While the late 1990’s saw dueling asteroid and volcano disaster-themed films battle tooth and nail to the multiplexes, the battle for 2003 looks to be a little more quaint as two projects focusing on renowned racehorses position themselves at the gates for release. While most of the moviegoing audience has focused their attention on Universal’s “Seabiscuit,” based on Laura Hillbenbrand’s hugely popular 2001 book of the same name, the filming of Disney’s “Hildalgo” has gone relatively unnoticed.
More confirmations are rolling into FilmJerk.com on those films airing an advertisement for the Super Bowl, as well as who is still in the running for a slot. With two weeks to go, ABC is in good shape selling time for Super Bowl XXXVII, with its average price for a 30-second commercial at $2.1 million. This is up 10% over a year ago.
There’s been a Post-It note on my computer for about nine months now, with a common advertising refrain written there: More eyeballs equals a better promotional platform. I’m not sure what made me put it up — whether it was the direct quote of someone I saw on CNBC or something I had read out of a trade publication– but it seems appropriate as filmgoers queue up for the biggest advertising events of the year in the form of the Super Bowl, now less than a month away.
I am constantly blocking off time in my schedule to visit bookstores, apt to blow a paycheck away on fattening up my already-bursting bookshelf. When I do leave such a place (most likely when the announcement sounds that they are closing in 5 minutes), I’m sure to have one of the widest grins found on the Eastern seaboard.
Given my personal tastes, however, that elative feeling is bound to be short-lived. I’m realizing that each novel I classify as being truly good, and would love to see adapted to the silver screen, is ultimately unfilmable. The attempts to translate William S. Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” and Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” both fall in this category- great books of which I can bestow great praise upon, but the resultant films are poor, watered-down photocopies of the author’s original text. More recently there has been a shift in a more positive direction with big-screen versions of “Movern Cellar,” “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Gangs of New York,” and the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. All have bucked the trend of what I’ve dubbed as the “good book, terrible film” genre. Of course, these were all made great through the sheer fortitude and passion of those involved with the projects. Some of these also prove that the best books are not always the ones being published or filmed at the moment of their birth.
Even though I found “A Confederacy of Dunces” to be one of the best screenplays I’ve read in ages, I’m convinced, sadly, that it will fall into the latter category. More than 20 years in the making to become a motion picture, it’s destined of “good book, terrible film.” Yes, there is more than one moment that will remind you of “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern are Dead,” but the central character is the star here.
Based on the novel of the same name by John Kennedy Toole, “Dunces” follows the wayward adventures of the morbidly-overweight intellectual Ignatius J. Reilly in 1960’s New Orleans; despite the protagonist already being in his thirties, it is a story of maturing and finding one’s place in the world. Written before Toole’s death in 1969, it was only released on bookshelves eleven years later. The unwieldy title is taken from a quote by Jonathan Swift, which opens the novel, but found nowhere in the screenplay: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.”
In his forward to the book, philosophical novelist Walker Percy (he also helped to get the novel published) wrote of the feelings when he first read the manuscript: “I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther…In this case I read on. And on. First with the sinking feeling that it was not bad enough to quit, then with a prickle of interest, then a growing excitement, and finally incredulity: surely it was not possible that it was so good. I shall resist the temptation to say what first made me gape, grin, laugh out loud, and shake my head in wonderment.”
The start to Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer’s treatment of the film is sure to cause the same reaction. “What in the world does the title of this ludicrous movie meanr,” cries Ignatius off-screen as he, and we, see the credits of “Dunces” unspooling at a children’s matinee. Continuing the very “Mystery Science Theater 3000” moment, Ignatius then calls the director a hack extraordinaire, blows a raspberry at those involved with the writing and, when the producer credits are unveiled, yells out, “That’s not a good sign; the more producers, the more feeble-minded the production!” It’s a great start to the screenplay, one which aptly sets up what is to come and will invariably draw the audience in.
Once the credits have run their course, with some “fruity farts” from Ignatius resulting in children’s screams and crude imitations, the viewers are introduced to New Orleans’ French Quarter, circa 1963. He is met by his mother in their Plymouth, who he treats abominably. In a later point in the screenplay, he calls her an overt masochist, believing that kind treatment would confuse and destroy her. Case in point: After she attempts to re-start the engine of the already-running vehicle, Ignatius casually remarks that he has “no idea how you managed to procure a license to operate this conveyance. The department of vehicular administration must be manned by corrupt half-wits.” This is the character of Ignatius- He has a love-hate relationship with the life he leads, spending his days writing flowery denunciations against modern culture. Seeing an enfant in a stroller, he is apt to mumble that the toddler is “another little consumer to push us closer to the impending apocalypse.”
After visiting a music store to buy a lute string, Ignatius is almost being charged with loitering by an odd patrolman named Angelo Mancuso. As an older gentlemen is hauled away to jail for calling Mancuso a communist, Ignatius and his mother hide out at the corner bar Nights of Joy. After his mother gets into another accident, she is told she will be fined. This puts Mrs. Reilly in the unenviable position of convincing her indolent son to get a job to help pay it off- she paid for his 8 years of education (he earns a degree in medieval history) through her grandmother’s insurance money and, with it now gone, is scrapping for every penny now.
Ignatius, protesting the entire time, does find work of sorts; first as a file clerk at Levy Pants Factory, a disreputable garment factory where he mobilizes the workforce to strike, then as a hot-dog vendor in the French Quarter, where he paints a cast with the slogan “12 Inches of Paradise.” All the while, he is stalked by the patrolman, who adopts an odd sense of wardrobe.
All this while, Ignatius also keeps in touch with Myrna Minkoff, a social activist from the Bronx he met at Tulane University. She is his salvation; she just believes he needs to find a girlfriend for some love. As Myrna tells him, “Since I last left you, you have done nothing but lie around rotting in your room. You must do something, Ignatius; a very bad crack-up is on the way. Get out of that womb-house… Realize that life is surging all around you. The valve closes because it thinking it is living in a dead organism. Open your heart, Ignatius, and you will open your valve.”
It is when Myrna returns that he has found destiny’s next path for him, to leave New Orleans for another destination with her. This decision is most likely hastened by his mother threatening to commit him.
There have been some aspects dropped from Toole’s novel-most notably, the talk of his education. There are references thrown in haphazardly about his schooling, but nothing telling us how he came to be living in his mother’s house, never straying from his messy bedroom. Other than that, the script is pitch-perfect. This is an extremely light, fast read. What really propels the screenplay, though, is the screenwriter’s vivid characterizations of Toole’s New Orleans denizens.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the leading candidate to take on the role of Reilly in the film, set to begin filming next spring in New Orleans. Others who have been considered include Jack Black and Horatio Sanz; notably, every other comic actor who has been associated with the role- from John Belushi to Chris Farley- has passed away after being linked to the project. As much as I am a fan of Hoffman, I’m not sure he is tonally correct for the role. There is a lot of prose in the film that requires a certain delivery and I’m not convinced Hoffman has it, plus I would never want to hear him attempt a “fruity fart” several times on screen. I think a far better fit would be Brendan Gleeson, who is coming off acclaim for his tragic turn as Monk McGinn in “Gangs of News York,” and whose 2003 roles include “28 Days Later,” “Dark Blue” and “Cold Mountain.” Although he is listed as 45, I think he could pull the role off well.
Drew Barrymore, one of the film’s producers, will play the role of aspiring exotic dancer Darlene, who also works at the Nights of Joy bar. Beyond that, casting has yet to be announced. Set to direct is David Gordon Green, who blasted onto the scene with his critically-lauded, award-winning 2000 film “George Washington” and whose “All the Real Girls” is Sundance-bound.
But the drawback comes in how to market the picture, as it has an extremely odd appeal – but this is where the partnership with Miramax comes in handy. Above any other distributor out there, they should be able to answer the question of “Who exactly would be the market for thisr,” as well as get this notice for Academy consideration.
Early on, Ignatius growls that the picture he is seeing is “an abomination. Hollywood, I fear, is our contemporary Sodom and Gomorrah and we best avert our gaze.” Most pictures I have seen move forward recently would fit within Ignatius’ parameters above- but this picture is better written than most of today’s dreck permeating theaters. The resulting picture could be wonderful or disastrous. Only time will tell.
Adaptation by Steven Soderbergh and Scott Kramer, based on John Kennedy Toole’s 1980 Novel
Screenplay Dated: October 17th, 2002 (revisions from September 24th draft)
When the trailer for the film premiered in early December, there were murmurs from many wondering how this taut thriller could have flown so low under the radar during its development and production phase, while looking like such a worthwhile picture. It boasts John Cusack among an ensemble cast with faces recognizable to many, it has 2001’s most successful distributor in Sony Pictures behind the film and features a script that many studio executives were high on. So much so that after Screen Gems gobbled the spec script up in November 2001, it was quickly acquired by its sister company so that it could devote a higher budget to the picture.
Having read the twist-laden script (originally titled as “I.D.” here), I believe that Sony executives have a potential sleeper on their hands and that this lateral pass internally in the entertainment conglomerate was a wise move.
British playwright Michael Cooney’s script begins with a tracking shot of the Golden Palm Hotel, with “rain slashing down through the desert sky making it difficult to the see the front of this 1950’s eyesore…and a crackle of lightning of thunder in the distance. A neon palm tree flashes invitingly, seemingly unaware of the desert storm.” It is at this Bates-like hotel where the carnage is to take place, and it is the rainstorm that causes the 10 principal characters to seek solace out of the storm. Or is the audience being playedr
Shifting back and forward in time in a “Rashomon”-style first act, viewers meet the film’s principals. In the order we meet them, they are:
- Larry, the hotel manager, who is constantly called “Bates” by several of his guests. He is played by John Hawkes, best known as Mike “Bugsy” Moran from the 2000 film “A Perfect Storm.”
- George and Alice York, with their young son Timothy, who are driving cross-country when they are hit by a minivan veering from the opposite lane. George is a very by-the-book kind of guy; viewers don’t delve too much into the characters of his son or wife (who is badly hurt in the accident and subsequently takes a turn for the worse a few pages later). This trio is played by John C. McGinley, Leila Kenzle and Bret Loehr, respectively.
- Paris, a “street walker” from Las Vegas, who unwittingly incurs a lot of the damage seen in the first few frames of the film. Paris is played by Amanda Peet.
- Ed, a resourceful limousine driver who used to be a cop a decade ago. He is ferrying around a fading B-film actress named Caroline Suzanne. The limo driver is John Cusack, who is the central character in the film, while the latter character is Rebecca De Mornay in what amounts to a cameo appearance.
- An uninteresting older couple named Louis and Virginia Iana. See below in the “My Thoughts” section for the evolution of this couple to Clea Duvall and William Lee Scott.
- Los Angeles police detective Rhodes, who is transporting a prisoner by the name of Robert Maine. We learn later that Rhodes is not all that he appears to be, and Ray Liotta plays him here. Jake Busey plays Maine, in another part that looks to be more of a cameo appearance.
Further elements of this script review include major plot points to the story. Read at your own risk.
Once all 10 visitors are settled into the hotel, a shadowy figure intones the ominous words, “Everyone has arrived…let’s begin.” The first scream is heard by the other guests less than a minute later and they then begin to be knocked off one by one, with descending-numbered playing cards (a ten of spades for the initial victim) found on the person of each victim, as if he or she were counting down their victims. Among the more memorable deaths, the first victim is decapitated, while another is hit by a speeding truck in a very “Final Destination” fashion and three perish at once when a car becomes a giant fireball when gasoline meets flame.
Given that there are 11 people at the Golden Palm and only 10 cards in the card suite, they quickly begin to suspect that the unseen murderer is one of the other guests. But each is accounted for during each subsequent murder.
As the bloodletting begins in earnest, intercut are scenes at a psychiatric hospital/prison, where a man suffering from multiple personalities, who viewers come to know only as “Malcolm,” awaits his parole board hearing. Interestingly, it is revealed that he had killed ten people and that the name given to him in the hospital is not his real name—they haven’t a clue who this person is. What’s more, he has given the parole board the name of the ten people in the hotel and it is believed that “Malcolm” is in a battle to establish a predominant personality among those that have surfaced.
Film aficionados are likely to pick up that the film contains a very similar plot to Agatha Christie’s “10 Little Indians,” which is gladly referenced within the second act by one character. Realizing that there may be a common bond between the four other remaining characters, they find that they each all have names linked to a state (Paris Nevada and Ed Dakota, for instance; the actress’ real name is Susan Carolina) and that each of the ten share the birthday of May 10th, albeit in different years.
Interestingly, the remaining characters find that the bodies are missing as well, with the spots where their lives are taken spotless of any blood. At this point, filmgoers will begin to wonder if this is reality, or something happening in the mind of a deranged mental patient, and then the film takes some delicious U-turns from there to a final twist. There is one character that Paris believes to be the killer— despite their appearance, he or she is the one that viewers need to watch out for, as Paris herself finds out too late that she was right in her guess, as the film maddeningly fades to black with one of the best closing lines in recent memory.
For being such a script derivative of both Christie’s original work and several recent pictures, this was an incredibly enjoyable read due to Cooney’s good ear for dialogue and the multiple twists. Maybe it’s the verbose, linear scripts I’ve been reading recently, but this extremely tight script had me flipping pages until I found there to be no more. If this film is directed correctly (and the trailer tells me it most likely has), this could be an enjoyable film to watch on the silver screen. It should be capable of delivering the jolts that “;Final Destination” and “The Sixth Sense” were able to provide at times, without lurking too far into the dreadful teen horror genre that has permeated the market recently. To me, this is an astounding work and a giant stride away from someone whose last works was on the straight-to-video “Jack Frost” (the one with the killer snowman), as well as its sequel.
There should be some changes made here, though, particularly in bulking up the first act— we are introduced to several characters there very quickly and, less than 20 pages later, half are no longer among the living. To make this film work, there needs to be a better introduction to all of the characters, especially with the great cast that this has. Also, there is a great scene by Cusack later on (which is briefly seen in the trailers) where he shifts from the viewpoint of Ed to that of Malcolm, when he begins to realize that he may not actually exist, that needs to be more pointed as well.
That being said, and in the interest of full disclosure, the script which I was able to view was not the final shooting draft—according to Sony’s website for the film (found here), director James Mangold also shares credit of the screenplay. Given that he has received a writing credit on each of his directorial efforts (like “Cop Land,” “Kate & Leopold,” and “Girl, Interrupted”), this is not altogether surprising. Viewing the trailer, I see that much has stayed the same, except for one pertinent point. The elder couple of Louis and Virginia Iana seemingly have been recast as younger faces in Duvall and Scott— seeing how little screentime the older couple received, this is none too surprising. And from the lone shots of Duvall, it looks like her character might have been expanded slightly as well.
Also noticeable from the trailer as elements having been changed is one key string of dialogue in which the remaining characters realize they all share the same birthday and that the playing cards that have been placed on each victim look to have been changed to room keys. The latter area should actually make the film work on a more Hitchcockian level, which is definitely positive if done correctly.
Based on this early script, “Identity“ has all the trapping for success. If this continues to get the right marketing support from Sony, this should be a winner at the box office in 2003.
Screenplay written by Michael Cooney. Script dated October 9, 2001Rating: A
Ginger may be dead, but “Ginger Snaps” continues on. Although the 2000 film managed to only gross about $135,000 in its brief domestic theater run, the Canadian picture lives on with two direct-to-video sequels planed. The original’s take on lycanthropy and feminine coming of age was called “the best teenage werewolf movie ever made” by the San Francisco Chronicle, and has transcended its low budget status to be considered a modern-day cult horror film. While I didn’t enjoy the film as much as others – I thought it pleasured itself too much in its slasher-type leanings, especially in the closing scenes- it manages to convey a wry tale of teenage nihilism, pressures to conform and sexuality.