From Screenplay To Screen: Alex Proyas’s Dark City

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

And thank god for editors!

What? That doesn’t make sense to you all? All right then, let me start from the beginning.

In my first edition of “From Screenplay To Screen,” I discussed how frustrating working as a screenwriter is sometimes. I explained that, in order to get paid, you must sell your script to a studio, which can change and edit it however they like–in many cases, sacrificing creativity and originality for tropes that have worked in the past. This tendency of film companies to “mutilate” scripts is a serious issue. So serious, in fact, that three Oscar-nominated writers–Jeffrey Caine, William Nicholson, and Steven Knight–actually went on record in a Guardian article saying that the only way for up-and-coming screenwriters to ensure the sanctity of their craft is to either direct their own films, or write for television, where they have much more power. Man! If that doesn’t show you how big a problem the studio’s editing of our scripts is, I don’t know what does.

And yet, while I agree with these writers, and stand by my previous assertion that studios need to be more open to new plot lines and methods of storytelling, I recently came across a script that helped me realize that this insertion of the big wigs’ into the creative process does, in some cases, serve a purpose. The script in question was Alex Proyas’s Dark City, and before I can discuss it any further, I feel it necessary to provide some back-story on a few details.

In 1998, a whole year before the release of The Matrix, another Australian sci-fi film dealing with the notion of our world being an illusion hit the big screen. That film was Dark City, a Neo Noir Crime Thriller about a suspected murderer with amnesia uncovering the horrible truth that his world is nothing more than an elaborate construct, used by alien creatures to study our behavior. While receiving much acclaim for its intricate plot, philosophical undertones and stylized aesthetics, Dark City failed to become a financial success, barely breaking even with its $27 million budget. Many of the film’s fans claimed that mainstream audiences just weren’t ready for something as new and original as it–that it was, to put it bluntly, too smart for its own good. The irony, though, is that the version of Dark City that actually got turned into a movie was a significantly dumbed down, highly altered work that bore scant resemblance to the original script. I got the chance to read an early draft of the screenplay, and not only was it almost nothing like the movie I’d grown to love–it had a bleaker ending, the characters were different, it was a lot more violent and racist–it straight up made no sense. I have no doubt that if that script had been turned into a movie, it would have made even less money at the box office than it actually did, and probably not have gotten nearly as much critical acclaim.

This got me thinking. Studio executives’ practice of altering writer’s scripts is an evil. There’s no doubt about that. But is it a necessary evil? Does it, in some cases, actually make the scripts better? That’s a loaded question, but, on the whole, one that I would answer, “yes” to. And before any of my fellow writers out there accuse me of selling out, I want to reiterate that I only said that SOMETIMES the intervention of studios into the creative process makes screenplays better. For the vast, vast majority of the time, however, I believe we should be given more respect, more freedom, and more artistic license.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. What I want to explore is that tiny fraction of time where changing a script to be more palatable to a wider audience is a good thing. See, when studio executives alter a writer’s work, its because they’re afraid that the public isn’t ready for something like this, and they don’t want to potentially waste lots of money on a product that won’t sell. In some cases, however, their doing so actually improves the work’s narrative and/or literary quality. As I mentioned earlier, critics and intelligent moviegoers loved the edited version of Dark City that got produced. They still found it thought provoking. They still found it original. It was just more hopeful, and made more sense plot-wise. To illustrate my point, let me go through some of the differences between the film and script.

So, the plot of the movie goes something like this. One night, a man named John Murdoch wakes up in a hotel bathtub, suffering from amnesia. He receives a telephone call from Dr. Daniel Schreber, who urges him to flee the premise to evade a group of men who are after him. During the telephone conversation, Murdoch discovers the corpse of a brutalized, ritualistically murdered woman, along with a bloody knife. He flees the scene, just as the group of men (known as the Strangers) arrives at the room.

Eventually, Murdoch learns his real name, and finds he has a wife named Emma. He is also sought by police inspector Frank Bumstead, as a suspect in a series of murders, though he cannot remember killing anybody. While being pursued by the Strangers, Murdoch discovers that he has psychokinetic powers–which the Strangers also possess, and refer to as “tuning”—and uses these powers to escape from them.

Murdoch explores the city, where nobody realizes that it is perpetually night. At midnight, he watches as everyone except himself falls unconscious, as the Strangers stop time and physically rearrange the city as well as changing people’s identities and memories. Murdoch learns that he comes from a coastal town called Shell Beach, though nobody knows how to leave the city to travel there. Meanwhile, the Strangers inject one of their men, Mr. Hand, with memories intended for Murdoch in an attempt to predict his movements and track him down.

Murdoch is eventually caught by Bumstead, who recognizes that he is innocent, and has his own misgivings about the nature of the city. They confront Dr. Schreber, who explains that the Strangers are endangered extraterrestrial parasites who use corpses as their hosts. Having a collective consciousness, the Strangers have been experimenting with humans to analyze their individuality in the hopes that some insight might be revealed that would help their race survive.

Schreber reveals that Murdoch is an anomaly who inadvertently awoke during one midnight process, when Schreber was in the middle of fashioning his identity as a murderer. The three embark to find Shell Beach, but it exists only as a billboard on a wall at the edge of the city. Frustrated, Murdoch breaks through the wall—into outer space. The Strangers, including Mr. Hand, who holds Emma hostage, confront the men. In the ensuing fight Bumstead, along with one of the Strangers, falls through the hole, revealing the city as an enormous space habitat surrounded by a forcefield.

The Strangers bring Murdoch to their home beneath the city and force Dr. Schreber to imprint Murdoch with their collective memory, believing Murdoch to be the final answer to their experiments. Schreber betrays them by inserting false memories in Murdoch which artificially reestablish his childhood as years spent training and honing his psychokinetic abilities and learning about the Strangers and their machines. Murdoch awakens, fully realizing his abilities, frees himself and battles with the Strangers, defeating their leader Mr. Book in a psychokinetic fight high above the city.

After learning from Dr. Schreber that Emma’s personality is gone and cannot be restored, Murdoch exercises his new-found powers, amplified by the Strangers’ machine, to create an actual Shell Beach by flooding the area within the force field with water and forming mountains and beaches. On his way to Shell Beach, Murdoch encounters Mr. Hand and informs him that the Strangers have been searching in the wrong place—the mind—to understand humanity. Murdoch tilts the entire habitat to face a sun, so that the city experiences daylight for the first time.

He opens the door leading out of the city, and steps out to view the sunrise. Beyond him is a pier, where he finds the woman he knew as Emma, now with new memories and a new identity as Anna. Murdoch reintroduces himself as they walk to Shell Beach, beginning their relationship anew.

Pretty cool story, huh? I certainly thought so the first time I saw the film. But, as I said before, that storyline is almost NOTHING like the one put forth in the script. That one is closer to something you might find in a shitty, b-grade psychological thriller. How so? Well, why don’t I show you?

So, the script also begins in a hotel, with John Murdoch–who, in this version, is named John White–waking up in a bathtub next to a murdered woman. However, unlike the film, he doesn’t get a phone call from Schreber, telling him to get out while he still can. He simply sees the woman’s corpse, gets scared, and flees. He also does something that, to most people, might seem kind of trivial, but to me, was a major plot flaw. See, in both the film and the script, when he wakes up in the bathtub, he realizes that there’s a fish in the water with him. When he gets out, the fish tries to follow suit by jumping out of the water. Now, in the movie, John picks up the fish and puts it back in the tub, thus saving its life. This is partially what leads Bumstead to later believe him when he claims to be innocent because, “What kind of cold-blooded killer stops long enough to save a fish?” In the script, however, rather than saving the fish’s life by putting it back in the water, John decides to do something gross by instead sticking it in his pocket. In so doing, he both kills the little creature, and takes away any room for doubt that Bumstead might have about him being a murderer. This, in turn, makes Bumstead’s decision to team up with him later in the script seem nonsensical, because there’s nothing about John’s behavior to indicate that he didn’t kill anyone. It’s subtle details like this that can make or break a screenplay.

But, I’m getting sidetracked. Back to the story! So, in the script, after John leaves the hotel, he is pursued by The Strangers, who, here, are referred to as Mystery Men. Now, in the film, when John first confronts them, he discovers that he has psychokinetic powers, which play a significant role later on in the story. In the screenplay, however, John doesn’t exhibit any kind of superhuman abilities when he first sees them. In fact, no indication whatsoever is given throughout the script that he might be telekinetic until the climax, when, out of nowhere, he suddenly decides that he can fly and move objects with his mind. This both confused and frustrated me when I first read the screenplay, and I personally find it to be one of the script’s greatest narrative weaknesses. Now, don’t get me wrong! I don’t think you have to explain everything that happens in a movie. But if the things you aren’t explaining are major plot points–like a protagonist’s sudden acquisition of super powers–that’s not good writing. In fact, that’s the polar opposite of good writing. That’s lazy, amateur writing.

But, once again, I’ve gotten sidetracked. Back to the script! So, after John manages to evade the Mystery men, he goes on an extended tour of the city–visiting places like a Barber shop, a Chinese restaurant, a Church where he meets a mute Japanese prostitute, and then finally, the prostitute’s house. Neither he nor the audience really learns anything particularly important from these episodes, other than that, one, John might be schizophrenic, and two, the screenwriter, Alex Proyas, really doesn’t like Asian people. The former detail is indicated by the fact that, every five minutes or so, John has a weird hallucination of some kind. While he’s hiding in the prostitute’s house, for instance, he dreams that she suddenly learns how to speak and then calls the cops on him. And this is only one of many more, incredibly odd, fantasies he has throughout the course of the script. The latter detail, Proyas’s seeming dislike of Asian people, is indicated by the fact that none of the Asian characters in the screenplay have names, can speak English, or speak at all, and have incredibly stereotypical roles–restaurant owner, sex worker, etc.

Anyway, while John’s at the prostitute’s house, an unnamed woman comes in and claims to be his wife, but John, of course, does not recognize her. This leads her to start weeping, and, as is common in a lot of trashy movies, there is a gratuitous sex scene, where the prostitute tries to make her feel better by taking her into the bedroom and performing cunnilingus on her. Why was this lesbian episode included? I don’t know. Maybe the screenwriter just wanted to distract the audience from the fact that he’d written a really weak script. It certainly didn’t add anything to the story. Neither John’s wife nor the prostitute is given a name, and they both end up dead in the next scene, so, honestly, you could just have easily not included this segment at all, and the story would have been just fine. Except, it wouldn’t have actually been just fine, because the story itself doesn’t make any sense.

As I mentioned earlier, both the prostitute and John’s wife wind up dead after he falls asleep and has another dream. This forces him to, yet again, flee the premise. One thing you notice very quickly while reading this script is that it’s highly repetitive. Almost every scene follows the same basic pattern–John goes to some place, he meets a person who tells him a little bit about himself, but doesn’t answer most of his questions, he has a dream, and then he wakes up to find them dead. This is what happens with the prostitute, it’s what happens with Schreiber, and it’s what happens with Bumsted. Don’t believe me? Well, why don’t I show you? After John leaves the prostitute’s house, he finds the card for Dr. Schreiber’s office in his pocket, goes there, doesn’t learn much, falls asleep and then, wouldn’t you now it, wakes up to find that Schreiber’s been killed. This same scenario plays out again when, later on in the script, John is apprehended by Bumstead and his men. Bumstead interrogates John, who tells him about the Mystery Men, Bumstead decides to believe him for no reason, John falls asleep, and then, like clockwork, Bumstead ends up dead. A big chase scene through the city follows, with John being pursued by a robot that the Mystery Men have created specifically to hunt him. It’s really silly.

Anyway, the Mystery Men finally catch John, and put him on trial, where they bring out the re-animated corpses of all the people he supposedly killed–the woman from the hotel room, the prostitute, his wife–as witnesses. Now, I’ll admit, the idea of having a murderer go on trial, and be forced to hear the testimony of all the people he killed, is a pretty creepy, and pretty cool idea. It’s inventive, it’s effective, and it’s highly unsettling. But, alas, the screenwriter decides not to dwell on this interesting premise. Instead, he has John suddenly remember that he has this little hand-written book in his pocket, which contains evidence of the Mystery Men being aliens, and the city being an elaborate construct. The script makes no effort to explain where this book came from, or who wrote it, but again, this whole interesting plot thread is abandoned almost instantly when John, deciding that he can take it no more, acquires super powers out of thin air, and blows everything up. After the dust settles, we find ourselves on a beach, where John, and an unknown woman, meet on the docks, and John, after telling her his name, strangles her to death. The script ends with the camera panning down to the little hand-written book that he used to defend himself in his trial. The wind blows it open, and we see that it’s blank.

So, that’s Dark City, the screenplay, and, well…it’s terrible. I’m sorry, but there’s just no way to sugarcoat it. It’s bleak, it’s racist, there are whole major plot threads that are introduced without ever being explained, and the narrative itself is drastically different in tone and theme from the film. Are the Mystery Men actually aliens studying our behavior, or is John just insane? Is the city really an elaborate construct, or did he just imagine the whole affair? Is the point of this screenplay to tell us that the world in which we live is an illusion, or is it to convey that this one character is off his rocker?

I don’t know, and in the end, I don’t care. All I do know is that I’m glad the studio executives got involved when they saw this mess of a script. They recognized it’s potential, but realized that no one would go see it unless drastic changes were made. So, they brought in several other writers–such as David S. Goyer–gave the story a happy ending, explained certain details, expanded upon others, and, in the end, gave us the contemporary classic that we now know and love. All I’m trying to tell my fellow writers here is that, just because somebody says that they want to edit your story, don’t automatically assume that they’re going to turn your work into garbage. Odds are, they’re just trying to make it more palatable to a wider audience, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, if you want to keep selling your scripts, it’s actually quite a good thing. So, it might be in your best interest to be open to the idea.

 

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