Thursday, September 24, 2009

Dogs Of Babel

Genre: Drama
Premise: When a dog is the only witness to a woman’s death, her husband tries to teach the dog how to talk so he can find out what happened to her.
About: Mandate Pictures (Juno) optioned Carolyn Parkhurst’s novel. John Crowley (Intermission) will direct. David Heyman of Heyday Films, and Corey May and Dooma Wendschuh of Sekretagent Productions will produce. Nathan Kahane and Tiffany Daniel will executive produce. Overseeing the project for Mandate will be Nicole Brown and Tendo Nagenda. Funny enough, Todd Phillips was once attached to the project. It’s unclear whether he wanted to veer out of comedy or not. I know that turning this into a comedy would pretty much destroy everything that’s great about it. So I’m glad that experiment is over.
Writer: Jamie Linden (We Are Marshall)
Details: 122 pages (Nov. 2006 draft)

I really loved this script. I mean, it’s not perfect. The ending gets a little…abstract. And there’s an odd tonal shift late in the second act. But there’s so much to love here. And the storytelling is top notch. Dogs Of Babel tells the tale of Paul Ransome, a man who comes home to find his wife dead. She apparently fell from the apple tree in the back yard and cracked her neck. All signs point to it being an accident. But Paul’s not so sure. There’s something not quite right about the evidence. What in the world was his wife doing up in the apple tree anyway? And how do you fall and crack your neck from an apple tree? Break your legs maybe. But break your neck?

It so happens that the only witness to this “accident” is Lexy’s dog Lorlelei, a dog, it should be noted, Paul doesn’t care much for. In fact, the dog spent more time getting in the way of their relationship than complementing it. And because Lorlelei pretty much feels the same way about Paul, life after Lexy’s death turns into a tough learning experience for both. Not only are they both extremely depressed, but Lorelei’s desired routine coupled with Paul’s ignorance regarding pet responsibility turns into a clumsy frustrating dance that neither can get quite right.

After awhile, Paul becomes fascinated by Lorelei’s ability to understand simple words like, “stay” and “lay down,” etc. He wonders, “If she can understand these words, why can’t she understand others? And if I can communicate with her, why can’t she communicate with me?” And thus Paul sets out on a journey to do something that makes no logical sense whatsoever: Teach Lorelei how to speak so she can tell him what happened to Lexi that day.

I like premises that border on the absurd because I’m fascinated to see if the writer can actually pull them off. 9 times out of 10, they're not up to the task. But this is that one time where they get it right. What drives this story and our emotions and our hope is Paul’s devastation over his wife’s death. We want so badly for him to find out what happened to her, that we become just as illogical as he is. We actually believe that if he can just find enough time, if he can just come across the right piece of research, he'll find a way to do it.

Dogs Of Babel is a script that takes a lot of chances and pulls most of them off. In addition to the main storyline, Linden offers us a glimpse into Paul and Lexy’s life through a series of flashbacks. Now normally I hate flashbacks. But here, they’re presented intermittently and at designated times, therefore making them feel like a natural part of the story instead of an interruption of it. They also acheive a couple of things. They introduce us to Lexy, which allows us to care more for her, ultimately driving up our emotional involvement in Paul’s search for the truth. And it furthers the mystery of her death, as all signs point to them having a perfectly healthy relationship.

The next thing Linden does is highlight a history of canine intelligence through a series of voiceovers dictated by Paul's research. All of the stories are 100% true. And after each one, we feel a little bit closer to the ultimate goal of getting Lorlelei to communicate. For example, one of the stories involves a woman who decided to teach her dog how to type. She made a specialized keyboard that would release a treat upon tapping of the correct letter. She’d call out a letter, and if the dog got it right, he’d receive a treat. The dog got so good at typing she’d have him type out her Christmas cards every winter (via her transcribing each letter of course). There’s a haunting quality to each story. Because while each one seems to give us hope, there’s a part of it that feels desperate. The stories are magnificent in their own right, but none of them point to that Holy Grail - actually getting a dog to talk to you. Is Paul grasping at straws? Has he gone insane? Is any of this really worth it? The fact that we’re not sure is what compels us to turn the pages.

As I mentioned before, the script isn’t perfect. There’s a particularly strange choice in the second act where Paul visits a man who’s done research into canine communication. But it plays out in a creepy way that feels more like a scene out of a horror film than that of a drama. It was definitely a memorable scene, but I’m not sure it belonged here. As we get to the climax, Linden also makes some odd choices, as real-life is kind of blurred into the subconscious and deluged with flashbacks. It was hard to tell what was going on and I was terrified that the ending would be explained away in a big copout. But thank God it comes together nicely and we get the answers we’re looking for.

Had the ending been a little cleaner, this might’ve shot into my Top 10. As it stands, it still breaks into my Top 25. A great story indeed.

[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Flashbacks are more effective if they’re a part of a larger pattern. If they’re simply there to fill in some hole you couldn’t figure out how to integrate into your story, they'll stick out like a sore thumb. But if there’s a rhythm and consistency to them, they’ll feel like a natural extension of the story.