Sunday, January 17, 2010

Smoke and Mirrors


Here's Roger with the first review of Big Money Week! To say he gets things started is an understatement. I'm going to have to read this thing!

Genre: Historical Adventure
Premise: The reclusive "Father of Modern Magic", Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, is called upon by the French government to debunk an Algerian sorcerer who is using his feats of magic to spearhead a civil war.
About: Penned back in '94, this script was part of a fierce bidding war that involved Disney, Tri-Star and Steven Spielberg (people really really wanted this script). Andy Vajna's Cinergi Pictures bought the script for $1 million dollars (1.45 million adjusted for inflation). Not only was Disney able to land Frank Marshall as director, but Sean Connery was attached to the lead role. Unfortunately, Sean Connery demanded rewrite after rewrite until Frank Marshall was pulled off the project by Paramount's Sherry Lansing because he was under contract to direct
Congo (why Lord, why?). Kevin Brodie (A Dog of Flanders) was attached to direct and the project lingered in development hell until January 2000, when Catherine Zeta-Jones' production company, Zeta Films, acquired the rights to the script. Naturally, Michael Douglas was attached to the lead role, with Catherine starring opposite him as Robert-Houdin's wife.
Writers: Lee and Janet Scott Batchler. The husband-and-wife team who worked on
Batman Forever. Other projects include My Name is Modesty and Pompeii, an epic drama telling the famous story of the destruction of that city. They also wrote a project for Paramount called Alpha, a fast-paced adventure about a team of military working dogs and their trainers. Here we have "Smoke and Mirrors", an Original Screenplay by Lee Batchler and Janet Scott Batchler.

Original? Why yes, indeed. As Charlie Murphy might say, you can't make this shit up. It is based on trufax, after all.
Is this that script about Houdini?
Naw, man. This is that script about Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. He's the guy that Houdini wanted to be.
Not only was Robert-Houdin a conjurer and illusionist, he was an inventor and a man of science as well. Some will argue that a greater magician has never lived since.
I mean, Ehrich Weiss wanted to be like this man so bad he changed his name to Harry Houdini.
Interesting. But what's so great about a Magic Man biopic?
Dude, did you know that, in 1856, Napoleon asked Robert-Houdin to duel a fucking sorcerer in French Algeria to prove to the murderous Marabout Tribe that French magic was superior to their primitive tribal magic, and as a result, quell a bloody uprising?
This is no boring biopic. This is the type of real-life stuff Susanna Clarke must have turned to for research and inspiration during the ten years she spent writing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.
This is a great story.
And it's told so well it makes me want to set myself on fire. Concerning this script, I have no criticism.
What I do have is gushing enthusiasm and a hope to write a review that's a curious examination of how to flawlessly tell a story. You want an example of a truly great screenplay? "Smoke and Mirrors" is your grail. "Smoke and Mirrors" is the high watermark all us screenwriters aim for. Forget dollar signs. As a screenwriter, I'd rather take a great story to tell, a mastery of the craft, and some of that special magic, that lightning in a bottle we call perfect execution, any day of the week.
To me, "Smoke and Mirrors" is flawless storytelling.
The Pledge.
When we first meet Zoras Al Khatim he's walking out of a bonfire like a fucking demon. And that might not be too far off the mark, as this guy riles up the Kabyle Nation with true totalitarian butcher rhetoric, "The white-skinned devils who occupy our land will die!" And because he can control the dark forces, the people believe he is a prophet, a messenger and voice of Allah.
This is problematic for the French Army who are trying to maintain order in these pacified regions. There's so much goddamned bloodshed the area is closed off to colonization by Europeans. It's, as they say, SRS BZNS.
But what if a civilized and genteel man could in fact prove to these tribespeople and natives that this "magic" was just old-fashioned slight-of-hand trickery? And as an audience, what if we were to find out that this "faux magic" was actually bon-a-fide?
They're good questions, and we discover the answer to both of them when Robert-Houdin enters the Algiers arena with this Marabout sorcerer.
But first we must set-up the rest of our players on this epic stage. After we meet our mysterious villain, we are introduced to a young expatriate American, an officer of the French Foreign Legion, Captain Trey Darcy.
It's an electric sequence. Most massacres usually are. It evokes one of my favorite sequences from Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans, when Hawkeye saves Cora and Alice from the Hurons during the chaos of an ambush.
Here, Darcy and his Corporal, a bull of a Spaniard named Augustino Bartolote, lead 15 other Legionnaires in battle against a hundred Kabyle Warriors who are slaughtering a caravan of French civilians. Somehow, probably due to their suicidal fighting prowess, Darcy and his men chase off the superior numbers of the Kabyle savages.
But they're not unfazed. Looking around at the extent of the massacre, at the bodies of mothers and children, Bartolote (a man who joined the French Foreign Legion to escape the gallows for murdering a priest), sickeningly exclaims, "Holy Mary, Mother of Jesus."
Cut to France as Colonel Jules Gastinot, a French Army functionary, arrives at Robert-Houdin's brooding and cryptic 17th century estate. It is here that Gastinot discovers many marvels. A brass plate with a grotesque demon head knocker engraved with the word Frappez that switches to Entrez when the knocker is rapped. The JJ Merlin-esque automatons and steampunk toys in Robert-Houdin's workshop.
The most stunning marvel of all though is Robert-Houdin's fiercely intelligent and radiant wife, Colette. Colette is probably the most vividly portrayed female character I've seen in a script since I started contributing to ScriptShadow. Granted, I tend to read a lot of "guy scripts", but I challenge you guys to find an adventure script with a female character who is rendered as well as Colette.
She's witty, charming, sexy and strong. A great role for a great actress. She's not just a 19th Century Trophy Wife either, she is her husband's teammate and partner, who has perhaps sacrificed some of her own potential in order play this part. Her loyalty to Robert-Houdin is ultimately put to the test when she falls in love with Trey Darcy.
I'm not usually a fan of love triangles because of the Soap Opera Factor, but here, it feels honest. Truthful. It's Passion vs. Duty/Enduring Love. I'm guessing that this love triangle is written so well because this script is written by a husband and wife team. Not only that, but the Batchlers are real writers.
When Gastinot is finally allowed to enter Robert-Houdin's workshop, there is a voice moving throughout the room. But no matter where Gastinot looks, there's no sign of the man. Where is Robert-Houdin? How is he going to make his grand entrance?
In perfect magical-realist fashion, Robert-Houdin walks out of a mirror. And it's little "big" choices like this that make every scene seem like an expertly performed magic trick. Every scene unfolds, layers peel away, and revelations, reversals and twists wait underneath to surprise you.
Sure, there's a denial of the call at first. Robert-Houdin is no longer a showman, but a scientist. He's dedicated his gift of invention to science and he will not be a pawn for political propaganda. But Gastinot is barely out the door when the magician finally answers the call to adventure.
In Algiers, Robert-Houdin makes a new enemy. The first matter of business, besides taking in some of the local flavor that comes with inspecting the opera house (where his show is to be held) and checking into the Hotel D'Orient, is to get a nice stiff drink.
And to expose a French Officer as a cheat in front of a packed Gentleman's Club during a game of poker with the style and aplomb only a world famous illusionist can muster. When Major Guillaume accuses Robert-Houdin of insulting his honor, our man replies, "Since there is no honor in cheating at cards, I have not disparaged yours in any way." In a bait and switch that astonishes his audience, Robert-Houdin switches his cards with Guillaume's (in plain sight) to defeat the cheater and win a high-stakes pot.
Again, another great scene where Robert-Houdin (and the writers), flip the scene on its head to surprise our expectations and to delight our story senses.
Major Guillaume is not one to be embarrassed in public, and he catches Robert-Houdin in an alley and, with the help of his cronies, beats the shit out of him. As he's about to deliver the coup de grace, Trey Darcy arrives to simultaneously physically maim and disfigure every French soldier while saving the magician from certain death.
The Turn.
Robert-Houdin and the Legionnaire bond over drinks, and Colette is both grateful and drawn to the man who saved her husband. Maximum Drama achieved when Darcy and Colette dance a waltz, and we learn that the soldier of fortune has a wooden prosthetic hand. He lost his real hand whilst fighting in the Crimea.
They flirt and Colette can't help but be drawn to the mysterious expatriate. You know, it's the whole romantic mystery that comes with the Legionnaire package.
When we find out that Guillaume is still alive, Darcy is whipped and thrown into a hotbox by the French Army, presumably left to shrivel and die in the suffocating coffin that sits underneath the Algerian sun.
Meanwhile, events turn weird for Robert-Houdin and Colette when they discover their scorched hotel room. Miraculously their valuables have been left intact despite the impact of the damage. "Fire is the most dangerous and unpredictable of the elements. Whoever did this wanted to show me can control the uncontrollable."
Robert-Houdin finds out Darcy is being tortured, and he appeals to the top French authority, the Marshal-General, to free his friend. His Excellency denies and a wager is made by Robert-Houdin to up-the-stakes, "If my performance produces no good political results, you can send me packing on the next ship. Vilify me in the newspapers, gloat all you want. But if I succeed, you give me your word of honor to release Captain Darcy immediately."
His Excellency accepts.
Not only does Robert-Houdin win the wager, he terrifies the Marabouts in the audience by manipulating the trajectory of bullets and teleporting a Moorish Chieftain. His feats free Darcy and catch the attention of Bou-Allem, the single most powerful Arab in the North. Robert-Houdin and Colette are off to Bou-Allem's palace, escorted and protected by Darcy, Bartolote, and the Legionnaires.
The Midpoint.
Like the prophet Elijah battling the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah at Mount Carmel, Robert-Houdin duels Zoras Al Khatim and his disciples in front Bou-Allem and the entire royal household. Bou-Allem warns us, "If you do not prevail, and should Zoras persuade me you are indeed the enemy of Allah, it will be my duty to kill you. Please do not take it personally."
The following magic show that pits the world of science against the world of the occult is some of the best scriptwriting I've ever seen. Zoras again walks out of a bonfire, revealing to the Bou-Allem and the audience that he can speak a European language, claiming that Allah just granted him the power. "Would it not be a fair test to now ask your Christian god to reveal to you the Berber language in a similar manner? This way we shall know whose god is the more powerful."
Houdini (not Houdin)
When Zoras performs some death-defying feats (walking through fire, surviving the bites of poisonous scorpions, grotesque swordplay) and grisly self-mutilation, Colette is disturbed.
"What is he?"
But her husband is not so impressed. He methodically reveals all the secrets of Zoras' "magic" to Bou-Allem. And that's the worst possible fate for a magician, having all their tricks laid bare in front of the public eye. When science takes away the glamour and the curtain, what was once magical now seems dull and trite in comparison. Then to punctuate his point, he levitates Colette into the air, scaring Zoras' disciples.
Angry, yet not to be deterred, Zoras challenges Robert-Houdin to a real duel. Zoras' pulls out a set of pistols and says, "Let me shoot at you now with one of these pistols. If you do not die, then I give you permission to shoot at me. (to Bou-Allem) By this you will know whom Allah will favor."
Robert-Houdin accepts.
"However, for such strong magic, defying the very hand of death itself, I require six hours of prayers."
Robert-Houdin now has six hours to invent a way to survive a bullet.
Colette is not too pleased and retreats to her room, where Darcy saves her from the cobra and asps someone has planted in her room. It's a hot and heavy moment where the writers milk the attraction these characters have for each other for Maximum Titillation. Things don't get more sensual than a heroine belly-dancing her way out of a cobra attack so her forbidden suitor can decapitate it with a sword.
We're shown Robert-Houdin at the end of his wits, mere hours away from his probable death, at a complete loss of how he's going to pull off this final escape trick. It's a cliffhanger moment and it creates the sense of suspense that saturates the scene portraying the actual gun-duel.
In the palace courtyard, while Zoras carves a mark onto each of the bullets so the Frenchman can show them to the audience, the sorcerer calls Robert-Houdin an infidel and proclaims, "You will soon burn in the deepest pits of hell."
The guns are openly loaded in front of the audience.
I don't know how Robert-Houdin does it, but he survives the gunshot. The writers don't reveal the trick to us, because, if they did, it would have taken away all the suspense they meticulously set up. I'm not sure, but I think he used slight-of-hand to switch the bullets and electromagnetism to manipulate the pistol.
Robert-Houdin catches the bullet in his teeth, shocking the crowd, his wife, and Darcy. He then picks up the other gun and follows Zoras around the courtyard. Zoras cowers before the Frenchman.
"Is French magic greater than Kabyle magic?"
"Y-you are greater. Your magic is true."
Robert-Houdin spares the sorcerer's life, which is a mistake, because pretty soon, we're going to be in the midst of an epic battle between Legionnaires and a couple hundred Kabyle warriors.
The Prestige.
The spectacular finale takes place at The Fortress of the Assassins, an ancient Hashshashin (where we get our word 'assassin') stronghold that's part medieval castle and Persian monastery. Zoras gathers his troops to slaughter Robert-Houdin and this is where the Legionnaires make their last stand.
I couldn't think of a better setting.
To complicate things, the fortress is full of traps, which Robert-Houdin deconstructs so the Legionnaires can use them to their advantage. Once again, our magician must use his resourcefulness like he's some kind of super MacGuyver to invent devices and devise strategies, all so he can defeat the superior numbers of Zoras and his army.
There are battles in the 3rd Act that read like some of the best sequences out of another favorite historical adventure script of mine, Walon Green's Crusade. Or think of the best swashbuckling stuff out of Pirates of the Caribbean and the rollicking action set-pieces in Frank Darabont's great Indiana Jones & The City of the Gods script and you get the idea.
Since the writers hadn't made any mistakes up to this point, I felt if they were going to make a miscalculation, it was going to have to be somewhere in the endgame.
But you know what?
They don't.
Instead, you're invested in every character's fate and I'm happy to say that the riveting resolution unfolds dramatically and the effect is nothing short of cathartic. Heady, even. The most delicate and fragile thread, Colette and Darcy's story, is treated with so much honesty and honor you can't help but accept its conclusion.
"Smoke and Mirrors" is truly the work of master craftsmen.
This is the type of script I aspire to write someday. It gives me hope, it makes me believe, and it gives me a new hero in Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin.
If I could take a ride in the TARDIS, I would go back in time, hand this script to David Lean, and wait for cinematic magic to happen.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[x] genius

What I learned: This script is suspenseful as hell. But why was it so suspenseful? Every time Robert-Houdin performed, someone's life was on the line. That's the simple genius behind the trick. Every task your protagonist has to perform should have high stakes. And as the protagonist completes each task and moves on to the next, crank up the stakes. The stakes in "Smoke and Mirrors" have a clear ascendant progression: (1) Darcy's life, (2) Robert-Houdin's life (3) and collectively, the lives of Robert-Houdin, Colette, Darcy and all of the Legionnaires. Here's the other lesson: Every overarching thematic conflict in this script, Science vs. Magic, God vs. Allah, France vs. Kabyle, Civilized Man vs. the Savage, is boiled down to the two characters who come from each side. Robert-Houdin and the sorcerer, Zoras Al Khatim. Their intimate battle of wills puts two entire nations at stake. By making your characters symbols of bigger conflicts, you widen scope of your story. It's how you can tell an epic story but at the same time make it personal and intimate. There are many other lessons and tricks to be learned in this script, you only have to look closer to discover them.