, because he’s not a member of the band.
There’s a simple, naturalistic feel to the scenes and the dialogue. Spare, with the highlights of these scenes being the detail applied to George’s job as a chef. Zahler captures the weird, limanel state-of-being of the struggling artist: George and his band have a gig at a venue where they have to cover an extra set because a scheduled band dropped out at the last minute. Which means their gig is going to run to 2 am. Good news for the band, but George also has to be back at the asylum at 5 am to oversee a shipment of product that is set to arrive.
The details are right. The lack of sleep. The tedium and mundanity that accompanies chopping vegetables or cleaning up blood because the plastic bag that contains meat product ripped and it made a mess everywhere. Pretty ordinary stuff that chef’s deal with everyday, but the fact that they are mentioned in the script gives the scenes and characters a sense of verisimilitude.
This sense of simply being and living and working is shattered when a thunderstorm blows out the generators and fries up all of the electrical wiring in the building.
This means two things: (1) No more lights, and (2) The electronic security doors leading to the outside world no longer operate, and there is no way to open them.
J.B., the main security dude/orderly, needs the cooks to help him escort the inmates back to their cells from the cafeteria before things start heading south. Already, some of these mentally fragile inmates are starting to panic because the thunderstorm interrupted their mealtime and habitual sense of institutionalized routine, and more importantly, there is no fucking light anymore.
So the cooks argue about what they should do, some opting to barricade themselves in the kitchen, while George and Max decide to help J.B.
And of course, things go horribly wrong.
As violence erupts within the darkened walls of the asylum, we get the sensation that some of the alpha’s of this insane-convicted-felon populace have taken over and they have some plans for these cooks who have been preparing meals for them for the past few days.
What about the structure? Does Zahler do his own thing again?
Kind of. Zahler does eschew the traditional, time-tested 3-Act screenplay structure and does his own thing. But I get the sense that he turned to classic stories of the horror genre found in literature and studied what made them work. How they were put together. Hell, they were good enough in that medium, why try to interface it with the Hollywood way?
This is essentially a tale told in 2 Acts. With Act 1 being a 40-page setup; Act 2 plays out like a brutal and tragic 50 page survival mode.
Most comparable movie in structure, theme and style I can think of is “Wolf Creek”.
Let’s get to it already. Was it scary?
It’s pretty fuckin’ terrifying, dudes. Think about it. You’re a kitchen grunt who works in the cafeteria of an asylum for the criminally insane. A dark storm hits and transforms the asylum into a haunted house with no exits and no lights. Several of these inmates are roaming the haunted house. They raid the kitchen, find sharp objects, and begin attacking all the institution employees they can find.
As the characters look for asylum within the *cough* asylum, there’s even shades of zombie horror. Kind of like a dreadful game of hide and seek. They catch glimpses of the pale, naked flesh of the lunatics as they roam the halls. Some are harmless, some attack on whim, others have some kind of fucked up plans for our characters. Except, you know, these ain’t zombies. These are people. There’s nothing supernatural about them.
And that’s the idea. The only monsters in this story are the ones within ourselves. There’s probably nothing more revolting than the depravity and sickness a broken mind is capable of.
The realism and brutality and chiaroscuro murk gives the story a distinctive 70’s cinema vibe.
It sounds pretty good. Why didn’t you like it?
A few reasons which could be chalked up to a matter of taste. I’m not a fan of the genre. I don’t like Nihilistic Horror when it’s followed to its logical conclusion: I don’t like watching violence as it’s committed against a protagonist for the sole purpose of taking away any and all motivation for the protagonist to merely stay alive.
Here’s the deal. George isn’t a hero. He’s a victim. He exists to be broken down and ground into dust.
There’s a key scene that brought to mind Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation”. If you’ve seen it you probably already know what I’m talking about. Except this castration is performed with poultry shears instead of pruning shears.
The most disturbing part of the flick is that this is a horror movie where the final coup de grace is the protagonist offing himself. Sure, there’s a character in “The Exorcist” who kills himself. Father Karras kills himself, but he does so because he’s trying to kill the Devil. Even if he was driven mad by the Devil and opted to kill himself, it would be an act that would be seen as a man who was driven mad by a demon and was looking for respite.
George kills himself because he’s been emasculated, both literally and spiritually, by his fellow man. He’s a victim of the violent volition of sick minds, which any human being is capable of, and he refuses to recover after his ordeal because he feels like he has nothing to live for. Even though he survived, he comes to the conclusion that his life is over. George loses the will to live because his sense of peace has been irrevocably violated. There is no more sanctuary for George. His sense of asylum has been stripped away, stolen.
The only escape from the horror and dread is death.
And I don’t like that.
What did you like?
The details and the foreshadowing: The Shakespearean technique of evoking and harnessing storms and weather to parallel the emotions, moods and future of the characters.
I liked that the exposure to the inmates is limited to mealtimes, where cooks are separated from the rest of the institution by a plexi-glass window. At first, we never see any of the inmates. We only hear them being directed through the line by an officer.
In fact, whenever they hear ghastly screams coming from the bowels of the asylum, the cooks are so accustomed to it’s just white noise.
The symbology. Zahler knows what he’s doing. Some interesting stuff going on with violence and images. Particularly an image involving a calf’s head and a decapitated body.
There’s a brazen climatic scene of suggested violence and horror that involves an oven. If the director is capable, this sequence will become part of cult-cinema history.
I like that someone is writing dark, cerebral genre fare other than the Nolan brothers. Stuff that feels like it’d be as much at home in literature as it would be on screen. I’d like to see Zahler take a stab at “Blood Meridian” for Ridley Scott, or maybe even adapt Mervyn Peake’s “Gormenghast” trilogy into an HBO miniseries.
[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I Learned: Theme, theme, theme. Your choice of theme can either invigorate an audience, or alienate an audience. Nihilistic themes always seem to come out of a dark place, and when followed to their logical conclusion, descend into an even darker place. As storytellers, we have a responsibility when it comes to deciding what kind of story we want to tell. Again, this is a matter of taste, but I like to think that stories of hope are more palatable than stories of despair.
Also – I was reminded of a quote concerning the distinction between horror and terror. Anne Radcliffe wrote, “I apprehend that neither Shakespeare nor Milton, nor Mr. Burke by his reasoning, anywhere looked to positive horror as a source of the sublime, though they all agree that terror is a very high one; and where lies the great difference between horror and terror, but in uncertainty and obscurity, that accompany the first, respecting the dreader evil.“
Boris Karloff put it in simpler terms. Terror is anticipating the monster behind the door. Horror is the sense of shock and revulsion upon seeing the monster. Zahler seems to be a master of both, and uses both techniques impressively. This is an apt distinction for anyone who wants to know the secret to creating suspense.