About: Duncan Jones is the recently announced director of the number one reader rated script on Scriptshadow, Source Code. You may have seen ads for his eerie indie sci-fi film “Moon” this summer, a movie I’m desperately awaiting on DVD. “Mute” was supposed to be Jones’ follow-up to that effort before he was offered Source Code, which I’m sure he chose in part because of certain financial incentives – mainly that there were some. Jones is the son of David Bowie.
Writers: Mike Johnson & Duncan Jones
Details: 2006 draft = 103 pages. 2009 draft = 109 pages.
So I’m doing something a little different today. Instead of a regular review, I’m going to review two drafts of the same script. The last time I did this was back during the Moneyball fiasco, and I still feel bad about manhandling the Soderbergh draft (though I contend he ruined a solid script). Luckily this time around, we don't have to pit any writers against each other. Both of Mute's drafts were written by Duncan and his partner, Mike Johnson. After perusing the first five pages, it appears the two drafts are shockingly different, but if you continue on, you'll find that they're almost exactly the same.
Duncan Jones is quoted as saying that he chose Source Code over his own project, Mute, because Mute was a “hard sell.” After reading it, I’m thinking that might be the understatement of the century. This is a very challenging and alienating script. At times it’s as smooth as a baby’s bottom, and at others as rough as a piece of sandpaper. Mute is one of those personal projects that probably won’t appeal to anyone outside a tiny niche audience. It appears that Jones knows this, and is perfectly okay with it. “Moon” was never going to light up the box office either, yet it already has a rabid fanbase. The question is, does Mute satisfy on any level? Man, that's a really hard question to answer.
Believe it or not, the 2006 draft is set in present day Berlin and plays out like a very straightforward drama. It's only when you pick up the 2009 draft and see "2046" in the slugline that you realize how drastically Jones decided to change his story. Or did he? Keep reading and you'll find that most scenes have stayed exactly the same, leading me to realize that the only change Jones made was a visual one. From a directing standpoint, this new Blade Runner vibe will surely please the hardcore sci-fi demographic. But what about the story? How did the new futuristic setting change that? Sadly, it doesn't at all. And that's a shame.
Duncan Jones' previous film, "Moon."
"Mute" centers on a brutish 40 year old man named Leo, who lost his ability to speak in a childhood boating accident. The cautious and perceptive Leo lives in Germany now, where he’s fallen in love with a striking Afghan woman named Naadirah. The two are inseparable, both working as waiters at a sketchy local club.
In another part of town, an obnoxious American named Cactus Bill is looking to acquire a fake pair of passports for his foreign wife and daughter so he can finally go home to the United States. Although it was never quite clear to me how Bill got stuck in Germany, he seems hell-bent on getting out. His journey is complicated, however, by the debt he owes Germany’s large Russian crime syndicate, as well as the suspicious behavior of his closest confidant, who may or may not be a pedophile targeting Bill’s daugther.
Back in Leo’s world, he wakes up to find that Naadirah is gone. At first he assumes she’s at work, but when she doesn't answer a series of texts, he becomes suspicious. An investigation turns into a slow and purposeful pursuit, as he does a toned down imitation of Liam Neeson, and raises hell in future Berlin's shady underbelly. Along the way, he finds out a shocking secret about her that changes everything.
Mute bounces back and forth between Leo's pursuit and Cactus Bill waiting for his passports. And this, I believe, is where Mute really falters. The story is called Mute. Leo is the mute. Yet we spend what seems like an endless amount of time watching Cactus Bill and his assistant sit around and talk about nothing. Their storyline is so passive compared to Leo’s, that it's really a labor to get through. They’re essentially waiting around for passports to be made. I wanted them to do something, to go after something. But the story doesn't seem to know what to do with them. They're just...there.
The other major problem I had was that Leo’s disability didn’t play into the story in any way. His being mute didn’t help him in any situations, nor did it hurt him. Every conversation he got into would be hampered because of his inability to talk, but both sides easily worked around it. Imagine a film like Memento, where Guy Pearce’s memory impairment doesn't affect him. Where it's not really an issue. I kept asking, “Why does this main character have to be a mute?” What was the point?
Duncan may be smarter than me because the answer to that question could lie more in the production of the film than the screenplay. Actors love a challenge, and who wouldn’t want to play someone who doesn’t speak the entire film? Who can only communicate with their eyes and their facial expressions? Are you kidding me? I can hear Johnny Depp running to his phone right now.
There seem to be a lot of images that Jones wants to capture here. He writes about subtle moments - the way they appear, the way they feel. In those brief passages, Mute really shines. Jones clearly understands what he wants to do with the film visually. In fact, this will probably be one of the coolest fucking trailers ever to hit the geek community. The film nerds that have unopened Blade Runner DVDs, Blade Runner Special Edition DVDs, Blade Runner Director’s Cut DVDs, even Blade Runner Super Edition HD-DVDs, will be swimming in a soupy ecstasy of barely-lit futuristic noir til they can't tell themselves from their shadows. This film will no doubt look awesome. But if Jones doesn’t figure out how to integrate his main character’s handicap into the film, or do something more interesting with the Cactus Bill storyline, or get some urgency behind the story, I fear this will only please the kind of people who know the names of the world's top ten cinematographers.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: To me, this was another reminder of the mine-field you step into whenever you have a passive character. Cactus Bill has a clear goal - get the passports for his daughter and wife, but for 90% of the time we're with him, he's not doing anything about it. He's just hanging out and talking to people. If there's nothing going on there, nothing that your character is actively pursuing, we're going to get bored fast. Now as you've seen in previous "what I learned sections," I by no means think a passive character is a death sentence, but it's best to steer clear of them unless you have a damn good reason. Because they're a lot harder to make interesting than active characters.