It’s been much longer than I care to admit since I last updated this blog, but I recently picked up my very first (and only) full-length screenplay and figured that this is the perfect forum with which to document some of the process of finalizing it prior to sending out to the world.
To catch you up with the history of this project, it was back in my Screenwriting 200 class about five years ago when I decided that I would base my first screenplay on a nearly one hundred year-old short story. Back then it was still called ‘The Colour Out of Space,’ named after the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name. I turned the script in as required, and put it away for a few months at a time before dusting off the Final Draft file and checking up on why I hadn’t done more with it.
I remember after reading the short story for the first time thinking, “This would make an awesome film!” It was very visual and had a palatable story that those unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s work could even enjoy. The basic gist of the story deals with a surveyor in 1927 whose job is to survey an area near a rural New England town before it is flooded and made into a reservoir. The area which the surveyor (also the narrator of the tale) must inspect is known as the “Blasted Heath” and is avoided by all local residents who know of its strange past. The surveyor eventually comes into contact with a man named Ammi Pierce who tells the tale of the Gardner family farm. Forty years prior, a meteorite landed on their farm and shortly thereafter the family started acting strangely. Trees around the farm began to glow and move on their own. A bunch of really creepy stuff. Seriously, go read it if you haven’t yet.
There have never really been any good straight adaptations of Lovecraft’s stories into film. John Carpenter has channeled him several times in films like ‘The Thing,’ all of Guillermo Del Toro’s films have some of his influence, and you can read him all over ‘Alien’ and ‘Prometheus.’ But there are just as many examples of terrible attempts to bring Lovecraft’s supernatural sensibilities to the big screen. Technically, the film ‘Die Monster, Die!’ is an adaptation of the very same story I set out to write, but it is fraught with 1950s B-movie cheese.
Retaining the true spirit of Lovecraft’s tale was very important to me from the very beginning of the process. I’ve always found period horror to be intriguing. There’s something about knowing that there are no cell phones, no internet, and no flashlights. Nothing between man and the darkness but the tiny, flickering light of a candle. Throw into the mix some supernatural science fiction elements and you have a recipe for a creepy good time.
I am of the opinion when adapting works into film, one has to make sure that above everything else it is a good film. It is very easy to get caught up in slavishly adhering to every jot and tittle of the source material, but eventually you have a three-hour film that’s absolutely excruciating to sit through. Yes, the book (or whatever) has its loyal fans, and yes you risk the ire of internet trolls posting hateful comments on message boards, but at the end of the day they still have that book to go back to. They don’t have to watch the film. As a filmmaker, you must do whatever you can to ensure that it is the best film it can be. That means finding the balance between being faithful to the source material and making it work in a 90-minute visual experience.
A couple examples that I think are on the opposite ends of the spectrum are the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films and ‘Watchmen,’ directed by Zack Snyder. When Peter Jackson adapted the Tolkien books, he took out the elements that he knew would kill the momentum of the story. You don’t remember any Tom Bombadil scenes, do you? The films were better for it. On the other end, when Snyder made ‘Watchmen,’ nearly every frame and every line from the graphic novel was captured on celluloid. It made for a pretty film, but it was a chore to sit through. He was extremely faithful, but a graphic novel is something that can be picked up and put down at one’s leisure. You can’t do that in a movie theater. You get one shot. Everything has to make sense in a linear fashion. You can’t just skip back a few pages to see who they were talking about in that previous scene, and as an audience member you shouldn’t have to.
With all of that being said, another reason I chose to adapt Lovecraft was because I find that some of the best adaptations use short stories as their source material. It is easier to fill in the gaps than it is to chop things out and then try and put them back together in a coherent and entertaining way. That is, unless you’re making Game of Thrones or some other television series where you have all the time in the world to tell your story. So I retained the core elements of ‘The Colour Out of Space’ such as the meteorite, the farm, the Gardner family, and the otherworldly happenings that ensue. I decided to keep the spirit and thematic elements of Lovecraft’s tale such as isolation, doubting one’s sanity, and the boundaries of science.
I had the framework laid out for me, but the audience needs a gateway into your story. A character that they can follow and relate to who helps guide them during the course of the film. A lot of adaptations invent characters specifically for this purpose. ‘Hellboy’ comes to mind where we follow a new agent as he’s introduced to the titular character and the entire secret operation. He’s our ticket in. So when characters in the movie explain things to him, they are really explaining things to us, the audience. I needed my ticket into my film. Lovecraft writes his stories in a first-person perspective, so the main character is usually the reader. That doesn’t work too well in a film. I decided to focus on the character of Ammi Pierce, the old man who tells the tale to the surveyor. He would be my ticket in. My Virgil guiding me through the Inferno.
Ammi is a bit of a dated name, even for something that takes place more than a century in the past. His name possibly derives from Ben-Ammi, a Jewish name, so I figured I would change it to Benjamin. Much more relatable and it still sounds old-fashioned enough to work. I’ve seen far too many movies and tv shows with a main character named Jack. That will never be an option for me. Ever.
In the short story, Nahum Gardner has three sons and a wife. I initially wrote a draft of my script incorporating all three of the sons, but it became too difficult to keep track of all of them, so I got rid of one. Adios son, we had to let you go. That one was easy. But every movie needs some sexual/romantic tension. Lovecraft doesn’t tend to have a whole lot of female characters in his stories, so I found it necessary to invent one. Thus Naomi Gardner, the eldest child, was born. She would be Benjamin’s connection to the family and give the audience that romantic element that we could root for.
I needed a villain though. A mysterious meteorite that infects and kills people is a good start, but as an audience we like to root for someone to go down just as much as we root for someone to save the day. Officer Anton Silva would be the antagonist and the thorn in Benjamin Pierce’s side for my tale. I got the name Silva from Lovecraft’s story ‘The Terrible Old Man,’ another extremely creepy tale. Helping round out the cast of characters, I chose Professor Nathaniel Peaslee, a character from ‘The Shadow out of Time,’ another Lovecraft story. He would be my Obi-Wan for Benjamin, his mentor and friend.
Coming up with the characters who would take part in my script was the easy part. Figuring out who they are and what exactly they would be doing would prove much more difficult. I’ll save that for the next article.