Friday, April 2, 2010

Season Of The Witch

Genre: Horror/Fantasy
Premise: A 14th century Crusader must transport a witch through plague-filled France, the very witch it is believed, who cursed the country with the disease.
About: Bragi Schut, the writer, was one of the five contestants to win the Nicholl Fellowship back in 2003. He did so with this script, becoming one of the rare exceptions from the prestigious competition to get his winning script into production. The film is already in the can and will be released sometime this year. Schut, while not having a lot of produced success since 2003, recently made a big splash with his sale of “The Last Voyage of Demeter,” which follows the ill-fated crew aboard the ship Demeter, which carried Dracula's coffin from Transylvania to England. Obviously, we can see why he was attracted to the material, as the storylines are almost identical.
Writer: Bragi Schut
Details: 2004 (2nd draft) – This is not meant to be a review of a movie, but rather a look at an early draft of the script. I wanted to get as close as possible to the Nicholl winning draft, so you guys could see what won the contest. The final film is likely to be very different.

Okay, the second you say to me, “Carson, I have a script about witches! Will you read it??” I will say, “No,” and then probably run screaming in the opposite direction. And I hope you take no offense to this. Believe me when I say I’m saving both of us a lot of disappointment. I just don’t care about witches. Or wizards. Or vampires or werewolves. My idea of hell is a Twilight/Harry Potter double feature. But you can only ignore people telling you a script is awesome for so long. And I’ve received so many endorsements of “Season Of The Witch,” that I could probably fill up an entire new Harry Potter sequel with the e-mails. But it was when I updated the Reader Top 25 list that I could continue my denial no longer. The script received over 40 votes, unusual for a script that hasn’t been featured on the site. So I did something I almost never do. I read a script I knew I was going to hate.

And then…

The magical wand of screenwriting came down out of the sky and proved, once again, that it doesn’t matter what the subject matter is. If you write a good story with good characters, people will come Ray. People will come. And I found myself smack dab center inside that cornfield: a believer. In fact, between this and “Oh Never, Spectre Leaf,” I may become an official card-carrying fantasy club member by next week.

Season Of The Witch is about a great knight who has lost faith in God. He and his loyal companion have just come back from the Crusades, where they witnessed unimaginable horrors, women and children slaughtered as ruthlessly as soldiers. It was enough to make a man lose faith in humanity, to make a man lose faith in God. And that is where LaVey finds himself, a lost soul whose faith has been broken. He can barely muster the motivation to journey back to his hometown, Marseilles.

But for better or worse, LaVey won’t have to worry about that. That’s because the French countryside is eerily empty. There isn’t a farmer or a traveler in site, and the two blindly trudge forward, becoming more confused with each step. What the hell's going on here?? Alas, a stop at a local farmhouse explains it all. A couple, in their bed, dead, covered with boils and puss. LaVey and his fellow soldier have had the unfortunate luck of coming back to France during........THE BLACK PLAGUE!!! – a pandemic that killed 3 out of every 4 people ON EARTH.

No sooner have they run from the house than they are approached by a bishop. The bishop surprisingly calls LaVey by name – tells him the Cardinal needs to speak with him at once. To the church they go, where an ailing Cardinal fills in the blanks. Everybody’s dead or dying, including him. The only good news is they have who did it, the one responsible for the plague. It is a witch, and she is chained up in the dungeon below. The Cardinal needs LaVey to escort her to a town in the mountains where monks are waiting and will sacrifice her – thereby ending the curse of the Black Plauge.

The thing is, LaVey doesn’t believe in hocus-pocus anymore. There is no Heaven. There is no Hell. Therefore this woman cannot be a witch. Tis impossible. So he agrees to take her on one condition. Once they get there, she is tried as a human. If she is considered to be guilty, then fine, they can fry her. Or, you know, shoot arrows at her head. If not, she must be let go. The Cardinal is incredulous, but what choice does he have? LaVey is his last hope. He agrees. Accompanying LaVey will be his comrade Felson, Sancierre (the knight) Debelzaq (the priest), Hagaman (the swindler), and Kaylan (the eager 17 year old dreamer, who hopes to one day be a knight himself).

The faux-fellowship finds themselves travelling through the eerie lifeless roads of France, occasionally steering through towns where the dead are piled up like old garbage, rotting against the sides of buildings. Disease is everywhere, and could strike at any moment. But the real danger is from within. The witch, who can be equal parts charming, innocent, evil, sly, and vindictive, is constantly testing the members of the caravan, especially LaVey, who she confesses to that she is the devil. But he dismisses it as the ramblings of a sick woman. There is no Devil. There is no God. And thus, he focuses only on his job. Get the woman to the town. Try her. And be done with it.

What I loved so much about this script was that it’s basically an anti-contained thriller. So many people are trying to write these contained thrillers lately, not understanding that there are other ways to keep a group together and retain the same type of tension. These six may not be contained by walls, but they all must stay together because of the situation. If this witch were to escape somehow, she would complete her curse, damning the last ¼ of the population. They, and every remaining man and woman, would die. It's the same life or death stakes...from a completely different angle.

I also enjoyed watching the witch play with LaVey. She’ll trick one of the weaker members and slip out of her cage, have everyone chase her, get caught again, slammed back into her cage, and LaVey will ask, “If you’re a witch, why not strike us down right now? Why not conjure a lightning bolt to destroy your cage so you’ll be free? If you were so powerful, you could leave whenever you wanted.” And she basically says, “Cause it’s so much more fun fucking with you.” It’s that combination of threats from inside, a haunting countryside, the likelihood of disease, and each character's, especially LaVey's, own inner demons, wrapped inside a ticking time bomb, that give this script such a unique quality. When you add the perfectly baked macabre tone, you can practically hear the echoing clops their footsteps make as they trudge through these empty fog-filled towns. You can smell the dead. You can sense the despair. It’s really good stuff.

My only real problem with the script is LaVey’s belief system. He’s convinced this woman is not a real witch, because that would mean there was a God, and he doesn’t believe in God. But when someone’s able to summon wolves out of the forest to attack you, and then after defeating those wolves, she reanimates them to fight you again…I mean, I think at that point you have to admit that the woman in the cage is probably a witch.

Anyway, this was a very surprising read. Thought I would hate it. Ended up liking it a lot. Check it out!

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

What I learned: One of my issues with the Clash Of The Titans script was that Perseus sort of hangs back the whole time and lets everybody else do the doing. This is neither a good or a bad thing. It’s a choice, and one many screenwriters make. Neo’s character does it. Luke Skywalker’s character does it. And it works because we like the underdog. But your character definitely possesses a more “weighty” quality to him when he’s the one leading the charge from the get-go, which is how LaVey is drawn here. He’s the Crusader, the hardened knight, the alpha male. There’s something comforting about having a hero take charge, proactively dictating the story from page 1, and it was a good reminder that you don’t always have to transform the wimpy schlep into the surprise hero to craft a good screenplay. What’s wrong with making your hero the badass from the start?