Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Gardener

Genre: Drama
Premise: A reclusive gardener’s life is turned upside-down when he’s given a unique plant thought to be extinct.
About: I originally thought this was the project Chris Weitz was doing next, but it turns out this is an older script that got some heat back in the day but never made it over the hump. Well, that needs to change, cause it's a damn good script.
Writer: Jay Sherman
Details: 109 pages - Older draft (2005)

Contrary to popular belief, The Gardener is not a prequel to Garden State. So you won’t find Zach Braff staring melancholy-like into the camera while a hip indie band plays wistfully in the background. Instead, The Gardener is one of those movies with such a bland title, you figure it has to be amazing to have overcome such a handicap.

Turns out, that's exactly the case. The Gardener is one of the best written most surprising screenplays I’ve read in awhile. Of course, it starts out with a story almost as mundane as its title. Lem Gardner, 30s (yes, his last name is Gardner), is an unassuming man out of touch with the world, who finds his only joy in gardening. Plants he understands. Humans? Not so much. Orphaned at 12 when his mother, also a gardener, died, Lem’s become the head gardener at the Botanical Gardens, meticulously taking care of plants the way most people would take care of their family.

Lem is forced to work with numerous slackers on the grounds, most of whom could care less about the difference between a fern and a carnation. One of the more eccentric characters is Gabriel, a wild-eyed hippy who’s made the Botanical Gardens parking lot his personal living quarters for the last three months. Lem has spent most of that time trying to convince him to leave, but see that’s Lem’s problem. He’s too passive. He’s unable to take charge. Even people as meek as Gabriel walk all over him. But when Gabriel finally decides that it’s time to move on, he leaves Lem with a parting gift: a weedish mess of a plant so obscure it's assumed to have gone extinct. Lem, falling over himself at his fortune, begs Gabriel to tell him where he found it. But Gabriel is cryptic, telling him only to keep the plant in a dark place, and to never interfere with its growth.

The housing of the plant begins a chain reaction that turns Lem’s uneventful life upside-down, starting with an attractive couple who moves in next door. The kind and lovely Beatrice's garden is is an absolute mess and when she finds out that Lem is a gardener, well naturally she enlists his green thumb to bring it back to life. Her sketchy overbearing boyfriend Wayne is skeptical of the plan but is about as threatened by Lem as one would be of Pee-Wee Herman, so he allows it.

So far, so average, right?

Well it turns out that The Gardener’s been buttering you up for the big twist - a what-the-fuck moment that will have you going back to read the page over again. During his evening routine, Lem hears a bump in the basement. He hurries down, looks around, and hears a “Hello?” He centers himself, attempting to locate the voice’s source, only to find that it’s coming from… the tank containing the plant! He walks over and notices a tiny naked man in the tank. This man, Terrarium Man, is freaking out, wondering what the hell he is and why the hell he’s in a tank. Lem is, of course, equally freaked out, but after the initial shock, the two realize that this tiny man has been birthed from the plant. Yeah, I know. What the fuck??

Despite the fact that there's a tiny man now living in his basement, Lem does his best to go about his daily life, a life that’s spinning out of control due to a stray cat hell bent on destroying the prize statue in his backyard, the emotional fallout of Beatrice realizing that her boyfriend doesn’t love her, the spoiled son of the Botanical Gardens’ owner waiting for his father to die so he can turn Lem's garden into a golf course, and the subsequent birth of both a Terrarium Woman (who for some reason can’t see Lem), and a Terrarium Boy.

To say that The Gardener is all kinds of bizarre is an understatement. But it’s bizarre in all the right ways, which is what matters. This is that rare combination of indie sensibility mixed with semi-high-concept goodness that you just don’t see in many scripts. It has that “I have no idea what the fuck’s going to happen on the next page” factor I so often complain about never seeing anymore. Not to mention the writer, Jay Sherman knows how to write. He juggles multiple plotlines here and each one escalates at the perfect pace, so we never come back to a storyline we’re not interested in seeing more of.

If there’s a complaint, I guess I would’ve liked to have seen more crossover between the Terrarium universe and the real universe. As they stand, they’re completely separate, making the only way they affect one another through Lem. This works, but I can’t help but think there were some more potentially interesting plotlines missed by isolating the two. I mean, even if it was as simple as Beatrice discovering the plant – that could’ve led to a hell of a conversation.

The Gardener won’t be for everyone, but if you liked The Ornate Anatomy Of Living Things or Dogs of Babel, or just have a jones for something offbeat, you’ll want to check this out.

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

What I learned: Are you one of kabillions who like to write character-driven scripts with little in the way of plot? The “high-concept” indie flick is a great way to write something that gets you respect in the industry, with the added benefit of potentially getting made. I see so many “indie” character-driven scripts that bring nothing to the table outside of depressed characters trying to make it to the last page. If you want to write about characters like that and, oh I don’t know, have people actually care, consider adding an extra element to your premise that elevates it into something more than your average independent film. Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, 500 Days Of Summer, The Ornate Anatomy Of Living Things. All of these films/scripts are able to explore their characters on a deeper level, but do so inside a concept that makes them more accessible to a mainstream audience. Some people think of these twists/quirks as gimmicks. But it’s a small price to pay if it sends your script to the top of the pile.