Genre: Period/True Story
Premise: A widowed painter travels to live with the dangerous Sioux nation in order to paint a picture of one of the most notorious and violent Indian chiefs in history, Sitting Bull.
About: The amount of time it takes to get a script into production never ceases to amaze me. Yet when you really think about it, it makes sense. After writing something good enough that people actually want to make it in the first place, you’ve got to time a number of high profile moving targets (a director and a big actor or two), all of whom are very busy, and you have to match that up with the ever-shifting sediment of the financing world. If you want to know why producers get the big money, that’s why! Steven Knight (Taboo, Allied, Peaky Blinders, the upcoming Girl in the Spider’s Web) wrote this script all the way back in 2006. It was just this year they got Jessica Chastain attached and now the film will be hitting theaters this winter on the hunt for an Oscar.
Writer: Steven Knight
Details: 115 pages – 2006 draft
In a recent article, I talked about what script trends are coming up next. One of the predictions I made was female-led period pieces. Am I Nostradamus? It’s been less than two weeks and a female-led period piece is here already!
Okay, maybe this script was written 11 years ago but it’s clear that we needed to hit this female-protagonist trend before the project got hot enough to cook its way into production. Will this lead to more of these films? Will my prediction streak continue? We’ll find out. But right now, let’s take a look at Woman Walks Ahead.
The year is 1889 and 40-something Catherine Weldon has finally moved on from the death of her husband. Catherine is a well-respected painter of portraits (she’s even painted a few senators), and one gets the impression she was afforded the luxury to become good because her now dead husband was very wealthy.
But Catherine has always longed for adventure, to paint something truly great. Her dream portrait is Sitting Bull, the great Sioux Indian Chief who lives in Standing Rock. So Catherine gets on a train and voyages to the Dakotas, where she meets James McLaughlin, a government agent who runs the local outpost there and despises Sitting Bull.
James immediately tells Catherine to turn around and go right back to where she came from. But she refuses, convincing a local Indian man to take her to Sitting Bull on the promise that she’ll use her New York connections to stop an upcoming treaty that will cut the Sioux’s land in half.
Sitting Bull, now in his 50s, is a testy little man, and refuses to be painted until Catherine offers him $1000 for his portrait. After Catherine starts painting Sitting Bull, the two form a friendship, one that will be tested when the Cut-Land-In-Half Treaty nears its signing date.
The Sioux are suspicious that Sitting Bull is cozying up to the white man. And the white men are suspicious that Catherine is sharing secrets with Sitting Bull. Basically, everybody hates that these two are BFFs, and will do anything to stop it. And by anything, I mean war.
A wonderful way to get your audience to root for your hero is to have them perform an action that’s both powerful and relatable. The very first thing Catherine does is decide to give up her safe life to do something daring and adventurous for the first time ever.
Who here doesn’t think about leaving the safety of their lives to do something bold and scary and different? We all do. Most never follow-through. But we wish we would. So when we see Catherine do this at the beginning of the story, we instantly fall in love with her. She has the courage to do something we’ve only dreamed of.
Knight then puts on a screenwriting school for the next 25 pages. Guys, I’m telling you. THIS IS HOW YOU SCREENPLAY! One of the simplest ways to keep things interesting is to MAKE EVERYTHING HARD ON YOUR HERO. If things are easy, we get bored.
The trip to the Dakotas is hard. Once Catherine gets there, she’s told to leave. Once she looks for a ride into town, her luggage is stolen. Once she gets to the Fort, James tells a soldier to arrest her and send her back on the first train. Once she gets to Sitting Bull, he refuses to talk to her. Every INCH of this journey is difficult. Every scene is difficult. This is good screenwriting, folks.
The other day we talked about how every pilot needs “THAT SCENE” – the scene that defines the show and hooks the viewer. With feature scripts, you’re looking for “THAT MOMENT.” Just like with pilots, you want that moment that’s going to hook’em. ESPECIALLY if you’re writing a slow period piece like this one, since readers are under the assumption that they’re going to be bored to death.
That scene in Woman Walks Ahead comes when Catherine first gets to the Dakotas and a local militia man, Groves, is telling her to please go home. There’s no reason for a single woman of her age to be here. She’s defiant and explains how important it is that she paint a portrait of Sitting Bull. Groves casually looks to a nearby old man. “Hey friend. Come over here.” The man walks over. “This lady here has come all the way from New York to shake hands with Chief Sitting Bull.”
The old man “takes one step forward then suddenly spits in Catherine’s face.” “Hope they fuck you then cut out the baby like they did the Robinson girls you Indian loving bitch.”
And that… is how we’re officially welcomed to Woman Walks Ahead.
Unfortunately, once Catherine actually meets Sitting Bull, all the electricity built up over the previous 40 pages becomes a lone 40 watt bulb. It’s not that their relationship is a total bust. There’s an appropriate amount of conflict early on to keep things interesting. But once that dissipates and the two actually start liking each other, it all becomes rather… boring.
You could almost hear Steven Knight dreading this section in his head. “How the hell am I going to make this work?” It’s a big challenge to keep an appropriate amount of tension between two characters sharing every scene for an extended period of time. You need variation in the plot to stir shit up. And while there was the whole treaty thing, it wasn’t nearly as shit-stirring as it needed to be to keep things entertaining.
The script does have an unexpected and powerful ending. And the relationship between Catherine and Sitting Bull went further than I expected it to. Still, that slow-motion middle section was a hefty price to pay – some might say the equivalent of $1000 – to get to the rewarding finale.
The unspoken screenwriting problem with these movies – and with any team-up movie really – is that you can’t have the characters hate each other the whole time. There has to be some connection. But when they connect, it isn’t as interesting. So you’re stuck trying to walk this line between conflict and happiness, two terms that contradict one another.
With that said, I expect to see more of these female-led true story period pieces getting purchased. So if you write in that genre, now’s the time to capitalize. Just make sure that your lead female role is Oscar-worthy. This movie doesn’t work if it’s set in 1968 and Catherine is painting Jimmy Hendrix. It had to be a time when a woman traveling alone into dangerous Indian territory was a death-sentence. That’s the kind of thing that both actresses and Academy voters are attracted to.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Character decisions need to come with consequences! Catherine leaving to paint Sitting Bull had major consequences. Her dead husband’s parents told her, we will disavow you. You won’t be able to come back here or have our money anymore. That’s a way more powerful moment than if they paid her way and told her they couldn’t wait til she came back so they could hear her stories over hot cocoa.