Tuesday, September 16, 2014

When I looked foolish by making a case for SOUTHLAND TALES

As I hinted yesterday, here's the story of how I looked like a fool when I told my bosses I really, really liked the script SOUTHLAND TALES.

There was some incredibly clever writing in that script, as well as a truly unique premise. But it wasn't realized exceptionally well. Isolated pockets of it worked so well that as a reader you really wanted the whole thing to come together and be more than the sum of its parts.  I got this just before a weekend and it was such a priority that I was going to be reading it alongside the VP of Development, the SVP of Development, the assistant to the President of Development and the President of Development himself.

After my first read, I could never have explained half of what went on in that script.  It was just all over the place and full of complex, scientific concepts and technobabble about the nature of time and reality. There were enough ideas in there for three completely different films. But the one-third of it that I really understood, I really liked.

I read it a second time, and understood it only marginally better.

I read the script FOUR times over the weekend, taking notes each time until I felt I had puzzled out most of the narrative. Then read it a FIFTH time as I wrote up the synopsis and tried to bring some order to a very chaotic script. I gave it a consider, citing its imagination, even as I knew it only worked about 50% and that was with immense effort on the part of the audience. To bulletproof myself, I mentioned the commercial viablity of all of the talent attached.

Monday morning, I was the only one in the office who didn't come in with a "What the fuck was that?!" reaction. Suffice to say, I stuck my neck way out on that one and it was a risk that didn't pay off. Worse, my efforts at explaining what went on in the film sounded less like someone bringing clarity to a confusing, dense story and more like someone grasping at straws. I probably sounded like some film school graduate opining that The Fox & The Hound was really an allegory for the Cold War.  I was in way over my head, and more importantly, I was never going to change the votes of that tribunal so I never should have been that diligent with my coverage if I knew I was going out on a limb for this project.

The big punchline was that about two years after that, DOMINO came out and proved to be one of the worst films of the decade. Tony Scott over-directed it to all hell with a style that was completely wrong for the film. And then after that SOUTHLAND TALES bombed big too.

I did eventually see SOUTHLAND TALES and it reminded me of the gulf that can exists between how a script reads and how it is eventually translated to the screen. That's probably the most polite way that I can explain that I imagined a completely different tone than what director Richard Kelly eventually delivered. The film feels far more solemn and self-important than it seemed to be on the page.

In particular, every bit of humor around the character played by Sarah Michelle Geller falls flat in the feature. There were exchanges that I took to be witty and satirical on the page that show no evidence of either in the finished film. If it was just a case of Gellar's delivery being off, I'd blame her performance, but what she delivers is so in line with the overall tone of the film that there's no conclusion to draw other than the fact she gave exactly what the director wanted.

Ultimately, I have to admit my bosses were right. The film didn't do well with critics or audiences, it was certainly over-complicated, and you probably could never have visualized the film the way Kelly did if you were just going off of the script.

SOUTHLAND TALES taught me a lot about the difference between seeing potential in a project and merely wanting a project to be good because of its association with something else you loved. It was a painful lesson, but one I'm glad I learned. I was being paid for my honest opinion, and I needed to learn to be brutally honest with myself when developing those opinions.

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