Evolution of a Screenplay: The Shining

To understand the complex process that Stephen King’s novel The Shining went

Stephen King conceived The Shining at the Stanley Hotel.

Stephen King conceived The Shining at the Stanley Hotel.

through to become Stanley Kubrick’s  The Shining, we need to go back to the night it began in the mind of the famous horror writer.

King based his first two novels, Carrie, and ‘Salem’s Lot, in small towns in his native Maine. He wanted a change, so he and his wife, Tabitha, traveled. He flipped open an atlas and pointed at Boulder, Colorado. They stayed at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park. It was the end of the season and they were the only guests in the hotel. The Stanley was closing down for the season and the Kings had the run of the place.

They stayed in room 217 after hearing it was haunted.

An early attempt at a novel, Darkshine, had stalled. That night, King’s story of a psychic boy came to him again.

They ate dinner in the grand dining room alone. There was only one entrée, which they ate to taped orchestral music. The other chairs were up on the tables. After a nightcap with a bartender named Grady, King had a dream of his son running through the hotel, looking over his shoulder and screaming. He woke up and in the time it took to smoke a cigarette, he had the book in his mind.

The Shining: Stephen King’s Novel

According to Laura Miller’s ‘What Stanley Kubrick Got Wrong About the Shining’, “Jack Torrance, the deranged aspiring writer played by Jack Nicholson in the film, is the most autobiographical of all his (King’s) creations.”

Miller defends Stephen King’s complaints about Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of King’s book.

“That two such different men as King and Kubrick were able to see themselves in this character indicates what a remarkable creation Jack Torrance is.”

It also suggests why King would be particularly sensitive to the manner in which the book was adapted into a screenplay.

“King himself was suffering from alcoholism at the time he wrote the novel, therefore giving a strong autobiographical element to the story. He has expressed disappointment that his novel’s important themes, such as the disintegration of family and the dangers of alcoholism, are less prevalent in the film.”

Jack Nicholson’s famous identification with the character of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) led King to think audiences would anticipate Jack Torrance going mad. King felt an actor like Jon Voigt, Christopher Reeve, or Michael Moriarty should have played the role, which he saw more as an everyman, whose subsequent madness would be more disturbing

Stanley Kubrick’s Treatment for The Shining

Kubrick made copious notes in his personal copy of ‘The Shining’. He produced an 81-page treatment. The treatment is divided into ten parts, the first nine parts being fairly well delineated. Part Ten, however, is skeletal. It sketches what is to happen during the finale loosely, leaving great gaps.

In Kubrick’s treatment there are repeated acts of physical violence against Danny and Wendy by Jack. These, along with scenes showing Jack’s fight with a student and his dislocating Danny’s shoulder didn’t make it into the film. Here are some of the more significant differences:

  • As in the novel, Jack discovers a large scrapbook that mysteriously appears on his writing table. It provides the history of the hotel. The early images are of its grand opening, but the book begins to paint a lurid picture of the events that have taken place there. Later, he shows the scrapbook to Wendy, telling her he thinks the history of The Overlook Hotel would be a good subject for a book. Then Wendy asks him where he got it and he tells her he picked it up in the lounge. The scrapbook only appears in the background and is never referenced in the film, as was the notion of Jack writing about the history of the Overlook.
  • The lights go out and Jack has to start the diesel generator. He and Wendy go to the basement. He is frustrated by the generator’s complex instructions. They discover some strange things in the basement, including a teddy bear hanging by its neck, belly slashed open. Jack is ultimately unfazed by the experience, which only frightens Wendy more. After Jack gets the generator going, they return to the lobby, Wendy expressing concern over who could make such a horrific display. Jack returns to work, not even caring if the phones work. This scene did not appear in the film.
  • The scene in the ballroom with Lloyd, the bartender, ends when Jack hears the lobby telephone ringing and goes to answer it. A water ring from the bottom of a glass stains the bare bar top. Jack answers the phone. Wendy tells him Danny has become lucid again and told her what happened in room 217. She is afraid to leave her room because she believes there is a homicidal maniac on the loose in the hotel. Jack tells her to stay in her room and goes to investigate. This scene changed from a telephone conversation to one where Wendy approaches Jack at his writing table.
  • Jack goes to room 217. A bloated rotting arm draws back the shower curtain and an old woman rises from the tub. In the film she is beautiful, until Jack embraces and kisses her.
  • The conversation between Jack and Daniel (sic) Grady, waiter, takes place at the bar, instead of inside the red restroom. The dialog in the treatment is very similar, if not the same. But the change in location, that amazing red bathroom, was significant.

The Shining: “How Do You Like It?”

Part Ten of the treatment begins with a variation on what has become one of the most famous scenes in the film. Wendy discovers the radio doesn’t work and goes to the lounge where Jack does his writing to confront him, but he is not there. A thick stack of typewritten pages – Jack’s manuscript – sits on the table next to the typewriter. Wendy grabs a fistful of pages and throws them on the floor. They scatter, float and fall in a hundred different places. She yells for Jack. Then she notices one of the pages on the floor. She moves around the room, taking in the pages and what is written on them: ALL WORK AND NO PLAY MAKE JACK A DULL BOY.

When Jack confronts her threateningly, Wendy pushes Jack down the staircase, instead of hitting him with a bat. Then Wendy and Danny drag Jack through the hotel to the kitchen and into the larder.

Later, Wendy searches the kitchen for a padlock and key, but finds the door to the larder open. Jack grabs her around the throat from behind and strikes her head against the larder door. She drives her boning knife backwards into Jack’s belly. She gets away from him.

From Stanley Kubrick’s Treatment for The Shining

“A dying Jack creeps slowly in pursuit of a battered, nearly unconscious Wendy, the details of which are to be worked out, and which will end in Jack’s death.”

From here the treatment deviates from the novel AND the final film.

As Jack dies, Wendy hears the sound of a Snow Cat. She drags herself to the lobby where she finds the doors open, flapping in the wind. There is no sign of a Snow Cat. Suddenly she realizes Danny is alone in their room.

The door is open and Danny is not there.

Dick Hallorann moves along the corridor, casting a terrifying shadow on the wall. He is the fearful figure from Danny’s visions. Grady greets him.

The treatment then describes, in various levels of detail, an ending completely different from the one in the book or the film. Halloran goes crazy with an axe, Danny flees for his life, and Wendy wields her kitchen knife. As she progresses she becomes a ‘maddened demoniacal figure’.

She flings open doors, revealing scenes of the past evils of the hotel. At the conclusion of the chase, Danny sends Hallorann a psychic ‘Stop Dick! Don’t!’, giving Wendy the opening she needs, as Kubrick wrote in the treatment, ‘so that the old lady in Psycho will look like a pushover in comparison.’

Wendy takes Danny from the carnage. Hallorann falls to the floor. The camera moves in on Jack’s writing table, to the white scrapbook that lays open upon it. There is the photograph we all know, showing Jack at the Overlook in 1919. The sound of the Snow Cat starting outside mixes with the sound of a dance band.

A hand enters the frame, closing the scrapbook. The book is picked up, taken from frame. We hear the sound of footsteps fading in the distance.

How Stephen King’s Novel, The Shining, Ended (WITH SPOILERS)

Dick Hallorann rushes back to the Overlook after receiving a psychic distress call from Danny. Hallorann is attacked by topiary animals and then severely injured by Jack. As Jack pursues Danny through the Overlook, the hotel causes him to smash his face beyond recognition. Jack neglected to relieve the pressure on the boiler. Danny informs him that it is about to explode. As Danny, Wendy, and Hallorann flee, Jack rushes to the basement attempting to vent the boiler, which explodes and destroys the Overlook. The injured Hallorann guides Danny and Wendy away from the hotel to safety.

The treatment ends with a tag that appeared following the final scene in the hospital that was lost when Kubrick cut the ending:

“The Overlook Hotel would survive this tragedy, as it had so many others. It is still open each year from May 20th to September 20th. It is closed for the winter.”

The Shining: Stanley Kubrick and Diane Johnson’s Screenplay

According to an interview in the New York Times, author and ‘The Shining’ co-screenwriter Diane Johnson, says Kubrick approached her initially about making a film of her recent novel, ‘The Shadow Knows’.

“Kubrick was thinking of making either the Stephen King or my novel, ‘The Shadow Knows’. And, you know, he ultimately decided on the King.”

Johnson was an interesting choice for a collaborator. She was novelist who had written several novels. ‘The Shadow Knows’ was well reviewed when it came out in 1974. But she had never written a screenplay. Ever.

Kubrick described their collaboration in an interview with Michel Ciment.

“Diane is an American novelist who has published a number of extremely good novels which have received serious and important attention. I was interested in several of her books and in talking to her about them I was surprised to learn that she was giving a course at the University of California at Berkeley on the Gothic novel. When The Shining came up she seemed to be the ideal collaborator, which, indeed, she proved to be.”

Johnson described Kubrick’s approach to engaging a writing partner:

“You know, you get these calls from Kubrick and then he proposes a meeting, and then he proposes you come in and write a script. And, so I did. And I spent, oh, I don’t know, a couple of months . . . I guess eleven weeks all together, so almost three months in London, working everyday with him, and it was . . . I really learned a lot I think about narrative and film-making. It was a great experience.”

“I had already been working on the treatment of the book, prior to her starting, but I hadn’t actually begun the screenplay,” said Kubrick. “With The Shining, the problem was to extract the essential plot and to re-invent the sections of the story that were weak. The characters needed to be developed a bit differently than they were in the novel.”

Kubrick: Adapting Novels, and Why ‘The Shining’ was Different

For Kubrick, this is where great novels become less great films. The point of a novel is the quality of the writing. This doesn’t translate. The film language is based on a different symbology. Also, the author’s insights contribute greatly to the novel.

According to Kubrick, The Shining was different. Its virtue was the plot. He and Johnson didn’t have much trouble adapting it into a screenplay.

“Diane and I talked a lot about the book and then we made an outline of the scenes we thought should be included in the film. This list of scenes was shuffled and reshuffled until we thought it was right, and then we began to write. We did several drafts of the screenplay, which was subsequently revised at different stages before and during shooting.”

The screenplay was revised so often (sometimes twice daily) that Jack Nicholson gave up reading it entirely.

One of the external sources that influenced Kubrick’s choices in adapting ‘The Shining’ was a story by American author Stephen Crane.

“Stephen Crane wrote a story called “The Blue Hotel.” In it you quickly learn that the central character is a paranoid. He gets involved in a poker game, decides someone is cheating him, makes an accusation, starts a fight and gets killed. You think the point of the story is that his death was inevitable because a paranoid poker player would ultimately get involved in a fatal gunfight. But, in the end, you find out that the man he accused was actually cheating him. I think The Shining uses a similar kind of psychological misdirection to forestall the realization that the supernatural events are actually happening.”

The original ending of the film, adds an even stranger layer to this, by making it apparent that, whatever supernatural forces are at work in the hotel, there is a very human presence guarding it.

“To be honest, the end of the book seemed a bit hackneyed to me and not very interesting. I wanted an ending which the audience could not anticipate. In the film, they think Hallorann is going to save Wendy and Danny. When he is killed they fear the worst. Surely, they fear, there is no way now for Wendy and Danny to escape.”

It is interesting to note how Kubrick changed Hallorann in the treatment with a similar twist. We think he’s coming back to save Danny. But he comes back as a devil instead of a rescuing angel.

Kubrick described the maze and how that ending may have orginated.

“The maze ending may have suggested itself from the animal topiary scenes in the novel. I don’t actually remember how the idea first came about.”

The topiary scenes, in which the plants trimmed to look like animals come to life, were deemed too difficult to render on film with the special effects that were available in the late ‘70s.

The Shining’s Original Ending

Slate published the only known fragment of the film’s shooting script (Scripts available on the Internet are ‘Postproduction’ scripts – created after the fact by transcribing the finished film). The article describes what happened following the film’s release:

“Back on May 23, 1980, when The Shining was first released, audiences saw something slightly different from what viewers obsess over today. That’s because the next weekend Stanley Kubrick did an unusual thing: He re-cut the film, removing about two minutes from the ending, even though it was already in release. Those two minutes, like so much at the film’s ghoulish hotel, are now lost to time, unlikely to ever be seen again.”

Overlook manager Stuart Ullman visits Wendy, along with her son Danny, at the hospital where she is recuperating. Ullman tells Wendy that nothing out of the ordinary was found when investigators searched the hotel. He tells her she must have been hallucinating.

“After inviting, Wendy and Danny to come stay with him in Los Angeles, he begins to leave, but remembers that he forgot to give something to Danny, and throws him a yellow ball.”

That yellow ball, or rather the hand that tosses it, is a direct through line to the hand referenced in Kubrick’s treatment, closing the scrapbook, and the footsteps moving away down the corridor. Having tried to turn the amiable Hallorann into a monster in the treatment, it seems like Kubrick and Johnson transferred a little of that darkness to the Overlook’s general manager.

The appearance of the yellow ball at The Overlook led Danny to find the murdered Grady daughters. Ullman appears to be trying to lead Danny somewhere else.

It seems the hotel still wants Danny, and Ullman is intent on getting him for it.

The Shining: The Secret of Room 237 Revealed

According to the website of the Timberline Lodge in Oregon, there was a change made to King’s story that neither Kubrick or Johnston had anything to do with creatively. The Timberline served as the exterior of The Overlook Hotel in the film.

“Kubrick was asked not to depict room #217 (featured in the book) in The Shining, because future guests at the Lodge might be afraid to stay there. So a nonexistent room, #237, was substituted in the film. Curiously and somewhat ironically, room #217 is requested more often than any other room at Timberline.”

 

 

Curtis Hanson: In Memoriam

Curtis Hanson died last week. He had not been well for some time and rumors In Memoriam Curtis Hansoncirculated he was suffering from the onset of a form of dementia. His last film was, Chasing Mavericks in 2012, but he was unable to finish the film due to ill health. He was replaced by Michael Apted

Hanson was born in Reno, Nevada. In something of a parallel to Stanley Kubrick, Hanson dropped out of high school, finding work as a freelance photographer and editor for Cinema magazine.

Hanson worked on the screenplay for ‘The Dunwich Horror’, based on the short story by H. P. Lovecraft, in 1970.

He began making small-budget films, working up to larger productions. He wrote the screenplay and directed ‘The Bedroom Window’ and directed ‘The River Wild’.

Hanson claimed as influences Alfred Hitchcock and Nicholas Ray. He gravitated towards suspense thrillers.

While I admire the grit of Hanson’s film ‘8 Mile’, his films based on the books of James Ellroy and Michael Chabon were my personal favorites. It was Hanson’s adaptation of Ellroy’s ‘L.A. Confidential’, the third novel in his ‘L.A. Quartet’, where it all came together.

Brian Helgeland met Curtis Hanson during post production on ‘The River Wild’. Helgeland had been trying to convince Warner Brothers to let him make ‘L.A. Confidential’. But Warner Bros. hired Hanson instead of him. Hanson saw promise in Helgeland, who recognizes Hanson took a chance when he brought him aboard the project.

“Curtis started out as a screen writer and had done horror films in his younger days, as I had,” said Helgeland in a recent interview. “In a funny sort of way, Curtis saw a younger version of himself in me.”

“We basically worked on our own dime a lot of it. I did a lot of drafts that I didn’t get paid for, but Curtis was always this cheerleader for the film. Not rah rah, just this kind of grim cheerleader and wouldn’t take no for an answer, so it was kind of, that was his big thing was to just put this thing on his shoulders and not put it down till he got it made.”

Hanson’s belief in the project, and in Hegeland, paid off handsomely. The film is the best adaptation of Ellroy’s work to date. ‘L.A. Confidential’ was a hit at the box office and has had a long life in rentals and streaming. Hanson and Hegeland shared the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for their work on ‘L.A. Confidential’.

And Hanson’s career was made.

After L.A. Confidential, Hanson worked on a screenplay and read scripts looking for his next project. Screenwriter Steve Kloves, (The Fabulous Baker Boys) had written a script based on Michael Chabon’s second novel, Wonder Boys. Hanson loved the characters. They made him laugh. He identified with the Grady Tripp character and the frustration building inside him. The film ‘Wonder Boys’ is a beautifully crafted comedy of errors that completely captures the chaos and hilarity of Chabon’s book.

Hanson continued to make features and, in 2011, he directed Too Big to Fail, based on the 2009 Andrew Ross Sorkin book. It was the last film he was to complete in his lifetime.

Regarding which character in their film Hanson identified with the most, Helgeland said:

“I think ironically, he associated more with Kevin Spacey’s character, [Jack] Vincennes, because Vincennes had sort of existed on the fringes of Hollywood. And not that Curtis was on the fringes of Hollywood, but he wasn’t an A-list go to guy at the time. And I think he had a lot to prove cause he loved Hollywood so much and he loved movies so much. And he knew he had this great movie in him, but…he had to give himself the chance to make it. It wasn’t going to be given to him.”

Curtis Hanson will be missed.

Some Thoughts on Seeing Dr. Strangelove on the Big Screen

Dr. Strangelove

Production model of the War Room set, from Dr. Strangelove

‘Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’ is my favorite film. I was pleased to learn that John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola both held up Dr. Strangelove’s absurdist humor as the example of what they were trying to achieve in writing the screenplay for their film, ‘Apocalypse Now’ (My second-most favorite film).

I recently saw Dr. Strangelove again for the – I don’t know – 25th time? But it was only the second time I’ve seen it on a big screen. The first time there was a projection problem with the first reel. They gave us our money back and let us stay for the rest of the film. It was okay from the second reel on. But I don’t fully count it as having seen the film in a theater.

I noticed several things that I’d never noticed before. First, I noticed a typo in the opening credits. These credits are famous. The design, by Pablo Ferro, has been much-copied over the years. I can’t believe I noticed it but it’s never going to show up the way it did if you’re watching it on even the largest large-screen television.

And the funniest part to me is that the typo is on the writing credit. It says ‘Screenplay by Stanley Kubrick, Peter George, and Terry Southern.’ Then, underneath that is the credit to George’s book, ‘Red Alert’, which was the original material Kubrick planned to base the film on.

The credit reads ‘BASE on the novel ‘Red Alert’ by Peter George. I wonder if Kubrick ever noticed it.

The next thing I noticed, again because it was on a BIG screen, was that Miss Foreign Affairs, the centerfold in the Playboy magazine that Col. Kong (Slim Pickens) is reading, is Tracy Reed, who plays Miss Scott, General Turgidson’s (George C. Scott) ‘confidential secretary’. Apparently this was intended and I just never noticed it before.

I’d also never noticed a couple of shots with General Turgidson in the foreground during the War Room scenes in which other men seated at the table behind him are slightly out of focus. One of those men appears to have the hair and tinted glasses of Dr. Strangelove, but it doesn’t look like Peter Sellers to me.

I noticed that there is a point in the final scene when Sellers, in the Strangelove character, is explaining the concept of using mineshafts to preserve a portion of the country’s population. Actor Peter Bull, who plays Soviet Ambassador Alexi de Sadesky, stands behind and slightly to the left of Strangelove’s wheelchair.

It is well-known that Sellers’ improvisations drove large sections of the War Room scenes. Kubrick admitted to laughing frequently and heartily at Sellers while filming. But Bull, whose stern countenance completely melts down can barely stifle outright laughter at Sellers. Kubrick must have been faced with the choice of using the only take of a brilliant Sellers improv or leaving it out.

I thought I’d found something new, but I googled it to see if I could find another reference.

PETER BULL SELLERS BREAKING CHARACTER

The first item was the Wikipedia entry for ‘Breaking character’. Bull’s performance is second on the list.

That final scene, by the way, wasn’t the original final scene. In fact, the final scene was shot and not used. It featured a pie fight in the War Room in which every character ended up completely covered in merengue. Kubrick decided it against using it. So, in a way, he was stuck using the take with Bull breaking character.

Something else I learned as I was writing this. The advanced screening for Dr. Strangelove was not held. It was scheduled for the evening of November 22nd, 1963. The assassination of President John F. Kennedy would, a few days later, prompt Kubrick to bring actor Slim Pickens into a dubbing studio to record the word ‘Vegas’ to replace the word ‘Dallas’ in his commentary on the contents of the bomber crew’s survival gear.

“A fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff” wasn’t funny anymore.

 

Putting Words in Their Mouths: Three Great Lines of Film Dialog

GroupWithBubblesA single line of dialog does not a screenplay make. But there are certain lines that stay in our minds long after the projector is turned off and the theater floor swept. In some cases those lines become the stuff of popular culture. Here is a list of three of my favorite lines of film dialog.

3. “Have you seen the returns on ‘Gandhi II’?”

David Mamet is a successful playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and director. He has written and directed a number of films, including ‘House of Games’ (1987) and ‘The Spanish Prisoner’.(1997) You know his dialog immediately, the way the spoken words form the warp and weft of the scene. There is no mistaking it.  ‘State and Main’ (2000) is an absurd exploration of what happens to a small East Coast town when a film production moves in and runs roughshod over the locals.

In one scene, two of the film-within-a-film’s crew are seen entering the production office having an exchange around the above, an inside joke-within-a-joke about the priorities and integrity of the film industry.

2. “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.”

Mario Puzo’s novel ‘The Godfather’ was published in 1969. It was an immediate best seller. The screenplay for the film ‘The Godfather’ (1972) was co—written by Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola, though they did not write together. Puzo completed a draft of the screenplay and submitted it. Coppola took a copy of Puzo’s novel and went through it with a pair of scissors, cutting it up and pasting it into another book, accompanied by his notes about themes within each scene and whether or not that scene would be included in the film.

The line above is delivered by the character Peter Clemenza (Richard Castellano), as he’s initiating a young man into the ways of the family. Having just executed a mole, Clemenza instructs his new recruit to do the above. There is such humanity in the words, and the way Castellano delivers them.

1. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

When Stanley Kubrick decided to make a film based on Peter George’s thriller ‘Red Alert’, he originally intended it to be a serious drama. He began working with George on a draft of the screenplay. The more he researched the subject of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the ways the U.S. and the Soviet Union were dealing with it, the more he realized the only way to treat the material was as a black comedy.
Kubrick and Terry Southern wrote the screenplay that became ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964) In that one line of dialog they brilliantly summed up their theme.

Evolution of a Screenplay: ‘Apocalypse Now’

Last week I wrote about the screenplay for ‘The Birds’.

‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) was based on three things. The first was the novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, by Joseph Conrad. It tells the story of Marlowe, sent up the Congo River to bring back one of his company’s representatives who terrorizes the surrounding countryside looking for ivory. He is their best producer, but his methods, as our narrator discusses with his manager, are unsound.typewriter-726965_1280

These words are echoed, almost verbatim, in the screenplay written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola, which serves as the second basis for the film.

Marlowe later learns that he was recommended by the same people who had recommended Mr. Kurtz, who he is being sent to retrieve.

Milius had been thinking about writing a screenplay about the war in Viet Nam for some time. One of his writing instructors had mentioned Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ and Milius read it. He decided that it would be the perfect basis for his film, about a colonel in Special Forces who violates chain of command by carrying out operations over the border in Cambodia without authorization, using an army of Montagnard villagers willing to do anything he orders.

The narrator of the screenplay is Captain Willard, sent up the Nong River to terminate the command of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz ‘with extreme prejudice’. He travels on a patrol boat with a crew of young men in an absurdist version of the military inspired in large part by Stanley Kubrick’s film ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964). As Willard gets closer to his destination, as he delves deeper into the Colonel’s dossier, he discovers how much he has in common with this man he’s being sent to kill.

As in the book, there is a strong connection between the two men. It is symbolized by the river, in what William Faulkner described as the ‘Geologic umbilical’ in ‘Absalom, Absalom!’. And in the Milius/Coppola screenplay, this connection is so strong that the two men bond together for a climatic battle against the Viet Cong.

Wait. What?

That is the film as Milius originally conceived it. Milius wanted to write a war movie as much as he wanted to make a statement about the war. His politics are well-known. He wrote and produced the film ‘Red Dawn’ (1984) about a Soviet invasion of the United States. It was basically an NRA commercial, demonstrating how the invaders would use the registration system to track down and confiscate all firearms.

The early drafts of ‘Apocalypse Now’ have all the major set pieces seen in the final film, but with Milius’ original ending. In some cases scenes appear as written, in others they take place either in different places geographically or in different times within the flow of the film itself. There are some startling changes in terms of key pieces of dialog – and many of those that have become the most quotable in film history – which were originally delivered by other characters. Willard himself utters the now famous ‘Charlie don’t surf’ and ‘Someday…this war is gonna end.’

It is the river itself that is the third basis for the film. The production had been fraught with problems. Actor Harvey Keitel, originally cast to play Captain Willard, was replaced a couple of weeks into shooting. And then Martin Sheen had a heart attack, shutting down production. And then there was a typhoon. They worked when they could. While Sheen was unavailable, the cast and crew shot scenes that would later be edited with shots of Sheen. There are even some long shots of the patrol boat featuring an unidentifiable Keitel used in the final film.

As Coppola describes it, he had no ending. Even though he had started production with the script as written, he hadn’t been happy with that final battle scene. They were going to the location and Marlon Brando would be flying in for a million dollar week. And there was no ending. According to Coppola, by this point he’d shot everything that could be shot in the script. He had taken to leaving the script in his hotel room and bringing his original paperback copy of ‘Heart of Darkness’ to the set every day.

Brando’s monologues were worked out in detail ahead of time with Coppola. But in front of the camera it was all Brando improvising, both solo and with Sheen and, only rarely, Dennis Hopper. It is one of these exchanges where the lines from ‘Heart of Darkness’ occur, when Col. Kurtz tells Willard the generals think his methods are unsound.

It was on the river that Coppola finally came to terms with what had to happen. Willard had to carry out his mission. He had to kill Kurtz. The entire scene where the villagers sacrifice a water buffalo by brutally hacking it to death with machetes was something Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, discovered while visiting a neighboring village (Her excellent documentary, ‘Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse’ (1991) covers this in detail). And this is how Willard came to hack Kurtz to death in one of the most amazing scenes in film history.

Willard is more present in the film because of his narration. This was added after the film was shot. There was narration in the script, which Coppola recorded himself for use in editing, but he wasn’t happy with it. He knew of Michael Herr’s writing from the research Milius had done writing the screenplay (Herr is also one of the screenwriters credited for Stanley Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ [1987]). Coppola asked Herr to write his own narration, following the script but hewing more towards the film as it had evolved during the production.

Years after the film was released, Coppola approached editor Walter Murch about creating a new version of the film, utilizing footage that had been shot at the time but which, for various reasons, had not been used in the final film. There are a number of smaller changes, including the addition of transitions between the ‘episodes’ of the film.

The main additions are a scene involving the crew of the patrol boat encountering the Playboy Bunnies from the show at a fuel depot, another in which the boat docks at a French rubber plantation, and one in which Willard steals Colonel Kilgore’s (Robert Duvall) surfboard.

It’s an interesting exercise, but I don’t think it is necessarily a better movie. I found the scene in which Willard trades fuel for ‘time with the bunnies’ for the guys objectionable. It’s a scene straight out of the Milius screenplay though, as written, I found it not just objectionable, but totally missing the mark of the film in general.

Interestingly, Milius himself objects to the scene being restored to the film.

“The bunnies were like the Sirens in mythology,” he explained an interview. “Kilgore was the Cyclops, and the bunnies were the Sirens. To show less of them made them more mysterious.”

All three of the added scenes significantly alter our perception of Willard. The downright playfulness he exhibits stealing Kilgore’s board is unlike anything we’ve seen of him before. His sexual encounter with a beautiful French woman at the ghostly plantation and the pimping out of the bunnies shows a man who has needs beyond wanting a mission. The Willard of the original film was closed off. He even refuses the offer of a joint from the rest of the crew and then withdraws from them, literally drawing a curtain between them.

Five Films About Writers, Writing and Publishing

buster-keaton-396846_1280This list is by no means complete.  There are many other films about writing.  ‘The End of the Tour’ is a recent film about the late David Foster Wallace‘Adaptation’, written by Charlie Kaufman, portrays the process through which twin brothers adapt Susan Orleans‘ book ‘The Orchid Thief’ into a screenplay.  ‘Misery’, a film by Rob Reiner, is based on the novel by Stephen KingAlan Rudolph’s film ‘Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle’ is a feast of writers surrounding Dorothy Parker, from the golden age of acid wit.  ‘The Front’, and more recently ‘Trumbo’, confront the Hollywood blacklist, in which writers were identified by friends and colleagues as members of the Communist Party.  And there are many, many more..

If you haven’t seen the films in the following list, be advised that I’ve tried to avoid spoilers, but there may be plot information revealed ahead..

 

The Shining

Stephen King didn’t care for the film that director Stanley Kubrick made from his book, ‘The Shining’ (1980).  The film stars Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as a wannabe writer and his put-upon spouse.  Danny Lloyd played their son, Danny, whose psychic ability the hotel’s cook (Scatman Crothers) shares.

Jack Torrance is King’s most autobiographical character.  So it makes sense he would be particularly sensitive to changes in this material.

Jack Torrance has ideas.  He just needs to sit down and write them out. So Jack gets a job as the winter caretaker at a remote mountain hotel, where he’ll be able to use the ample down time to work on a book. Little Danny quickly discovers he is able to see things he’d rather not see in a place that seems to be the nexus of some dark passage to the underworld.

In addition to ideas, Jack has demons.  He is a recovering alcoholic with at least on episode of physical abuse against Danny on the record.  He descends into madness as the hotel exerts its supernatural forces on him.

Kubrick co-wrote the screenplay with novelist Diane Johnson.  They did depart from the book, but in doing so created some of the most frightening moments in screen history, not to mention several nuggets of popular culture.

In their book ‘Stanley Kubrick, Director’, Alexander Walker, Sybil Taylor and Ulrich Ruchti quote Kubrick:

“The perfect novel from which to make a movie is one which is mainly concerned with the inner life of its characters.  It will give the adaptor an absolute compass on which a character is thinking or feeling at any given moment.”

They also discuss the role of the screenplay once production began.

“For all its author’s concern with ‘control’, a Kubrick shooting script is no cut-and-dried affair. With each successive film, it seems increasingly to resemble a talisman rather than a set of imperatives; a prompt copy, so to speak, for a collaborative effort between himself and his stars.  It is used to incite Kubrick and his actors to respond to the spontaneity of the creative moment, to the inspiration, discoveries, and inventions that their creative partnership is able to generate, rehearse, and catch on film.”

Laura Miller, writing in Salon, observed: “The two men (Kubrick and King) represent diametrically opposed approaches to creating narrative art.  One is an aesthete and the other is a humanist.”

During the first two weeks of the film’s release, Kubrick ordered that the final scene in which the hotel manager meets with Wendy in her hospital room be cut out of the prints and returned to Warner Brothers.  All subsequent prints were struck without that final scene.

Dr. Sleep’, the sequel to ‘The Shining’, was published in 2015.

Barton Fink

The Coen Brothers and Quentin Tarrentino are two sides of the same coin in a way.  They are both great lovers of film in all its forms, and the bodies of work they have created are as much about films as they are the characters and situations within them.  Of the two coin sides I have to express a preference for the brothers Coen.

Barton Fink’ (1991) takes this to the extreme.  Barton (John Turturro) is a playwright with a critical and popular Broadway success and a ticket to Hollywood to work for $1000 a week writing scripts.  He rooms next door to an insurance salesman (John Goodman) in a run-down hotel.  This is contrasted with the opulent lifestyle of his producer, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner).

Fink makes the acquaintance of another writer, W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), a successful novelist drawn to Hollywood by the money.  His career is on the brink as he drinks himself into a downward slide.  Many people see the two characters as representing Clifford Odets and William Faulkner, who both spent time as script writers in Hollywood, Faulkner on ‘To Have and Have Not’, and the classic noir film ‘The Big Sleep’ and Odets on ‘The Sweet Smell of Success’, among many others.

‘Barton Fink’ comments on the low/highbrow comparison between motion pictures and more ‘serious’ entertainment, like the theater. Fink wants to write important stuff, but Lipnick has him working on a wrestling picture.  Fink wants to maintain touch with ‘the common man’.  He selected his hotel because it is ‘less Hollywood’.

Fink is blocked, distracted by all manner of strange sounds coming from the insurance agent’s room next door.  He is unable to write a single line.  He runs out of time and enlists the aid of Mayhew’s assistant (Judy Davis).  She confesses to Fink that she wrote all of Mayhew’s screenplays, and she helps Fink write his wrestling picture.

Those aforementioned nods to old Hollywood aside, the film defies categorization.  It seems noir.  But it also has surreal qualities.

The project came into being while the Coen brothers were writing something they called ‘The Bighead’, Like Fink, they were stuck.  They took some time away and when they came back, they’d written ‘Barton Fink’, using their writer’s block in the script.
‘The Bighead’ was revisited, retitled, and began production as ‘Miller’s Crossing’.

Ronald Bergan, in his book ‘The Coen Brothers’, quotes the brothers jointly:  “Perhaps it was a relief from ‘Miller’s Crossing’, it came easily. Certain films come entirely in one’s head.  You know how it will look.  Even if you don’t know the ending. You have an intuition about the conclusion.  In contrast, other scenarios are like a voyage where you don’t know exactly where you’re going. We just sort of burped out ‘Barton Fink’.”

The Player

Michael Tolkin adapted his own novel for Robert Altman’s film.  This satirical comedy skewers the film industry, particularly in their treatment of writers.

The Player’ (1992) lives mostly with the suits.  Studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) hears pitches from writers, deciding which projects get greenlighted.  The opening five minute shot roams around the studio offices as he hears pitches from a variety of writers, including Buck Henry, who wants to do a sequel to ‘The Graduate’.

Mill has been receiving threatening post cards from a writer he believes wrote a project he rejected.  Mill is convinced the writer is David Kahane (Vincent D’Onofrio) and seeks him out at a local art house theater.  After the movie (Vittorio De Sica’s Italian neo-realist masterpiece ‘Bicycle Thieves’), Mill and the writer go to a bar where Kahane gets drunk and berates Mill.

Mill follows the writer to the parking lot, where he knocks him down, and then kills him.  The next morning the head of studio security(Fred Ward) briefs Mill – the police know he was the last person to see Kahane alive.  And before Kahane’s body is cold Mill receives a FAX from the threatening writer, who is still very much alive.

Mill begins an affair with Kahane’s girlfriend, a frosty artist called June Gudmundsdottir (Greta Scacchi).

New exec Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) threatens Mill’s position at the studio.  Two writers pitch a project called Habeas Corpus to Mill, who sees an opportunity to kill Levy’s momentum by convincing him of the project’s merit and then having him shepherd the film into a mass career grave, with Mill showing up in the last reel to rescue the project.

A year after getting away with killing Kahane, Mill gets a call from Levy pitching a writer with a great idea.  Mill hears the pitch, from his old nemesis, about a studio exec who murders a writer and gets away with it. Mill agrees as long as the writer can guarantee a ‘happy ending’.

It’s a cynical film about a cynical business.  As Robert Altman described it, “It’s light satire.  Nobody gets hurt”.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times published in 1992, Tolkin knows the ‘business’. His mother was an entertainment lawyer at MGM and Paramount. His father was head writer on the old Sid Caesar TV shows–during the period when they boasted what many feel was TV’s all-time greatest writing staff. Among others, his father’s colleagues included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Lucille Kallen, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner and, toward the end, the young Woody Allen.

The Wonder Boys

The Wonder Boys’ (2000) was Curtis Hanson’s follow up to ‘L.A. Confidential’Steve Kloves adapted Michael Chabon’s second novel, published in 1995.  I have to admit to being in Mr. Chabon’s thrall – I’ve read almost everything he’s written.

The eponymous wonder boys are Michael Douglas and Tobey McGuire, teacher and student at a small eastern college.  McGuire is the young rising star, mentored by Douglas, whose own wildly successful and award-winning first novel is still awaiting it’s follow up years later.

The characters gather for the college’s annual writer’s conference.  ‘The Wonder Boys’ is about the whole magilla – the dream of getting published and the fear, once published, of having to do it all over again.  It’s an ensemble cast without peer.  Robert Downey Jr. steals this one, but he has to fight McGuire for it. Douglas plays the novelist whose new book has been years in the making, leaving his agent the laughing stock of the publishing industry.  His marriage is over and his affair with the college chancellor, Frances McDormand, just took a turn as she informs him of her pregnancy by him.  Richard Thomas, the dean of the English department, is the engine behind the conference.

Also, Rip Torn is fantastic as the acerbic Quentin ‘Q’ Morewood.

In his article ‘Screenwriters Find it Hard to Adapt’, Sean Mitchell, writing in the Chicago Tribune, quotes screenwriter Kloves on adapting Chabon’s book into a screenplay.

“I think it’s fair to say that no one at Paramount was overjoyed to be buying the book in the first place and certainly not overjoyed to learn that I would be the one adapting it,” says Kloves, the humorous, self-deprecating writer-director of ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’ and ‘Flesh and Bone’.”

“The danger of a good book is that it is the voice of the author, and the language and his or her craft is what’s making it evocative, and, absent that, when you put it on the screen it just won’t work. So you have to find a way to bring that voice into the screenplay and onto the screen.”

Sunset Boulevard

Billy Wilder wanted to do a movie about Hollywood.  In Cameron Crowe’s excellent book ‘Conversations with Wilder’, he describes his inspiration.

“I wanted to make things a little harder for myself, I wanted to do that thing which never quite works—a picture about Hollywood.  Originally it was a comedy.”

Former Life magazine writer D. W. Marshman Jr. came up with the idea of Joe Gillis (William Holden), an unsuccessful screenwriter, drawn into the fantasy world of former silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson).  Wilder and his writing partner, Charles Brackett, then wrote the screenplay.  ‘Sunset Boulevard’ (1950) skewers Hollywood in a manner not unlike ‘The Player’.

By casting Swanson, Wilder was able to make use of footage from an unseen silent film of hers that was produced by Joseph Kennedy Sr.

Norma plots her comeback.  Her faithful valet, Max (Eric Von Stroheim), basks in her light.  He was once her husband, and also the director who discovered her. The cast includes a number of actors and Hollywood notables playing themselves, including Buster Keaton, Cecil B. DeMille, and columnist Hedda Hopper.

The film begins with the narrator floating face down in a swimming pool, dead.  He begins to explain how he got into this predicament.  He is Joe Gillis, who tries to write screenplays but is not successful.  He makes the acquaintance of Miss Desmond, who hires him as a script doctor on her comeback screenplay, Salome.  She convinces him to come live with her in her decaying mansion filled with the tattered ruins of her career. Gillis comes to find she is deluded in thinking she can resuscitate her career.  Her script for a new SALOME is awful.  She is also deluded into thinking he might be interested in her romantically, when he discovers he is the only guest at a party she’s thrown.

The more time Joe spends with her in her mansion, the more he comes to see that she has “slipped the slivery bonds”.  She watches prints of her old films screened by Max.  One of the benefits of using Swanson was that Von Stroheim, who played Max the valet and her former husband, had directed the film Kennedy Sr. produced and was, in fact, fired by Kennedy from the production.

Norma delivers a draft of the script to her former director, DeMille, who indulges her because of their shared history. She has been putting off a studio executive, thinking he is calling about her project.  When she finally takes his call she finds he is simply trying to rent her unusual Italian limousine for a film.

Joe meets and falls in love with the girlfriend of a friend.  They begin to collaborate in more ways than one.  When Norma finds a screenplay with both of their by-lines on it, she loses control and goes on a rampage.  Joe finally tells her the truth about everything and starts to walk out on her. Norma shoots him three times, sending him sprawling into the swimming pool where we met him.

Mae West supposedly turned the role of Norma Desmond down.  Wilder claims Mary Pickford did as well. It almost went to Pola Negri. And, as Cameron Crowe writes in his book, “Almost fifty years later, there are few stars as famous as Wilder’s fictional one”.

Philip K. Dick and Stanislaw Lem: They Might Be (Literary) Giants

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I do not consider myself a fan of science fiction, but please don’t hold that against me. I’m not a genre reader – I read good writing, in all its forms. I have read some of the classics, like ‘Fahrenheit 451’, ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’…I’m already reaching.sphere-163623_1280

As it happens, two of my favorite writers are considered to be writers of science fiction. Stanislaw Lem wrote many books, and some of them deal with astronauts and space travel. But what attracts me to Lem’s work is the psychology of his stories and characters. Lem began writing ‘science fiction’ because the communist regime didn’t take it seriously. He could express ideas in that genre that would have been censored or gotten him imprisoned. Lem’s book ‘The Chain of Chance’ features a former astronaut as it’s protagonist, but his mission is to find out whether a colleague’s fall from a window here on Earth was murder or suicide. Lem’s ‘Solaris’ has been made into feature films twice (Once in the USSR by Andrei Tarkovsky (The ‘other’ great science fiction film of the late ‘60s with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey’) and more recently in the U.S. by Steven Soderbergh).

Philip K. Dick is better known to the general public, since several of his books have been made into feature films (Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, based on Dick’s ‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’ is perhaps most well known). Most recently, Amazon Video produced a series based on the Hugo Award-winning novel ‘The Man in the High Castle’. Dick also aspired to write beyond the genre, even going so far as to say he didn’t care if it took him 30 years to achieve any success at it. ‘The Man in the High Castle’ is the perfect example. The book is an alternate history of the United States, positing what might have happened had the Axis forces won World War II and taken over our country as the spoils of war.

These two writers have some other things in common, not the least of which (To me) is that I had ‘Ships passing in the night’ experiences with both men. In the late ‘70s I wrote for the student newspaper at the community college I attended in Long Beach, California. During our Thursday afternoon review of the week’s issue I discovered a small story about Lem visiting classes on campus. Lem was from Poland and his opportunities to travel outside the country were few. That a door had opened in the Iron Curtain allowing him to briefly come to my town on the other side of the world was a miracle. But, like I said…ships in the night.

After college I lived in Tustin, in Orange County, California (Fans of ‘Lost’ will know this as the location of John Locke’s box factory). I learned after I’d moved that Phil Dick had lived right around the corner from me and I didn’t even know it. I could have stopped by his apartment on my way to get a Slurpee at the 7-11. If only I’d known who he was then.

Rick Kleffel, of the Agony Column (www.agonycolumn.com), introduced me to these and many other excellent writers. I’ve been an avid reader since childhood, but Rick has helped direct my exploration of both literature and film). If you ever see me in the science fiction aisle of your used book store, Phil Dick and Stanislaw Lem are the reasons I am there.

In addition to my reading, I also like to research the artists, writers, filmmakers, and musicians/composers who have inspired and influenced me. I was very surprised to discover that there was a connection between the two writers of which I had been totally unaware.

Apparently Lem had high regard for Dick’s writing and had been responsible for getting some of Dick’s work translated and published in Poland. He also made sure that Dick was paid, albeit nominally, for the work.

Those familiar with Dick’s history of mental health know that – he had issues. He made the aluminum foil hat, but he made his with a satellite dish in order to receive the communications. This became the subject of the ‘Valis Trilogy‘, which is Dick turning his mind inside out.

To learn that Dick had issues with Lem wasn’t so surprising. Dick came to believe that he was being shorted on his royalties from the Polish editions and he blamed Lem. In fact he didn’t believe that Lem was a person at all. He had come to the conclusion that Lem was a facade for a committee of the Communist Party bent on mind control, even going so far as to write a letter to the FBI stating this.

For more information on Stanislaw Lem, visit his official website at www.lem.pl. For more information on Philip K. Dick, put on your aluminum foil satellite dish. His official site has shut down and the domain is for sale. But check out www.philipkdickkfans.com for discussion forums and updates on all things Dick.