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

Woman-Walks-Ahead-Movie-1

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.

  • klmn

    $1000 sounds too high for the time period.

    • Justin

      Well to be fair, even though I’m a nobody, I wouldn’t accept anyone painting a portrait of me for anything less than five figures. It seems like an extremely intimate and vulnerable place to be. Plus, someone with a portrait of my face would be out there.

      • klmn

        Good luck with your modeling career.

  • Malibo Jackk

    Not sure why they’re making this movie.
    (Will read the review later.)
    Stories like this are the reason we have books.

    • PQOTD

      But stories like this are the reason so many books get made into movies, are they not? Dances With Wolves and The English Patient were both adapted from books.

      • Adam McCulloch

        I thought the story behind Dances With Wolves was that Kevin Costner loved screenwriter, Michael Blake’s, work and had been talking with him about Dances with Wolves at a very embryonic stage. No one would make it and Costner told Blake he should write it as a novel to show proof of concept. He did, Costner bought it, Blake adapted his own novel for the screenplay.
        It’s a heartwarming story in itself.

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

    WOW, total underwhelmed by the story. PASS.

  • koicvjr

    I’ve got a great idea for a female-led true story period piece and I’m looking for a writing partner. Anyone interested?

  • scriptfeels

    I started reading the comedy carson reviewed control alt delete and am finding it hilarious. I havent read a decent comedy recently and it reminded me how much i love the genre. What is interesting to me is how comedy works globally. My gf is from korea and i put on bruce almighty and she didnt laugh once and thought it was really unfunny. I hadn’t watched it in a while but since the whole film was on youtube i wasn’t complaining. It’s strange that some films don’t translate well where as other genres like action, sci fi, or adventure do. Just ranting but i look forward to finishing the script!

    • Ashley Sanders

      I think you’re right. Comedy is more culturally specific than any other genre I can think of and so probably doesn’t travel well. Heck, France is only 40 miles from the UK and I’ve yet to find a French comedy funny.
      Which I guess is why, given that global box-office is now more important, fewer comedies are being made than there used to be?
      Which is a shame, but I guess they aren’t usually really high budget so ….

      Only vaguely Jim Carrey related – but I had a weird experience watching Liar Liar in the cinema in Poland with my brother years ago. A gag would hit, my brother and I would laugh (being English speakers) and then the rest of the cinema would laugh 2 seconds later when the Polish subtitles caught up. The audience must have thought we were freaks – I hope we weren’t too distracting.

      • scriptfeels

        Thats a great story! I just finished the script; a few jokes fell flat but overall really enjoyed it! I had read the other scriot about a video game background character becoming god like and having to save the world and kind of prefer this one since it’s grounded in reality in the first act. Also i found the leads likeable and the dirty jokes funny. I kind of want to read more comedies now ha ha. And i had just started writing a horror script lol.

        • Ashley Sanders

          Comedy and horror, they’re both about the ………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………. timing

  • brenkilco

    So the original GSU guy is OK with a premise where a woman risks her safety, reputation, perhaps even her life to paint somebody’s portrait. Because if she fails, well, who gives a damn. This movie is flawed from the gitgo. And how can we cheer a first act that seems wholly unnecessary. We fade in on her getting off the stage and what’s been lost. The face spitting scene happens five minutes in and everything is clear.

    What’s really odd is that it seems the writer has fudged events to make things duller. Weldon, whose background was apparently a good bit more scandalous than the script suggests, was not a committed painter. She was a committed activist who journeyed west to involve herself in Indian affairs. Why exactly she had chosen native American rights as her cause is a bit unclear in the Wiki article. Nevertheless it is clear that her paintings were incidental.

    And it can’t be said that her story has much of a climax. She gave Sitting Bull good advice about curtailing the militant mysticism among the Sioux that in part precipitated a violent government response which culminated with the wounded Knee massacre and Bull’s death. But some time before all the bad went down Weldon’s relationship with the chief had soured and she had headed back east to tend her ill son and spend her lonely last years. Curious to know how Knight deals with this.

    Basically this sounds like The King and I but without showtunes and Yul Brynner to maintain interest. Even low key two handers need urgency. The relationship between a king and his speech pathologist is not a promising premise. But if the goal is to give a vitally important speech it can work. This script sounds like it’s lacking an engine.

    • Utmk

      lol. love this “i read a wiki article and now i’m an expert” analysis. riveting stuff, as always.

      • brenkilco

        Yeah, obviously forgot the first rule of faking expertise. Don’t acknowledge Wiki.

      • sandy

        At least it’s a comment on the article and issue at hand and not without some thought and intellect.

        I suppose the site would be better served if we just post self-serving Youtube clips.

        lol.

  • r.w. hahn
    • CJ

      They should do a biopic on Steve Jobs!

      • RO

        another one?

    • Thaddeus Arnold

      Oh great. Another streaming service I’d have to pay for.

  • Citizen M

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/05ae2ecc6d213750ef4c0fb4d03ea51afb73e2122d87162b0921981023aefe35.jpg

    Tamati Waka Nene by CF Goldie and Sitting Bull by Caroline Weldon

    I saw some of the Goldie portraits of Maoris when I was in Auckland. They are almost photo-realistic and very eye-catching. I don’t think Caroline Weldon was in the same class as Goldie as a portrait painter.

    According to Wikipedia, Caroline was born in Switzerland but moved to the US when she was 8. She married a Swiss doctor. The marriage was unhappy and childless and eventually ended in divorce. She had an affair with a married man who fathered her child but eventually went back to his wife. Then she inherited money on the death of her mother and became interested in Indian affairs.

    She fits the profile of many people in Europe today: single and financially secure middle-aged women who adopt the cause of the refugees. Psychologically, there seems to be a pattern there.

    • Citizen M

      PS: There’s a book by Eileen Pollack, “Woman Walking Ahead: In Search of Catherine Weldon and Sitting Bull”. Presumably the script is based on the book. If so, it should get a mention.

    • Malibo Jackk

      It’s very possible that the better that Europe looks like the U.N.,
      the better the U.N. will look.

  • Utmk

    I want it that way.

  • klmn
    • Thaddeus Arnold

      Everyone knew about it but was too afraid to speak up, outside of a few jokes.

      I’m not surprised. He was powerful enough to shut down everyone, including reporters. In the current climate of people taking a stand against bullies, some finally felt brave enough to say something.

      • klmn

        And I’m sure some actresses went along with it and profited from it. Pity the poor writers and directors who were saddled with a second-rate actress because of Harvey’s crimes.

  • ripleyy

    I think this really emphasises the point that your protagonist can go after something personal and, at face value, mundane as long as you use old school screenwriting techniques. A film about a girl wanting to paint something is a prime example. Not everything has to have end-of-the-world stakes!

  • Poe_Serling

    “One of the predictions I made was female-led period pieces. Am I
    Nostradamus?”

    I don’t mind seeing films or TV programming that appeal to a wide
    range of viewing tastes.

    I guess it’s sort of a “variety is the spice of life” thing on my part.

    and

    What about a time-traveling Nostradamus?

    In the vein of The Time Tunnel. he finds himself being tossed
    through various events in the future and the experiences form
    the basis for his predictions.

  • Erica

    I have a female-led true story period pieces that I’ve been wanting to write for a while. I’ve been slowly buying books on the subject and doing a research. It has all the makings of an Oscar-worthy performance and to be honest I’m surprised no one has written this script. Unless they have and I haven’t seen it yet.

    I’m just always afraid to write this one as I feel I’m not good enough to do so or do it justice. I don’t know if I can really write drama like that. The other tough sell on this is the story may not work as well with an American audience.

    It’s defiantly a dream of mine to write and once I’m done my current one, maybe I’ll try and tackle it. I may have to find a partner to write it or something. Worse case I can try writing a short version of the script first.

    Sometime there are just not enough hours in a day to write all our idea’s and I’m certainly full of it – idea’s that is…

    • klmn

      Better get with it. With the lead time required to get something into production, the trend may be over if you dither too long.

    • r.w. hahn

      Sounds like the one Im researching. Even down to the American audience comment. I have Meryl Streep in mind to play her in her later years. The thing with this woman. There are no auto or any other actual book biographies on her. Just one pagers on various websites. But she has many books she has written which is giving me insight into her character. And talk about getting a “No” at every turn. I am also surprised this woman has not been put on film. Like you said. Perfect Oscar bait.

  • Lucid Walk

    When I think Period piece, I think King’s Speech, An Ideal Husband, or The Other Boyelyn Girl. Wouldn’t this be more considered a Western?