I love it when a screenplay comes out of nowhere. Totally picked this one up out of a pile, and boy did it deliver!
Premise: The true story behind the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.?
About: This script was written, I believe, in 2004, where it was hot enough to get Leonardo DiCaprio attached. But DiCaprio moved on to other projects and it never got made. Now was this just because DiCpario wanted to do something else? Or did a certain government body encourage the project to disappear?
Writers: Mark Lane and Donald Freed
Details: 127 pages (undated)
Wow, this one sure came out of nowhere. I’ll admit I wasn’t exactly excited to break it open. I figured another “Lincoln-like” history lesson was coming my way. And since that experience killed a thousand smiles inside of me, I’d have fought in the Civil War to make sure the same experience didn’t happen again.
That’s the thing with documenting these big important historical figures. Writers feel like the writing must, likewise, be “big” and “important.” And when you write that way, you forget the most essential component to telling a story – to entertain. Some of you might disagree with that. You might say the most important component is to teach, or to force the audience to ask questions. There’s some legitimacy to that. But if you can’t keep your audience interested, it doesn’t matter what you’re saying to them. They’re not paying attention anymore.
To add fuel to the fire, this script has long since been forgotten. Forgotten scripts are typically forgotten for a reason. So I expected that reason to surface pretty quickly. But something funny happened when I opened “Slay The Dreamer.” I wasn’t reading a stodgy too-proud-of-its-importance period piece. I was reading an actual story. What do I mean by that? Well read on…
It’s Memphis, Tennessee, 1976. Reverend Jim Lawson, a prominent Memphis pastor who used to march with Martin Luther King, is going about his daily church activities when he gets word that “Grace Walden” has been found. She’s in a nearby state asylum. We don’t know who Grace is, but from the way Lawson reacts to the news, we get the feeling she’s very important.
Lawson’s friends with some local big-timers, so heads over to the courthouse to start looking for a lawyer. He wants someone to help him get Grace out. But no one wants anything to do with him. Apparently the name “Grace Walden” is well-known around here. And she’s a story you don’t get involved with. But Lawson’s insistent. Why? Because Grace Walden seems to know something big. Something about Martin Luther King’s murder.
After being turned down by all the big shots, Lawson meets an awkward up-and-coming white lawyer named Jeff Jenkins. When Jeff finds out that Grace Walden was put in this asylum without any due process, he wants to do something about it. So he goes to visit Grace at the asylum, where he quickly learns that her room is heavily guarded. It’s clear that somebody somewhere doesn’t want anyone talking to this woman.
But Jeff cleverly finds a way to see her, and is surprised to find out she’s white. She’s also heavily sedated, making her act as crazy as they say she is. Still, she’s able to mumble out some names that give Jeff a starting point for an investigation. One of those names is a local drunk who used to live with Grace. He tells Jeff that Grace saw the man who shot Martin Luther King, and it was not James Earl Ray, the man convicted of the murder. Despite that, the FBI came to make her sign a statement saying that Earl Ray is the man she saw, but she refused. That night, agents came to her apartment, took her, and whisked her away to the nuthouse.
Upon realizing that this is much bigger than he originally thought, Jeff goes to his well-established hotshot lawyer father, who surprisingly tells him to ditch the case. It’s not worth it. But something about his father’s warning doesn’t ring true. It’s almost as if he’s hiding something. So Jeff continues to dig, eventually helping Grace escape from the institution, and snagging one of the biggest lawyers in town.
But that’s when shit really goes south. The Reverend realizes that the FBI is monitoring his church. Loads of old files about the King murder are burned. The police and agents start threatening our heroes. If what Grace saw that day really was just the imagination of a mad woman, the authorities sure aren’t acting like it. Could it really be true? Did someone besides James Earl Ray really kill Martin Luther King? And if so, who was it?
Clearly, a script like this is bolstered by the fact that it’s a true story. The producers even say that they’ll provide documented proof of everything written if asked. So you’re not just reading another thriller here. You’re reading a hidden part of history. But then why would this script die? It’s a GOOD script. If there was a 2004 Black List, this would surely make the top 10. My guess is that it’s a hard sell. King was such a huge important figure in our history – to imply a Hollywood-like conspiracy did him in cheapens his legacy in a way. Unless every single fact here was meticulously checked, it could easily come off as sensationalistic and cheesy.
Imagine you’re Leo. You’re getting closer to making this movie. And people start whispering in your ear: “You’re doing a disservice to King’s legacy if this research isn’t extremely well-founded.” Imagine the questions you’d have to face during the press junket. “How real is this?” “How much of this is fact? How much fiction?” That would be my guess on why Leo left. Not because of a lack of quality in the script, but that he would have to stand behind its claims. And that would be hard to do.
But man, if all this stuff is true? What a story! I had a good feeling about it right from the opening tip. When your script is driven mainly by men talking in rooms, your first scene tells a lot. It shows whether you can keep men talking in rooms interesting. The opening scene of Slay The Dreamer introduces the mystery of Grace. Who is this woman? Why is the Reverend so excited about locating her? Why had she disappeared for so long? Why is she in an insane asylum? All of these questions were rushing through my brain after the first scene alone, which meant I was in.
I also loved the choice to make our hero, Jeff Jenkins, an underdog. Always a good idea to wrap your story around an underdog. They’re almost impossible to root against. But what was really cool here were the relationships. They were so intricately woven and unexpected. I loved that Jeff needed his father’s help to bring the truth to light, yet we find out his father was actually working for the side that covered the Grace situation up in the first place! Talk about keeping it complicated.
This is a good script to study for the *changing goal* as well. Remember, scripts usually work best when your main character is pursuing a goal. And if you don’t have one giant goal, you should have a series of goals. Here, Jeff must first find out what Grace Walden’s deal is. After that goal is met, he must now get Grace Walden OUT of the institution. When that goal is met, he must prove the truth, that Grace Walden did not see James Earl Ray run past her that day, and that therefore somebody else killed Martin Luther King. The continuous goals are what kept this story driving forward.
If there’s a fault in the script, it’s probably in the third act. What was a mystery/thriller turns into 30 pages of courtroom prep. And no matter how interesting they tried to make it, it just wasn’t as fun as those first two-thirds of the script. Also (spoiler), and I’m assuming this is obvious since Ray is still listed as King’s murderer, the script ends on an anti-climactic note, with all Jeff’s witnesses and evidence thrown out before the trial begins (a trial we never see by the way). Definitely a bummer to watch all that training and not get to see the heavyweight bout. But that’s the noose you tie around your neck when you tell a true story. You can’t just make something up that didn’t happen.
But “Slay” does get you thinking. I didn’t know much about the details of King’s assassination before this. And now I want to know more. Whatever the case, this was a totally unexpected read. Really fun and entertaining – A Few Good Men meets JFK. If it’s true, then wow, this would make one hell of a movie.
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: There are three things every screenwriter should study the hell out of: police procedure, the legal world, and the FBI. It’s impossible to avoid these elements for too long in the movie world. One of them usually pops up in every 2 to 3 screenplays you write. To not intimately know the legal world when you’re writing a script like “Slay The Dreamer” will result in a lack of credibility. Which almost always results in a lame unrealistic screenplay (not the case here – I always believed what the writers were saying). So, where can we find material to help us learn about these things? Great question! I was hoping you commenters could recommend some material…