Premise: A look at the years leading up to John Wilkes’ Booth assassination of President Lincoln.
About: Booth is one of those scripts that’s been bouncing around Hollywood for a long time. Although all we have to go on is rumor here, it’s said that many who have read it loved it, and that the only reason it hasn’t been made is because it’s a hard sell. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the script with Dylan Kussman, has talked openly about his screenwriting career and about how winning an Oscar on only his second movie with “The Usual Suspects” put an enormous amount of pressure on him. He’s spoken about how freeing it was to write the script when he knew nothing about “the rules of screenwriting,” and how that allowed him to make choices he never would have made today. He talks about the subsequent decade long process of being stuck in development rewrite hell on numerous projects, which is why he seemed to disappear after Suspects, and he’s talked about wanting to quit the screenwriting business because of how difficult it is to get movies made (even for an Oscar winner!). Lucky for McQuarrie and us, Tom Cruise called him up one day and wanted to do a movie about Hitler, which has given his career a resurgence. McQuarrie’s favorite movies include, “Deliverance”, “The Verdict”, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”, “The Taking of Pelham 123”, “Die Hard”, “Electraglide in Blue”, “Lone Star”, “The Big Country” and “The Lives of Others.” Kussman is primarily an actor, appearing in such films as Leatherheads and X-Men 2.
Writers: Christopher McQuarrie & Dylan Kussman
Details: March 18, 2004 draft – 121 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
I don’t know if Booth has hit “cult” status in the screenplay world yet but it is one of those screenplays that people say you have to read. I’ve been meaning to read it myself until hearing McQuarrie talk about it. I don’t know what it was but there was just this sense of…frustration when he discussed it. Maybe it was not being able to get it made but it sounded more like he knew the script had problems. I lost interest after that but finally decided to give it a read.
One of the things that drew McQuarrie to Booth was that he wasn’t your average mentally unstable weirdo stalker who thought killing a famous person would bring him closer to a higher power. He was actually a pretty levelheaded guy. In fact, he was quite popular, one of the more famous stage actors of the time. Booth toured from city to city, directing and acting in his own hit plays, charming any man or woman who stepped in his path. He was also frighteningly handsome, although if this picture below is anything to go by, there probably weren’t too many good looking people back in the 1800s.
We meet Booth on that infamous day, as he’s shooting Lincoln and jumping off the rafters, shouting those immortalized words, “Sic Semper Tyrannis,” which is probably why we’ve always assumed he was a nut. Killing people and shouting out phrases in an ancient language usually means “crazy town.”
We then jump back five years to Richmond, Virginia before it all started. This portion of the story is somewhat Wikipediaish. Booth has a big family. He doesn’t have the best relationship with them. In particular he and his brother Edwin, also an actor, don’t see eye to eye. This conflict stems from their father’s passing, who apparently drank himself to death, which (I think) Booth believes Edwin is responsible for.
Around this time, the Civil War is gearing up, and after seeing a Union soldier hanged for freeing slaves, Booth has an epiphany and rededicates himself to becoming a great actor (I’m not sure what seeing someone’s death has to do with acting either. Though Tom Cruise has taught us inspiration comes from the strangest of places).
Eventually Booth meets up with his childhood friends Sam and Michael, who are off to the war. Booth promises to join them but then makes a second promise to his mother that he’ll never become a soldier. This leaves Sam and Michael pissed and is a critical turning point in Booth’s life, as he will never get over the guilt of abandoning his friends.
However, Booth gets another chance to help out the cause when the Confederacy comes to him and asks if he’ll secretly deliver medicine to the Confederate army on his tour stops. Delighted to be of use, he accepts, and this is probably the most dramatically compelling portion of the screenplay. There’s a great scene where some officers stop him and ask to check his suitcase for weapons, the very suitcase the medication is in. Watching him try and squirm out of it is fun stuff.
As Booth’s star rises, his side falls. It’s looking more and more like the Union is going to win the war, and for that reason, people are coming up with desperate ideas. Booth is no exception. He starts concocting a plan whereby he kidnaps the president in order to bargain for many of the captured Confederate soldiers.
This is actually what was supposed to happen all along until a few days before the kidnapping, when Booth’s conspirators changed the plan to killing Lincoln instead, something Booth was never totally on board with. And while he went through with the killing, his conspirators left him out in the cold. They were supposed to kill the entire presidential body, including the vice president and secretary of state, but they all choked and didn’t go through with it. Which kinda sucked for them, since they ended up getting hanged anyway. And that, my friends, is the story of Booth.
This was a tough read. There’s so much information packed into this novel-esque screenplay that every page you read feels like you’re reading four. Indeed, the student inside me wanted to highlight all the necessary passages for the test I would surely have to take tomorrow. When I do my whining on this site, it’s usually for biopics that make me feel like I’m back in school in the middle of a boring history course, and unfortunately, that’s how I felt here.
My big problem with Booth was that there wasn’t enough drama. There wasn’t enough conflict. In Valkyrie, Quarrie’s last film, there were so many scenes where people were clashing up against each other. You could feel the tension in each of the scenes. Here, it was just a person’s life unfolding before us, and that wasn’t enough for me. That’s why I loved the medicine-luggage scene so much. It was the only time where Booth’s journey was difficult – where his world was challenged and where something bad had the potential to happen.
The central conflict in Booth is internal – specifically his troubled relationship with his dead father. The problem is that the source of that conflict and the reasoning behind it are all very confusing. It’s somehow related to his brother and he’s mad at his brother for not stopping his father from drinking himself to death, so he blames his brother for killing his father but his brother also blames him for it I think and then he’s also trying to live up to his father’s name (who was also an actor) and I think somehow we’re supposed to make the connection between his unresolved relationship with his father and him killing Lincoln but I just didn’t see it. It was way too complicated.
I also found it a strange choice to put the assassination at the beginning. On the one hand, it makes sense. We all know what happens anyway. Why not start the movie off with a bang? The problem with this is, the rest of the story is so slow (and I think deliberately so), that we need something to look forward to. We need that exciting finale to pay off the huge investment we’re putting into this. But since we’ve already experienced the finale, we’re not sure what it is we’re driving towards, why we want to get to the end.
My question is, is Booth’s story worth telling in the first place? As far as I can tell, the bullet points of his motivation are, “He sympathized with the south, felt bad for not joining his buddies in the war, and eventually that guilt caught up with him which resulted in him killing Lincoln.” It’s almost as if what’s interesting about Booth as an assassin, the fact that he was pretty normal, is what makes his story so uninteresting. There’s no deep-set shocking reasoning for his actions. He was a normal guy and decided to do something stupid. I don’t know if that’s enough for a movie.
I think McQuarrie’s a great writer but this subject matter didn’t interest me.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Now I know that some of you disagree with me on this but I believe, and will continue to believe, that telling a story where the audience already knows what’s going to happen severely handicaps one of your biggest advantages as a writer – the element of surprise. To me, when your audience is 30-40 pages ahead of you (or in this case, 100 pages), you have to work twice as hard to keep them entertained. Sure, if you have super-compelling characters, unlimited obstacles, and every scene is dripping with conflict, you can keep our focus so in the now that we don’t care that we already know what will happen (For example, we loved Apollo 13 even though we knew how it ended) but why make it so hard on yourself? I remember watching Toy Story 3 this year, probably my favorite film of 2010, when the toys are heading towards that incinerator (spoiler), and for the briefest of moments thought, "Oh my God. They're really going to do this. They're going to end these toys' lives." I was riveted in that moment, on the edge of my seat. Imagine if the opening scene of that movie was a flashforward showing us that those toys had made it out okay. How that would've eliminated every drop of mystery from the movie. How it would've stolen one of the best scenes of the year. Writing a good story is hard enough. Why handicap yourself?