Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Gene Bullard

Ugh, yesterday was not a fun day at all. As a lot of you already know, the mediafire library that PJ had posted has been taken down. The reason it’s been taken down is because Fox has sued PJ for 15 million dollars. It’s just a sad day, not because scripts will no longer be available or nobody can come to a consensus on whether what PJ was doing was right or wrong. It’s sad because I know PJ is a good person and gained nothing personally from having the library up. She just wanted amateur writers to learn the craft of screenwriting through professional writing. She wanted to help others. I think what a lot of you are wondering is, will this affect Scriptshadow? The answer is a definitive yes. I’m not sure how yet but it’s a safe bet that the format of the site will change significantly. While reviewing scripts isn't illegal, when billion dollar companies put their foot down, you have no choice but to ask how they’d like their shoe tied. If you want to help PJ with her legal fees, I know they’ve started a collection fund over here on this site. If you feel that you’ve in any way become a better writer because of what she provided, please please help her out.

Genre: Drama/Heist
Premise: A group of thieves invade a small southern town during a weekend festival in order to rob the town’s lucrative mill.
About: If you know anything about the history of film, you know James Dickey. He wrote one of the great movies of all time, Deliverance, which he adapted from his own novel. Dickey actually came to prominence as a poet in the 60s, writing several compilations that became very popular. This led to him reading one of his poems at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. Despite the popularity of Deliverance, it is Dickey’s only produced screenwriting credit. Gene Bullard was his follow-up screenplay, which was never made.
Writer: James Dickey
Details: 121 pages – 1975 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).

Deliverance is one of my favorite movies. I dare you to go home tonight and watch that movie and not fall under its spell. That film wraps its finger around you and pulls you in until you don’t even know which way is up. It’s that spellbinding. And yet, it’s a really strange screenplay. When you go back and watch a lot of movies from the 70s, you get frustrated with the drawn out deliberate pacing of anything but the classics. But even in its slowest moments, Deliverance still dazzles, and it’s not easy to figure out why. I mean, who would’ve thought that stopping the story for five full minutes while two characters have a banjo showdown would not only work, but become one of the most famous movie scenes of all time?

Needless to say, when I heard that Dickey had written another screenplay, I got excited. Why wasn’t it ever made? Was it bad? Was it too genius for others to wrap their heads around? What’s the story behind Gene Bullard? I wanted to find out.

Gene Bullard starts with four criminals driving into a small town. There’s Makens, the dangerous leader, Jimbo and Leon, his loyal sidekicks, and Joby, the young handsome outsider. Through their conversation we learn that Joby’s just gotten out of jail and is leading Makens and his crew to his old town, where he plans to help them rob the lucrative mill that employs most of the town’s residents.

The town itself is gearing up for a festival and the star of this festival (and the star of the town) is Sheriff Gene Bullard. Bullard is a jovial type who grew up in this town as a virtual pariah. He was a high school sports star and the person everyone wanted to be friends with. He also was a surrogate father to Joby, who he’s ecstatic to see back from jail. Joby introduces Bullard to Makens and the others and Bullard has no idea that this man is going to rob his town blind within the next 48 hours.

This is where Gene Bullard gets a little strange. Instead of getting to business right away, Makens and his buddies decide to enjoy the festival for awhile. They head over to the main bar and get drunk. They head over to the town hall and dance. They stalk out any woman who will have them. They figure, if we’re going to rob this town, we might as well have some fun in it first.

Concurrently with Makens mini-ratpack adventures, we’re cutting back to Gene Bullard, who seems to have involved himself in multiple female endeavors, some of which he keeps under wraps and some of which he’s quite open about. There is one woman he can’t seem to get a handle on however. That would be Joby’s twin sister, Lila – easily the best thing about this screenplay. Lila is a master loomer (loomstress?) whose movements and demeanor feel almost ethereal in nature, like she’s floating above the rest of the world. She’s weird, mysterious, and dangerous. Gene has no idea what to do with her.

If this is all sounding a bit random, that’s because Gene Bullard is very random. Between the moment we get into town and the moment when Makens attempts the robbery, we’re basically just watching a lot of characters enjoy a crazy festival. After all the festival stuff finally ends, Makens makes his way over to the mill to rob it, and in a very Coen Brothers like finale, a lot of things start going wrong, which results in a final showdown between Bullard and Makens.

This was a strange one. I think the most frustrating thing about Gene Bullard is the character Gene Bullard. This is a man who the screenplay is named after, and yet he has no goals, no real point – he’s just this passive character who stumbles around from situation to situation. I still don’t know how Dickey wanted him to be perceived, as he’s in some places popular, other places moronic, other places a clown, and other places a ladies’ man. If this script should’ve been named after any character, it would be Makens. He’s the one driving the story. He’s the one with the active goal (rob the mill). He’s the one who really sticks out as a character.

Dickey is almost able to overcome this deficiency with the inclusion of some Dickeyisms. I call them Dickeyisms since they’re strange Deliverance-like moments that only Dickey would write. For example, there’s a scene where Lila plays the harp that feels very similar in tone and mood to the famous dueling banjo scene in Deliverance. There’s also one scene in particular where, if this movie would’ve been made, would’ve been a classic that fans would still be talking about today. In it, Bullard is seduced by Lila, who, just before they’re about to have sex, pulls out a rattlesnake. It’s a bizarre scene where we don’t know if she’s going to kill him or have sex with the thing, but it was a great sequence that was impossible to forget.

I think where this script struggles to attain the greatness of Deliverance is in its point-of-view. Deliverance was awesome because our point-of-view was with the friends the whole time. We saw the hillbillies only through their eyes, allowing us to imagine for ourselves how dangerous they were. In Gene Bullard, we’re jumping back and forth between the good guys and the bad guys freely, to the point where we know Makens well, and therefore we’re not really afraid of him. I know this can work (it worked in No Country For Old Men) but it didn’t work here. Deliverance just had this overwhelming feeling of dread that Gene Bullard never attained. And I think knowing the bad guys too well is what caused it.

Obviously, this script is a product of its era. We have long wandering scenes that remind you of the wedding scenes in The Godfather or Deerhunter – scenes that just don’t work nowadays with people’s attention spans the way they are. There still might be a movie here (I’d love to see the character of Lila onscreen) but it would have to be rewritten considerably. Either way, it’s a fascinating look back at what could’ve been.

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

What I learned: Splitting screenplay time equally between two main characters is hard to pull off. It’s advised that you focus on one main character and give the majority of time in your screenplay to him/her. However, if you want to split time between characters, make sure that each one is active, that each one has something going on. I think this script faltered because one of its main characters didn’t have anything to do. Gene Bullard just stumbles around from location to location until he’s called into action in the final act.