Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Genre: Horror Biopic
Premise: A biopic of Edgar Allan Poe’s life.
About: This is Sylvester Stallone’s passion project which he’s been trying to make for 30 years. He explains, "I keep telling my producer Avi Lerner, 'Make Edgar Allan Poe!,'" "He says, 'Does he have a gun?' 'No, he doesn't have a gun', 'Can he throw a knife?' I say, 'No, he writes poetry!'" With the success of Stallone’s recent action entry, The Expendables, however, he may have enough clout to finally push this through. He plans to direct, and it’s said that his ideal actor to play the part would be Johnny Depp.
Writer: Sylvester Stallone
Details: 2003 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).

We all know how I feel about biopics. How they don’t adhere to natural storytelling structure, and essentially become an adaptation of the subject’s Wikipedia page, the “best of” of their life. The sole purpose of the writing then does not become to tell a story, but rather to link all these moments together in a way where we’re not bored to death in the meantime. For this reason biopics always feel messy and directionless, and in some cases, like Poe, it seems like the end goal is simply to wait for the character to die. Needless to say, I wasn’t thrilled about reading this. But it’s one of the few well-known older scripts in Hollywood that hasn’t been made, so I erased my preconceptions and gave it a shot.

Poe is dark. I mean, he’s Edgar Allan Poe, so duh. We’re not performing dance numbers in the streets with the cast of Glee here. But it’s something you need to be prepared for, as the character in this story is a depressed, confused, frustrated outsider trying to make his way in a world that isn’t very kind to him. If you have a dark streak and have ever been interested in the Cliff’s Notes version of Edgar Allan Poe, this could work for you. But as a self-contained story, like many biopics, I just couldn’t get into it.

It’s 1833 at West Point and Edgar Allen Poe, a seemingly average dude with a thick southern accent, hurls a slew of sarcastic excuses at his captain for why he’s always late and why he has no interest in fighting for his country. Poe’s kinda funny, kinda cool, and hey, pretty interesting.

But shit starts going sour soon after that. When he gets home, the love of his life, Sarah, is being married off to a rich guy with big plans, two things Poe is sorely lacking. It’s the first moment Poe truly understands his place in the social pipeline and it’s an issue he’ll battle with for the rest of his life.

The irony is that Poe’s step-father, John Allan, is one of the richest men in town. But he’s completely cut Poe off, and even on his death bed, the prickly old man insists that Poe will never receive any of his money. If that’s not bad enough, almost everyone in Poe’s family is sick, dying or dead. He has a brother who just died. He has a 19 year old retarded sister. He has a cousin with the mental capacity of Forrest Gump. Disease, in one form or another, has always plagued Poe’s bloodline.

Naturally, Poe searches for an outlet to express his frustration and finds it through poetry. At the time, most everyone writing offered up happy optimistic views on life. Poe’s poems were dark and different, and nobody knew what to do with them.

But Poe’s talents were such that he eventually got a job writing for a newspaper, and was able to parlay that into a series of jobs in several cities. Along the way, he married his 13 year old cousin, Virginia, and naturally, like all the people in the family, she eventually falls ill as well. This is just a guess, but if you’re marrying your own family members, that may have something to do with them all being diseased.

His wife’s sickness and his continual professional struggles eventually drive Poe batty. He willingly submits himself to a mental hospital, but unfortunately never gets better. Before he passes on, Poe writes what some consider to be the most famous poem ever, the macabre tale of “The Raven.”

I had problems with Poe right from the start. First off, Poe starts off as a wise-ass. His character is colorful and different and has some edge to him. I’m thinking this might be better than I thought. But whoever that person was, he disappears the second that scene ends. For the rest of the script Poe is depressed or upset or frustrated or sad. What happened to sarcastic fun Poe?

Also, the writing is really bland and boring in the beginning. The scenes are written as if they’re being crossed off a to-do list. For example, Poe goes to see if he can marry Sarah. She says no. He goes to make up with his step-father. He says no. He goes to say hi to his retarded sister. She says hello. It was like, “Let’s follow Poe around for a day.” What is this? Keeping up with The Kardashians?

I also thought the most famous thing about Poe – his insanity – was handled too sloppily. One second Poe’s out there writing and doing his thing, and the next he’s back home admitting himself into a mental institution. This is what we’ve been waiting for the whole script, is to see how this man gradually lost his mind. And all of a sudden it’s – BAM – he’s insane? This is the movie! Shouldn't we ease into his illness gradually? Shouldn't we see how it affects his life?

What I’ll give Stallone credit for was solving a huge problem. The only thing more dangerous than writing a biopic is writing a biopic about a writer. You always want to avoid making your lead character a writer because it’s difficult to make writing cinematic. You can’t SHOW it unless you want to put your character on camera for an hour feverishly scribbling into a notebook. Oh my gosh! What adjective is he going to use next?? Because you can’t show them doing what they do, they often appear to lack drive, making them boring. But throughout Poe, we get these beautiful dark sequences where we go into Poe’s head as he imagines his fucked-up view of the world that inspired his work. These will definitely be the highlight of the movie and even though it was hard to visualize some of them, I could tell they were going to work.

But hey, let’s be real about this. The draw here is that the guy who mumbles “Yo Adrian” is writing a movie that’s essentially an English thesis paper. Those two worlds don’t ever cross so we’re curious to see if he can pull it off. I’m not going to definitively say he doesn’t, because this was never my cup of tea to begin with, but I think for Poe to work, it has to be less about a recap of his life and more about a single dramatic event. For example, if this was about the struggles of getting “The Raven” published during a time when the world turned their backs on writers who were different, that would’ve resonated with me. If I understand it correctly, Poe became very famous after The Raven, but didn’t make any money off of it because no one paid writers back then. That also would be an interesting story to tell. A famous man who has nothing to show for his fame. Here we just seem to be following Poe around on this long depressing journey and there isn’t enough drama or conflict to justify it.

Anyway, this wasn’t for me, but it may capture the attention of some of the more literary types at Scriptshadow.

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

What I learned: Think twice about writing a story with a depressed protagonist. While they’ve been known to work in niche independent fare, it’s tough to make them work in any movie where you actually want to make money. And I can confirm that readers hate reading depressed protagonists stumble through stories complaining and feeling sorry for themselves. The exception would be if the depression is part of the character’s fatal flaw, and therefore a prelude to his change. For example, in 2008’s top Black List script, The Beaver, our protagonist is depressed, but then attaches the Beaver Hand Puppet and is “happy” for the rest of the script. Or in Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carell’s character is depressed, but starts to change as the script goes on (that script also benefited from using other characters for comedy relief in the meantime). I’m NOT saying it’s impossible to make it work, but you’re severely stacking the odds against you if you do.