The writer of the best screenplay of all time takes on a mythical creature whose home is threatened by a new marina.

Genre: Um…Romantic Comedy? Drama?
Premise: In charge of bringing a new Marina to the community, a sailor has second thoughts when he meets a mermaid who lives in the area.
About: This was a huge project Columbia wanted to make back in the 80s. It was spearheaded by Warren Beatty. Millions upon millions were poured into its development. This was the last ditch effort to save the project – bring in Robert Towne for a half a million dollar rewrite. Remember, Towne is responsible for writing what many consider to be the greatest screenplay of all time, Chinatown. That’s the main reason I wanted to review this.
Writer: Robert Towne
Details: 121 pages – Sept 24, 1983 draft


When you open up The Mermaid, you’re taken back to another time. No, I’m not talking about the story. I’m talking about the script itself. As one of the site’s readers pointed out in an e-mail: “Screenwriting was just so different back then.” Indeed, large chunks of description detail everything from the look of a boat’s sail to the smell of a nearby reef. 10 line paragraphs are the norm, and it’s not that those paragraphs are bad (how could they be? They’re written by Robert Towne). But getting through them is a chore and something that today’s reader isn’t used to having to deal with.

What’s strange, though, is that in addition to all those giant paragraphs is a lot of talking. Like…a LOT! Like, this entire movie is people talking. Every single scene comes down to two people talking FOR-EV-ER. Scenes go on for pages and pages with characters repeating things we’ve already been told several times. It’s bizarre.

I know this is not supposed to be Pirates Of The Caribbean, but whoever’s decision it was to take a Mermaid flick and spend 95% of the screenplay having people talking in rooms needs to walk the nearest plank. That choice was inexcusable, so much so that it killed this script.

Ken Gaer is a sailor who, with his wife, Joan, are responsible for bringing a marina to the local community which will house over 1500 boats. It’s a big deal that a lot of people are going to get rich over.

The thing is, there’s something missing in Ken’s life. Maybe it’s because managing the marina will mean the end of his sailing career. Maybe it’s because his wife is a bitch who could care less about him. Either way, there’s definitely a hole in his life that needs filling.

Just when things are at their lowest, Gaer meets a strange woman swimming in the water. Except this is no normal woman. This woman has a fish tail! It’s a freaking MERMAID! Naturally, Gaer thinks he’s hallucinating, but Fin-Girl is so intoxicating that the two end up talking all night (LOTS OF TALKING!).

At the end of the evening, she asks him for one favor. Don’t blow up the large rock that’s sitting just off the beach because that’s her home! The next day, Gaer isn’t convinced that the mermaid he talked to was real, so he goes to his step-mother, Dorothy, to see what she thinks about the whole ordeal.

The step-mother, you ask? Why would he go to the step-mother of the wife he hates? Uhh, good question. In one of the kookier script choices in “Mermaid,” these two are the story’s primary relationship. Why you’d wrap your Mermaid story around a man and his 60-something step-mother is beyond me.

Anyway, a geological surveyor is called in to make sure the marina construction is kosher and, what do you know, he decides that they can’t do the marina unless they blow up that damn rock. The same rock that’s housing the mermaid!

Gaer goes searching for the Mermaid to give her the lowdown but assures her that he will not allow them to Michael Bay her rock. What he doesn’t know is that his bitch wife, Joan, has already ordered its detonation behind his back! Say what!

Luckily, before that fateful day, Gaer and the Mermaid fall in love. But will they be able to continue that love once her 500 year old home is stolen from her? Everyone knows that a Mermaid without a home is a Mermaid death sentence. Errr…or at least I think that’s the case. Either way, shit needs to get figured out if these two are to live happily ever after.

This thing is such a miscalculation it would blow up your calculator. To be honest, it feels like a casualty of the old development system, where production companies and studios would develop a script to death, grasping wildly at story directions and plot straws they hoped would turn their project into a “can’t miss” blockbuster. But somewhere along the way the script’s direction was lost and each successive writer who came in was basically trying to revive a story that was already dead.

How much Towne was responsible for this dreadful draft is impossible to tell but one thing I noticed were his endless dialogue scenes that had absolutely nothing going for them. Compare this to Inglourious Basterds, which I broke down yesterday, where Tarantino uses impending doom and dramatic irony to make all of his dialogue riveting. There’s none of that here, leaving our characters and the writer flapping in the wind, not unlike a boat’s sail. Towne is literally using every desperate exchange he can to keep the dialogue lively but when people are talking for ten minutes about shit we’ve already covered in eight other scenes, there’s only so much gimmickry you can pull out of your hat.

Then there was this weird decision to severely limit the story’s locations. I have an unofficial rule that you don’t limit your movie to a small area unless you have an intense thriller or TONS of conflict. Otherwise, it’s hard to keep the story alive. And that’s pretty much what happened here. We have roughly 4 locations for the entire flick. The main country club building, the beach, the boat, and the water. We just keep jumping back and forth between these 4 places. Not only does this make the story feel smaller than it should, but since this is a drama with zero thrills and very little conflict, most of the scenes lie dead on the page within seconds of commencing.

As for the movie’s key relationship, that of Gaer and the Mermaid, all I can say is that it was bizarre. Their friendship begins when the Mermaid teaches Gaer how to do some twirly-dirly spritz thing with water that is so poorly described I could never imagine what it was, which was unfortunate because Gaer becomes obsessed with it and it then becomes a key plot point. When key plot points are murky, your script’s in major trouble.

And then there was Gaer himself. I believe every hero needs a life goal – their ultimate dream. The reason I find this so important is because the right life goal can tell us everything we need to know about a character. Luke Skywalker wants to fight the Empire. That’s his dream. That tells us everything we need to know about him. Here, it’s terribly explained what Gaer wants out of life. He kind of wants to race sailboats but kind of doesn’t. It’s never detailed or made clear and it makes him feel wishy-washy. Wishy-washy protagonists are inexcusable. And when combined with murky plot points? It’s no wonder this script died in the water despite the millions of dollars put into it.

The Mermaid feels like one of those bare-bones ideas someone came up with then wanted to develop (“I know. Let’s make a movie about a MERMAID!”). I say this because outside of the mermaid, there’s nothing remotely interesting about this story. If there’s a lesson here, it’s that even the best screenwriters can’t save a piece of shit.

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

What I learned: Drop boring relationships from your script. Take a look at all the key relationships in your script and ask yourself if they’re interesting. If one isn’t, change it so it is or drop it. This movie is dominated by this agonizingly boring relationship between Gaer and HIS STEPMOTHER!!! Are you serious? You’re going to revolve your movie around a young strapping male lead and his geriatric step-mother? And they’re going to spend most of the movie debating whether mermaids are real?? Kill me now! Then kill the most boring relationship in your script!

  • Poe_Serling

    “No matter what is said about how a movie gets made, one fact is inescapable: until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else, like actors, can do theirs. Until the screenwriter does his job, nobody else has a job. In other words, he is the asshole who keeps everybody else from going to work.”
    — Robert Towne

    Mr. Chinatown. Schmoozing with Tom Cruise and Warren Beatty. Talking boffo box-office with Robert Evans and Peter Bart. Towne has pretty much reached the *living legend* status in the squared circle of screenwriting.

    * *A knowing nod to Bruno Sammartino.

    A year or so ago, I had the opportunity to watch Towne’s first produced film entitled Last Woman on Earth.

    Here a ‘woman, her husband, and their lawyer friend are scuba diving while on vacation. When they resurface, they gradually conclude that an unexplained, temporary interruption of oxygen has killed everyone on the island – maybe in the world!’

    Not only did Towne write this low-budget effort, he also co-stars in the flick under the acting name of Edward Wain. Overall, the film is a 70-minute time killer and not much more.

    The 1960 pic was directed by Roger “How I Made ‘500’ Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime” Corman.

    Now it’s time to go off the rails for a quick tangent…

    During the early ‘60s, Corman did some of his best work at AIP. Here he directed a series of films based on Edgar Allan Poe’s works.

    Though still working with a modest budget, Corman teamed up with some great writers, actors, etc. A few worth checking out:

    House of Usher (1960) –Starring Vincent Price and written by Richard Matheson.

    Pit and the Pendulum (1961)– Starring Price and Barbara Steele. Writer – Matheson

    The Premature Burial (1962)– Starring Ray Milland. Written by Charles ‘Twilight Zone’ Beaumont.

    The Masque of the Red Death (1964) – Starring Vincent Price. Cinematography by Nicolas “Don’t Look Now” Roeg.

    Corman finished up his film cycle of Poe adaptations with The Tomb of Ligeia (1964) .

    And the writer of this ‘Tomb’ picture? Coming full circle…

    None other than Robert Towne.

    • carsonreeves1

      Poe, you know everything!

      • Poe_Serling

        Oh, not really… just a good memory for the films I’ve seen and some go-to places to add a few fun facts to the conversation.

    • ArabyChic

      I’m a big fan. I think the Matheson scripts are the better ones. My favorite of the Poe cycle is definitely the Pit and the Pendulum. We get to see Vincent Price go the full monty in terms of being bat sh*t crazy.

      • Poe_Serling

        Of the Corman films, I really don’t have a favorite per se… I found all the Poe pics from AIP interesting and quite watchable for various reasons.

        My favorite Edgar Allan Poe adaptation is the ’53 animated short The Tell-Tale Heart from Columbia Pictures. It’s 7 1/2 minutes of pure perfection.

        Directed by Ted Parmelee and written by Bill Scott and Fred Grable. The whole thing is narrated by the great James Mason.

        • ArabyChic

          Mmmm. That is a good one. I have to say, I think my all time favorite Poe adaptation is Jan Svankmajer’s take on the Pit and the Pendulum…

          • Poe_Serling

            Thanks for the link… I’ll check it out during lunch.

          • Poe_Serling

            Just checked out JS’s take on the Pit and Pendulum… that chamber of horrors could easily be a setting for the latest Saw film.

            Great use of shadow/light and weird noises. The stark black-and-white photography just added to the claustrophobic nature of the tale.

            Thanks for pointing it out.

    • Mb

      I did a “Vote up” for the Bruno Sammartino reference. :-)

      • Poe_Serling

        I knew I could count on the wrestling fans for some support. ;-)

        • Mb

          I grew up in Pittsburgh, he was a big name around there…I remember my dad watching Studio Wrestling on our black and white TV.

          • Poe_Serling

            The Northeast was a hotbed for wrestling back in those days… I remember some of my grandfather’s favorites at that time were Ivan
            Putski and Chief Jay Strongbow.

        • klmn

          Any of you guys remember GLOW- Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling? That was a great show. My favorite contest:

          And part two:

          • Poe_Serling

            I remember it… even though I never really watched it. If I’m not mistaken, Sly Stallone’s mother was manager or something within the organization.

      • klmn

        Sammartino was before my time, but the greatest name in wrestling was Dick The Bruiser.

    • Malibo Jackk

      Almost got to meet Bruno Sammartino.
      The neighbors next door invited him to dinner. They invited my parents to join them.
      I was too young at the time.
      (BTW, my parents weren’t Italian. And the guy next door — Mr. Mafia.)

      • Poe_Serling

        Talk about missing a great photo op… a young Mailbo and the ‘Italian Superman.’

        Just curious – was Sammartino in town for a wrestling show or did he live
        in the area?

        • Malibo Jackk

          Not sure.
          It was one of those 6 degrees of separation things.

        • Malibo Jackk

          I almost got my picture taken with a well known wrestler referee.

          Years ago, I walked into a downtown White Castle.
          Down the counter from me some guys were talking wrestling but I wasn’t paying attention and hadn’t really noticed them.
          Then I hear one of the guys say — ‘Let’s ask the kid. What do you think about wrestling?’
          I’m eating my hamburger and don’t bother to look down the counter. ‘I think it’s fake,’ I say.
          Then I hear these heavy feet walking towards me. The guy puts me in a headlock. And squeezes hard. ‘Listen kid,’ he says. ‘When a guy does this to you, he’s serious.’

          It’s the last time I visited a White Castle. That was my Harold and Kumar moment.

          Sorry Carson. You need to review more wrestling movies.

          • Poe_Serling

            “Sorry Carson. You need to review more wrestling movies.”

            If Carson’s fishing out scripts from the early ’80s, why not The One and Only starring Henry Winkler?

            I’m just kidding – but a serious take on the life and times of Gorgeous George Wagner would make an interesting script/film.

          • klmn

            Hey, I’ve got a wrestling script. It’s a few years old, I’d want to polish it up before I show it to anyone.

        • John Bradley

          I have no idea how pro wrestling got brought into this but man am I glad!=D my ultimate dream is to be a writer for the WWE… I had front row seats at a WWE event in 04. I got to slap HBK’s hand, RVD’s hand, Scott Steiner’s sweaty back after a match (that is the largest man I have ever seen) and HHH spit water on me…………Yes, I can feel the jealousy lol

          • John Bradley

            Also, I bet Carson is going to play it cool like he thinks pro wrestling is juvenile, but when no one is looking he does the John Cena “You Can’t See Me” hand wave!

          • Poe_Serling

            “HHH spit water on me…”

            That’s like being baptized by the Pope. ;-)

          • John Bradley

            I was front row on the side where he does his entrance….I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pick that side on purpose just for that reason lol

  • Thomas A. Schwenn

    I agree. I just couldn’t get into this story. We spend the opening 35 pages at the race or after-party. And we simply meet everyone. They’re are not active — which leaves them uninteresting. I like a lot of Beatty’s work. A lot of doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does (Shampoo, for example). I’m sure this would’ve been an interesting film. But as a read, I couldn’t get into it.

    • carsonreeves1

      And the race has very little if anything to do with the rest of the story. It feels like a typical studio note: “We need something exciting to happen!” Errr, okay, we’ll have a big sailboat race in the beginning! Um. Even though. It has nothing to do with anything else.

  • Renee

    So this not getting made had nothing to do with the fact that after ‘Splash’ another mermaid movie would surely tank? (well, I guess at least they realized in time that this one would…)

    • Cfrancis1

      Yeah, I wonder how Splash fits into all this. It came out a year later. Did one inspire the other? Did someone at Disney find out Columbia was doing a mermaid movie and say, we should jump on that? Or vice versa? I have no idea but I’m sure there’s a story there.

  • thescreenplayman

    You know, I’ve been on this site long enough to know that Carson, in my eyes, has lost perspective on what makes a story. Without GSU, he says, the script is boring, the story is dull. Frankly, that’s not the case – there are some stories that are not going to have GSU and they’re fascinating.

    For me, I really dislike where this new site is going and it’s simply not keeping my interest anymore. Part of what the initial Carson did was keep us in the loop within the film industry, seeing what is being sold right now – with that gone, all I can say is that there’s nothing special about this site anymore.


    • ArabyChic

      No apology necessary. No really. It’s OK. I understand.

    • garrett_h

      Translation: Me want spec scripts!

  • ArabyChic

    Who knew: Splash Vs. Robert Towne and…. SPLASH WINS!

    • Ayo

      This movie was the reason that so many studios passed on Splash. Splash eventually landed at Disney. They created their Touchstone label just for it. It was a huge box office success.

    • rosemary

      Splash was Awesome.

  • Avishai

    Step-mother- you mean, mother in law?

  • Ayo

    Coincidentally, I just watched Splash today for a nice blast from the past. Visited the IMDB Trivia page while watching the movie. That was the first time I heard about this particular movie. This is the second.


  • UrbaneGhoul

    A Mermaid, A Man and his wife’s 60-something stepmother. I think of Splash and Cocoon mixed together and I kind of like that idea. Both by Ron Howard and Splash released in 1984, only made because he told Disney he could do it cheaper and quicker than this potential movie.

  • Mb

    There was a mermaid-based Colin Farrell movie that came out in the past few years called “Ondine”. While not a great film, it kept my interest and the plot was better than this one sounds. And I’ll admit I’ll see anything with Colin Farrell, especially when he can use his real accent.

  • rosemary

    Yeah this wasn’t for me. All kept think was Splash like people stated. I like splash tho lol

  • Saint Croix

    What I learned is never have a date on your screenplay. I had a little voice in the back of my head going, “people have been passing on this for thirty years.” Also, and I didn’t even know this before I read this screenplay, apparently I have this huge bigotry against yacht owners. I hope you lose, you rich asshole! Also, “why don’t you work for a living!” Hated the protag and felt like I was on a used car lot, shopping for a car that nobody had bought for thirty years. And finally, all the scratch-throughs made me want to invent a computer or something.

  • James Inez


    I thought it was fun. Interesting. I actually liked the relationship between the Mermaid and Gaer.I’m glad that they ended up together. I just wish they were able to stop the destruction of the bay. It was an easy read for me and held my interest the entire way through. It was a little ‘out there’ at times, but that’s what happens when there’s a mermaid in the story. Gaer wasn’t the most intriguing guy ever, but he wasn’t all that bad either. I wanted to know what was going to happen, I guess that’s what held my interest. I noticed the long action lines but was never distracted by them. And the story being about a guy and his mother in law didn’t really bother me either. I liked her backstory and his future.
    worth the read for me

  • carsonreeves1

    we do have our share of slippery fish here in Hollywood.

  • carsonreeves1

    Horror script? I don’t see it sounding that scary. Maybe a comedy script?

    • Poe_Serling

      If you’re looking for a classic ‘crazy cat lady’ character, wait ’til you crack open this week’s AF submission Emma.

    • klmn
      • Poe_Serling

        Wow! What a crazy article. New cat owner Carson has just become the lead in his own potential horror film Toxoplasma.

        • klmn

          Cat owner Zombies!

      • Malibo Jackk

        Heard about this 2 or 3 years back.

        The parasite in question can only reproduce (for some strange reason) in the stomach of a cat. When the rat eats the feces of the cat, the parasite now has a problem — how does it get back into the cat’s stomach so that it can reproduce?
        Somehow, the parasite seems to have found the answer. It travels up into the rats brain and changes its behavior. The rat is now more likely to be attracted to the cat.

        It’s the first known example of a parasite being able to change its host’s behavior.

        I don’t think his theory about human behavior is all that radical. I actually know a woman who takes in and cares for stray cats (the one’s most likely to be infected). And she cares too much for these cats. Which leads me to believe that she’s one of — THE WALKING INFECTED.

        • Poe_Serling

          What a purrrfect sequel name to Carson’s budding horror franchise.

          Soon playing at some drive-in in the Midwest:

          He barely escaped with his life in Toxoplasma… now Carson Reeves is back in The Walking Infected.

  • klmn

    I couldn’t get into this one, put it down within a couple pages.

    And I’m not into mermaids. Call me old fashioned, but I think women should have legs.

  • Midnight Luck

    While he may have written
    (one of) the greatest scripts ever

    Towne also wrote:

    Days of Thunder (thud)
    Frantic (what?)
    The Two Jakes (supposedly ChinaT: Part 2, b-boring talky)
    Mission Impossible (seriously?)

    Mission Impossible 2 (Seriously, like Serious?)

    and the saddest of all
    The movie that was supposed to be
    his next greatest script
    It was lauded all over
    before it came out:

    Ask the Dust (another insufferable talky, with no redeeming value, Terrible)

    So not sure
    where he pulled
    Chinatown out of

    but he better find his way
    there soon

  • edw1225

    It looks like I’m alone here, but I liked it. I agree that parts weren’t clear and it relied too much on talking. But I found the mermaid character and her relationship with Gaer intriguing, which carried the movie for me.

  • Andrew Orillion

    Yeah, I’m with you Carson. This was dull, dull and dull. I was with it until the Towne took an entire page to describe the marina in detail. After that I gave up. I also found it odd that the slug lines never said if it was day or night. In some places it was obvious, but in other cases it was hard to tell. Like when he met the mermaid. I assume that was at night because the moon was out, but how could you really tell.

    The only character that was really interesting was the mermaid.

    If this is indicative of the way scripts were written back then, it’s hard to believe people ever read them. The format is just so awkward.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Polanski came up with the ending.
    He also came up with a great ending for Ghost Writer.