Monday, January 11, 2010

The Book Of Eli

Here's number 2 in our Tuesday Apocalypse Double-Header. This review originally aired a few months ago but we had to take it down. Now, with Book Of Eli screening, we're putting it back up! Here's my quick take on Book of Eli. It's the perfect way to approach a spec script. You have a high concept easy to understand story with a badass hero and lots of martial arts type mayhem. Where Book of Eli gets bogged down is probably in its ambition. It bites off way more than it can chew and the pieces come spitting out of its mouth all over us. Even its more basic ambitions - like the town sequence, which makes up most of the script - left me wanting more. And don't get me started on the "twist" ending, which makes absolutely no sense. I had a hard time digesting this. Let's see what Roger has to say about it.

Genre: Post-apocalyptic action-adventure.
Premise: In a post-apocalyptic world, a lone hero guards the Book of Eli, which provides knowledge that could redeem society. The despot of a small, makeshift town plans to take possession of the book.
About: Produced by Joel Silver. The directorial return of the Hughes brothers, whose last film was 2001’s From Hell. This was a big spec sale in 2008 from Gary Whitta, who hadn't sold a screenplay before this. So first timers trying to break in, this is your reference point.
Writer: Gary Whitta, former editor-in-chief of PC Gamer. Presumably this script scored him a writing gig on the (now dead) live-action adaptation of the manga-epic, Akira.

Say this mantra with me.

Story is the heart, Story is the soul. Story is the heart-soul of a screenplay.

Now, get ready, because we’re about to...


Eli backs away, but TWO MORE ARMED BANDITS drop from hiding in the trees behind, cutting off his escape, surrounding him.

What you got there in your pack?




Yeah, that’s what they all say. How about you take it off real slow and tip it out so’s we can take a look.

BANDIT #2 notices the shotgun strapped to the pack.


He’s got a gun.


Shit, it ain’t loaded. They never are. Ain’t that right, old man? (beat) Open the fucking pack or die.
ELI I can’t do that.

The bandit leader steps forward aggressively. Now within striking distance of Eli. He grins, teeth filthy and rotten.


Want us to do it for you? We can get it off real easy after we’ve hacked your fucking arms off.


No. I mean I can’t die. I’m on a mission from God, and under his divine protection. You stand in my way, you stand in his. And he will strike you down, through me, his faithful instrument.

WOOOOAAAAAH! Who the fuck is this Eli character, and is he really that bad-ass?

They call him the walker. But he is many things. A watcher. A scavenger. A saint. A killer. A samurai. A gunslinger. He’s a mad prophet that wandered out of the Old Testament and armed himself with a shotgun and a samurai sword. He wears threadbare Converse All-Stars he found on a mummified corpse. He never takes his tinted goggles off. He’s a man of few words but when he speaks it’s the Biblical voice emanating from the storm, the fire, the burning bush. He doesn’t start fights. But he finishes them. And the Spirit of God’s Wrath may or may not be hovering over him, brooding over him, infusing him with supernatural combat skills. And his best friend is a pet rat that lives in the folds of his iconic duster. And yes, he is a man on a mission.

What’s the mission?

To travel West. And to never stray from the road, for he is to deliver a book to an unknown destination, but a destination that he believes to exist based solely on faith.

He is the keeper and protector of a book...

So what’s The Book of Eli?

It’s a bible. A King James Bible battered by the elements, worn from wear and tear.

That’s it? Just a Bible? We can walk into a motel room, open the night-stand drawer, and get one of those for free. What’s the big deal?

Oh, did I mention that this is the post-apocalypse? Did I mention that a guy named CARNEGIE is looking for this book? Did I mention that this demented tent-pole-revival-crooked-preacher-faith-healer-like manipulator of men is to be played by Gary Oldman? And did I mention that his First-in-Command and Sergeant-at-Arms, a burly dude named REDRIDGE, to be played by Ray Stevenson, will do anything it takes to retrieve this book once they find out Eli is the owner?


Oh. My bad. Because all this is true. And the conflict between these characters is the palette and brush that’s gonna paint this monochrome tinted world bloodbath-red.
Niiiice. Does it work?

I want it to...I really want it to...

God, I’m torn about this script, guys.

We have all the ingredients to make a smart and epic post-apocalyptic yarn. But...I hate to say it, man I do...but something’s off.

The first 10 pages: I’m all in. I’m invested, alright? Never mind that the writer is taking a risk by having no dialogue in the first four minutes. The first four pages is a quiet character-establishing sequence, a prosaic sequence of world building that seems like it was ripped right out of McCarthy’s “The Road”. I enjoy dry, sepia-toned slugs of description. I’m into that kind of shit. But when the protagonist, whom we just met, proceeds to tell a group of bandits that it’s impossible for him to die because he’s on a mission from God? And when the bandits laugh this off, and attempt to rob him anyways, only to be sliced-and-diced to ribbons by a dude who moves with uncanny, preternatural speed?

Count me the fuck in.

Look, the first act is interesting. We have downtrodden wanderers who are pushing buggies with wobbly wheels along desolate highways in a scorched-earth world, remnants of a lost civilization just trying to survive. Something we’re going to see in another movie come Oscar season, but I digress. It’s still cool. We have Eli watching a man and a woman, presumably husband and wife, from afar. When they get attacked by a motorcycle gang, Eli debates whether he should get involved. When they rape the woman, Eli decides it’s not his concern. He listens to them kill the couple, catches a glimpse of them rifling through the dead couple’s belongings. The obligatory Mad Max in “The Road Warrior” scene.

Keep this image in mind: Eli arrives at a fork in the road. One road continues West. One road leads to a town. The road that leads to a town is a diversion, a rabbit-trail. Which way is he going to go? Which way should he go?

Eli has a dilemma. His ancient iPod has no juice, no power. That’s right. Eli has an iPod. It’s one of his prized possessions. Not as prized as his Bible, but it provides him with moments of peace, moments of joy, moments of hope as he listens to Mozart’s Concerto No. 20 in D Minor. To charge it, he hauls around a car battery in his backpack. The problem is...his car battery is dead.

He thinks the town might have an “engineer” who might be able to help him out and charge the battery.

So...he takes the rabbit-trail.

And when he gets to town, there’s definitely some weird shit going on.

There’s a bizarre, craven and idol-like statue fashioned out of clay erected in the center of the road. There’s a chain-gang of emaciated, blind men and women roped together at the waist, being led to a destination where they will be required to perform some kind of back-breaking work. The kind of work that ostensibly requires lashings from a brutal chain-gang boss.

Enter the world according to Carnegie.

I’m intrigued. What’s the problem?

Dissonance. That bothersome whisper trapped in the hollow of your skull while you’re experiencing story. The further the story goes along, the louder the whisper becomes, “We’ve been led astray.” It’s a domino effect of characters in the story struggling with their Creator like Jacob wrestling the angel. Except the difference is that these characters want to follow the road less travelled. But instead they are forced onto the rabbit-trail, shoved past the road marker that’s labeled “DETOUR”. And soon the Story is submerged, chained to anchors that pull it towards the bottom of an obscure pool.

There are moments where you feel the Story trying to push its way back to the surface.

You can feel the characters wanting to say, “Based upon everything you know about us, we want to make this decision. In fact we would make this decision,” and the characters point at the screenwriter, “but this guy needs us to be in this action sequence over here.”

They might give us other examples:

“He needs us in this house for the Act 2 break, with this cannibalistic couple who look like they crawled out of Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic.”

SOLARA, Eli’s cub to his lone wolf, might say:

“I know we’re repeating the same note within 15 pages of each other, but there needs to be another cool scene of Eli saving me from bad men. I know, I know. He saved me from Carnegie. Then abandoned me right after. But the writer says we can have another cool scene of Eli slaughtering brigands if he has to save me again.”

Carnegie delivers a lengthy monologue where he reveals why possessing the King James Bible is so important to him. And there’s dissonance, because you wonder if such a monologue is necessary. And if this information is necessary, is a monologue really the best way to communicate it?

Act 2 feels like a labyrinth of rabbit-trails. Decisions made that go round-and-round the heart of the story (and the other more interesting possibilities). And the concentric circles don’t lead to the center, the heart. Instead, they take you farther and farther astray.

Okay, okay. I get the point. Was there any good stuff after the first act?

Holy shit, yes. After emerging from the muck of Act 2 and the beginning of Act 3, I was blindsided by the ending. It was like going zero to sixty, from disappointment to...being drop-kicked by awe.

There’s a sequence tucked into the tail-end of the 3rd Act that felt like a fist was plunging into my soul; God plunging his hand into Adam and plucking out a rib.

No, I’m not talking about the final scene, the epilogue.

I’m talking about the moment Eli completes his pilgrimage and arrives at his destination and enters its walls. I’m talking about the scene audiences are going to be talking about when they walk out of theaters come January.

It’s like the writer laid his head on the stone in the desert, and Jacob’s ladder unfurled out of the heavens and he ascended its rungs, only to return clutching this sequence in his hands like Prometheus stealing fire.

At a recent writing session, I tried to tell one of my co-writers about this script. I was having trouble because my voice kept cracking. But when I finished he said:

“Just hearing about that gave me chills.”

I have a roommate that watches the shit out of Edward Zick’s “Glory”. One of her cherished movies. She wanted to know about the new Denzel joint, and I attempted to tell her about this script. About the ideas behind it. And I was weeping halfway through my attempt, much to her embarrassment and horror. The last time this happened to me was a few years back, and I was reading the novel, “The Kite Runner” and was burning through the last 100 pages when my girlfriend at the time asked me why I was crying like a little bitch, curled up underneath the sheets.

Some things have power.

And there are story elements, themes, and concepts in “The Book of Eli” that have real power. And they need to be woven together like a fine tapestry in order for the denouement, the revelation, the end to work. And I’m sad...because right now...the tapestry needs to be rewoven.

And it only feels like it’s half done.

Some threads aren’t bright enough, aren’t clear enough, are muddled and frayed and need to be taken back to the loom. Given back to the weaver.

There’s a concept that concerns who Eli was before he set out on his mission. And when I first read the detail, I was confused. It wasn’t clear. But then I realized what the writer was trying to convey.

And it’s this: If you look at the Judeo-Christian scriptures, there’s a pattern that emerges. When it comes to divine tasks, God always chooses those who are the least among us to perform these tasks. It’s like taking a beggar and showing him that he is really a King. It’s like taking a prostitute and showing her that she is really a Queen.

It’s much more than...”ordinary guy discovers he’s a hero.”

This is not Neo in the Matrix.

This is the guy you would fuckin’ ignore on the streets if he came up to you asking for change. This is the disabled man working at the local Wal-Mart who helps other people with disabilities to their scooters. This is the guy on your periphery who might as well be an automaton.

When you look at who Eli is at the end of the script, and think about who he might have been before we met has the power of a parable. And it’s heart-wrenching.

But – these moments are not clear. And I don’t mean they’re just subtext, stuff you have to dig for. These are character moments, themes, emotions...the good stuff that makes up Story. And the way they read, the way this story is structured, the choices made for each scene...creates a domino effect that muddles these elements when they should be translucent. There should be no confusion whatsoever. All of this stuff should shine. But sadly, they don’t.
So that’s the damage? It reads like a first draft?

Yep. Look. There’s some great prosaic lines in this thing – “Deadwood filtered through the eye of an apocalypse.” There are lofty ideas: Restoring freedom, hope and joy to a lost, enslaved and downtrodden people. A great tone. Wonderful atmosphere. Cool action. A killer ending.

But, beautiful wordsmithin’ cannot hold up story. Story is the heart. Story is the soul. All the beautiful language in the world cannot camouflage a story that lacks proper cornerstones.

Cool action should not be duct-tape. An audience knows when a house of cards is about to tumble. If it hasn’t been built correctly in the first place, even a fragile whisper can knock the house off its foundation.

Pretend you’re in a fantasy world. What beefs would you address?

The time-line of this story. I might be wrong, but I think the script spans only three days. If that.

This puppy is going to be advertised as an epic journey across a post-apocalyptic America.

Which would be false advertising.

This movie focuses on the final three days of an epic journey. And we don’t travel across America. We travel through a section of California. On foot. So there’s not much mileage traversed in this thing.

And it’s frustrating, because you feel like you’re missing out on tons of cool shit. With this kind of world, with this kind of backdrop, why not open up the timeline? Show us the beginning, the middle, and end of Eli’s two-and-a-half decade trek/adventure. Or, be ballsy, and keeping with the Biblical theme...structure this like the 40 Days of Eli (taking a cue from The 500 Days of Summer).

I’m just day-dreaming here, but there are lines in the prose passages that describe Eli as an avenging angel, and I thought it would be cool if they gave him a preternatural antagonist. An Anti-Eli (forgive me, “Lost” junkie here). Someone who also can’t be killed and is sent by whoever to stop Eli.

The point is, a story like this is brimming with possibilities, and it’s confined by its (chosen) dimensions of narrative time and space.

So...are you glad this thing’s almost in the can?

I’m glad that this script sold and is being made into a movie with great actors...but my hope is that a veteran screenwriter took a look at this thing, diagnosed the symptoms, gutted what needed to be gutted, and put in shiny new parts that makes this thing run like a beautiful, savage beast.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?

[ ] wasn’t for me

[x] worth the read

[ ] impressive

[ ] genius

What I Learned: You guys wanna know why this script is now going to be a movie with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, with Joel Silver as a producer?
It’s like what Brian Cox says as Robert McKee in Adaptation: “I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit. Find an ending, but don’t cheat, and don’t you dare bring in a dues ex machine. Your characters must change, and the change must come from them. Do that, and you’ll be fine.”