Premise: An investigator tries to solve a murder case on a ship that involves a handyman, a young stock broker and the stock broker's girlfriend.
About: Nautica was originally written and sold back in 2001 and was going to be directed by Tarsem Singh. As so often is the case in Hollywood though, things fell apart and the project was quickly forgotten. More recently, however, Summit picked up the pieces and is repackaging the Dead Calm like thriller with a new untainted title – Riptide. Brad Pitt and Shia Labeouf are rumored as possible co-stars. This is the original 2001 script.
Writer: Richard McBrien
Details: 117 pages – 2001 draft (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).
How the hell this thing has been lingering in obscurity for ten years is beyond me. This is a really fucking good script. It’s not like G.J. Pruss’ Passengers, which hasn’t been made because the script’s appeal doesn’t translate to screen. Or Dogs of Babel, which is an amazing script but tough to market.
It basically has all the ingredients to be made into a movie. It’s got three great characters. It’s got thrills. It’s got mystery. It has gob-stopping suspense. And best of all, it’s told in a slightly unique way, giving it that “something different” factor. Jesus, all you'd have to do is sign Justin Bieber up for a cameo and this movie would print money.
The story goes a little something like this. Investigator Geoff Anderson shows up on a small island in the Pacific to arrest island hopper and all around drifter Max Shilton. Max has been found clinging to life in a yacht belonging to Frank Cotter, a successful stock broker.
500 miles away, Frank Cotter’s body has been found discarded in the ocean, and the barely identifiable sack of bloated pus shows signs of struggle consistent with murder. Anderson believes Max killed Frank for his boat and his money. But he’s about to find out there’s a lot more to this story.
A flashback begins, where Max explains he was a penniless handyman stuck on an island. Out of nowhere, Frank, an old acquaintance of his from high school, shows up on the island in a multi-million dollar yacht and a beautiful woman by his side, Kathy. The two get to talking, and when Frank learns there may be bad storms ahead, he hires Max as a navigator.
Within hours, Max and Kathy begin flirting. There’s clearly a strong sexual attraction here, and the two are stealing passionate kisses whenever the opportunity arises. When Frank starts to sense it, however, tension mounts. In a vulnerable moment, Frank pushes Max off the boat. Max is able to bring Frank down with him and a struggle ensues, climaxing in a life-struggling kick to Frank’s face which accidentally kills him. That, according to Max, is what really happened. It was all just an accident.
Anderson’s not buying it. Luckily, he also has Kathy in custody. So he goes to get her side of the story. Surprisingly, she defends Max. It’s true, she says, that he didn’t kill Frank. But Max also left out some key details. There’s much more to this story.
Kathy and Frank used to live in New York, with Frank being a successful foreign exchange trader. However, Frank was secretly skimming money off the top. When some investors found out, they stormed the offices and killed a couple of his co-workers. Frank was able to escape with 15 million bucks, but had nowhere to hide. So he and Kathy bought a boat and headed out to the middle of the Pacific, where they could never be found.
When Frank spotted Max, the old friend he grew up with, he feared that word would get out where he was hiding. Which is, of course, why he hired Max as a navigator, so he could kill him.
Naturally, this is just the beginning. Each time we go back, more and more details are revealed, molding and shaping our story into something increasingly elaborate. Suffice it to say, you’ll be guessing what happened all the way up to the end.
Nautica is a great little script for a lot of reasons, and it starts with the mystery at hand. Of all the things that drive an audience’s interest in a story, a good mystery is near the top of the list. Think about Monday’s script, Red Harvest. The mystery (who killed Willsson) started us off, and wasn’t bad, but it was solved quickly. So what’s left? Nothing. Kill the mystery, kill the interest.
Now there have been thousands of movies and TV shows that have started off with a murder. So what makes Nautica different? Simple. The mystery inspires multiple questions. First, our “killer” is clinging to life on this boat when we find him. Why? Second, the owner’s body was found 500 miles away. Why? Third, the wife of the murder victim is siding with the supposed killer instead of her husband. Why? Our brain is bouncing around like a room full of ping pong balls on mouse traps trying to link these events together. From the very first page, we’re actively engaged, which is what every writer in the world is trying to accomplish.
Here’s the thing about Nautica though. It’s a pretty messy narrative. We’re jumping back from past to present, present to past, different points of view, piecing together the story. I’d be hard pressed to identify a three act structure here. And as someone who believes strongly in the three act structure, I had to sit back and ask, “Okay, why is this still working then?”
And I remembered that if the central element that’s driving your story is strong enough, the structure isn’t as important. In this case, the mystery of what happened is so powerful that the usual story beats an audience craves aren’t necessary. It’s a distraction thing. We’re so distracted by the mystery that we’re not focusing on the nontraditional way the story’s being told.
Now I’m by no means advocating a free-for-all when it comes to structure. Only that it’s possible to have a messy structure if your script is focused in other ways (in this case, with the mystery). Here’s the thing though. The lack of structure does eventually come back to bite this script in the butt. There’s a portion of the story between pages 60 and 90 where the lack of focus results in a series of scenes that feel redundant and or unnecessary. This kind of thing happens when the structure isn’t in place because structure is what dictates the scenes you're going to write next. Without it, you’re like a ship lost at sea. You think you’re going the right way - and maybe you are – but it’s taking you longer to get there than you'd like. It’s why this script is 117 pages - when a thriller with three characters probably shouldn’t run over 100.
My only other beef with Nautica is the ending, and I’m going to allude to but not give away a spoiler here, so turn away if you don’t want to know. A good twist ending should jolt you, make you think for a few seconds, then have the “Ohhhh” moment. The Sixth Sense is the perfect example. It confuses you for a brief second, but then you’re like, “Ohhhhh.” I think Nautica’s twist ending works, but you have to think about it and work things out in your head a little too extensively before the “Ohhhhhh” comes. And it’s not a very long “Ohhhhh.” It’s more like, “Oh yeah, that works,” which isn’t as satisfying.
Still, I loved this script. I know a script is working when I keep getting duped and immediately afterwards think, “How the hell did I just get duped by that?” Nautica has a lot of those moments. I thought long and hard about whether to give this a double worth-the-read or an impressive. I really am stuck in the middle. But in the end, the question is, “Did this script entertain me all the way through?” And the answer is yes. So impressive it is.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] genius
What I learned: A good murder mystery starts off with a murder that has the reader asking multiple questions, not a single question. A single question is good enough for a weekly cop show (“Who killed this guy?”). But a film should have your mind racing on several fronts. If you look at movies like Seven for instance, when they come across that first body, it isn’t as simple as, “Who killed this guy?” It’s “What the hell happened here?” There’s a bigger picture involved. And it’s our need to figure out that big picture that makes us want to keep reading.
NOTE: I notice people are discussing spoilers in the comments. This is one of those scripts where even the mention of similar movies hints at what the spoilers are, so please note all spoilers, and readers please traverse the comments at your own risk!