Sunday, August 9, 2009

Killing On Carnival Row

I've been meaning to put a review of this up forever. Luckily, Roger has rescued me with this in-depth look at "Killing On Carnival Row." As you can see, he absolutely loves the script. And I know another long-time reader who thinks it's a masterpiece as well. I haven't read it. But if you're into this kind of world, chances are you'll react the same way these guys did.

Genre: Dark, urban fantasy. Murder Mystery. Horror. Science Fiction. Crime noir. Adventure.
Premise: In the city of The Burgue, a police inspector pursues a serial killer who is targeting fairies.
About: Sold to New Line Cinema in late 2005. Immediately attracted the attention of Guillermo Del Toro and Hugh Jackman. Del Toro dropped out of the project and Neil Jordan is currently attached to direct. This is Beacham's first spec script. Written in his early 20’s. Beacham was hired to write “The Clash of the Titans” remake and is also writing “The Tanglewood” for Arnold and Anne Kopelson.
Writer: Travis Beacham.

The Burgue. A Third Man Vienna-esque city. Separated into four separate zones that are controlled by one central zone, Oberon Square.

We’ve got Argyle Heights, otherwise known as the Academic District. There’s the Docklands, center of industrialization and shipping. Thirdly, Finistere Crossing. The human zone.

Then there’s Carnival Row.

The Fairie Quarter.

Home to the sordid fairie brothels.

Someone’s murdering fairies and leaving their broken and exsanguinated bodies on display, clipped of their wings. No. Scratch that. Their moth-like wings have been sawed from their torsos, leaving torn alabaster skin and the rawness underneath in their absence. And of course, there’s the twin tell-tale puncture wounds in their necks.

The Burgue.

City of soot and sorcery. Humans and monsters. Fairie whores and drug peddlin’ dwarves.

An urban fantasist’s wet dream, told in Art Noveau-scope.

Guys, this script is amazing. It’s a mordant phantasmagoria. A Victorian penny dreadful, its hard-bond pulp pages soaked in absinthe and hallucinogenic fey blood and set ablaze with the fire from an exploding gas-lamp. It’s Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” theurgically amalgated (or twined) to Raymond Chandler’s “The Long Goodbye”.

It’s Marlowe trying to solve a murder mystery in Bas-Lag. (And if you get this reference dear, astute readers, I tip my hat to you.)

And guess what?

It fucking works.

So who’s our Philip Marlowe, Rog?

Inspector Rycroft Philostrate, of The Burgue Metropolitan Constabulary. Fairie sympathizer.

Yep. With a city census that reads like an AD&D Monster’s Compendium, the writer capitalizes on his setting and its inhabitants and deftly weaves in social criticism as part of his theme. With the focus on racism and sexism.

Magnify the thematic lens and you’ll find a character struggling with the difficulties that revolve around a compelling interracial romance in an unforgiving city such as The Burgue.

It’s like Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” and “Jungle Fever” had inter-species babies with characters out of a China Mieville novel. The anti-human propaganda pamphlet, The Screaming Banshee, details the crimes and wrong-doings of the human government in Oberon Square against the fey race.

Most humans look down on the fairies. Completely happy to make sure they’re confined to their little Tirnanog ghetto. But to Mayor Montague Boniface III’s wife, Dame Whitley Boniface, the fair, winged race deserve equal rights. After all, the fey are painters, poets and musicians. They are a cultural treasure. The Dame is what you might call a fairie activist.

But in the mayor’s mind, their art is not so much the skilled performance artistry of the courtesan, but the wet and sloppy fellatio one can procure for five guilder from the down-on-her-luck pix street-walker inside of a black, horse-drawn carriage.

The tension in The Burgue is as palpable as the Gothic fog that covers its streets.

And our guy, Philo, is not only a detective for a homicide department that is mostly staffed with pix-hatin’ sergeants, but a human who is in lust and love with Tourmaline La Roux, a fairie courtesan employed at Le Chambre De Madame Mab.

He’s torn between rescuing her from her life as a fairie escort and the risk that comes with it: Being ridiculed and slandered by his mates and fellow inspectors and constables if he were to be seen hand-in-hand with a pixie. It could mar his reputation, his career.

But when Tourmaline is de-winged and turned into a husk by Unseelie Jack, the case becomes a quest for salvation. Philo charges recklessly into The Burgue’s underworld, consumed with vengeance and guilt, obsessed with finding his lover’s killer.

A ticking clock hovers over Philo as he becomes a suspect, and he not only must exonerate himself as the suspected killer, but he must do something he was never able to do while Tourmaline was alive...

Stand up in courage for her. Show the world that he loves her by finding her killer...whatever hesheit is...and bringing hesheit to justice.

What’s so great about this script?

The invention. The imagination. The elegant world-building. The social commentary. The murder mystery and how it plays out. The characters. The dialogue. The action. The monsters. The magic. The gore. The humor. The emotion.

All rendered through the pen of a screenwriter who has uncanny control of his craft. This is a seamless screenplay. And it’s that much more impressive when you think of the sheer spectacle of all the ingredients bubbling in this witch’s pot.

It requires a delicate balance on precarious scales to tell a tale that is such an ambitious confluence of genres.

Especially when Fantasy is one of these genres.

If one setting on your control panel is slightly off, you can lose all sense of verisimilitude. You have to know your conventions in-and-out, and above all, you have to write your characters like they are real people.

This is exciting. Not only has someone turned to the genre of what China Mieville has dubbed Weird Fiction, the mash-up of science fiction, urban fantasy, sword-and sorcery, horror, gothic romance, et al., but they did so with such effective execution.

In screenplay format.

Screenplays are a whole other ball-game. These are the type of stories normally told in prose fiction, in sprawling novels and the odd collection of short stories put out by the independent press. In some YA fiction.

What Peter Straub calls The New Fabulists.

Go into the bookstore and look for authors like Neil Gaiman, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Jim Butcher, Alan Campbell, Charlie Huston, Richard K. Morgan, Kelly Link, Gene Wolfe and look at the stories. It’s smart genre fare that can’t always be easily shoved into categories because it attacks all genres from all sides.

“Killing on Carnival Row” is Dark Fantasy done well. Something we don’t see a lot of, but something we’re bound to see more of.
Tell us about some of the novelties, the flights of imagination you like.

1.) The Special Loupgarou Unit. In our world, the police have K-9 Units. Well, in The Burgue, the constables have young men manacled to control leashes. Syringes are inserted into IV tubes in their wrists, and suddenly eyes turn yellow and teeth sharpen as an induced metamorphosis transforms men into wolves. A Werewolf Unit. What’s not to love?

2.) The Drakes. In our world, the police have birds, or helicopters. In Philo’s world, the constabulary has Drakes. Giant mechanical dragonflies operated by a human pilot. On the back, a gunner mans a Gatling gun should they need firepower. Gatling guns and steampunk insects are always okay in my book.

3.) The Haruspex. A Macbethean soothsayer employed by The Burgue Metropolitan Constabulary. She can read minds. She sees the last memories of corpses. Her visions are just as valuable as an eye-witness testimony, and just as admissable.

4.) Mabsynthe. Iridescent green syrup distilled from the blood of fairies. Mabsynthe junkies are kinda like opium junkies. You pour the green treacle into a glass bottle affixed with a hose and pipe. A hookah. Then you light up and inhale the smoke through a pipe. Hallucinogenic. Most dealers combine the blood of several fairies to jumble up the visions. If you’re taking a hit from Mabsynthe that’s just from one fairie, you enter the present mind of the fairie. See what she sees. Feel what she feels. A really inventive plot device that comes into play later in the story.

5.) Twining. Theurgic Amalgamology. The manipulation of biology through advanced technology and ancient magics. One of the tools of twining is a magical black glove. Fueled by magic and science. The wearer wields it to manipulate biology. There’s some bodily havoc in the 3rd act when Philo’s side-kick, Vignette, dons the glove and proceeds to kick some villainous ass. With her fist. Fucking fantastic.

6.) Unseelie Jack. Okay, I’m not gonna spoil this. But I read this script before I went to bed. Mistake. I had nightmares about hesheit. Nightmares. The only thing I will say, this is a great creature feature villain. Like Maryann Forrester in True Blood, hesheit is something truly unique and new and cool. But it’s simple and old at the same time. And it’s a detail that probably helped the writer get a job on the “Clash of the Titans” remake.

Wow. This sounds insane. This insanity doesn’t drown out the story or characters?

Not at all. For the most part, when these novelties and oddities aren’t used as plot devices or as characters, this stuff is presented in snippets of detail to help create the atmosphere. It’s exquisite and balanced world building.

Philo and his journey is always in the foreground, always the center of the plot in this baroque world. And it’s a great journey. In Shane Black-fashion, Philo picks up a buddy at the beginning of the 2nd Act, and she’s a great character.

Vignette is a faerie Philo saves from Unseelie Jack. He finds her after her wings have been sawed off and right before she’s about to be drained. He nurses her back to health, and she helps him hide from the dragnet enforced by his former employers, The Metropolitan Constabulary.

After all, who knows the nooks and crannies, the secret places of this cobble-stone and gaslight city better than a fairie?

She’s also the anonymous star writer for The Screaming Banshee, and she uses the headquarters for its secret printing press, located in a mini-necropolis underneath The Old Fairie Cemetery, to hide Philo.

Together, their budding relationship is best described as a Murtagh-Riggs and Han-Leia amalgam. You’ve got the witty banter and the developing romance.

And it’s sexy as hell.

The character highlight for me was a surprising, revelatory character moment where Philostrate reveals the story of his past. What makes him who he is today. The stuff that’s forged his character. He’s a human refugee from Hy-Brasil, the city of flowers. His parents were officers in The Burguish Imperial Navy stationed in Tirnanog. They were part of the Human Concession in this foreign land. They perished in the Scourge that drove the fey from their lands, and Philo was saved by an old fairie opera singer.

It’s good stuff. It bonds to you.

What else was impressive?

Reading this script is like feasting on language. But it doesn’t feel over-written. There’s an economy to the lush prose, a restraint. I suppose what impressed me the most was what some of these passages evoked.

There were moments where I felt like I was reading something by Bradbury, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Byron and Mary Shelley. And I can’t think of any higher compliment than that.

Here’s a glimpse:

It climbs up onto a rock in the distance. Stretching, contorting, opening its mouth impossibly wide.

This bit still gives me the creeps.

A human face pushes through the open mouth. A whole head emerges. Curly red hair. A hand. An arm. A shoulder.

The girl underneath pulls off the dark sealskin as if she's sliding out of a tight leather skirt.

MOIRA stands on the rock in her "human" form, completely nude. Slim fair-skinned body flecked in a blizzard of light pink freckles. Her ears pointed like a faerie's.

Philostrate politely turns away. Bottom stares slack-jawed with a mix of morbid fascination and disgust.


Moira dresses herself from a heap of clothes strewn on the rock. Philostrate and Bottom approach.

Good morning Miss Moira. I'm Inspector Philostrate.

She meets him with sharp eyes, bright as emeralds. Inhuman.

You found the body, did you?

Moira nods. She picks up the shed sealskin, singing softly as she pets it. The soft pelt purrs back. Bottom grimaces.

A separate creature, is it?

Another curt, silent nod.

Let's not waste the lady's time.
(to Moira)
You can feel free to talk. I'm not fluent in selkie-speak, but I can muddle through.

Finally, she speaks. Her language, a song, a dozen voices in one, flowing eerie harmonies.

Corpse caught in backwards currents/moth caught in the cobweb of creation/clipped wings plucked from silken firmaments/ sticky strands clinging/sinister spider spinning/ poor poor singless wingless pixie

You want me to write this bilge down?

The 3rd act is intense. Satisfying. A gory, noir-infused Hammer Horror extravaganza.

And most of all...our hero not only gets what he wants at the end of his journey, the writer gives him what he needs. Redemption.

Script link: No link

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest

[ ] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[x] genius

What I learned: Um, what a unique and brilliant spec script looks like? Seriously, this script should be required reading for anyone who is interested in writing smart genre fare. The attention to detail, the focus on character, the rising action, the tight scenes and transitions, the seamlessly woven plot and sub-plot and how they orbit around each other like twin satellites, broadcasting the overarching story. Read this script. Get a feel for the foundation, the architecture. You’ll get suspense, horror, action, melodrama, dread, love, passion, guilt, and salvation. How to balance spectacle with quiet character moments. But most of all, enjoy its many wonders.

Wow! Genius. I actually wrote Roger back and told him, "You understand that I haven't given a single 'genius' review on the site yet, right?" I explained that I'll probably only give 1 or 2 geniuses a year. Was he positive he wanted to go with a perfect rating? He reaffirmed his stance. So there you have it. The first official genius rating on Scriptshadow. (although I haven't reviewed them, the top 3 in my Top 25 all carry 'genius' ratings). Enjoy the script!