Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Script Review: Grant Morrison's We3

Grant Morrison has adapted his comicbook miniseries We3 into a feature script for New Line, and I've been lucky enough to read a copy. Luckier still, it's amazing. It's even better than the source material. In fact, this is the single best unproduced script I have ever read. Yep. And I really mean it.

What's so great? The answer to that, if I'm really going to cover it, is very long. I'll do my best, though, and I'll share whatever I think is fair to share from the script - so expect some minor spoilers, certainly as regards the first two thirds of the plot.

This is going to take more than one installment to do justice, so to start off with, tonight, I'm going to tell you the basics of what's going on, introduce the characters and some of the big ideas and give you a general overview of the story. Then, in further installments, we'll look at some of the scenes, set-pieces and sequences in more detail, and cover some of the really good stuff that I won't be able to boil down to just a few lines.

In a nutshell, We3 is the story of a cruel and inhumane military weapons research project and it's victims. It just so happens that the three characters at the forefront of this story, those who suffer the most, are a trinity of household pets. Well, at least, they used to be household pets but now Bandit the dog, Tinker the cat and Pirate the rabbit have been transformed into the flesh components of an incredible team of cyborg weapons.

In armoured shells and equipped with an array of very powerful weapons, these animals, the We3 are being used by the US military in the kinds of covert operations where no witnesses remain.

From the first page of the script:

A squadron of US troops, together with insurgent guerrilla soldiers, is making an attempt to retreat across the grounds through a hail of crossfire which comes from the shabby Presidential palace.

It's a sweltering Central American night and bullets zip through the air. This night raid on Guerrera's stronghold is going badly for the rebel forces.

Zip, spang of tracer fire. Men drop. US troops and insurgent forces crouch behind statuary and parked trucks.

It is amidst this carnage that we first meet the We3, the animal weapons. In heavy armour and under the remote influence of a joystick-wielding control team, they enter the palace and assassinate the dictator. It's a stunning opening, plunging the reader (and eventually the viewer) into a brilliantly orchestrated action and suspense sequence. Obviously, it's utterly unique as the We3 are nothing like anything we've seen before. Armoured animals, loaded with weapons, agile and able to navigate the palace like no soldier ever could.

It's also in this sequence that Morrison first starts to impress a political viewpoint - but more on that in a future installment.

Also very important at this stage, however, is establishing the nature of the We3 project - defining what the armoured animals look like, how they move, what they do in the heat of action. All of these details will be recalled, or counterpointed later.

With no dry, spoken exposition but a whole truckload of action, much of the essential information we need to garner in act one is related to us.

After the military mission, and the titles, we're off to someplace completely different: the kitchen of Roseanne Berry, a recently bereaved animal communication scientest. Morrison notes that she 'tends to emphasise the plain, studious aspect of her appearance and carries a weight of sorrow and guilt'. I have imagined Anglea Bettis in the role, or Maggie Gyllenhaal - though Bryce Dallas Howard would perhaps be more likely. Either way, it's a truly plum part - ladies, call your agents now.

After a short series of clean, clear and unobtrusive character-setting scenes, Roseanne is on her way to work. En route, she stops and purchases a newspaper - headlines SENATOR DAN WASHINGTON AHEAD IN THE POLLS’ and ‘GUERRERA REGIME COLLAPSES IN NIGHT OF VIOLENCE...’, the secondly more obviously relevant now - and crosses paths with a homeless beggar. This beggar is Frank. He's going to return later.

And then, Roseanne arrives at her workplace and, surprise surprise, she's a key part of the We3 project. The animals arrive too - still in their armoured shells, and wheeled on gurneys, back from the wars.

Today's an important day for the project. Senator Dan Washington is visiting, and being shown around by Major Samson, with whom he has a history (Samson is described as 'a tall man, uncomfortable in his skin who stands stiffly and formally at all times and lives haunted with the memory of whatever mistake he made years ago that saw him wind up here at the head of this no-hope project') and Dr. Senjei Honda ('a dishevelled, stout Japanese man in a lab coat').

Washington is given a stunning demonstration of the animal control technology:

...a group of rats are running around in an unnaturally purposeful way. In fact, stranger still, many of the rats are carrying TOOLS in their nimble little fingers.

Let’s follow a rat carrying a screw. It hands the screw to a second rat who lines it up with a hole in a piece of metal.

Then a new and more grotesque creature lumbers into view - a surgically-altered rat whose entire head has been replaced by a spinning drill bit. As one rat carefully holds the screw in place, the drill-head aggressively screws it in with a series of devastating headbutts.

The rats are bulding an engine.

Now, while Washington is still stunned, he's taken to meet the Weapon 3, or We3. Roseanne unlocks the animal's helmets and we see what's inside for the first time...

...a scared dog, an angry cat and a confused rabbit. These are Bandit, Tinker and Pirate and they used to be pets. Now, they're hardwired into weapons systems and sent to kill or be killed.

Each animal has a device attached to it's head - into it's head - that enables them to communicate verbally though electronic voiceboxes. As Roseanne explains "Humans have a part of the brain known as Wernicke’s Area, which allows us to process our feelings into language. This apparatus works as an artificial Wernicke’s, augmenting the animals’ natural abilities. Feelings are assigned to words, which are then processed through speakers in the armor." This is a brilliant conceit that really makes the script fly. The exchanges between the animals, or between the animals and humans, are limited to a very small vocabulary of little more than a dozen different words between the three creatures. The range of expression, however is huge.

Like most good drama, the emotions in play during the We3 script are big and... well.. dramatic. A small vocabulary, when applied directly to the emotional subtext, is a powerful way of stripping the drama down and hitting it home hard.

So, onwards. The Senator continues his tour, off to meet Weapon 4, a newer and more brutal 'biorg' that is being developed, while Roseanne receives bad news: the We3 are to be decommissioned. It seems that Weapon 4 is to supercede them immediately.

A key scene:

These animals are test specimens. Laboratory rats. As scientists, you and I both understand the protocols.

I’d like to take a memento.

I remember a rather long discussion about the dangers of sentimentality when you came to work for me.

She gives him a hard stare,

I remember too.

He relents a little, becomes softer.

But please, there’s absolutely no need for you to be here when it happens. Say the necessary good-byes to the animals today. I’ll instruct the Euthanasia Team to wait until you’ve cleared your locker.

He thinks he’s being kind, she can’t believe he’s so cold.

We are about to become politically fashionable, Roseanne. Your contribution will not be neglected.

He makes a tense tiny nod.

Please. Take anything you like as a keepsake.

Something in Roseanne snaps. Her eyes burn.

So, guess what? Now you've got the set-up, I won't need to spell it out. Roseanne releases the animals and they flee the compound. Bandit has a longing for 'home' and leads the others off looking for it. But what is 'home'? As they understand it, home is somewhere they won't have to run anymore. I can understand that.

Much of the film is a long chase, a blend between one of Disney's Fantastic Journey films and, perhaps, The Iron Giant by way of Robocop or another hard, gristle-strewn actionaer. It is also a brilliant and incisive exploration of freedom, instinct, will the universe's natural orders... and the desire to identify yourself as an individual.

There is an absolutely incredible series of action sequences - which we will look at individually, and in more detail, at a later time. They are brutal, harsh, imaginative and, most importantly, always relevant.

Roseanne would appear, from this set-up, to be the film's human heroine though this isn't truthfully the case. Things aren't so simple. As noted, she is recently bereaved, and she feels immense guilt about her relationship with her deceased father as well as with the We3 animals. Remember the phenomenon of 'suicide-by-cop' that got talked about a lot a few years ago? The idea was that depressed people would do ridiculous things - hold up liquor stores, go on shooting sprees - so that they might be executed by the police. Roseanne's release of the We3 animals back at the beginning of their journey has an undercurrent of this kind of tragic feeling. She certainly expects to die, at least for a moment, in the melee that ensues. She even say "Kill me", as though under her breath and to herself but seemingly meaning that the animals should kill her, plough right through her, as they escape the labs in a blaze of violence.

The possibility of Roseanne's redemption is a key part of the story; the animal's perspective on her need for redemption, or possibly lack thereof, makes it even more interesting.

Throughout We3 the animals are just what they are. Bandit is a dog, Tinker is a cat and Pirate is a rabbit. I've spent plenty of time with each of these species and was absolutely convinced by their portrayal here. They haven't in anyway been subject to daft anthropomorphism. It's crucial, really, that they are real animals with real animal attitudes, personalities and psychology. I also believe it is essential that they are rendered as realistically as possible in the film, also. Where possible, a real dog, cat and rabbit could be used - no doubt adorned in mo-cap ping-pong balls so that their armour might be CG-created from the neck down.

Having said that... Weta's King Kong was so convincing that while I know exactly how they faked him I still can't see anything but a real animal.

It is on page 43 that the animals are clear of the compound; there is a total of 114 pages in the script. It's as soon as page 44 that the We3 having their first conversation. Bear in mind as you read this excerpt that the voices are synthesized, the language a product of their surrogate Wernicke's.

Bandit ignores the cat as she gnaws halfheartedly at her prey. He’s thinking, considering his next move very carefully. He inclines his head, sniffs. Sniffs. Stops. Faces east, into the light wind.


He addresses the others, clearly their leader.


He starts down the hill, purposefully.


Pirate looks to Tinker, chomping at her bird.

2! COME 2!

Tinker looks around.


Pirate bounds down the hill after Bandit.

Tinker sneers. Tightens her claw around the dead bird.


She lifts the bird to her mouth but her eyes are following the others.


The others vanish into the trees.

Tinker drops the bird and it falls to the forest floor, uneaten. Her stealthy hiss of a voice gives her words the weight of prophecy.


Then she calculates her best chances...and runs after the others, disappearing down into the dappled shadows, descending into a valley.

That will be the largest extract I'm going to take from the script at any time, but I really wanted to indicate the relationship between the animals. I think that page pretty much speaks for itself (if you pardon the expression).

So, we're ve just got started. I wanted to impress upon you the premise of the script, the approach to the animals' interrelationships and some idea of who Roseanne Berry is. These are all important things if you are to understand just what this film is trying to do.

If you've read the comics you'll know a lot about the plot that I haven't shared. But there's plenty you won't know too.

Next time, we'll talk about Weapon 4, about what becomes of all of those rats, about some elements of the visual style implied on the page and, maybe, unless I can resist it, I'll talk you through a big pile of notes I made while reading the script.

You see, reading We3 it was obvious to me how to approach this film, what I would do if I were the director. It all leaped out at me: details of sound, of design, of approach to character, concepts that determined how camera would be used, how the film would be lit. And on and on. I chewed it all over, like I do when preparing for a shoot that I'm actually going to get to do. I began the very beginning of the preproduction process, perversely for a film I haven't a hope in hell of ever being any more involved in than I am now. But I think my thoughts will be interesting, and will reveal even more about the ideas in We3.

More soon.


Elisabeth said...

Oh, brilliant!

We3 made me sob like a baby when I first read it. "Home is...run no more." The animals in that book are so real and the premise seems dorky, but it really isn't.

For once, something I wanted to be made into a movie actually is.

There is so much potential here and it looks like the script is living up to it.

lairdofdarkness said...

I loved the comic book, I think Grant Morrison is a genius that only occasionally gets it wrong.
However I hate the way Hollywood dumbs down stuff for middle america. I hope this doesnt get caught in that web.
Great article, thanks for that

Mark said...

Loved the comic - I think at the time I delared it "not just great, but 1986-great" or words to that effect. Book should be printed at European album size and distributed freely around schools, colleges and libraries.

My, how I'd love to read this script.