Premise: The true story of a serial killer terrorizing the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.
About: The Devil In The White City is one of the biggest books of 2005. It originally had Tom Cruise attached, but more recently Leonardo DiCaprio has snatched up the rights, with the hopes of playing the villain in the story. Any property that goes into Leo’s company runs the risk of disappearing, as he options a ton of stuff. But with #1 Black List screenwriter Graham Moore (The Imitation Game) doing the latest draft, it looks like Leo’s pretty serious about the project. Then again, you never know with Hollywood. Charlie Hunnam may be attached tomorrow.
Writer: Graham Moore (based on the book by Erik Larson)
Details: 3/16/13 draft
A lot of you may wonder, “Why does it take so long for projects to be developed?” I mean seven years til a movie gets made? Ten years? Fifteen years? What’s the deal? The last draft I saw of “Devil” had ‘2005’ on the title page. So clearly this project is yet another casualty of this confusing never-ending process.
Let me explain it to as best I can. When you sell a project, and it doesn’t mobilize immediately (like The Counselor or Safe House), you have no choice but to pull back for awhile. The studio’s cooled on you and trying to shove something down their throats isn’t going to solve anything.
So you pull away, then in a year (or two, or three) you come back, with some fresh news attached. Maybe there’s a new director involved. Maybe there’s a new actor who loves it. Maybe there’s a completely new draft. Or maybe someone new rewrites the script.
Having a fresh new take on the material typically gets the buzz going again. And the bigger and flashier that writer is, the more buzz it’s going to get. Which means bigger agents will pay attention which means bigger actors will pay attention, which means bigger directors will pay attention. All of which increases the chances of it getting made. That’s why people pay these big name writers outrageous sums for a rewrite. Because they know that when they go out with the script, people are going to pay attention.
The thing is, if you don’t keep that momentum going and get all the way to the finish line, people get tired of the material. The director gets bored and drops out. The actor (who wanted to work with that director) drops out. And now you risk going back into deep freeze for another two years. And each time you try to bring back the project, it’s tougher, because everyone’s asking, “Well why didn’t they make this already? There must be something wrong with it.” Before you know it, ten years has gone by. It happens all the time.
Something tells me, though, that “Devil” is going to get there at some point. It’s just too lush of a setting to not turn into a movie. Nobody’s ever seen the Chicago World’s Fair in its big budget glory before. And the serial killer angle makes that setting a story. But I say all of that without having read the book. So let’s see if the script backs up my instincts.
Tis the late 19th century in Chicago. Back then, the greatest city in the world hadn’t yet built its 16,000 hot dog stands or had one of its sports teams throw the World Series, or lived through the wrath of Al Capone. It was known more for being a really really dangerous place to live. Walk down the wrong street and you could end up with a knife in your gut.
Seems like the perfect place for HH Holmes to set up shop. The dashing upstart hotel owner engages in one thing and one thing only: killing women. Lots of them. He gets away with it because his murders get buried under everyone else’s. The cops don’t have enough time or manpower to investigate these tragedies properly.
The best part of all this, for Holmes, is that the World’s Fair has come to Chicago, infusing the city with a fresh new crop of young girls hoping to get in on the ground floor of Chicago’s rebirth. Holmes simply waits for these women to show up at his hotel, gets to know them, takes them on a couple of dates, and, well, you know the rest.
Call Holmes intrigued then, when he meets the first girl who isn’t interested in him. Emeline Cigrand is secretary to the fair’s director, Daniel Burnham. Holmes originally approaches Emeline to gleam information about the investigations into the murders he’s committed. But he soon begins to like her, and wants to make her the Mona Lisa of his killings, as it were.
But head of fair security Frank Pickett begins to sense that Holmes isn’t the upstanding citizen he claims to be, and begins investigating him as such. What we then explore is a series of firsts. The first “official” serial killer. The first well-known use of fingerprints to catch a killer. The first ever Ferris Wheel. With each of these characters having something at stake in the fair’s success, they must go through one another in order to come out on top.
This seems to be a byproduct of a lot of these period pieces, and we can now add “Devil” to that list: There wasn’t really a main character in this script. HH Holmes probably gets the most screen time. But Emeline is the one we get closest to. And Detective Pickett plays the closest thing to a traditional protagonist, since he’s the one going after the killer.
I guess to a lot of writers, period equates to “epic” and “sprawling” so they feel they must cover a lot of characters or they’re not doing their job. When you do that, however, you run the risk of spreading yourself too thin. By not getting to know one character extensively, we don’t really connect with any. And worse still, since there isn’t a clear protagonist, we feel left out. We’re not really sure who to claim as our own.
And I’m not saying that multiple protagonists never work. All I’m saying is it makes telling the story harder. And I felt that here. I never really connected to anyone. In her description, I was told Emeline wanted to prove herself. Which is a character I want to see. That makes me think of someone tenacious and driven and goal-oriented. But I never SAW any of this in her actions. She basically just waited for people to tell her what to do. Had we given Emeline more time, got to know why she was here and seen that drive in her actions, of course we would’ve connected to her more.
Another issue is that the script moved at too leisurely a pace. This tends to happen when your main character isn’t active, as is the case with Emeline (I’m going to assume she’s our main character). Emeline is essentially waiting for the world to happen to her. She’s being told what to do by her boss, Burnham, and she’s waiting around for Holmes to keep courting her. So how can the story move if your main character isn’t moving?
Again, if your main character is waiting, we, the reader, are going to feel like we’re waiting, since we feel what our main character does. Now we DO have the threat of Holmes dating Emeline to add suspense to her plotline, keeping things with her somewhat interesting. But I don’t think that suspense ever worked as powerfully as her being a stronger character would’ve.
If I were these guys, I’d try to make Emeline more of a power player. She should be going after something, whether it be moving up the ladder at the company (instead of just being handed the job as Burnham’s secretary) or pushing her own big idea that she’s trying to get into the fair. Because it’s really hard to get on board with a character who’s so passive.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a lot of good here. I enjoyed HH Holmes’s character. He’s by no means unlike any serial killer we’ve ever seen. But he’s so ruthless and such a sociopath that he’s pretty damn scary. When you placed that against the backdrop of this beautiful fair, mixed still with a surrounding city that resembled the modern slums of Bombay, I could so see those images on the big screen.
I also thought Daniel Burnham, the fair director, really got better as the script went on. Whenever you write a character, you always want him to HAVE A HUGE STAKE in the outcome of whatever he’s pursuing, whether it be a trip to the store or creating the World’s Fair. Burnham has millions of dollars of his own money on the line. He’s constantly being pressured by the Mayor to get this right. Investors are all doubting he can provide a return on their investment. We know that if Burnham doesn’t pull this off, his career is over. And that’s stakes. You want to do this not just for one character, but for ALL your characters.
To me, figuring out this project really comes down to the main character. First establishing who it is, and if it is, indeed, Emeline, doing a lot more with her character. She needs a bigger personality. We need to know more about her past. She needs bigger goals and dreams she’s pursuing. She needs to be able to hang with the boys in this script. Right now she’s too thin and passive. I hope they figure it out, cause this project has so much potential!
[ ] what the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read (just came in under the wire)
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Sometimes in a scene, you need to use the action description to explain to the reader what’s going on, even though that’s not what action description is for. Action description is supposed to tell the reader what he’ll see ON THE SCREEN ONLY. A character walking. Two characters kissing. A character peering out from behind a curtain. But once in awhile, when there’s a potentially unclear plot point you need to get across, you can cheat, or else you run the risk of your reader being confused. Early on in “Devil,” HH Holmes goes to the cops as a concerned hotel owner, asking about the recent murders. But it turns out the cops don’t know anything and send him off empty-handed. Now at first, I didn’t know what the point of this scene was. But at the end of the scene, Moore includes this line:
ON HOLMES: Hmmm, How’s he going to get information?
Ah-ha! That’s what the scene was about. Holmes was trying to get information on what the cops knew about his murders. Okay, some of you probably could’ve figured that out via the scene alone. But not every reader catches everything. So it’s nice to clarify something just in case they don’t get it, even though it’s technically a no-no.