Premise: In one of the greatest survival stories ever told, Ernest Shackleton took a crew of 22 men into the Antarctic, only to lose his ship, and be tasked with finding a way back home through some of the harshest weather conditions on the planet.
About: We’re going back in the time machine here to 2001, when Columbia was getting ready to make this movie with Wolfgang Petersen. Peterson had recently made another big picture survival story in The Perfect Storm. Although Zallian put the final touches on the script, it was actually finely honed by a number of high-profile (and very expensive) writers at the time, including Dan Gilroy, Jeff Maguire, David Field, Ron Bass and "Perfect Storm" scribe Bill Witliff. Zallian won an Oscar for his adaptation of Schindler's list and is one of the most expensive screenwriters in Hollywood.
Writer: Steven Zallian
Details: 130 pages 4/28/01 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).
There is no one who would be more perfect for Ernest Shackleton than Brad Pitt
Ron Bass and Steve Zallian don't come cheap. So when you're paying them, you’re all in. So why, then, did Endurance fall by the wayside? Why did all those penguins and killer whales swim away? Who knows? Peterson had already made The Perfect Storm, which had some similarities to this, so maybe he wanted to do something different. And then of course, you had September 11th that year, which threw just about every project into disarray. So maybe Endurance suffered the same fate as a lot of films in development: a confluence of bad timing and bad circumstances.
But…BUT! Maybe it was a lot simpler than that. Maybe the script wasn't good enough. Endurance is one of those projects that is only going to make money if it's in the Oscar race. So the project is more dependent on its script than, say, Twilight: Breaking My Brain. Let's solve this mystery right now. Was Endurance any good?
It's the early 1900s. Ernest Shackleton has already made one attempt at exploring the last unexplored continent, Antarctica. Unfortunately, he had to give up a mere 100 miles from shore. That's the thing with Antarctica. Getting there is just as big of a battle as surviving there.
But what really chapped Shackleton’s ass was that soonafter, another explorer DID make it there, destroying his dream of making it into the history books.
The pompous and determined Shackleton is nothing if he's not exploring though, so he eventually decides to go to Antarctica anyway. There's still plenty of unexplored land to claim. To his shock though, nobody gives a shit about him or Antarctica anymore. Nobody cares about the second guy to walk on the moon. So a humiliated Shackleton must drum up his own funds for the expedition.
Money is so tight that he actually has to hire a ragtag team of explorers with little to no experience. Many people thought Shackleton was crazy for doing this but this becomes a recurring theme. Shackleton is so fearless that he IS crazy. This man would swim to Antarctica if he didn't have a boat.
That craziness eventually dooms him though. As they're nearing the continent, pushing through large packs of ice, their boat is crushed as if it were made out of twigs, and the entire crew scampers off onto the ice, now stranded in the middle of the sea with no one who knows where they are and the nearest help 1000 miles away. And remember, this is 1915. There were no cell phones around except for this one.
It turns out Shackleton's team was stuck in a swirling sea that was taking them around in circles, a hundred mile long H20 merry-go-round. And the land they were on wasn't really land. It was packs of ice, great big sheets that weren't even connected. To put it layman’s terms, 999 out of 1000 exploring teams would've been doomed.
But this is why Shackleton is considered one of the three greatest explorers of all time. He never gives up. Ever. Even when all hope is lost and he doesn't have an answer, he creates an answer. His idea was to get to Elephant Island, which was 600 miles away and had never been officially explored before because it was so inhospitable (google it if you want to see why). The thing was, nobody on his team knew how to actually get to Elephant Island, and certainly didn't know how to do it with their location constantly changing due to their sea-land merry-go-round.
Eluding starvation, the coldest temperatures in the world, and killer whales that were willing to break through ice to snatch themselves a human popsicle, Shackleton's pure determination somehow got them to the edge of the ice pack and with their three life rafts, they sailed through the most dangerous sea in the world to make it to Elephant Island.
From there, Shackleton took a smaller group of men on one of the life rafts to get to the only island within 1000 miles that had people on it, with the plan being to come back with a rescue team to get the others. That also turned out to be an impossible journey as all they had was a compass and a vague sense of direction to find this tiny speck in the middle of an endless universe of water. In the end though, they did it, and even managed to get back to the other men and save them. Somehow, some way, they did not lose a single man on the entire team.
The script for Endurance was a little like a night of karaoke. You don't really want to go. Someone has to drag you into it. You're immediately turned off by these people making idiots of themselves up on stage. Then you have a few drinks. It starts seeming not so ridiculous. Then somebody signs you up without you knowing. And the next thing you know you're up on stage belting out Sonny and Cher's "I've got you Babe" and having the time of your life.
That might be the worst analogy of all time but the point I’m trying to make is that even though Endurance ends well, it takes a long time to get going. You always want to get to the meat of the story - the main problem - by the end of act one, so around pages 25 to 30. The meat of this story has nothing to do with *going* to Antarctica. It has to do with what happens after their mission fails – once they become stranded. Unfortunately, that moment doesn't come until the middle of the screenplay, so a full 60-70 pages in.
I had a lot of people complaining to me about that. It takes so long to get to the good stuff. The question then is, could you move the ship sinking up to page 30? Now the survival story starts at the end of the first act instead of the midpoint. You could, and now the entire second act can be about the escalating obstacles preventing them from surviving. But there is a trade-off. You lose the ability to set up many of the characters. You lose some time to set up the scenario. You risk things coming off as too rushed, and in the process, your script loses some depth. But I still think we’re waiting way too long to get to the good stuff so it might be the way to go (or maybe we can compromise – page 45?).
Luckily, once we do get to the good stuff, the script really picks up. What pulled me in was the sheer number of times that these guys should have died. I mean there are KILLER WHALES HUNTING THEM. Not those big nice cuddly whales you see in Pinocchio. But the kind that eat human flesh. They're looking up at your shadows underneath the ice and then BURSTING through it to munch on you like a bag of potato chips. I've never personally encountered this problem, but I'd imagine it'd be difficult to survive.
And then there's Shackleton's pure craziness. When he doesn't know how to get out of a situation, he just makes something up. He just points in a direction and says, we’ll go this way, because he knows that if people give up, if they have nowhere to go or no hope then they’ll die. And that is not an option for Shackleton. They should've died on that ice. They should've died on their way to Elephant Island. They should have died on their way to the second island (they should've never found it either). They should've died when they had to climb some of the biggest mountains in the world to get to the people on the other side of that island. After a while you just begin smiling and shaking your head at the ridiculousness of it all. "Did this really happen?" you ask yourself. I mean it's too outrageous to imagine.
And the star of the script is obviously Shackleton. He just never gave up. I think that's the big draw here. We’re always trying to come up with characters that audiences will love, and what's more lovable than a hero who never gives up - who in the face of the most hopeless circumstances shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘No problem guys. We’ll just try this?’ We tend to like people we wish we could be – true heroes. And I don't see anyone not wanting to be more like Shackleton after reading this story.
So this was a strange one. It started off slow. You weren’t really sure where it was going for awhile, and then it just had a great final 50 pages. I rarely get goosebumps at the end of screenplays but I got goosebumps at the end of this. So even though it's not perfect, I would definitely recommend checking Endurance out.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] wasn’t for me
[xx] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: It's especially important in stories like these to repeatedly remind the audience how impossible the upcoming situation is. The more impossible something seems, the more we're going to want to see if our heroes can overcome it. So we're reminded how inexperienced our crew is. We're reminded that no boat has ever made it through this sea during this time of year before. We're reminded that there is no possible way to get off these ice patches they’re on. We're reminded that there's no way to navigate a lifeboat through the most dangerous sea in the world. We’re reminded that there's little to no chance they'll find this tiny speck of an island in the middle of a vast ocean. By telling us these things before they happen, you create anxiety and anticipation in the audience. By being told it's impossible, we want to see if they can overcome that impossibility.