Wednesday, January 16, 2019

10 Years of Bitter - "Black Swan" from script to screen

As you know, one of the great joys of being a reader is that sometimes scripts cross your desk years before they're made - and often with different talent attached. There are times you'll read something and be asked to evaluate it for Ryan Reynolds, or Chris Pratt, or Anne Hathaway. That knowledge results in examining the script with a completely different eye. "Can I see these actors doing this?" "Does knowing the director's style inform how I visualize this script?"

Remember the Anne Hathaway/Robert DeNiro comedy THE INTERN? I read it when it was going to be Tina Fey and Michael Caine! As you can probably imagine, with two actors like that, their screen personas are so defined that it instantly gave you a feel for the characters. Change that to Hathaway and DeNiro and you get a different kind of energy - but it still works! It doesn't always happen that way, and sometimes the intel you have at the time impacts the coverage. It's one reason why you might hear that such-and-such script was passed on all over town before someone took a chance and it ended up a huge hit.

The other obvious reason this happens is that screenplays are constantly rewritten, often deep into production. Then, the editing of the final film can also dramatically transform the film from what a reader, producer or agent had to imagine years earlier. One of the most interesting instances of this happening in my career was when I read BLACK SWAN years before it was released. I was given Mark Heyman's June 2009 draft and I'm pretty sure that at the time, no actors were attached. Darren Aronofsky was attached, but I don't remember being given this information specifically before my read.

Around the time BLACK SWAN was making the awards rounds, I wrote up a four-part series breaking down some of the major differences between the script and the film. In Part 1, I talk about the character of Lily, played by Mila Kunis in the final film. In the released film, there's no doubt that Lily is a real person, but to those who read the early draft, there was a pretty heavy suggestion that Lily was something... different.

There's a couple of points I want to make here. The first is that the script is very heavy-handed with the resemblance between the two. There are several scenes where the reader is shown again and again that they look exactly alike. Part of this is that the script is describing something that will be more elegantly seen than read, but it also feels like there was an attempt in the final film to simplify the doubling moments.

Clearly, we can understand why the script would play up that subtext. After all, this is about a dancer who has to play essentially two roles in Swan Lake, so the duality theme is already an organic part of the story. The problem sets in when the script doesn't know when to quit. It bludgeons the reader with the symbolism to such an extent that I recall wondering if the same actress was going to play both roles. After all, the writing makes the distinction only between "looks exactly like Nina" and "looks a lot like Nina" so it seemed like they could have gone with casting Portman in both parts and merely giving her a slightly edgier look for Lily - except when she had to be EXACTLY the same as Nina.

Why did I think Portman might play both parts? Because this draft has moments that strongly imply that Lily might not be real at all - that she's just a figment of Nina's imagination. We see Lily interact with other characters, simultaneous to Nina being there, but those who've seen Fight Club know that isn't always a guarantee that both characters are real.

In Part II, I discuss Nina's character, including how changing one moment completely informs her character in a different way:

In the script, she goes home and dances in her room until she completes the difficult coda, eventually beaming with satisfaction when she nails it. The next morning, she dolls herself up and reports her accomplishment to the director. He's unimpressed and then forces a kiss on her. It's her aggressive reaction to that which convinces him she's got what it takes to be the Swan Queen.

If you've seen the film, you'll know that all of that is pretty much how it plays out on-screen - with one crucial difference. In the movie, Nina doesn't complete the coda, but lies that she did. Again, I think this is a more interesting character choice. It's an even better example of how fragile and desperate she is for the part - it's the first sign of just how she'll sell out her integrity to get the part. In the script, she's coming from the perspective that she earned it and is capable of it. In the movie, she's more like a student begging their teacher to change their B to an A because they have to have an A! It gives Nina an interesting flaw.

In Part III, I address how another rewrite added tension to a sequence by adding the character of Beth into a scene she wasn't a part of before:

In the film, there's a sequence where the director presents Nina to the ballet's patrons, while attempting to make it appear that Beth is retiring gracefully. During this gathering, a drunken Beth confronts Nina outside, flat-out accusing her of sleeping with the director to get the part. (As we've already discussed, Nina doesn't sleep with the director to get the part, but she does sleep with him after getting it. She loses a little of the high ground there.) It's after this heated scene that Nina and the director go back to his place and he starts asking her about her sex life. (He claims it's important for the role.) The next morning, Nina is with the other dancers when the company gets the news that Beth was struck by a car and is hospitalized. The director thinks she did it on purpose.

In the script, the same plot points occur, but they are arranged differently. After a few scenes that make it clear that Beth's "retirement" is not by choice, Nina and the others get word of Beth's accident. The gala for the patrons is just a few scenes after that, and for the most part, it serves the same purpose as the scene in the film.

But the scene is much more engaging in the movie. Putting Beth in that scene adds an additional level of tension. Will she make a scene? Will she confront Nina and the director in public?

Part IV deals with one of the most talked-about scenes in the film - the Natalie Portman/Mila Kunis sex scene:

I'll be honest, this is one of those scenes where the writing confused the hell out of me on a first read. I just couldn't see how they were going to commit this to film and not have it come out like a chaotic mess.

The scene starts off with the two of them pawing each other and Lily throwing Nina onto the bed and straddling her. Lily takes off her top and kisses Nina and when Nina opens her eyes "Lily now looks identical. Her DOUBLE. (She goes in and out of looking like her double and like Lily as they continue to make love.)"

Then we're told "Nina flips Lily over, becomes the dominant one (though who is whom becomes very confused.)" After a few aggressive moves, there's a brief moment where Nina is alone in bed, masturbating. Then suddenly, Lily is back. Nina climaxes and then two kiss lying side by side, "almost like Nina is kissing a mirror" the script says.

This was a fun series to write and I'm a little disappointed I never did anything quite like this again. I might have to put something like this on the to-do list.

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