Premise: A small town crippled by WWI and the Spanish flu finds itself facing major moral questions and a brutal invading force when a young girl shows up on a rancher’s doorstep covered in blood.
About: I don’t know much about this project or this writer. If it’s the same Mariani listed on IMDB, he’s a guy who’s making a bunch of shorts in whatever capacity he can, grip, sound, director. Would be pretty amazing if he just came out of nowhere. (edit) More information coming in. This is set up at Johnny Depp’s production company. Hmm, that could be bad. Since Depp has a million projects, this could be stuck in purgatory until whenever he gets around to it. :(
Writer: E. Nicholas Mariani
Details: 120 pages (Sept 13, 2011 draft)
As you may know, genius scripts don’t come around very often on Scriptshadow. In fact, there’s an ongoing joke that I’ve never even given a genius rating. Not true. I gave the original Source Code draft that made the Black List a genius rating.
But it’s been so long that, I admit, I was wondering if I’d ever rate a script “genius” again. In fact, I was thinking of replacing the rating when the new site is launched.
But then days like this come along and…well, they give me hope not just about the industry, but about art in general. They let me know that there are writers out there who pour every ounce of heart and soul into their work and who have been at this long enough that that heart and soul amount to something. That’s the thing – a lot of us have heart and soul. A lot of us channel that into our work. We just haven’t learned the craft well enough to channel it in the right way. That takes time. It takes dedication. I don’t know Mariani’s story. But I’m guessing he’s been at this for awhile. You don’t write a script like Desperate Hours by accident.
So what makes a script genius? That’s tough to say. I think a mastery of the craft is one. There are no technical mistakes in the work. An understanding of how to explore characters, which Mariani is fan-fucking-tastic at. Inspired choices (as opposed to boring and obvious ones – which is what I usually see). And then that x-factor, that way you connect with the reader on an emotional level. That last part is the tough one, because what inspires me emotionally may not inspire you emotionally.
The year is 1918. Don’t know much about 1918? Let me give you some background. The Spanish Flu had just gone about killing 50 million people worldwide, over half a million in America alone. And if that wasn’t bad enough, World War 1 had obliterated nearly every able-bodied man in America. America’d been stomped on, ground up, and spit out by God, and was just starting the healing process. It was fucking bad.
Enter Frank Sullivan, a man who’s felt the worst of it. Frank lost his wife and his two children to the flu, and hasn’t gone back into the world since. He lives out on his ranch, miles away from town, and if he has his way, he’ll die without ever coming in contact with another human being again.
But, you see, the world is changing. Hope is slowly creeping back into people’s daily lives, and Sullivan’s best friend, Tom, who’s both the sheriff and the mayor (hey, you gotta improvise when 1 out of every 4 people around you drops dead) convinces him to come join the town for a little celebration that night.
It’s there where we meet Doctor Sue Fowler (a title she’s received, like many others in town, via extenuating circumstances), a woman who Sullivan has all sorts of history with. The two were going to get married until Sullivan ran off to join Theodore Roosevelt’s famed “Rough Riders,” and fight for his country instead. Sue was then forced to marry her second choice, a drunken abusive man named George, who she’s been stuck with ever since.
The two are absolutely still in love, but there’s nothing they can do about it, so all they can do is stare forelornly into one another’s eyes and wish things would’ve ended up differently.
However, their time together is about to get a lot more intimate, as that night, when Sullivan gets home, he finds that a woman who’s been shot to pieces has stumbled into and passed out in his house. Sullivan races back to town, gets Sue, and the two do everything in their power to save the girl, a task that will be limited due to her near-death status and turn-of-the-century medicine. However, the woman *is* holding on, just barely, and that means there’s hope of finding out what she’s doing here.
The next day, Sullivan and Tom follow the woman’s trail back to the hills, and find a brand new model-T Ford crashed into the river with two dead Federal agents inside. When news hits town that a huge mobster trial is going on in Kansas City, everyone slowly puts the pieces together. The woman is the star witness, and the mob is willing to do anything to put her out of commission.
And this is where things get interesting. You see, it doesn’t take long for the mob to figure out the woman is still alive. And that means they’ll be sending more people down to take care of her. But what does the town do about this? This isn’t their problem. They don’t know this woman. They just got done losing half their population to war and disease. Things are finally starting to look up again. Why get involved in more death, in more danger, when they don’t have to? Let the mob have this girl and everyone can be on their merry way.
Except that’s not what Sullivan believes in. You don’t abandon someone in need. You don’t sacrifice someone who can’t fight for themselves. Frank is one of the few people left on this planet who stands for something. He believes in sticking your neck out and having your neighbor’s back. Hell, he was part of the Rough Riders, the toughest crew in America. Not to mention his own personal reason. Frank watched helplessly as his family died one after another, unable to do anything. He couldn’t save them. But he can save this girl.
And this leads to one of the best third acts I’ve ever read or seen in my life. Please for the love of everything, make this movie, because this third act is going to go down in fucking cinema lore. When the mob strolls into that town, and Sullivan prepares for a showdown of him vs. them, I don’t remember ever being as electrified as I was in that moment. I was just fucking CHARGED. I’m not going to spoil everything that happens but I’ll just leave it at this: FUCKING AWESOME.
I suppose I should go into what works here, but I can never really do that with a script I fall in love with. Basically, the script uses its first act to establish and make you fall in love with its characters, its second act to build the mystery of who the girl is, and it’s third act for the big showdown. So yeah, in that sense, it’s perfectly freaking structured.
I suppose one can make the argument that the first act is slow, but I don’t know, I fell in love with the characters so much that I didn’t care that the story wasn’t emerging at warp speed. I loved how Mariani established the setting. That was so key – letting us know where America was at the moment, with everyone having lost someone, and then how that directly affected our main character. Who doesn’t sympathize with someone who’s experienced such a terrible loss? I was onboard with Sullivan from the moment I met him.
Then, when the mysterious girl shows up, it just gets better and better. We have a mystery driving the story now – and an intriguing one. Where did she come from? Why was she shot at? When we pull that car out of the river, I got goosebumps. “Whoa,” I thought, “This is getting really good.”
And while this was happening, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of research and detail that went into everything. There’s this throwaway moment early in the script, in town, where a group of old Civil War veterans marches down main street singing a solemn tune about their own war experience, and I just thought, “Who the hell thinks of that??” That only comes from a writer who has just so immersed himself in that world, who knows 1918 so well, he might as well have grown up there. Which is SO RARE in scripts I read, that a writer knows that much about what he’s writing about, which is one of the many reasons why Desperate Hours is so great.
Anyway, the script reaches the midpoint with this amazing dual thrust going on. On the one hand you have the slow and steady buildup of the approaching mob. It’s clear the town is in WAY over their heads with these guys, who are gradually cutting off all communication so the town can’t call for help. And then you just have this amazing fucking character work, with each and every character having a backstory and a flaw they have to resolve before the end of the script.
Seeing Sullivan’s issues with George (Sue’s husband) play out — I can’t remember a more compelling character conflict. I mean it’s just so layered and freaking INTENSE! But it’s not just him. It’s Tom, it’s the guy who brought the flu back to town, its the cowards versus the brave. And that’s another thing! Like we were talking about a few weeks ago – this script has a clear theme: FEAR. The levels of it. How we all back down. How we’re all afraid. But how there’s a time when you have to say enough is enough. And how that moment is different for everyone.
AHHH! This script is just so fucking good!
But when it really all comes together is the scene where THE STRANGER finally appears from a lone train, whistling through the town at night, a man who, we know, has come looking for this girl, and how he strolls into the bar, the most arrogant fearless mf’er in the world, and how he meets up with the only person on the planet who isn’t afraid of him. This is one of the BEST SCENES I’VE EVER FREAKING READ! When Sullivan tells The Stranger to “hold on” so he can go pummel the shit out of George, before coming back and telling The Stranger to “continue,” I was just…I was speechless. And when the stranger walks back to the train, whistling the whole time, then finally STOPS, intitiating “the signal,” and we get one of the coolest fucking images we will ever see in movie history…I kind of thought I’d stumbled my way into script heaven.
I realize that at this point I’m a bumbling moron and not very helpful but this is what a great script does to me. And by great, I mean REALLY GREAT. As in going straight to the top of my Top 25 – and I mean WITHOUT QUESTION. NUMBER 1!
This script….wow. I mean…wow. I don’t have words. Whoever has this, please make it now. You’re sitting on a dozen Oscars.
What I learned 1: SETTING in period pieces. Establish it! This script doesn’t work unless we get the opening title cards explaining that the flu and WW1 have obliterated America. The town’s reluctance to engage the mob is a direct result of that, so without that knowledge, the script would’ve lost a ton. Too many writers write period pieces without establishing what was happening at the time, and we need that context if we’re to understand and enjoy the story.
What I learned 2: Loss creates sympathy. A main character losing someone makes us root for them. Sullivan has lost THREE PEOPLE he loved more than anything. So we care IMMENSELY for him right away.
What I learned 3: LIVE IN YOUR SCENES. You can’t get the most out of your scenes unless you place yourself in them, unless you look into your characters eyes, notice the detail in the surrounding elements, breathe the air, listen to the sounds. Immerse yourself in your scenes to find those little nooks and crannies that amateur writers ignore. Detail is EVERYTHING. It’s what makes your scene and story specific, unique. There’s a great scene in Desperate Hours where Sullivan comes into town for the party riding his horse. Times have changed though. Everyone else has moved onto cars. And Sullivan looks like an ancient has-been for tying his animal up next to these shiny metal technological beasts. However, when a storm comes through later in the night, it’s Sullivan who looks like the smart one. The cars are spinning their wheels, twisting around in the mud, whereas he casually hops up on his horse and gallops away. I just don’t think you imagine a scene like that, with those cars digging their own graves, unless you place yourself down there in the mud, see the texture, taste it, realize that a 1918 Model T Ford probably isn’t going to be able to maneuver through mud that easily.
What I learned 4: ALWAYS KEEP YOUR MAIN SOURCE OF CONFLICT NEARBY – When Sullivan and Sue are nursing the girl back to health, Mariani doesn’t leave them alone there for long. He gets George (Sue’s husband) over to the house and puts him there with them, causing all sorts of weird energy and tension. Way more interesteing than giving Sue and Sullivan and unimpeded path back to a relationship.