Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Ornate Anatomy Of Living Things

Genre: Indy Coming-Of-AgePremise: (from IMDB) - A bookstore clerk living in Manhattan discovers a museum run by a strange old man that exists solely for the purpose of studying his life.
About: Written by the Fonz’s son, ayyyyye, Max Winkler, and his writing partner, Matt Spicer, this script landed on the 2007 Black List and also sits as #13 on my Top 25 list. Winkler is currently directing his first feature, Ceremony, about a young man who crashes the wedding of a woman he’s in love with. Spicer and Winkler also wrote one of last year’s biggest spec sales, the million dollar “Adventurer’s Handbook,” with Jonah Hill. The duo of Spicer and Winkler met in a screenwriting class at USC.
Writer: Matt Spicer & Max Winkler
Details: 121 pages (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time of the film's release. 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).

Hey Wes, you wouldn't mind directing this movie, would you?

Been meaning to get around to this forever. As you can see, it’s number 13 over there on my Top 25 list. I’m not going to get too into it, but basically this is smack dab in the middle of my happiness zone. I like coming-of-age stories when they’re done well. I love when a slight mystical element is added (Field of Dreams anyone?). I love when a weird idea is fully explored (the writers don’t back down). I love when the comedy complements instead of dominates the story. Before I even opened this script, it had a good shot with me. And even with that advantage, it exceeded my expectations.

Henry Munn is a 33 year old New Yorker who works in a used book store that’s located in the same building as his apartment. He stumbles out of bed every day, heads into the tiny store, listens to his boss drone on about his newest sci-fi manuscript, waits for the clock to tick away, then goes back to his apartment, goes to bed, and starts the whole cycle over again the next morning. What a life!

But today is different. It’s Henry’s birthday. And he’s looking forward to a rare dinner with his older and much more successful brother, Paul (who happens to be a publisher). But when Paul calls and cancels because he has more pressing work issues to deal with, Henry finds himself alone again.

Just when things are looking their worst, Edith Finch shows up. Henry doesn’t know what to make of her at first. She’s got a weird accent, huge glasses, and “appears to have raided her dead grandmother’s wardrobe for her outfit.” Edith is desperately looking for a rare book about birds and this is the last used bookstore in town. Intrigued by the woman and therefore a little out of sorts, Henry does some searching on the laptop and finds the only one left collecting dust in the London equivalent of his own store. He puts a rush on it and eagerly accepts Edith’s number so he can call her when it gets in.

The day gets even stranger though, when a sparrow (speaking of birds) flies through the window with a purple envelope attached to its back addressed to Henry. Henry opens the envelope to find an invitation – an invitation to the grand opening of something called The Museum Of The Ornate Anatomy of Living Things. Totally weirded out, Henry brushes it off. But after a few ill-fated attempts to forget it, he can’t deny that he’s a little curious.

So he heads to the address on the envelope and ducks inside a deceptively large building. The first thing he notices is that George Clooney is narrating the museum’s history over the speaker system. Henry catches a few sound bites about a traveling museum that’s been in existence since the 1800s which shows rare exhibits, such as never-before-categorized insects and “the tiniest airplane ever built” (which requires a microscope to see). In short, the place is Weird Central.

And the further Henry goes into the museum, the weirder it gets. He begins to see Halloween costumes on exhibit and familiar looking black and white pictures. This is when Henry formally meets Clifford Ashby, an older but charming British chap who claims to be the owner of the museum. He hits Henry with a bombshell. Ashby reveals that this place is a museum dedicated exclusively to Henry’s life! And he built it! Those Halloween costumes were the ones he wore as a kid. There are viles filled with germs taken from when Henry had chicken pox. There’s even a full-size replica of his childhood bedroom!

Naturally, Henry is freaked out and gets the hell out of there. And that should be the last of it, except when Henry starts courting Edith, she makes it clear that he’s probably the most uninteresting person she’s ever met. If he can’t give her something interesting to latch onto, there’s no way they can be together. Taking a shot in the dark, Henry reveals that he has a museum dedicated to his life, and Edith is instantly fascinated by it – so much so that she actually starts falling for Henry, which of course forces him to go back and face the museum. The question is, what’s the real reason Clifford built this place? And is it the key to Henry finally finding happiness?

The reason I loved this script so much is because I haven’t read anything quite like it. I mean, who makes their main love interest a South African woman who dresses like a grandma and reads bird books? In fact, I loved all the character work here. The eccentric but always optimistic Clifford Ashby was hilarious. The selfish and heartless older brother, Paul, added emotional depth to the story. Even Henry as the straight man detached from life, a role that’s hard to make interesting, had an affable charm about him, brought about by his choice to steal Edith’s bird book and read it himself before giving it up (passages from the book play in voice over throughout the story).

I’ve heard some knocks on the script, calling it “Kaufman-lite,” and I’m not exactly going to argue against that. The script doesn’t hit the dark areas as ruthlessly as Kaufman but that’s what I liked about it. Kaufman always went a little too far out for my tastes, and I always wished he'd dialed it down. I mean, the seventh and a half floor frserves om Being John Malkovich was kinda cool, but in the end what the hell was the point of it? Winkler and Spicer dial down the darkness here and focus more on the humor, and I think that the story well.

The page Nazis are going to have their day with me though because this is 120 pages, a full 10 pages higher than my ideal 110 page script. It’s hard to tell if cutting those pages would’ve helped or not. It’s such a strange layered world Winkler and Spicer have created that if they took out some of the more eccentric stuff (the voice over reading of the bird book for instance) I’m afraid the story would have lost some of its mood. So in the end, I’m okay with the length.

I know Wes Anderson only directs his own material (cept for that fox movie), but if there was ever a perfect marriage between director and script, this is it. And I think Anderson needs something like this, where he’s not so attached to the writing and he can approach his vision with a more objective/ruthless eye. I mean, he would go effing crazy in that Museum. The giant organ exhibit alone would be like a dream set for him. So if you work for Wes, please pass him this script. I promise he’ll like it.

This is one of my faves. Unique, weird and fun.

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

What I learned: Sometimes you have to make your characters do things that they wouldn’t do. The most obvious example is in scary movies when it would make SO much more sense if the character RAN THE FUCK OUT OF THE HOUSE as opposed to searching through 8 killer-infested dark rooms one by one. While it’s tempting to have your characters do irrational things, readers hate it because it illicits that timeless reaction: "That's so fake. He'd never do that!" With a little bit of effort, you can address this issue. Take Henry for instance. When he realizes the museum is about him, he freaks out and wants to leave. However, the writers still need to show us other parts of the museum which help set up the story. So they need a way for Henry to stay. They do this by having Clifford Ashby (the old man) explain to Henry that he’ll show him out, but that the fastest way out of the museum is forward. This allows Henry to continue through the museum, see what the writers need him/us to see, and there's still a level of believability to it. It really irks me when characters do things they'd never do, so try to avoid that in your own script!