Monday, September 27, 2010

Paul Schrader’s Secret Screenwriting Sauce

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.



From the day Canadian crime became organized, the pégres (mobs) ruled Montreal, and Montreal ruled Canada.

Emigrating from Marseilles and Corsica in the early 1900's, French gangsters soon made Montreal the center for all smuggling operations into the United States. In the 20's they ran whiskey across the Maine and Vermont borders, in the 30's deported Mafiosi, in the 4O's black market meat and sugar, in the 50's heroin, and in the 60's gold bars and coins.

In 1952, at the instigation of then New York don Frank Costello, the American underworld began its move into Montreal. Seeking to control the pégres’ smuggling and gambling operations, the Italian-Americans took over the Italian community on Montreal's South Shore and set up headquarters in the center of the city. Shortly thereafter, New York Jewish mobsters starting muscling in on the West Side clubs and bars.

Throughout the next two decades, the Americans succeeded in dismantling, incorporating or destroying the French pégres one by one. Those which survived were forced to move block by block into the slum-ridden North and East sides of Montreal.

This is the story of the final days of the Gaulois Family, the last great French-Canadian pégre of Montreal.




Title reads: "Christmas 1971"

A light snow has been falling all day on the St-Michel District, and by nightfall a thin sheet of white stretches across the streets of northeast Montreal.

The cheerless neon lights of the Bouchern Taverne and Le Marche St-Michel show through the cold night air. The last bastions of hospitality: a neighborhood bar and all-night liquor store. A long black Citroen stands in front of the liquor store.

INSIDE THE LIQUOR STORK, a large old man wrapped in a blanket-like black overcoat stands at the counter. A younger man in a black overcoat, his BODYGUARD, stands several steps to his left. The younger man nervously clasps his thickly-gloved hands together.

The STOREKEEPER anxiously waits on the old man's every breath. This was no time to make a mistake; he knows who the old man is.

So does everyone else in Montreal — everyone, that is, whoever placed a bet, required a quick loan, went to an after-hours club or needed a fix. The old man is BAPTISTE GAULOIS, the scion of the Gaulois Family, the last of the kingpins of the French-Canadian underworld.

The old man mumbles something and the Storekeeper hastens to retrieve a bottle of Napoleon Brandy from the shelf. The Bodyguard, ill at ease, looks nervously from side to side.

Baptiste pays the Storekeeper and picks up the bagged bottle of brandy. The, Storekeeper, nodding, speaks in hushed tones of great respect:

        Merci, Monsieur Gaulois. Merci.
        Au revoir.

Baptiste nods and walks toward the door. His Bodyguard precedes him.

The Bodyguard is already standing on the snowy sidewalk when Baptiste's eye catches the magazine rack. He motions ahead, but it is too late — the Bodyguard is out in the cold.

Baptiste picks up the tasteful large format copy of Elle and carries it back to the counter. Dropping a coin on the counter, the old man tucks the magazine and bottle under his arm and heads toward the door. Approaching the door, he braces himself against the winter night.

Baptiste stands OUTSIDE a moment, looks toward his black Citroen, and shuffles toward it when he notices something unusual — his young Bodyguard is lying in the snow beside the Citroen, his throat slit from ear to ear.

Baptiste drops his magazine and bottle (with a MUTED CRASH), and fumbles inside his bulky overcoat for a gun.

But it is too late. TWO THUGS, dressed in black from head to toe, jumped from the shadows and begin to pummel him with blackjacks.

The old man struggles vainly to protect himself as he sinks to his knees under the steady barrage of blows. The Thugs pause a moment, as if for decency, and then the old man's head thuds against the snowy sidewalk.

The Thugs drag Baptiste's heavy body across the sidewalk into the junk-strewn lot next to the market. Opening his overcoat, they go through his pockets, removing whatever valuables they can find.

Pocketing Baptiste's wallet, the first Thug reaches into the shadows and pulls out a gasoline can. He quickly douses the old man's limp body with gasoline.

Pausing only a moment for reflection, the Thug steps back, lights a match and tosses it toward the black lumpy mass. Pouf! The mass erupts in flames, and the Thugs run off.

There is a pause, interrupted only by the SOUND of a CAR starting up and accelerating away, then the burning heap begins miraculously to move. Baptiste Gaulois rises slowly to his feet.

He moves like a pillar of fire through the dark street, struggling step by agonizing step across the sidewalk and roadway. Each step takes the tortured giant old man a step closer to the lights of the Boucherne Taverne.

His fiery outline can be SEEN from a block away. The red and yellow flames leap from his body, licking up the snowflakes before they fall, casting flickering and grotesque shadows across the snow.

With a last superhuman effort, Baptiste crashes through the swinging door of the Boucherne Taverne.

INSIDE THE TAVERN, a motley crowd of French-Canadian drunks and workers bolt back in horror as they see a pillar of fire standing before then. They are too shocked to speak; the room is frozen still.

Baptiste Gaulois, his voice croaking with pain, screams:



(From the unproduced screenplay, Quebecois!, by Paul Schrader)

Paul Schrader crystallized the screenwriting development process like no one before or since in a great interview from the ‘70s when Taxi Driver debuted. Below are excerpted comments from that interview.

…when you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive and often unformed; you can’t be analytical about it, you have to let it develop.
One of the mistakes most young screenwriters make is, they go to the movies and say “I can write as well as that,” and go home and do write that well. Of course they can, because most movies are so shabbily written that anybody can write them as well. What they don’t understand is that nobody in the studio system would hire a fledgling Stirling Silliphant when he can get the pro—and he knows that Silliphant will do the job and come in with the product. He’ll gladly pay extra for that security.
You never try to beat the old pros at their game; they know it backward and forward. What you have to do is say, “What do I have that is so unique to me that if I write it, no one will be able to copy it, and if they want to buy it, they’ll have to come to me?” And  in order to do that, you must come to terms with yourself in a very brutal way. If you want to see a woman cut off a man’s hand and eat it, then you have to say, “Gee, I like seeing that in a movie, it was interesting.” You have to accept that fact and deal with it in your own work. But it has to be a personal reaction.
He described a friend who wrote a 300 page script on Charles Guiteau, the man who killed President James A. Garfield, a long and boring script about an obscure historical figure; when Schrader described the story back to him, the friend admitted that it would not be a movie he’d want to see.

That is a problem about writers: they write movies for the wrong reasons. They write them for their professors, their parents, the critics, studio executives, or to sell; and those are all the wrong reasons to write movies. Granted, some people do succeed writing movies for those purposes. The other reasons they write movies are to get laid and to get famous.
My advice is to reach deep into yourself, pull out something unique and meaningful to you, then try to take that raw piece of meat and see it in the context of commercial film: how can I transform this raw meat into something a million people want to see? As a painter, you deal with a very small number of people, a dozen or so buyers of your work. As a novelist, you could break even if ten thousand people will pay for your work. In movies, you’re dealing with a minimum base of a million people. It entirely changes your conception of how and what you’re doing. You have to find something that at once means something to you and yet has a broad base.
As you get an idea, start telling it to people. Maybe it starts at five minutes, and grows each time it’s told. As you tell it, you see feedback from the person you’re telling it to. The important thing is not to listen to anything they say; because they’ll always tell you it’s good or has possibilities; and if you’re insecure, you’ll believe what they say and it’ll fuck up your work. Watch their eyes and body movements; if you don’t have their attention, you’re losing the story—do anything to get their attention back. [Raymond] Chandler once said that if you’re losing their interest in a story, have a guy walk in with a gun. Nobody will ask how he got there, they’ll just be grateful he did, explain it later. As your narrative grows longer through retellings, you learn what it takes to hold an audience. When it hits an hour, I know it’ll work as a script.
This is a method I find doesn’t work for me. It may be different once you’ve become Paul Schrader, but mere mortals may fare worse. I find that the story in its nascent form is too fragile, my energy for it, too vulnerable, to put it out for reaction before it has reached some sort of proto-feature-length. This is because while I see the end result as it might become, the listener knows only what has been described, a far cry from that produced film. But, once the story can stand up to being told, it might be able to stay up.

Screenwriting is not akin to fiction writing at all. It’s like campfire storytelling, and that’s how you should think of it. Words are not your primary tools. Dialogue is essentially a function of hearing. Most dialogue is just picking up the argot of the situation. I don’t think a movie should have too many good lines—at most five great lines and ten good ones—and the rest should be absolutely ordinary and banal. Too many great lines make it top-heavy and unrealistic. This doesn’t apply to comedy, of course. I think one of the problems with Terry Malick’s writing is that it has too many good lines; you begin to listen to all the good lines—Tom McGuane has the same problem—and it breaks the dramatic narrative thread of the movie. You must learn to use good lines as spice.
I find this applies to Aaron Sorkin’s writing, particularly in television series work such as The West Wing and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.

If your structure is proper, if you get two characters together at the right place and time, it doesn’t really matter what they say. Preferably, you should get them there about a minute before the audience expects them to be there, so you’ve got the element of surprise. If you have a man and a woman, once married, and then having undergone separate episodes, and they are to meet again, which the audience expects them to do in front of a fountain, but you have them meet in a supermarket, you’ve absolutely got the audience. They go back to her place, it doesn’t matter what they say at this point, because you’ve got them. He can say, “I never realized your coffee was so good,” or “Your coffee doesn’t seem as good as it used to be,” or “I think your coffee is getting better,” or “Did you change coffees?” Every single one of those lines has (sub-textual) meaning because the context is so strong that, no matter what they say, it has reverberations; you’ve put the audience exactly where you want them. That kind of structure (setting up a scene laden with sub-textual meaning) is much more important than dialogue (in which the entire meaning is spoken or explicitly stated in dialogue). In fact, you can kill that scene by having them say something right on the nose—uttering a (so-called) great line at that point.
Once the subtext becomes the text, once the intent of the character(s) is stated directly, the tension implied in the scene (and the meaning inferred by the audience) is dissipated, lost. The scene, now “on-the-nose,” is effectively “killed.”

And then there’s the problem of too many good scenes:

I just had a meeting with Warren Beatty and [John] Milius in which Warren told John something I’ve been telling him too: “You [peak] too soon and you [peak] too often.” I think that’s one of his problems: he’s so full of juice he just can’t stop [peak]ing, rather than holding back and tightening the situation and building characters. That releasing diffuses the energy, the characters are too broad because they never have time to build up the inner strength.
All peaks and no valleys leave one flat. This is perhaps the source of the difficulty I have always had with Milius’s scripts for The Wind and the Lion and even The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.

Schrader goes on to offer his take (at the time) on films’ stories vs. their visuals:

I don’t want to make films whose sole function is to be looked at compositionally. I see directing as an extension of storytelling, which itself is an extension of thematic explorations. So the work I would do would be strictly at that level: as a thinker and as a dramatist. That’s how I see movies. Whatever work I directed I would not be directing as a painter. Maybe after a number of years, I would graduate to that.
I see the image in…pragmatic terms, as a way to get information across. The visual language is different from the verbal language; I see it very functionally. If a shot does not convey certain information, no matter how beautiful, it doesn’t belong in the movie. The primary reason for a movie is to tell a story…
There are those who don’t agree, who see film as first a visual medium, second a storytelling medium. Some directors conceive of movies first as shots, and that’s why you need scripts—you need a very clear demarcation between the writer and the director. You have situations where the writer has conceived a movie in terms of scenes and characters, and the director has done so in terms of visual rhythms—and then they meet. Some directors, thinking in terms of shots, composition, pans, and tracks, listen to your story and think, “Yeah, that’s good, I can put my visual stamp on it.” Well, I’m a writer; my first interest is in the story. I say, “I have to have a scene in that bed which conveys impotence or exhilaration, or whatever; how can I shoot it to convey that?” Whereas the director may say, “I have a certain image in mind, now how can I lay that on the scene?” There’s a little of that in Marty [Scorsese, director of Schrader’s Taxi Driver], because he’s not by nature a writer. He had certain shots, visual things, he wanted to do in Taxi Driver which had to be fitted into the movie. He’d tell me, “I want to do this shot. There isn’t a place for it now. Write a spot for it into the movie.”
But 32 years later, in 2008, Schrader has evolved. Concerning his transition from writer to writer/director, he commented:

It’s on-the-job training. It’s not that hard to direct a movie. That’s one of the myths of filmmaking. All you have to do, is surround yourself with an experienced team. So many cinematographers and assistant directors ghost direct movies. We know their names. They get paid to do that. I can take anyone here, put them with that team, and an efficient, workable movie will result. So what you are bringing to the dance is not experience, but a kind of vision and originality. “I would like to tell this story. It hasn’t been told before, I don’t think. But I don’t quite know how to tell it. Help me out.” I did two films where I didn’t know how to direct: Blue Collar and Hardcore. Somewhere during American Gigolo I figured out what directing was, which was primarily because of a production designer named Ferdinando Scarfiotti, who got me to start thinking in visual terms instead of literary terms. They’re different thought processes. By the time I did Gigolo, I was starting to think as a picture maker much more than as a storyteller. But it takes a while. During the first and second film in particular, you’re just trying to keep your goddamned head above water.

But in the earlier interview, he described how he generates his movies:

I think there are three steps to writing a script. First, you have to have a theme, something you want to say. It doesn’t have to be a particularly great thing, but you have to have something that’s bothering you. In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for that theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness. Then you have to find a plot, which is the easiest part of the process. All plots have been done; they’re fairly easy, you just work through all the permutations until the plot accurately reflects the theme and the metaphor. You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot [our italics].
Elsewhere in the interview he revealed how he arrived at his plot for Taxi driver:

…two things happened which tied the project [Taxi Driver] together: a Harry Chapin song called “Taxi,” in which an old girlfriend gets into a guy’s cab; and [Arthur] Bremer shot [Presidential Candidate and Alabama Governor, George] Wallace. That was the thread which led to the script. Maybe I shouldn’t admit to this, but why not be honest? After all, there’s really nothing new on the face of the earth.

Elaborating on his method at one point, he explains:

One of the problems with screenwriters is that they think first in terms of plot or in terms of metaphor, and they’re going the reverse way; it’s awfully hard to do. Once you have a plot, it’s hard to infuse a theme into it, because it’s not an indigenous expression of the plot; that’s why you must start with the theme and not the plot.
Metaphor is extremely important to a movie. A perfect example is Deliverance, where you have point A and point B, and four men going from A to B—the first time [theme] for the men, the last time [metaphor] for the river. On the strength of that metaphor, you could put the Marx Brothers in that boat and something would happen. When somebody walks up to you and says, “I’ve got a great idea for a Western and this is the twist,” you know right off the bat that they’re in trouble, because they’re coming at it the wrong way. Maybe they’ll be able to write a novel that sells, make a lot of money, and live in Beverly Hills; but it’s not interesting to me; not something I really care about.
As Pipeliner [his first script and an effort to finance it] was falling through, I got hit with two other blows to the body at the same time: my marriage fell through, and the affair that caused the marriage to fall through fell through, all within the same four or five months. I fell into a state of manic depression. I was living with someone at the time, and she got so fed up with me that she split. I was staying in her apartment waiting for the cupboard to run out of food.
I got to wandering around at night; I couldn’t sleep because I was so depressed. I’d stay in bed till four or five P.M. then I’d say, “Well, I can get a drink now.” I’d get up and get a drink and take my bottle with me and start wandering around the streets in my car at night. After the bars closed, I’d go to pornography. I’d do this all night, till morning, and I did it for about three or four weeks, a very destructive syndrome, until I was saved from it by an ulcer; I had not been eating, just drinking.
When I got out of the hospital I realized I had to change my life because I would die and everything; I decided to leave L.A. That was when the metaphor hit me for Taxi Driver, and I realized that was the metaphor I had been looking for: the man who will take anybody any place for money; the man who moves through the city like a rat through the sewer; the man who is constantly surrounded by people, yet has no friends. The absolute symbol of urban loneliness. That’s the thing I’d been living; that was my symbol, my metaphor. The film is about a car as the symbol of urban loneliness, a metal coffin.
I wrote the script very quickly, in something like fifteen days. The script just jumped from my mind almost intact.

…when you’re writing films, you’re dealing with a kind of nascent, primitive force that’s alive…

He goes on…

Before I sat down to write Taxi Driver, I re-read [Jean-Paul] Sartre’s Nausea, because I saw the script as an attempt to take the European existential hero, that is, the man from The Stranger, Notes From The Underground, Nausea, Pickpocket, Le Feu Follet, and A Man Escaped, and put him in an American context. In so doing, you find that he becomes more ignorant, ignorant of the nature of his problem. Travis’s problem is the same as the existential hero’s, that is, “should I exist?” But Travis doesn’t understand that this is his problem, so he focuses it elsewhere, and I think that is a mark of the immaturity and the youngness of our country. We don’t properly understand the nature of the problem, so the self-destructive impulse, instead of being inner-directed, as it is in Japan, Europe, any of the older cultures, becomes outer-directed. The man who feels the time has come to die will go out and kill other people rather than kill himself. There’s a line in [The] Yakuza which says, “When a Japanese cracks up, he’ll close the window and kill himself; when an American cracks up, he’ll open the window and kill somebody else.” That’s essentially how the existential hero changes when he becomes American. There is not enough intellectual tradition in this country, and not enough history; and Travis is just not smart enough to understand his problem. He should be killing himself instead of these other people. At the end, when he shoots himself in a playful way, that’s what he’s been trying to do all along.
From Film Comment magazine, March-April 1976, Paul Schrader interviewed by Richard Thompson, January 26 and 29, 1976.
Screenwriting according to Schrader:

Theme by way of metaphor yields plot.

The only things left out are story and talent. #


Lee A. Matthias

Quote of the Post:

You push the theme through the metaphor and you should come out with the plot
---Paul Schrader 

Friday, September 10, 2010

How I Would Re-Make "Forbidden Planet"

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.


MAIN AND CREDIT TITLES SUPERIMPOSED ON THE BLACK OF OUTER SPACE—pinpointed with piercing stars, smudged with nebulae, scrawled across the cosmic dust. As TITLES END—

             A VOICE (O.S.)
        In the final decade of the
        21st Century, men and women
        in chemically-fueled rocket
        ships landed on the moon. By
        2200 A.D., with the perfecting
        of atomic  propulsion, they
        had reached the other planets
        of our solar system. Due to
        galactic distances, the fixed
        limits to expansion now appear-
        ed to have been reached. But at
        this moment--
             (AS CAMERA BOOMS IN)
        --not for the first time in
        human history—another ancient
        “absolute” of science was
        found to have been illusory.
        Almost at once there followed
        the discovery of quanto-gravi-
        tetic hyper-drive, through
        which the speed of light was
        first attained, and later
        greatly surpassed—and so at
        last mankind, now banded to-
        gether in a single federation,
        began the conquest and coloni-
        zation of deep space.

ADVANCING CAMERA has by now PICKED UP (MINIATURE) A SPACE SHIP IN FLIGHT—a relatively tiny object of polished metal. Shaped along the general lines of the planet Saturn, it hangs suspended before the infinite background, and seems hardly to move.

             VOICE (CONTINUING O.S.)
        United Planets Cruiser C-57-D, 
        travelling at 16 times the speed 
        of light, and already more than 
        a year out from Earth Base on a 
        special mission to the Fourth 
        World in the System of Alpha 
        Aquilae, the great main-sequence 
        star Altair.....



(From the screenplay, Forbidden Planet, by Cyril Hume, dated 8-26-54)

Perhaps the greatest science fiction film ever made, Forbidden Planet, will be re-made. While this is old news, I have gathered some information and have some thoughts as to how I would do it if it were up to me.

Has anyone ever done this before? Has anyone speculated in print and offered their own ideas for a re-make of a classic film that is in the works as such speculation is made? Normally, if you aren’t the writer hired for the job, it is seen as irrelevant not to mention jumping the gun (and perhaps “the shark”). My ideas may fall well short of the result. On the other hand, they may set “the bar’s” height, throw down a gauntlet indicating to the film-makers that they have a great responsibility in re-making such a classic. Or, maybe this will establish a record of what could have been. When it comes to my favorite films, FP is in the top 10 or 20. I can’t sit idly by and watch it get the same treatment another favorite, The Haunting, got. I have to get on record my thoughts for how it could be done properly.

If you haven’t seen Forbidden Planet, and you’re interested, I suggest you stop now and find a way to see it. Allow for the fact that it is over 50 years old, and pre-dates Star Trek by 10 years, and Star Wars by 21 years. Place it in its context, the 1950s, and then note how far above the competition it was way back in 1956. Light-years, in fact. Remember Plan 9 From Outer Space? How about Zsa Zsa Gabor in Queen of Outer Space? That film even used FP’s costumes!:

A great and informative essay on the film by Charles Tashiro offers some background:

Based on a screen treatment entitled "Fatal Planet" by Irving Block and Allen Adler, the film also takes at least equal inspiration from Shakespeare's The Tempest. The film might have ended up just another "B" movie quickie, as laughable as most of its contemporaries, had it not been for the interest of producer Nicholas Nayfack. Nayfack, working at MGM, interested the studio in the story. The involvement of MGM's top art department insured a higher level of special effects expertise than was previously available to most makers of science-fiction films.

With the help of MGM's special effects wizards, the wonders of the Krell world unfold before us. Invisible feet leave portentous footprints in the dirt; a "plastic educator" miraculously visualizes a man's thoughts; men cross over level upon level of self-repairing factories, stretching into seeming infinity; a mischievous monkey gets playfully zapped by an ever-attentive robot. In fact, the special effects department even contributed towards the creation of the film's most memorable character, Robby the Robot. Robby's charmingly superior manner, part Gentleman's Gentleman, part Shakespearean clown, part pot-bellied stove, influenced scores of imitators, from the Michelin man to C3PO.

If Forbidden Planet is The Tempest, it's Shakespeare crossed with Frankenstein and a good mystery story. For at the core of the movie is an enigma, the Krell. The Krell remain the great unknown in the dramatic equation of Forbidden Planet. If Morbius' description of them as a "mighty and noble race" is correct, there's still a nagging doubt -- if they were so mighty, why did they disappear? And as the achievements of their civilization are revealed, that doubt deepens.

Viewers familiar with the genre will recognize several ingredients: saucer-shaped spaceships; Man in a united federation, exploring the galaxy; hints of a lost civilization with super-human powers; a supercilious robot serving as dry-witted chorus to the human action; casual interplay between a stern ship commander and his more relaxed officers. But to catalogue these familiar moments increases Forbidden Planet's stature, since most of these elements appeared here first.

In hindsight we recognize a classic, but Forbidden Planet was a risky venture for the people who made it. In 1956, there was little precedent for an expensive bit of speculative fiction. Happily, the film made a profit in its initial release. But while the film continues to fascinate and influence, its greatest accomplishment was to prove that science fiction was a genre worth taking seriously. If there had been no Forbidden Planet, there might not have been a 2001 or Star Wars or Close Encounters. It's gratifying to see that the film that helped make them possible still holds its own with the best of them.
There have been rumblings about a re-make of the film for over a decade. In 2008 it was reported that screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5, The Changeling [2008]) was working on a script for producer, Joel Silver:

"I’ve always wanted to do something involving Forbidden Planet," Straczynski told MTV News. "It’s my favorite science-fiction film of all time. I’ve watched the rights go from one company to the next. I heard that the rights at Dreamworks were about to expire and I went to Joel Silver and said I think if you move quickly you can grab it and I can write it. And he did. It’s the dream of a lifetime to play in that universe."
"I told [producer] Joel [Silver] this is how you do Forbidden Planet without pissing on the original that no one has ever thought of," said Straczynski. "When I told [the idea] to him, his eyes lit up. It’s not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not exactly a prequel. You’ll have to see it. It’s something that no one has thought of when it comes to this storyline."
Straczynski will be paying close attention to detail, with the writer revealing conversations he's had to ensure the film is as scientifically attuned as possible. "[When coming] up with the Krell backstory and who they are, I sat down with some of the nation's best minds in astrophysics and planetary geology and A.I. and asked them -- based on what we know now -- what will a million years from now look like? The goal is to put things in there you’ve never seen before."

As for the 1954 film's retro look, audiences can expect an updated vision that keeps the original's iconic nature in mind. "At the time it was made it was cutting edge," Straczynski explained. "They weren’t trying to be 'retro' -- they thought they were right on the cutting edge. People that went to see that film saw things they had never seen before. What we have to do now is have this one be as innovative now as the original was then. It doesn’t mean we should look backwards."

Also, in 2008, it was reported that director James Cameron was interested in directing the film. Then, in early 2009, it was announced that the project had been cancelled due to web leaks. A little less than a year ago, this appeared, telling us that screenwriter, J. Michael Straczynski, was still working on the script. The news that he was still actively involved was encouraging because he is a pretty good screenwriter. He, in turn, described how he wanted to remain faithful to the original while adding back-story and leaving room for a sequel:

"We've actually decided to show more of the first ship when it first arrived 20 years earlier to sort of counterpoint what's happening in the present story," Straczynski said in a group interview Saturday in Hollywood. "If you're a fan of the original, as I am, and have always been, I think it's very faithful to that." Warner Brothers owns the rights. The biggest worry about the Forbidden Planet remake could be that the studio would turn it into a straight-up action movie. The original was carried by dialogue as Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), one of the planet's two survivors, explained scientific theory to the visiting astronauts. Tension between the astronauts and Dr. Morbius' daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), filled in the rest. Straczynski says not to worry. "There's a little more action, but it's still a strong character piece, because it's based on The Tempest and the idea of a father whose daughter is being courted by, in the original play, sailors that are washed up on shore," Straczynski said. "You need to have that dynamic still in place to respect the original and the source material. So there's a fair amount of talking, but there's some really cool action pieces in it as well."

Though somewhat out-of-date, another website, David’s Forbidden Planet, offers more information.

I've laid hands on a copy of J Michael Straczynski's script for the re-make of Forbidden Planet. I will read and comment in an upcoming update to this post.

L.M., 09/29/2010
I've read the Straczynski script and can report that it is terrific. Since Mr. Straczynski has already reported this himself, I can tell you that it reaches back to the events before the original movie. But it does more than that. In certain very cool ways, it is a re-imagining, and it takes the story to some very exciting places. It is imaginitive in the extreme, though I would have loved to see some of the ideas I present below in it. 

I will not give away the story because I don't want to hurt its chances. For those who want to read it, it is findable, but not through search engine efforts. It will take serious effort unless you know the places to look. Know this: the material is in good hands, and if it is produced, the writing is well-realized, and it is superbly-cast and directed, it will become that rare animal, a re-make that honors, rivals, and has a chance to surpass the original. 

L.M., 09/30/2010

So, while we’ve seen such great intentions fall hard in the past, with some few reservations: “It’s not a remake. It’s not a reimagining. It’s not exactly a prequel. You’ll have to see it. It’s something that no one has thought of when it comes to this storyline.", and, “backstory” (read this: “exposition,” the kiss-of-death in screenwriting, simultaneously desirable and sometimes required, but with life-altering potential). With such caveats, then, these “elements” (Joel Silver and J. Michael Straczynski) still look promising.

I’ve wanted to write my own re-make for a long time, and, though disappointed that it won’t be me, I am excited at the prospect of a new film. I’ve commented on re-makes before. When there are good, solid reasons to justify them—in this case technology, primarily—I am all for it.

This film stands, for me, as one of the greatest sci-fi films (and stories) of all time. In one go, it reached the sublime potential that Star Trek was always trying to reach (and only did a few times).

Now, with its 1950s sensibilities, it seems dated. The military-styled space-ship and crew; the short-skirted blonde love interest, Altaira; the testosterone-oozing male rivals vying for her; the comic-relief of the boozing cook convincing Robby to make up a batch of hooch; all of these elements, while charming in a “campy” and nostalgic sort of way, would need updating, muting, or elimination entirely.

Still, the story underlying all of those is sound. It can and should underlie a re-make. That’s why that re-quote above from Straczynski mildly worries me. It could go too far off the spine and end up like those awful horror re-makes (The Haunting, 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill [Prod. Joel Silver], House of Wax [Prod. Joel Silver], etc.).

But let’s do something new, let’s speculate: what if I were re-making Forbidden Planet? (Fun! I get to lay out my ideas without violating copyright. It’s all just “what if?”)
First, let’s remind ourselves of the basic scenario: Far in the future, an interstellar colony ship travels to the Altair star system and is never heard from again. Decades later, a rescue ship with new, faster propulsion technology, arrives and is warned off by colonist, Edward Morbius. The rescuers land anyway. Eventually they make contact with the survivors: only Morbius and his daughter, Altaira (conceived en-route, her survivor-mother is now dead), remain, along with a remarkable robot, Robby, built by Morbius. The film’s action, then, is the story of what happened in the past, and what is done about it now.

The attractions of the film for me include:

  • Altair-4, the truly alien world – though it is not that it is inhospitably alien, but rather that it is just weirdly alien enough.

  • Robby, the Robot – because he is human-like, yet pure technology; smart and powerful, yet endearing.

  • The long since vanished Krell – because they are so impressive and because of the mystery of their disappearance.

  • The Krell’s brain-booster as a means to enhance and amplify the mind.

  • The idea of “monsters from the id” as a concept.

So, in asking myself, “What could be done with these that would make the film worth updating?” I’ve come up with the following:

--Increase the time interval from 20 years to 50 to better reflect the scale of things. Morbius, while unable to prevent his wife’s death, has, since arriving, somehow halted his and Altaira’s aging so that he remains at age 45, and Altaira at age 25, rather than at their true ages of 95 and 50, respectively.

--The alien world could be better realized through CGI and great production design. First, the planet, Altair-4, could become just an entry-way to the real world of the Krell, a fantastically larger world (think Larry Niven’s Ringworld scale): perhaps a web-world, a spherical geodesic construct of inter-connected arteries composed of dark matter enclosing the star, Altair, itself. These, in turn, would inter-connect dark matter-composed, planet-sized nodes, serving as habitats. And all of it would be, as is dark matter, itself, unseen. Perhaps it is out-of-phase with known reality so that, like dark matter itself, it is un-detected until deduced by its absence, or, in this case, through the brain-booster machine. And then it is entered into, revealing itself as a series of worlds fantastically more varied (think monumentally huge, wildly colorful, full of exotic life), with vast, deserted cities full of inscrutable Krell technology. And, all of it powered by an infinity of dark energy drawn from the never-ending oceans of “emptiness” surrounding and enclosing it, the universe itself.

--Robby, in this updated version, built by Morbius using the Krell’s brain-boost interface, is an artificial being, a man-child, yet, with immense mental abilities. He’s a being who intellectually experiences everything humans do, but does so, amplified exponentially through the collective knowledge-base of the Krell. He’s a character who has the wisdom of an ancient: vast awareness, deep empathy for human potential, respect for human tragedy, and an appreciation of basic noble and ethical goodness. He’s a character with the innocence of a child, someone who is a kind of reversal of the God/Man-perfect/imperfect relationship: though artificial, he is immortal, attuned to the finest, most delicate of human subtleties, capable of the greatest technological and mental achievements, and so, better than his creator. And he’s someone who has extrapolated humanity’s future and seen its destiny, yet, knowing what such knowledge might do, resists all human efforts toward gaining its revelation.

--The Krell, an ancient race from another star in another galaxy that was entirely consumed by the super-massive black hole the galaxy once surrounded. They re-located to the Altair system and transformed it as humanity finds it, having evolved on a far-slower scale than that of humanity. They took 20 million years of their own evolution to reach space, compared to humanity’s 1 million (since the dawn of Homo Erectus), and they took another 5,000 years to achieve interstellar travel compared to humanity’s 200. This implies that humanity has far more potential than the Krell because it learns faster. The Progenitors, a race the Krell encountered when they first ventured into space, millions of years ago, a race long-vanished, who were from a first-generation star system and therefore perhaps the first-generation life form, billions of years older, even, than the Krell. Despite the unimaginable vastness of the universe, it was the Progenitors who understood how much the product of accident and fortuitous coincidence, and therefore, how rare, intelligent life, as opposed to mere life, truly is. When, finally, after searching for eons, the only intelligence the Progenitors ever found was the Krell, they engineered their own discovery by the Krell in order to amplify the Krell’s progress. It worked, and the Krell learned much of their titanic knowledge from that discovery. Now, the Krell, too, have vanished (Morbius’s tests confirm the last Krell walked these corridors more than a billion years prior). What happened to them? Could their discovery by humanity have been intentional, to amplify us, just as they had been amplified before us? And, if so, what is our destiny? And how must we wield such knowledge, such power? For whom? For what purpose?

--The brain-booster isn’t merely a device that enhances a neural structure such as a human brain, but rather, it is a device that makes a human mind fully active, “turned all the way up to its physiological maximum,” so that it, in turn, is now capable of interfacing with the artificial “neural network” of the Krell, themselves. Yet even this capability does not gain them access to the full Krell/Progenitor knowledge-base. Only Robby, among them, can access that. Much as the light of the sun blinds, humans would be overwhelmed by the immensity of Krell/Progenitor experience and their combined intellectual power. They would die in the attempt. So they gain the towering mental potential from which the Krell built their world, their technology and its potential, but only at the lowest, most rudimentary level. And yet, even that is a level Robby tells them humans would not otherwise reach for tens of thousands of years of progress and evolution.

--Monsters from the id: a notion that, using the Krell brain boosting device, a being’s darker side will be boosted along with the lighter, ego-side, that the now-super-powerful id is able to manifest as a monstrous negative force, physically composed (in our updated version) of dark-“anti”-matter, and drawing upon the dark energy powering the still-running Krell infrastructure. This entity, the super-id, now threatens through un-bridled power to dominate and defeat the undefended super-ego and so the being, itself. This detail, in our update, is ultimately seen to be a “device,” a “cipher,” trickery designed to mis-direct, to shield and conceal the truth of what happened to both the Krell and their own mentor-race, the Progenitors: that the Krell and their predecessors both hide, effectively in plain sight, by having enfolded themselves and their existence within the dimensions of 11-dimension (M-Theory) space. They have, in fact, shrunk down to an existence at a sub-atomic, quantum foam level of vibrational energy where demands of the physical, baryonic self, survival, energy-dependence, influences of environment (including, even, time) are non-existent. They live now in a place where even the far-future heat-death of the universe will not end their existence. It amounts to a kind of “heaven,” open only to beings whose mental states and physical capabilities have advanced to the point where they can transit into such an existence. It is, in fact, a state lying at the end of humanity’s evolutionary path, provided it can make it without destroying itself or dying out in some other way. In the end, our humans finally communicate with the Krell (the Progenitors, too), through Robby, whose ultimate tragedy is that while he can see essentially all, he cannot achieve such existence himself.

--So the ending is, at first, a titanic battle with the id-monster; ultimately it is, with a dying Robby’s help (mortally damaged by battling the id), seen as a battle with one’s own reason, and when they realize that and convince Morbius of the truth of it, his own ego pushes the monster aside as easily as one swats a mosquito. But it’s too late for Robby, and too late to save the Altair system and the Krell’s stellar habitat, now irretrievably disintegrating under the onslaught of the id monster’s assault. The star, Altair, itself now boosted by the Krell power generators falling into it, is in a run-up to going super-nova. This allows them just enough time to phase-change out of the dark-matter web-world and back to the gateway on Altair-4, and so escape to their ship and out of the system. So Morbius and his daughter live, but Robby and all he knew and could connect to: the Krell, the Progenitors, and the knowledge of the universe, itself, all of it is lost until the time humanity either achieves it of its own evolution, or fails in the attempt.

All of these ideas could be terrifically-realized by state-of-the-art motion picture technology and production design. And none of these ideas violate the essential premise, the core spine, of Forbidden Planet. For me they make for a worth-while re-make, a Forbidden Planet for today.

Since this is kind of a first, a speculation on the re-making of a film I/we can never participate in, a film that is in active pre-production, your thoughts, reactions, and ideas would be interesting. Maybe the film-makers will notice us and take heed. #


Lee A. Matthias

Quotes of the Post:

“…its greatest accomplishment was to prove that science fiction was a genre worth taking seriously. If there had been no Forbidden Planet, there might not have been a 2001 or Star Wars or Close Encounters.”                
---Charles Tashiro
“…and there certainly wouldn’t have been a Star Trek!”                               
---The Last Reveal