Cast of Horribles

Friday, April 29, 2005

“So, what did you think?” the director asked the executive producer.

“It’s changed a lot from the original script,” the EP said.

“Yeah, after talking it over with John, we went back to his original concept,” the D said. John was the writer for the film. He pitched his idea to the EP, who gave the thumbs up and after choosing the D, gave the D a few million dollars. That’s how it works in Hollywood: thumbs, money, passing the idea from one person to the next, regrets.

“It’s rather pathetic,” the EP said.

“What’s that?” the D said.

“The protagonist, he’s pathetic,” the EP said. “In the script I read, he was a positive and a happy influence on his family. When the aliens. . . .”

“Did you like the aliens?” the D interrupted.

“Oh, yes,” the EP said. “I liked them very much. Your effects guy did a wonderful job. I was afraid they would take away from the realism, but I stopped thinking it strange that the town didn’t realize that half its population was alien. The purple antennas took me a really long time to get over. As I said, though, I forgot about it three-quarters of my way through the movie.”

“We had a great editor,” the D said. “On the first cut, I was a little nervous about how the aliens were portrayed, but I think we moved in the right direction.”

“Yes,” the EP said. “That was the right direction for the aliens. But let’s get back to the protagonist. Maybe the editor should take a whack at this. Let me draw for you what I’ve been thinking. Do you remember when John first pitched the movie?”

“I wasn’t involved yet,” the D said.

“Oh, yes, of course,” the EP said with a dismissive wave. “John came to my office three years ago to pitch his idea. After he pitched, I knew it would be an important day, and I had my assistant take notes on my feelings. I don’t normally do that, take notes on what I feel, but I knew I had to document it. I’ll read you what I wrote.”

The EP picked up a printed page from his desk and held it at arms length. “Notes on meeting with John Bappins, writer. November 16, 1997, 11:37am, blah, blah, blah. Here’s where it starts: Gulf,” the EP said, emphasizing the word and pausing to look at the D before continuing. “The family weeps, heartache. Child dying in the protagonist’s arms, strength comes from within. The withered mother. Sadness. Prostituted daughter. Creeps. Emptiness in pursuit of a new angle on relationships. Aliens explain everything and nothing. Death. I wept. Joust. Buy.”

The EP’s eyes were moist, and the D handed him a tissue. The EP waved him away. “The first thirty minutes that John spent describing the movie, he didn’t even mention the aliens,” the EP said. “He focused solely on the family: the protagonist, his wife, their sick child, the town’s support, the family’s downfall. These tears,” the EP pointed dramatically at his glassy eyes, “were real. If he had left it at that, the family story, I would have thrown money at him. When he pushed the aliens’ angle, I took a step back. I was worried he was messing with the integrity and beauty of the family relationship. What the aliens added, though, was hope in a twisted form. Then he got into it. He described what he was after, what the aliens meant to the family, how they helped it transcend death. Do you see where I’m going with this?”

“Very much,” the D said. “And that’s exactly what I was after.”

“You still don’t understand,” the EP said. He stood and started pacing around his office. “When I watched your cut, I didn’t feel for the family. I didn’t like the father because he was weak. I wanted him to be more. I wanted him to be the rock that supported that family. At the end, when he picked up the M-60 and started shooting the aliens, I wanted that to mean something. I wanted that to take away the audience’s pain at his child’s death, and I understand that death must be in quotation marks. The film didn’t do that. It didn’t do any of that because I didn’t like the protagonist, which means I barely liked his family. I would go as far as saying that I was almost glad when his child died. Listen to me: I’m happy when a five-year old dies a terrible death. I don’t know what we’re going to do now.”

“The preliminary test audience responses have been good,” the D said.

“Yes, they’ve been decent,” the EP said. “But with a script like this, they should have been phenomenal. They should have blown them away. Have you seen the notes the test audiences gave? They wanted to like the story. They wanted to have a connection with the father, but they saw right through any possible connection. Don’t you see that as a problem?”

“It’s still an early cut,” the D said. “I’m sure once we get in there, maybe reshoot a few scenes, you’ll see a marked improvement in the audience’s responses.”

“You’re still not understanding me,” the EP said. I wanted you to make the movie that John wrote. You took that movie and turned it into one of your pathetic outlooks on society, on the weakness of man. Why did you do that? You promised that this time you would not do that. That this time you would tell the story like it was written.”

“That’s how I tell my stories,” the D said. “I never promised you that I would change my film sensibilities. I only promised I would be true to the script. You knew my voice when you picked me for the film. Why did you choose me if you didn’t like what you saw in my other films? I brought the characters to life in this movie. I told an impossible story and I made the aliens real. People felt for the family at the end, even when they understood the payout.”

“An end to spirituality?” the EP said. “A disliked family? I didn’t even understand the ending in your film. The twist was there, but what was the point? What happened at the end? You left it hanging. It’s like you lost the energy necessary to finish telling a real story. What happened?”

“It’s all there,” the DP said. “And people seem to understand it, even, if you let me go so far and say, they appreciate it. It’s art, my art. John has had nothing but good things to say about this cut. If you’d give me real notes, I’d try to change things. But you’re just throwing out broad strokes as if I could read your mind.”

The EP breathed audibly and sat down behind his desk. “Okay,” the EP said. “I got a little carried away. It’s just rereading my notes from the day I first heard the pitch, I remember what I felt, and I didn’t get that feeling when I watched your cut. I’m a believer in this story, a real believer. And I’m a believer in you and John. I think what you both do is phenomenal and important work. I just want you to make happen in the film what I felt when I heard the pitch and read the first draft. I want you to reach deep into yourself and tell the story in a way that brings hope and life to the characters.”

“I’ve done that,” the D said.

“I’m not done,” the EP said. “When the protagonist realizes that life is a training ground for service to the aliens, that the entire push of the family story, that the death of their child, that the protagonist’s fall into alcoholism, his wife’s abuse, his daughter’s prostitution, all of it, all of it relates to the aliens’ creation of the human condition. When you drop the hammer, when you hit the audience in the head with the big twist, that death is a figment of the alien’s creation, I want it to be so powerful, so real, so life changing and affirming that when the audience looks through the family’s eyes, they’re not sure if it’s real for a moment. I want them to have that same thought, that, is it real, that they forget that it’s a movie, that if they took a step back, they would realize that the realness is irrelevant because it’s just a movie. That’s the moment I want you to recapture, the moment where the movie transcends the family’s difficulties, transcends the aliens’ existence, transcends the very question of life. Now do you see what I see? When at the end the protagonist decides to end the human condition with the machine gun, I want them to understand why he did it. I want them to appreciate it at a subconscious level. The cast of horribles has to stop somewhere for the audience to understand the story like John pitched it.”

“Cast of horribles?” the D said.

“The pathetic protagonist has to go away,” the EP said.

“Don’t you see?” the D said. “The protag ends the human condition because it’s horrible. His life was horrible. His family was horrible. It’s not pathetic, it’s horrible. It’s not a cast of horribles, it’s a story of horribles, it’s a world of horribles. You hit it right on the head: horribles. That’s what the protag solves. This is the beauty of the story. I’ll go back and see if I can tweak the family a bit, recut some of the other footage, but the aim is going to be the same. I can’t change my vision on this. I can try to reimagine parts of it to fit into your vision, but I won’t sacrifice John and my views.”

The EP studied the D through his teepee fingers. “I’ve had my say. You continue working and get the film ready for release. We’ll talk after your next cut. We should do lunch with John. I want to get his views on this as well.”

The D nodded. The EP never scheduled the lunch. He cut the advertising funding, and when his studio released the film, it flopped. Because it was a great film, over the years, it developed a cult following. The D continued directing movies, and the EP continued producing movies, but they never worked together again. When the movie failed at the box office, John fell into a depression. He killed himself five years before the video sales would make his movie one of the best-loved feature films of the twentieth century.