Premise: At the turn of the 20th century, a convict who’s slowly dying from a bullet in his heart escapes prison to find and be with his family again.
About: Westerns are picking up steam as long as they’re not too expensive. Something to keep in mind if you love the genre but have been hesitant to spec a Western out. Today’s script comes from a screenwriter who many believe is a genius despite not being well-known outside of tight 1970s Hollywood circles. Rudy Wurlitzer wrote 1971’s Two-Lane Blacktop and Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. But his contribution to screenwriting goes well beyond that, as this script in particular, while never made, is said to have been an inspiration to tons of screenwriters. Wurlitzer plays modest when you try and throw the genius tag on him, but there’s no doubt he was a writer to be reckoned with. You can learn more about him in this Vice article.
Writer: Rudy Wurlitzer
Details: 95 pages (undated)
As we move into the age of unlimited content – enough movies and TV shows to keep your eyeballs occupied for 43 lifetimes – it becomes harder and harder to stand out. I distinctly remember a time when you could read a weird story on the back page of a newspaper – a planet that enters our solar system once every 200 years, a freak-house whose oddball occupants never stop building – and feel like you’d struck gold. You had the beginning of a movie idea that nobody else had heard of.
Nowadays, when you run across an idea, you quickly find out there’s been a special about it on the History Channel, it’s been covered in an episode of “Mythbusters,” and it has an entire subreddit dedicated to it with over 170,000 subscribers. With original concepts becoming harder and harder to come by, how in the world does one stand out?
The answer is VOICE. Ideas have been democratized, but you still have a monopoly on your point of view. If you can tell a story in a way that it hasn’t been told before, YOU become the concept.
Zebulon is said to be one of the most influential scripts ever written in Hollywood, with many writers claiming it as an inspiration. The story goes it never got made because so many other writers stole from it. I’d heard very little about Wurlitzer before being told of Zebulon, so I was curious to see how juicy and unique his voice was. Time to put my ear close to the paper.
It’s the beginning of the 20th century and mountain men are being phased out. It used to be you could set up a bunch of traps in the mountain, get yerself some furs, sell’em up at the Trading Post, and be set for the winter. Not so this year, Zebulon Pike learns. When he and his Pops go up to the Trading Post, they’re told to suck it, and Pops don’t take it so well. A gunfight ensues, Pops dies, a Post worker is shot, and Zebulon is sent to prison for a couple of decades.
Zebulon spends seven of those years trying to escape so he can get back to his family, but fails every time. When he finally breaks out during road construction duty, he takes a bullet in the chest, and is told by a doctor that it’s wedged into his heart. They won’t be able to take it out, so the bullet will slowly kill him. At most, Zebulon’s got weeks to live.
That’s enough time to get back to his wife and son, so off Zebulon rides, back home. Meanwhile, the Captain of the prison, a former army general who was stationed to the prison after an act of cowardice in battle, teams up with an overzealous alcoholic two-bit novelist named Stebbins, who believes this story of tracking and capturing an escaped outlaw is his ticket to the big-time.
Zebulon is able to stay one step ahead of his pursuers and make it back to his wife, only to learn she’s remarried. With only days left to live, he convinces her to take one last journey with him to find their son, who’s since flown the coop and, rumor has it, is covering up a big secret. Will they make it to him in time? Or will the bullet… or the Captain… get to him first?
Only in my line of work do you get to read about a prison in the year 2100 one day and a prison in the year 1900 the next. Pretty damn cool!
Back to that voice conversation. Here’s the thing. After reading this script, I’ve determined that it’s not the version that everyone fell in love with. The version everyone fell in love with was about a man who gets shot and wanders the world between the living and the dead.
Indeed, that sounds way trippier and cooler than what I read here. And it reveals a conversation that never goes away in Hollywood. Everyone says they want “voice.” But the closer a project gets towards production, the more people in charge want to normalize it. That seems to have been the case here, turning Zebulon into a decidedly straight-forward endeavor.
And the thing was, you could feel its potential bursting at the seams. I can only imagine what an unrestrained Wurlitzer would’ve done with Stebbins, the novelist, who was hilarious even in a restrained role. I loved how, when Zebulon shot and killed a single man to escape, Stebbins turned him into six men for his story. Or when the group was attacked by a single Indian while sleeping one night, Stebbins began counting the money as he transformed the Indian into an entire tribe. This didn’t even begin to explore the strange particulars of Stebbins’ personal life, such as he and his bizarre wife’s plan for her to have sex with the Captain.
Outside of Stebbins, though, this draft of Zebulon is about as straight-forward as it gets. A guy goes to be with his wife before he dies. There was a GOAL (get to the wife) and URGENCY (he’s going to die any day now) but no STAKES. He and his wife’s relationship hadn’t been set up well before the Trading Post skirmish, so I didn’t give a damn whether he got to her or not. Knowing what I know now about the original draft, I can see that the goal, stakes, and urgency were never meant to drive the script in the first place. It was the weirdness of slipping in and out of the living and the dead world that was Zebulon’s “strange attractor.” Once you take that away, it’s just a “Get from Point A to Point B” movie.
Those looking to see that original draft, though, can still get a taste of it in Jim Jarmasch’s “Dead Man,” which is basically a ripoff of Zebulon. I can now say that I’ve read another script that, in retrospect, was majorly influenced by Zebulon. That infamous Gladiator 2 script I reviewed by Nick Cave.
If there’s anything I learned about voice from this later draft of Zebulon, it’s that Wurlitzer seemed to be ahead of the curve with his style. He writes with a clarity and succinctness that most writers didn’t begin using until the 90s (this script was written in 84). In the Vice article I linked above, someone points out that Wurlizter is able to convey big ideas in a down-to-earth way, and I agree. The script was very accessible and easy to read.
I do wish I’d read the original draft of Zebulon though. It seems like it was more fun. Even if this was a serviceable approximation.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: This is another TRANSITION PERIOD script, which means the writer focuses on a time when things were changing in the world. Mountain Men, who used to be able to live off the land, were now being phased out. Transition periods are great to build stories around because transition means change and change means conflict. Conflict is the lifeblood of entertainment, so if you can infuse conflict into your story before it even begins, your story’s going to start with a bang. And that’s exactly what happened here. When the Trading Post wouldn’t pay him for his furs like they always had, a standoff ensued, people were killed, resulting in our hero being thrown into prison.