Genre: Drama
Premise: A circus family attempts to keep its lucrative business going by utilizing a dark and horrifying secret.
About: Katherine Dunn, the author of the 1989 breakout novel, Geek Love, was a single mother working three jobs when her novel became an unexpected best seller. The Portland-based writer was, all of a sudden, thrust into the position of the city’s most recognizable female author. Portland author Rene Denfeld said of her: “She believed the job of a writer is to tell the truth—not the truth that Aunt Mabel wants to hear, not the truth that will sell books. She always said she was waiting for a male writer to write a memoir that was not about all the women he’d slept with, but about having a problem with premature ejaculation.” Geek Love is said to have inspired many artists, including Terry Gilliam and Kurt Cobain. Magician and actor Harry Anderson optioned the book for film rights and wrote this script, which still hasn’t been made.
Writer: Harry Anderson (based on the novel by Katherine Dunn)
Details: 107 pages – 1990 draft

Haven’t you heard? Circuses are all the rage. The Greatest Showman continues to have a strong hold at the box office, finishing in the Top 5 for the 7th weekend in a row. Sounds like Hollywood might be interested in a new circus project. Make no mistake. The misleadingly-titled “Geek Love” doesn’t have any dance numbers. But it does have darkness, secrets, and kids who swear a lot.

I love that truth statement Dunn uses above. As our society moves in a direction where saying anything that doesn’t tow the company line gets you beaten up on social media, it’s become harder for writers to be brave and tell the truth. So what we get instead is a bunch of safe vanilla b.s. with whip cream and cherries on top. The more I read, the more I realize that TRUTH is the secret ingredient that lights up a screenplay. When characters say and do things that REALLY HAPPEN in life, it gives the script an authenticity that can’t be matched.

Which is an odd way to begin this review, since Geek Love is about a freak show circus family. But it’s not so much the situation that’s truthful as it is the characters.

Geek Love introduces us to 40 year-old Oly, a humpback dwarf. Don’t feel sorry for Oly, though. She’s a tough woman who’s managed to become a successful DJ at a local radio station. After we observe her daily routine, we cut back to 30 years ago where we meet the Binewski family and their circus company.

There’s Al, the father, Lil, the mother. There’s Arty, a little boy with flippers for hands and feet. And then there’s Elly and and Iphy, Siamese twins. Arty and Elly and Iphy are the show’s main attractions, while Oly is the operations manager. Her deformity, you see, isn’t flashy enough to make an act out of. She’s just… ugly.

The family, as you’d expect, is an eclectic group. Al seems like a cool guy. Lil is sweet as can be. But Arty is pure evil, the devil incarnate, and has plans to kill off his parents so he can take over the business. Elly and Iphy hate Arty, and the three are always bickering. And when I say bickering, I mean there isn’t a curse word that isn’t used in this story.

When Lil becomes pregnant with another child, we learn the family’s dark secret. Al, you see, is feeding his wife insecticide. Why? Because the more poison his wife ingests, the more likely it is that she’ll have a deformed child, which means one more performer for the show! Al experiments with each pregnancy, having his wife take in a variety of poisonous artificial supplements. And what happens if the child is born normal? I don’t want to say because I don’t think you can take it.

When the new child is finally born – Chick – they realize he’s unlike any of the other children. As in, he has the power to levitate people and heal things. He also ages at a rapid rate, quickly catching up to the other kids. Chick’s powers allow Al to add new acts that he never could’ve dreamed of. But this new attention angers Arty, who sees his star fading.

Suffice it to say, you can only poison your family to create deformed children to work in your circus for so long before it backfires. And boy does it backfire. The only one who makes it out of the mayhem in one piece is Oly, who has some business to settle in the present day before she, too, joins that great big circus in the sky.

Is it possible to write a plotless script that’s entertaining?

That’s the question Geek Love poses (unknowingly).

And the answer is yes. But it’s a complicated yes. I only experience it every so often and it’s always for the same reason – the writer has such a unique voice that that voice overpowers the absence of plot. You read because everything is so fresh and different. Not because you’re trying to find out if the main character’s daughter will be saved.

So I say to all you plot haterz, go ahead and write something without a 3-act structure or GSU… but only if you’ve been told you have a voice unlike any other writer. You are Charlie Kaufman. You are Quentin Tarantino. You are Kurt Vonnegut. You are Katherine Dunn. Otherwise, I would stick to the basics.

With that said, Harry Anderson, the writer who adapted this, missed an opportunity to build a plot into the story. If you have a movie that takes place in the past, you can give it a “plot” by introducing a present-day storyline with a mystery. You then occasionally cut back to that present day mystery throughout the movie. This allows you to be weird and formless in the past. But the audience still feels like there’s a purpose to everything since there’s that unanswered question in the present.

Here, Anderson starts the story with Oly in the present, secretly obsessing over a strange woman who lives near her. It’s intriguing, but it’s completely abandoned once we jump back in time. It’s only at the end of the screenplay that we revisit the mystery, which does have a nice payoff, but because it’s been so long since the setup, we don’t care.

Anderson should’ve made this mystery storyline a bigger deal, cutting back to it throughout the screenplay. Instead he adds an unrelated present-day storyline that was kind of interesting, but because it didn’t have anything to do with the first one, it made the present-day stuff feel just as random as the past.

Luckily, JUST ENOUGH happens every 20 pages in the past that you keep hanging on. It was the revelation that Al poisons his wife to get freaks for his business that kept me reading a little longer. Then the emergence of Telekinesis Baby that kept me a little longer. Before I knew it, I was invested in all of the characters. They were all so weird and interesting, I had to find out what their fates were.

And that advice Dunn gives about truth is on full display in this story. Parents take advantage of their children in unimaginable ways. We just saw it with basement dungeon family. So as uncomfortable as the Binewski secret is, there’s truth in there. That’s why this book sticks out. And probably why people are afraid to make it into a movie. It’s too close for comfort.

I don’t know if I Geek Loved this. But I Geek Liked it. It’s unlike any script I’ve ever read.

Script link: Geek Love

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: (re: truth) Neil Strauss, who wrote The Game, a book about sleeping with a bunch of women, uses the book to chronicle his failures in seduction as well, such as the only time he’d ever had a chance with a Playboy model, but couldn’t get an erection due to performance anxiety. The book went on to become an enormous best seller. I wonder if Strauss knew that Katherine Dunn had predicted his success just ten years prior!

  • Doug

    First, bitches!

    • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

      Nice way to start the week. Well done, Doug!

  • klmn

    Maybe you should review Corridor Of Freaks. I entered it in the 250, eons ago.

    Maybe you just weren’t ready for freaks at that time.

  • klmn

    Btw, did you hear about the time the fat lady fell on JoJo The Dogfaced Boy?

    It was one of those freak accidents.

  • ripleyy

    Dude, Halloween isn’t until October… still, those gotta be the most 80-iest character names I’ve ever seen.

  • JakeBarnes12

    Was hoping this was my chance to push my Fifty Shades fan fiction script which I wrote in a month.

    Crushed.

    • DB Stevens

      If it involves a billionaire with flippers, a sex dungeon filled with birth defect causing toxins, and anal beads, I say go for it.

    • Scott Crawford

      Fifty shades was Twilight fan fiction with the names changed. James has written nothing else but Fifty Shades stuff and made $95 million.

      Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha!

      • Malibo Jackk

        If Scott S. shifted his focus,
        he could be there by the end of the year.

        • Scott Crawford

          I don’t know if I would retool Scott S’ Star Wars script into an original, too tricky. But I’m looking forward to his next script.

          • Malibo Jackk

            (Was suggesting a switch to bondage films.)

          • Scott Crawford

            Luke Skywanker
            Princess Lay-A-lot

            Han Solo doesn’t need to be changed.

      • JakeBarnes12

        In my script Anastasia and Christian become vampires.

        Genius.

        • Scott Crawford

          A xerox of a xerox of a xerox.

          Don’t think someone hasn’t already tried.

          • JakeBarnes12

            Baudrillard.

        • PQOTD

          You could add irony and have Christian be squeamish about blood.

    • brenkilco

      Not many twists but a lotta knots.

    • http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/inside_the_brain_of_ec_he/ E.C. Henry

      #someonesjealous

  • DB Stevens

    The thing about truth now is that you need to cloak it. You can’t have someone just say or do a truthful thing that is too honest for modern sensibilities, you need to have the person who says it be the bad guy, or have them take the truth too far and expose a flaw, or something else that keeps it from being taken immediately as truth.

    This will protect the reader/viewer who brings all their baggage into your screenplay (and people bring much more baggage to their entertainment today). They may think about the truth, or they may reject it outright, but at least they’ll keep reading and not knee-jerk-hate-reject your work.

    • brenkilco

      Maybe not just now. Maybe all drama has to simultaneously involve us and provide a cushioning emotional distance. Interesting idea.

  • Malibo Jackk

    FIFTY SHADES number one at box office.
    Audience 75% women.
    Who knew?

    • Scott Crawford

      Seeing Black Panther on Tuesday. Expecting diverse audience.

      • BMCHB

        11.30am for me. Hopefully it’s great. Fantastic trailer and really positive reviews.

      • Malibo Jackk

        My fav is Black Lightning.
        But have only seen the promos.

      • PQOTD

        Now that one I’m looking forward to! :)

    • PQOTD

      I won’t be one of them. Where’s my bucket? I feel nauseous.

      • Stephjones

        Yep. Yuck.

  • Scott Crawford

    Circus action… this almost got made with Charlton Heston, probably not playing the lead: a telepathic acrobat who has to break into an Eastern European prison by tightrope walking across a power line in order to rescue a scientist. Like a lot of MacLean’s later stuff the IDEAS were better than the execution.

    http://www.monobrowze.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/circus.jpg

    • brenkilco

      He really went downhill after his sixties prime. All of that stuff made it to the screen, even books like The Stan Bug that he wrote under a pseudonym. One big exception is the novel ‘South By Java Head’ Haven’t read it since I was a kid so I’ve no idea what producers thought it didn’t have.

  • brenkilco

    To start off on an obsessive note

    ‘Tow the company line’ No the expression is ‘toe the line’. Conforming to established practices is equated with proper foot placement at the start of a race.

    ‘tough road to hoe’ Tough row to hoe. Tilling a furrow to plant seeds in hard ground

    And my fascinating favorite ‘to the manner born’. From Shakespeare. Suited by one’s nature for a particular position. But over time it’s become a phrase meaning born with a silver spoon in on’e mouth. So the phrase now is more often written ‘to the manor born’ That is, inheriting luxury. So what’s correct depends on what you mean.

    Gotta watch the writing.

  • brenkilco

    Greatest plotless movie. Monty Python and The Holy Grail. And, yeah, not one that inspires imitation.

    Otherwise I think we need to be careful what we describe as plotless. In some moves the plot is the development or disintegration of a relationship, and not simply a sequence of events in which the characters are involved. Does Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf have a plot? Well, yes, sort of. At any rate the couple is at a very different place at the end of the evening than they were at the start. What about the old Paul Newman movie Hud? The plot, such as it is, is the gradual realization by the nephew that the uncle he idolizes is a worthless SOB.

    And a movie dealing with the exploitation of human deformity is a tough sell. The film ‘Freaks,’ which took place in a circus and featured actual sideshow performers, is considered a classic. But while it largely treats its characters sympathetically it couldn’t resist eventually becoming a horror movie.

    • Scott Crawford

      McKee talks about four types of plot:

      Archplot – classic three acts, causality, decisive ending (Casablanca)

      Miniplot – less plot, ambigious ending (Paris, Texas)

      Antiplot – absurdist (Monty Python and the Holy Grail)

      No plot – films where nothing really happens, slice of life, character study

  • Stephjones

    “and probably why people are too afraid to make it into a movie…”

    Or maybe they heard about the recent Peter Rabbit debacle. Those crazy filmmakers took a huge risk by making fun of food allergies! Audacious bastards. In the movie, there’s a scene where the critters throw blueberries at a character who is allergic to blueberries. So merciless was the pelting by these animated creations that the character was forced to use an epipen!!!!!!!!
    The charity group “Kids with Allergies” posted a warning about the scene on their facebook page which prompted Twitter users to use the hashtag #boycottpeterrabbit.

    I was on the fence about seeing it but now I’m going and #throwingblueberries

    (Yes, Yes, I’m an insensitive Bitch #mytruth)

    • brenkilco

      I thought this was a satiric bit you were doing until I googled it. Jeez. Seems that Beatrix Potter was one sick, sadistic @#*&.

      • Stephjones

        #whoknew

      • Scott Crawford

        Every character Renee Zellweger plays is a sadistic @#*&. Even in Jerry Maguire.

    • DB Stevens

      The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. When everybody has a voice…everybody has a voice.

    • PQOTD

      lol. you’re a good sort really.

    • Adam McCulloch

      I just heard about that too. It is completely nuts (trigger warning: this sentence contains peanuts or words that may have been processed on the same computer as the word peanut).

      • Stephjones

        I laughed.

    • lonestarr357

      Between this and the electrocution ‘gag’, it seems that the filmmakers don’t realize there’s a different between lovable scamp and goddamn jerkoff.

      Hey, Carson, I think I’ve found a future subject for a Thursday article.

  • ximan

    I heard a saying once that “Art is truth.” And that the absence of truth is bad art. No matter if you’re painting, writing a script, or singing a song, tell the truth and you will achieve art.

    • DB Stevens

      Nah, lies make great art too. Just make them colorful lies or tell them enough that you believe them.

  • Stephjones

    And another thing…
    So, my script Let’s Be Famous has been revised quite a bit since being Scriptshadowed. I’m changing the title to “Captain Susan, Pirate Queen and Master She-Bitch from the Furthermost Reaches of Hell.” And I also have a new logline:
    “When a young woman, with anger management issues, is ship-wrecked then rescued by a roguish buccaneer, she embarks on a disturbing journey of self discovery in her new life as a pirate.”

    Feedback suggested I went off the rails in the back half…so I embraced that part.

    • Scott Serradell

      I really like that title! Perhaps though removing “and Master” from it? “Captain Susan: Pirate Queen She-Bitch from the Furthest Reaches of Hell” rolls off the tongue a bit easier, IMO.

      • Stephjones

        Hah. Love that you like it. Its wrongness just felt so right!

        • Scott Serradell

          It’s bold, it’s to the point, and it sounds fun. Precisely what a title should convey. More importantly you can SEE it (like on a movie poster.) Nicely done. Planning on re-submitting it?

    • PQOTD

      Ooh, can you flick it to me please? Can’t promise I’ll get to it anytime soon. Possibly not even this semester.

      • Stephjones

        Thanks PQOTD! I’m still tweaking it but will do!

    • shewrites

      Love the new title but too long. How about:
      Captain Susan: She-Bitch Pirate

      • Scott Crawford

        Sorry to be THAT guy but… isn’t she-bitch a bit French champagne?

        (P.s. I’m trying not to use the b word anymore. Doesn’t seem right really.).

        • klmn

          You could substitute “crack whore.”

          • Scott Crawford

            A whore can be a man or a woman. I’d still be careful about using that word to describe anyone.

    • Cuesta

      Must be the best title of all time.

  • PQOTD
  • PQOTD

    While we’re on the subject of circuses and sick shit that people do to children, this is one horrific true and very recent circus story that gives the Turpentines a run for their money for ‘Conduct most deserving of spending life in jail and eternity in hell’.

    http://www.smh.com.au/nsw/nsw-abuse-ring-accused-can-be-named-court-20180208-h0vsbh.html

    • Scott Crawford

      See you on the road… to jail.

      (That’s a circus joke.).

    • klmn

      Is there any evidence? The news item mentions “filming the acts on a cell phone.” Has any video been found?

      Some years ago (in the US) there were a number of cases brought alleging widespread abuse of children and satanic rituals in day care centers. There were a number of convictions. It turned out that the trials were highly irregular, including coaching the child witnesses.

      HBO made a movie about one of the cases, about the McMartin school.

  • Scott Serradell

    Before Portland was forced to “grow up” into a proper city (say, in the last 8-10 years) it had a long-standing reputation as a haven for misfits, weirdos, the disenfranchised, and the downright odd (those old enough to remember that then President Bush in the 80’s unabashedly referred to it as “Little Beirut”.)

    This is the Portland that inadvertently informs so much of “Geek Love”. It also propelled Dunn into legendary status in these parts; any bookstore here still — proudly! — displays the book front and center. She is part of tradition of Portland authors (Ken Kesey, Ursula Le Guin, Matt Groening, and Chuck Palahniuk to name a few) who tapped into the strange mileau here to say something more truthful about the human comedy.

    The book, the story, goes into some really uncomfortable places — but I think it’s telling given its popularity that people WANT to go into those places. And I think all writers should understand this.

    Dunn wasn’t a prolific writer but wrote prolifically about the sport of boxing (I’ve heard she’s among the best.) Though that may seem strange (did to me at first) I like the honesty in how she saw it:

    “I have never been one to yearn for the good old days. The post-WWII America was a rough place, as I recall. Racism and sexism were insistent and institutionalized. Spousal battery was condoned. The smacking and whipping of children at school and at home was expected. Gangs were common. Brawls boiled up in the streets, playgrounds, taverns, and workplaces. At the time, boxers struck me peculiarly civilized. They didn’t screech or holler. They didn’t use knives or bicycle chains or chunks of plumbing and only fought when the bell rang. When it rang again, they stopped.”

  • https://twitter.com/deanmaxbrooks deanb

    Mutant children. Genetic experimentation using insecticide. A grotesque family secret. Flesh and showbiz. Yep, these are all perfect ingredients for what could have been a phenomenally freakish David Cronenberg film. Maybe we’ll luck out and he’ll decide to make this his swan song.

    This also reminded me of the script ‘Carnival’ that won the Page Awards a few years ago, and then made the Black List. Carson reviewed that one also:

    http://scriptshadow.net/screenplay-review-carnival/

    • klmn

      Victor Hugo did something along those lives in The Man Who Lives. Here’s a wikipedia description of part of the plot:

      “…During the reign of the despotic King James II, in 1685–1688, one of the
      King’s enemies was Lord Linnaeus Clancharlie, Marquis of Corleone, who
      had fled to Switzerland. Upon the baron’s death, the King arranged the
      abduction of his two-year-old son and legitimate heir, Fermain. The King
      sold Fermain to a band of wanderers called “Comprachicos”: criminals who mutilate and disfigure children, who are then forced to beg for alms or who are exhibited as carnival freaks…

  • shewrites

    Yes indeed, what a daring subject matter to tackle. Very gutsy of the writer. Kudos for that. But I’m not surprised it never got produced for the obvious reason that it would be too hard to watch such an evil parent.

    I am glad it didn’t get made also because dwarves already have it hard enough. They don’t exactly get many parts in movies so to have them cast in such horrific roles , at least for the father and son, would feel unfair. Yeah, I know life is not fair and all but still.

    “The Greatest Showman”, since Carson brought it up, did the freak show the only way people can embrace it, by bringing a lot of heart into it. From an $8 million opening weekend, it’s at $146M domestic and $167 foreign. Totally deserved.

  • Poe_Serling

    THE CIRCUS

    It has been the backdrop for a big top full of films. Everything from silents
    (Chaplin doing his thing on the midway)… animation (Dumbo)… Elvis
    (Roustabout)… to the still playing in the theaters at this very moment (The
    Greatest Showman).

    A popcorn box of my favorites:

    1) The Greatest Show on Earth – DeMille’s typical big scale filmmaking takes
    center stage here. Winner of Best Picture back in its day. A who’s who of
    stars filled the tent: Chuck Heston, Jimmy Stewart, Cornell Wilde, Gloria
    Grahame, Dorothy Lamour… even cameos by Hope and Crosby.

    2) Something Wicked Comes this Way – based on Ray Bradbury novel. I
    thought it really captured the air of excitement that kids often feel when
    a carnival comes to a small town setting. Of course, this tale takes a very
    dark turn.

    3) Nightmare Alley – a classic film noir. It provided leading man Tyrone
    Power with one of his best roles in his career. Late last year it was
    announced that director/writer Guillermo del Toro was working on a
    remake of the pic.

    4) Trapeze – the title pretty much sums up the gist of the story. The
    vehicle is fueled by the star power of Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and
    Gina Lolloabrigida. Lancaster worked as part of a real acrobat duo in
    the circus as a young man. Directed by Carol Reed.

    Bonus one…

    >>Carnival of Souls – even though it was produced on a shoe-string
    budget, the filmmakers were still able create a true sense of dread
    with its story line and the use of their stark locations. I always felt
    this was sort of a forerunner to independent horror flicks such as
    Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

    • Scott Crawford

      But I think as Priscilla was pointing out, there’s something less wholesome about the circus these days. One of the last circus films I can think of was Water for Elephants and it’s wasnt a hit.

      As for clowns….

      • Nick Morris

        Ha! I don’t think kids today even realize that there ever was anything fun or wholesome about clowns. Thanks largely to Mr. King, clowns are just another type of monster now. Like vampires or witches. :)

        • Scott Crawford

          I have a vague memory of going to the circus and a clown… invading my personal space. NotTHAT personal, but I think he ruffled my hair. I didn’t laugh. I was scared. I could feel his breath, that was how close he was.

        • Poe_Serling

          Hey Nick-

          I just read where another short horror film is being developed into a
          full-length feature. This time by Amblin.

          The title of the 5-minute short: Larry

          Director/Writer Jacob Chase.

          I think you might dig it.

          ;-)

      • brenkilco

        I don’t think Ringling Brothers went paws up a couple of years back because the image it projected was unwholsome. Was more the issues of animal treatment. And maybe just because this essentially nineteenth form of entertainment had finally had its day.

    • brenkilco

      The setting for Nightmare Alley is a carnival not a circus. Carnivals were traditionally a lot farther down on the seediness scale.

      Though forgotten today Circus World from the early sixties. was maybe the most expensive circus film ever made. And unfortunately one of John Wayne’s few outright bombs. No particular reason to search it out, though it does contain one very impressive scene where a full size ferry carrying all the circus gear capsizes.

      • Poe_Serling

        Yeah, I was a bit loosey-goosey with circus and carnival in my above
        comment…

        Growing up, it was definitely a carnival that showed up ever summer
        in my neck of the woods and set up shop in the open field near the
        center of town.

        To this day, I still vividly recall one sideshow. It involved a young woman
        being transformed into a giant gorilla.

        Here’s the wonderful thing about it seeing from a kid’s point of
        view…

        Even though the carnival people hired a local to play the part of the
        woman in the act, the flashing lights/sliding doors/the guy jumping
        out in a gorilla costume and roaring at the top of his lungs never
        got old to me.

        Over the course of a week I must’ve watched that act 15 times or
        more.

        The joys of simple entertainment.

        ;-)

    • Scott Serradell

      “‘Carnival of Soul’ … sort of a forerunner to other independent horror flick …”

      Never made that connection but can really see that. The movie itself is fine — sort of an elongated Twilight Zone episode — but the center-piece is that haunting near 8 minute long “dance” at the abandoned beach-side amusement park. Just a really effective use of make-up and lighting and music. Still pretty chilling even by today’s standards.

      • Poe_Serling

        Carnival of Souls

        You’re absolutely right about it having a Twilight Zone vibe.

        It always reminded me a bit of the classic episode The Hitch-Hiker, which
        aired almost two years before the COS flick hit the theaters.

  • Justin

    Damn. This sounds amazing.

  • klmn

    As long as we’re talking about freaks, check this out. This is a guy born with a parasitic twin – a second head growing out of the side of his head, linked to his normal brain. When he smiles, the second head also smiles. You can see this about two minutes in.

    He was the inspiration for one of the characters in Corridor – named Two Heads, of course. Others came from Medical Curiosities, a British book from about 1890 on the subject of teratology – the study of human monsters. (That’s the old British definition – the modern PC definition is the study of deformity).

  • Scott Crawford

    It’s more being nice to Serradell. Using fanfic as a writing exercise CAN make you some money, or at least a living.

    But if it was a choice between $95 million and a book that tells the truth about erectile dysfunction, I’ll take the money. You can affect a lot of change with $95 million.