Sunday, October 18, 2009

Ghost Riders In The Sky

Let it be known: Roger does not like everything! And he proves that today. I can't say I know much about this project, but I know that when Jan De Bont is attached to anything, that project is in trouble. Let's go back a decade shall we? Do you remember The Haunting? A 100 million dollar scary movie that managed to not be any capacity? Do you remember Speed 2? Jan De Bont actually wrote the sequel to a movie called "Speed" and set it...ON A CRUISE SHIP. Everyone who signed up for that premise deserves what they got, but De Bont's the one who wrote it. So when I hear his name associated with this project, I'm not surprised it never made it in front of the cameras. De Bont's last directorial effort was 2003's Lara Croft sequel, "The Cradle of Life." Can't say I saw that one. Maybe it was great.

For those of you curious about the logline contest, I'll be making the official official announcement next Monday. So warm those loglines up people. I will say that there's been a major change. You will only be allowed to submit 1 logline. And that must represent a script that's already been written, as I'd like to speed up the timeframe of the contest considerably. If you're wondering how to write a logline, here's a good place to start. But before you go anywhere, read Roger's review of "Ghost Riders In The Sky."

Genre: Western, Science Fiction
Premise: As the U.S. military wars against the Apache, two Civil War veterans set out to help a woman find her missing anthropologist father. Everyone gets more than they bargained for when the Apache make contact with a race of creatures that might be from another planet.
About: In 1998, Warner Brothers postponed one of the many iterations of “Superman” and pulled the plug on the Protosevich-scripted and the Arnold Schwarzenegger-leading, “I am Legend”. Over at Fox, they decided to sideline an event pic of their own, an alien western helmed by Jan de Bont called “Ghost Riders in the Sky”. With a budget ballooning over $100 million and purported script concerns, Fox ultimately killed the project. However, everyone knows that the project's death was directly tied to the disastrous box office of Speed 2, De Bont's previous effort. Ironically, this was all Fox's doing, as they were so desperate to set up a summer tentpole project, they announced Speed 2 without even an idea in place. De Bont spitballed a bunch of his ideas with his people, including an idea that would've focused on volcano bombing, but ultimately settled on a cruise ship, because he had so much fun D.P.'ing on Hunt For Red October. Keanu saw that idea and bolted. The only reason Bullock signed on was because she owed her career to De Bont. It is said that nobody at De Bont's company understood what he saw in "Ghost Riders In The Sky," a script that was plucked out of the slush pile by an intern.
Writer: Draft by W.D. Richter; Rewrite by Mark Protosevich

Debont and Angelina Jolie

One of my first movie memories is of my dad showing me “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension” (another is of him renting “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen”; I have a cool dad), so I have much fondness for the name W.D. Richter. As screenwriters and lovers of movies, how can anyone not have appreciation for a writer whose oeuvre includes John Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” and Philip Kaufman’s “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”?

Admittedly, the only flick I’ve seen that has Mark Protosevich’s name attached is “The Cell”, which I like. I have not read his scripts for “I am Legend” or “Thor”, and rather than proffer an uninformed opinion, I’ll just say, “I hear good things about them”.

Which brings us to a script, a proposed sci-fi western that has both of these dude’s names on the cover. For some reason, Samuel L. Jackson’s name is on the cover as well (plastered in ominous fat font, no less), yet I’m hard-pressed to guess which character he might have played.

Isn’t “Ghost Riders in the Sky” the name of a legendary country song?

So it is. A scared-straight song about a cowboy who has a haunting vision of The Devil’s herd: red-eyed, steel-hooved cattle thundering across the sky.

In our script there’s a red-eyed motif and a copious use of thunder and lightning (and ice, for that matter), but our beasties ain’t flying cattle. They’re more of the flying serpent variety.

Ever wonder where the inspiration for the Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, came from? According to this script, it comes from the “chilling, gorgeous images of god-like bird humans” who serve as the eponymous aliens to our scared cowboys.

Who are our cowboys?

That would be Buck and Reb, Gettysburg veterans who abandon the railroad crews to venture to California, with the hope of making it big in the citrus industry.

No idea who this is.

Easily the best part about this script, Buck and Reb are a Union and Confederate screwball duo who aren’t above robbing trains in inventive fashion. Like when they try to use the corpse of a cow to stop a train, only to find that something else entirely has killed everyone on board and stripped the corpses and the locomotive of metal.

They have a lot of funny dialogue in an otherwise frustrating and messy script.

Might say so. Betcha fifty cents can’t tell me what this is.

Out from under the bar...set down in front of Reb and Buck. A dark crusty object about a foot in length, sweet potato in shape.

Sorry. Not a gamblin’ man.

You’re on. It’s a yucca root. Been roasted in hot coals for...


Fifty cents, Reb.
(back at the bartender)
...about five hours I’m guessin’. Makes for damn fine eatin’.

Buck picks it up, to smell it. He’s starved.

You lose. It’s Luke Smith. Poor bastard was standin’ guard on the rail line last night when the Devil roared through.

This screwball duo becomes a screwball trio when they hook up with Alice Butterworth, the dainty daughter of an English anthropologist who disappeared while researching a mysterious Native American myth (our bird-god Quetzalcoatl thingies, which will later be referred to as ‘Sky Knives’) near the town of Mesa Gulch.

She’s searching for her aforementioned father, possessing one of his last letters sent from the Mesa Gulch post office. In an eyebrow-raising aside, she gets drunk with our clumsy cowboy lotharios after she shoots a man dead when he tries to rape her. The binge-drinking ends the next morning when all three of our players wake up in the same bed.

Yep, a risqué screwball ménage a trois.

What’s the big picture?

Let’s backtrack to the first 10 pages of the script. It’s an interesting break from form, where instead of being introduced to the heroes of the piece, we get an extended action sequence that establishes the historical climate and the alien menace.

A group of thirty Calvary soldiers trap the notorious Indian gunslinger, Wild Gun, and his band of Apaches in a box canyon. The Apache medicine man, Hawk Dreamer, works some of his juju and it’s not long before something sentient swoops out of the sky and comes to their aid.

Wild Gun

The Calvary troop is massacred by streaks of gold light and fireballs that descend out of the sky, leaving behind frozen corpses and scorched earth. Trust me, it’s as weird as it sounds.

Anyways, defying the old showbiz adage, the Mesa Gulch Massacre is not good publicity for Philander W. Beckwith, powerful railway magnate obsessed with manifest destiny. This captain of industry is so powerful he even gets into a public screaming match with the President of The United States, Ulysses S. Grant.

For a character that only has one scene, Philander sure has a lot of sway over our nation’s leader. “Well, then do something about reality. Because if you don’t, I will,” he tells The Hero of Appomattox.

Not to worry, the President is already on it. “I have cut loose a force of nature. I have summoned The Eradicator.”

What pray-tell is The Eradicator?

Not what, but whom. The Eradicator is no other than Colonel Harry Loveless Knowland, a scripture-quoting bounty hunter tasked with assassinating Wild Gun and any other Apache he and his mercenary army run across.

Not only is he a hypocrite, dickhead, and cold-hearted killer, he also has his eyes set on the presidency.

Things get dicey when Alice offers Reb and Buck one hundred dollars each to accompany her to Thunder Mesa, where she hopes to find the “Cave of Stars” and her father. Both cowboys (being broke and in love) are tempted by the offer, but ultimately decide they don’t want to get scalped by Apaches.

So they opt to rob the Mesa Gulch bank instead.

Only problem is, The Eradicator shows up for reasons I still don’t understand (perhaps he wants to rob the bank, too) and Reb pisses him off royally by escaping his clutches. Shenanigans ensue as Buck and Alice pretend to be a married couple and are taken under the wing of the Colonel and his men.

And for muddled reasons we’re all rollicking towards Thunder Mesa and the grand finale. There’s a stage-coach chase and another appearance by the Sky Knives, who save our heroes and whisk Alice away to the “Cave of Stars”. Reb surrenders to the Colonel so he can help Buck rescue Alice, as The Eradicator is hell-bent on getting to Thunder Mesa so he can kill Wild Gun.

The ruse is up when Buck helps Reb escape and the third-act showdown begins as The Eradicator receives back-up from the U.S. military to wipe out the Apache stronghold.

There’s a lot of The Weird (but more importantly, Confusion) as Alice discovers what happened to her father and witnesses the awe and wonder of the alien creatures. Which falls flat, because it’s opaque and I couldn’t figure out what the fuck was going on.

But I’ll try. Apparently her father is in some kind of trance, or perhaps he’s just frozen in time within the Cave of Stars, I can’t tell.

But inside the “concave bowl” within a mountain, she discovers that these golden serpent thingies are melting metal and mounds of gold coins and are feeding the molten liquid to their young. There’s also lightning shooting out of a hexagonal hole in the center of this milieu.

Yeah, don’t ask me, I only read the thing.

So, there’s a big battle, which for some reason is written in ALL CAPS, and the Sky Knives make a big show of killing some people but sparing others, and then their space ship flies out of the mountain and they leave planet Earth, presumably to teach The Eradicator (and you, dear reader), that violence is bad.


Why the long face, Roger?

This script has all the bizarro ingredients to create a feast that appeals to my oddball palette, but as a whole, it’s a savorless mess that leaves behind a disorderly kitchen with way too many dirty dishes.

It’s a screenplay that’s plagued with unclear storytelling. Just now, as I was trying to recap the plot for you guys, I felt like a mortician trying to make sense of a corpse mangled beyond all recognition.

There are a lot of prose passages in this thing. Which, personally, I don’t mind in a screenplay. I can read something by Walon Green, William Goldman, or hell, even Frank Darabont’s Indy script and feel like I’m rewarded for my patience. Nothing wrong with lots of words as long as they are good words strung coherently together.

But I do mind when the sentences are in ALL CAPS, and instead of periods there are copious amounts of ellipsis and comma splices. I don’t know, maybe that’s just an aesthetic preference, but my eyeballs had a fuck-all time wading through the long blocks of description and action. So much so that at times I lost all sense of narrative spatial awareness. I was constantly back-tracking trying to figure out what was happening on stage (or on the movie screen in my head).

I hate to say it, but there was some sloppy writing and use of language in this script.

Seems like whichever exec made the hard decision to pull the plug on this $100 million dollar turkey was struck by a sobering dose of wisdom and saved Fox some major face.

[x] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Economy of words, people. Economy of words. Are your lines of action/prose passages clunky? Do you trip over them or run out of breath while trying to read them aloud? If the answer is ‘Yes’, then you might want to experiment with brevity. I’m all for dense and compelling lines of action, but I think there’s something to be said for the 3-sentence rule. If anything, if you limit your lines of action and description to 3 sentences, you’ll at least simulate a breezy read.