Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Manhattan Ghost Story


Genre: Paranormal Love Story
Premise: An odd twist-filled love story set in New York City.
About: Robert Lawrence Productions optioned T.M. Wright's novel, "A Manhattan Ghost Story," in 1990, then sold the rights to Carolco Pictures, who exercised the option in 1993, but not before paying Ron Bass a record amount, 2 million dollars, for an adaptation. In 1996, Disney bought the rights to the script in the Carolco bankruptcy sale, for 1.7 million. This script is known these days for basically one thing. I’d tell you what that thing was but it’s too big of a spoiler. What I’ll recommend you do is read the script first, then come back here and read the review, because in the review, I’ll be getting into all the spoilers. I’m really interested to hear what people who have no prior knowledge of this script will have to say.
Writer: Ron Bass (based off the novel "A Manhattan Ghost Story" by T.M. Wright)
Details: 123 pages (1996 spec draft)


So as people familiar with the plight of Manhattan Ghost Story (a title play, of course, on “Manhattan Love Story”) know, this is the script that thought up the “main character is a ghost” twist before M. Night wrote The Sixth Sense. In fact, I remember reading an article on AICN back in the day which brought up the notion that M. Night flat out plagiarized Manhattan Ghost Story. With this script selling in 1996 and The Sixth Sense selling in 97, it would be difficult to argue that Night hadn’t at least checked out the script. But there’s one major difference between these two stories. Night executes his version of the idea into one of the best spec screenplays of all time. And Bass executes his into a passable diversion which leaves more questions than answers. At the very least, it’s a great exercise in seeing how two people can have the same idea and take it in two completely different directions.

Manhattan Ghost Story stirred up memories of one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, which ironically, was a huge spec sale of its own. I’m talking about David Benioff’s “Stay” (1.8 million – note: I’ve actually never read the script, so I can only go on the movie). This movie spent its entire running time showing us weird people doing weird things that made no sense. It was supposed to build suspense and mystery. And hey, if you do five minutes of that then yes, it is intriguing. But 2 hours of it is akin to stabbing your brain repeatedly with an ice pick. All of this was to be tolerated because each script had an ace in the hole – its “twist ending.” But that’s the problem. They relied so heavily on their big “oh my gosh” moment, that they forgot what it is in a screenplay that requires the most attention: the actual story.

The good news is, Manhattan Ghost Story isn’t nearly as bad as Stay. After the laborious first 40 pages, a story starts to emerge. Aaron Cray, an unassuming photographer, is going to be living in New York for a few months while he does some photography work. Strangely, an acquaintance he never got along with named Paul DeGraff has allowed him to stay at his apartment. Which, you know, makes no sense whatsoever. When Aaron gets to the apartment, he’s surprised to see the beautiful but mysterious Julianne Potter there. Julianne is Paul’s old girlfriend. But right away she starts flirting with Aaron for some reason. There's an odd sexiness to this woman. But it's complicated by a detached sleepwalking quality, as if she’s not really there. In fact, there’s a detached sleepwalking quality to everybody in this script, which is part of the reason it takes so much effort to get into.

Well, it’s on page 40 that we learn that Aaron sees dead people. He’s been given a gift, like few others have been given, where he can see the dead walking around with the living. He learns, unfortunately, that Julianne is one of those dead, and that therefore he’s fallen in love with a ghost.

Through the help of a psychic, Aaron learns the rules of the ghost universe. Ghosts can only hang onto the real world through emotional attachment. The less emotions they feel, the more they fade away. When all of their emotional attachment is gone, they disappear completely. The two most dominant emotions are love and anger. So all of the ghosts still living in Manhattan are either really angry or really lovesick. That’s why Julianne can be seen so clearly by Aaron, because of her love for him.

Click for the novel on Amazon.

Carrying on a relationship with a dead person isn’t easy, but Aaron puts his best untagged foot forward. They figure as long as their love remains strong, Julianne won’t disappear. This dreamy scenario is ruined, however, when Paul tumbles back into the picture. You remember Paul, right? He’s the one who lent Aaron the apartment, the one who used to date Julianne, and, oh yeah, the one who MURDERED HER. Paul still isn’t over his ex-living gf. And, in fact, is pissed off that she’s still partly alive. I mean how have you murdered someone if they’re still walking around banging other guys? In Paul’s mind, he has to kill her. Again. And this is his plan. If he kills the person she loves (Aaron), her love will die and she’ll disappear. Which will make her really truly dead.

So Aaron and Julianne go running around, trying to avoid Evil Paul, but they can only hide for so long (they do happen to live in his apartment) and Paul’s finally able to corner them. He moves to kill Aaron, only to watch his weapon *swing through him*. Wait a minute. What??? We learn that, gasp, Aaron’s been dead this whole time too! And hence, the same “twist” as The Sixth Sense (albeit before Night thought of it). But here’s where things get loco essay. Because unlike The Sixth Sense, the twist doesn’t answer all our questions, but brings up a boatload of new ones.

It turns out Julianne had been cheating on Paul in real life with Aaron. So Paul murdered both of them and, I believe, killed himself. The only way for Paul to stay “present” in this world as a ghost was through emotion. Since he didn’t have the emotion of love, his only chance to stay was to utilize his emotion of hate. So he set the two up again, which is why he gave them his apartment (His apartment is still empty even though he’s dead?), so he could continue to experience his rage-filled hatred, so he could stay alive in the ghost world.

Now stay with me here. Cause I’m just as confused as you.

How was Aaron able to have a photography job with a boss who greeted him every day? How was she able to see him if he was a ghost? Good question. I don’t’ know. Something about how Aaron died recently so his presence was still strong with her. Why can’t ghosts remember how they died? It seemed the only answer was that it was convenient for the plot (if they could remember how they died, we wouldn’t have a story). There’s a bunch of other questions that popped into my head. Like why would Paul attack Aaron, trying to end his life, if he knew Aaron was already dead? It would have to mean that Paul was pretending to end his life (he knows he's dead so he knows the weapon won't harm Aaron). But since Paul knew that would end the fa├žade he’d set up in order to stay angry, wouldn’t he be threatening his own existence, since he couldn’t be “angry” anymore? And how do you “set up a scenario” so that you’re angry in the first place? Aren’t you either angry or not angry? Ugh, I don’t know what’s going on.

But I’m glad I read the script because I think it helps illustrate just how genius The Sixth Sense was. When the big twist comes at the end, we *get it*. There’s no backtracking to explain huge plot holes. There’s no head-scratching accompanied by endless questions, “But then how…” It’s just: boom. Understood. Ironically, in all the rest of Night’s movies, he made the exact same mistakes that Manhattan Ghost Story did (anyone remember The Village). It’s the true test of if a twist works. When the twist comes, do we *get it* or do you have to start explaining everything? If you have to start explaining, go back to the drawing board and start again. Your twist doesn’t work.

Another thing to learn from this script is to be careful whenever you’re creating a new world that you don’t overburden it with rules. The more rules you have to bring into your story, the more you’re asking your reader to remember, which puts too much of the burden on them. Instead of you doing the work (and simplifying it), you’re making them do the work. And you reach a point where you’ve over-ruled your script. A certain part of the reader’s mind has shut down, either voluntarily or involuntarily (they simply can’t remember anything), and so even though “technically” speaking everything makes sense, it doesn’t make sense to them because they haven’t been able to keep track of it all. Always err on the side of simplicity. If your rules are too convoluted, back up and either get rid of some or simplify them. You’ll be doing the reader and the story a huge service.

Ultimately, this was a frustrating experience. The story doesn’t work without the twist. And the twist is too convoluted to make the story worthwhile. Some of the relationship stuff is okay, but hampered by the odd “ghost-speak” the characters are forced to use.

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

What I learned: The key thing I learned from Manhattan Ghost Story is to never depend on your twist too much. The greatest twist stories will work whether you add the twist or not. That’s what makes the twist so great in fact, is that the audience believes the movie is over, but then BAM, there’s one final surprise. That’s why The Sixth Sense worked so well. Had you never shown the twist, it still would’ve been an enjoyable story. A therapist finally finds redemption from being responsible for one of his patient’s suicides by helping a boy overcome his unique curse. Stop it right there and we’re satisfied. Take out the twist in Manhattan Ghost Story, and you don’t have a movie at all. Take out the twist in Stay and you don't have a movie at all. Never depend too much on your twist!

So why did it sell?: I’m not sure why this sold. We have to view it in the context of pre-Sixth Sense, and that’s not easy to do. I suppose a story, however well executed, where the main character is revealed to have been a ghost the whole time, would’ve been quite an awesome surprise to read at the end of a spec, much like Remember Me was somewhat average when you read it, but then was elevated by its surprise ending. Bass himself was a huge writer at the time, with impressive credits like Sleeping With The Enemy, Dangerous Minds, and Rain Man. So I’m sure his track record played into it. It’s just really hard to imagine how this script would’ve resonated had I never seen The Sixth Sense before. I’m sure I would’ve thought it was much cooler though.