Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Script Review: Death And Me By Neil Gaiman

This story doesn't really begin on Saturday, May 26th 2007 but if we pick up there, it will seems like a beginning and you can fathom out all of the years of beforehands for yourself.

I wrote a post for film ick called Want To Know Who Is Going To Play Neil Gaiman's Death? Don't We All and in it I said "
Later this year - if all goes well - Neil Gaiman will be directing his first feature film. It's an adaptation of his Death: The High Cost of Living mini-series, and - of course - he's scripted it" and also "I really want to read this one - the original comic is one of my very few favourites, as was true of We3 and you know how head-over-heels I ended up with that screenplay adaptation. If anybody out there has a copy, you know where to send it".

And somebody did send it. And I read it. And now I'm going to tell you about it.

What I have appears to be a draft designed to relocate the story from New York to London. There's still the odd reference to Central Park or Manhattan amongst the mentions of Baker Street and 'the muddy expanse of the Thames'. In fact, Hyde Park gets called Central Park at one point (or, I suppose, vice versa).

But not all of the film takes place in this one big city, however. In fact, the first two scenes take place far, far away.

We open in a Tibetan Monestary. We're told it is January. While a narrator gives us a little exposition, we see monks roll up a scroll, and on this scroll is "a dark haired girl with an ankh around her neck". That's the whole scene - a croll being rolled by Tibetan Monks, an announcement that it is January and exposition delivered in voice over. What's more, this is the only scene with a narrator.

This isn't the best of beginnings. This first scene is entirely made of exposition and, I would hope, on screen, atmosphere. If it wasn't so early and so brief and, as a result of this so easy to file away and only remember much later when you're reminded of it, it would seem quite shockingly redundant.

If I reproduce it here, however, it will be very useful in getting the premise of the film across, so I will. But I really don't think the script needs some kind of upfront explanation at all, much less one so blatant. It reminds me, in a way, of the opening narration to Dark City which virtually undermines the entire third act of the film. Here it is:

They say that once every hundred years she takes on human form, the better to understand what the lives she takes must feel like, to know the bitter taste of mortality. And this is a price she must pay for being the divider of all that has lived from all that must come after.

...But on to the second scene, and the second location. There's more exposition (of course there is, we're so early in the story) yet this time it's delivered in a much more suitable, and cinematic fashion and it feels much more like a real story, not like the set-up for one, or the blurb on the back of a book, or the hype for a TV show in the Radio Times.

It's February this time, and we're in Alaska. I'll let Neil Gaiman himself introduce the first of our main characters:

A man we will come to know as THE EREMITE comes stumbling toward us, through the snow, through the blizzard. He is dressed in rags and tatters, no longer young, and -- although we will not see this immediately, quite blind. A mane of leonine hair, he hasn’t shaved for a week, and he could be an Old Testament prophet coming out of the wilderness. He is singing to himself, loudly, over the sound of howl of the wind. The wind is such that he can barely keep on his feet.

He reaches a town sign stuck in the ground: WELCOME TO NOWHERE, Pop 63. His hand touches it, and he holds on to it fr a moment, getting his breath back. Then he walks on, leaving a bloody handprint on the sign.

We see the town as he would see it if he could see: a bar and grill is the only source of life, with company housing around it. Big, mean SUVs and snowmobiles in the parking lot, along with one 18-wheeler rig.

(I can tell you, I found the typos oddly comforting)

The Eremite is looking to get to London, and he asks the patrons of the bar for a ride. Yep - all the way to London. Obviously, nobody seems too keen. I think I spotted another insufficiently localised line in the script here too:

And London’s thousands of miles away!

New York is thousands of miles away. Wouldn't London be... er... "on the other side of the world" or something like that?

Our introduction to The Eremite is a very telling one, a darkly funny one and, ultimately, a surprising one. It seems like he's doing a really bad job of convincing the patrons to chauffeur him half way round the world - peeing on the bar
probably didn't help - but, ultimately he gets his way and everybody else gets a nasty shock.

It's not until the third scene (London in April) that we're into material familiar from the original comics. Perhaps the most interesting about that however, is how scene two seems like it completely and utterly belongs. Indeed, almost all of the new material seems like it should have been there all along. Instead of the story seeming expanded upon or spread out, what we have seems like the full, original version of events and the comics were simply a digest. Indeed, it's entirely possible that this is not a job of expansion, but repairs, returning the story to an originally conceived outline. Or, on the other hand, Gaiman might simply be a genius for creating new material on an old framework.

Anway... London in April, under the underpass. This is where we meet the next of our major characters. Again, Neil can do the introductions:

Filthy hands are shuffling an even filthier pack of cards. Now they deal. It’s a dog-eared spread of cards, face down. The hands belong to MAD HETTIE. A finger runs over the cards, back and forth. She’s looking for one card.

Up she goes and down she goes and where she stops nobody knows.

The finger picks a card, and turns it over. It’s the Death card -- the Queen of Spades. She hisses. She shuffles it back into the pack, muttering to herself. Turns over another card. It’s the Queen of Spades again. She fans it back into the pack -- we can see there are lots of different cards. She shuffles once more, turns over one more card, and, yes, for the third time, she pulls out the Queen of Spades.

We pull back now, to reveal Mad Hettie. Her age is hard to tell beneath the layers of grime and street dirt. She lives on the streets. She sits by a small fire. She wears an aged hat with an artificial flower in it at a jaunty angle. She is muttering to herself.

Three times. Three times is the charm. Three times a lady. Lady, baby, gypsy, thief... Queen of Spades, we know what you mean. Oh yes. Now what about one for me, eh? What about a card for Mad Hettie?

She flicks a card out of the deck. Then she turns it over. It’s the ace of hearts. A smile spreads over her face.

There we go. A heart. My one little heart. I knew it. Everythingoin’ to be loverly!

And now we've met two of our four leads. These are the two who admit that they want something - really want it - and will go to great lengths to get it.

If I were to recommend casting, simply off the top of my head, I'd offer Bill Nighy and Miriam Margolyes.

Let's skip forward a bit, to June, and introduce the leading lady in all of this. Again, over to Mr. Gaiman:

DIDI is asleep. She wears an oversized black tee shirt as a nightdress. Her hair is long and dark. Even in sleep, she is heart-stoppingly beautiful. She’s in a one bedroom apartment decorated fairly plainly, as if on a real budget. There’s a bowl of goldfish in one corner.

An alarm clock shrills, and Didi’s eyes open wide. Then she smiles...

And she starts to EXAMINE HERSELF, looking at her hands in wonder, as if she’s not had hands -- or a face, or a nose -- in a long time. She is utterly delighted with what she sees. Then she stretches like a cat.


She gets out of bed. She JUMPS a few inches, experimentally. She sticks out her tongue at herself in the mirror. She’s acting like someone who hasn’t had a living, breathing body for a hundred years or so, and has forgotten what it felt like.

She walks over to the window and looks outside. The sun is in her eyes. She looks happy. And then, for a moment, she looks puzzled and concerned -- then her gaze lights on a silver ANKH. She picks it up, and it CATCHES THE SUNLIGHT.

She looks at a clock.

DIDI (to herself)
Going to be a busy day.

Then she picks up the ankh and puts it around her neck.

If you're not familair with the comics, let me explain what viewers soon come to learn about Didi. Either she is the mortal personification of Death - a somewhat perkier version than the dusty guy with the scythe - or she is a teenage girl that lost her entire family in a tragic accident rather recently. Or - and this is the answer, I believe, if you can get your head around it - she's both. The universe has accomodated this day on earth for Death by just sort of shifting around a little and creating Didi, her dead family, her entire history. Not entirely unlike how Dawn just sort of came to be in Buffy, I suppose.

Didi is the character who can give The Eremite and Mad Hettie each what they are looking for, and as a result, they are making their ways to see her in New Yo... sorry, London.

The character who doesn't admit he's looking for something is our male lead - the Me of the new Death and Me title. The thing he doesn't admit he's looking for is something Didi can, and will, give him too.

Here's his introduction, and into the bargain, the intro of a supporting character too:

SEXTON FURNIVAL is at high school. He needs a haircut.

He has holes in the knees of his jeans because he likes them there. He’s unlocking his locker... And someone is shouting... and charging down the corridor at him.


Sexton closes his eyes as someone (THEO) crashes into him, sending him sprawling, painfully, against the lockers. Sexton looks up at Theo -- tall, cool, attractive, nasty.

That's Sexton (Me) and Theo (not Me). A few pages later, Sexton gives us a better idea of who he is by firing up his camcorder and recording a video diary in his bedroom. This is going to be the last big excerpt, but it is a big one, so hold tight:

He gets into a pose, so he can see himself on the miniscreen, and he starts to talk.

Okay. My name is Sexton Furnival but I’m pretty much over it by now, and this is the last ever installment of my video diary. This is because... (pause) Okay. I figure, I’m mature enough to know what I think. I’m seventeen. Almost seventeen and a half. And what do I have to show for it? For a start I’ve got nobody to love. Which is fine. I think love is bullshit anyway. I think the best that people ever get is horny and scared. And when they find someone who makes them horny and they’re sacred of losing them, they call it love.

Now he picks up the video camera, and points it at the mirror as he talks. Then he starts to swivel, so he is slowly taking in his room, his crumpled bedding, his books (big, solid, depressing things), finally a photo of Sexton and his parents taken when he was ten and they were all one big happy family. A guitar gathering dust.

SEXTON (cont’d)
Now, you may not think this is very interesting, or a good reason for checking out early, or whatever. But you’re wrong. Because there’s no point to anything. And if there’s no point, it’s probably easier being dead. And it’s not like anyone’s going to give two shits if I’m here or not.

He turns off the camera for a moment. Takes a deep breath. Turns over the photo, so he doesn’t have to look at it. Turns the camera back on.

SEXTON (cont’d)
Look, Sylvia, when you see this, I’m really not saying you’ve been a bad mother. But I’m not saying you’ve been a particularly good one, either. Let’s leave it at that. And Steve, it’s not your fault, either. I mean, you’re an arsehole, but that’s probably just part of being a lawyer. I Read somewhere that a suicide note is actually a cry for help. Well, this is a suicide note, but it’s not a cry for help. This is a statement of belief. Or of disbelief, because there’s nothing in the way of adult bullshit I do believe.

There’s a KNOCKING on the door. The door opens, and SYLVIA, Sexton’s mother, leans in. She’s an ex-hippie who owns a restaurant.

He turns the camera so that it’s filming her, now.

Darling. Everything okay?
SEXTON Hi Mum. Everything’s fine. Shouldn’t you be at the restaurant by now?

It’s Marlon’s first day as Permanent Chef, and I thought I’d stay out of the way. What are you doing?


You want anything? Herbal tea or anything?


Sylvia closes the door. Sexton turns the camera lens back to him and says...

SEXTON (cont’d)
That’s the other thing. I don’t want anything. So I might as well be dead. Right?

So that's Sexton Furnival. He's going to meet Didi really soon - before she bumps into either The Eremite, or Mad Hettie, and when they do turn up and start messing with her day, he's quickly caught up in it all.

The first scene featured voice over narration, and there's only one other incident of voice over in the entire script. Sadly, it's as much of a mistake - if not more.

The voice over this time is attributed to Sexton, and it reproduces one of the more popular and oft-quoted pieces of the book. On paper there's several reasons it works well - the sudden introduction of an interior monologue in any written medium is much less extreme than in a film, for one thing, but for another, the lengthy piece of text can sit alongside an image representing only a short period of action. In the film, to give Sexton time to finish his thoughts while he's running down the stairs, Gaiman's going to need a lot of stairs. A lot.

I'd like to see this voice over, vanish, I'm afraid. Some slow-motion or a flashback wouldn't really work, either (a surprise is about to come and playing with pacing with either of those techniques could derail it a little). All I can think of by way of solution, in fact, is to turn the piece into dialogue, adapt it a little, and have Sexton deliver it to Didi the next time they talk, to let her know what he was feeling as he left on that day.

And there you go: I just caught myself offering advice to Neil Gaiman. This makes me feel awkward and a little embarrassed.

Okay, back to the monks. The Tibetan monks from the first scene. They do reappear again. What happens when they do does make sense, and it does sort of turn out to be a good gag. But (here I go again) their whole throughline seems a little thin. They're set-up at the top, almost as a backdrop to spoken exposition that I'm not happy with anyway, then later, they just sort of pop up, be part of a "What a weird day!" running gag, touch on an idea about what Didi is and does, and then they're gone.

Now... if they somehow appeared again, that'd be useful. They must have some place they can go, or something they can do, that will be more centrally relevant somehow? It would certainly ensure nobody saw them as just a device.

Another sequence that seems to need a little rethink, I'd say, takes place in a club. The scene is largely unchanged from the printed original and that seems to be the root of the problem.

I think it comes down to pacing, and possibly because ripping through a comic at top speed means that any slight variants in pacing are less noticable, the scene as reproduced here feels a little hard to swallow. Essentially, a character we've only briefly glimpsed before is accelerated to the front and centre of stage, and given a spotlight to tell her story. This is Jackie, and to me, she really doesn't feel "ready".

I think the scene in the club needs some expansion, just a little, to give Jackie some more time to settle. And the conversation she's having needs to have run a little longer to make her seem more sypmpathetic when she opens her heart up (guarded though she is).

I think that the solution is to get her conversation with Sexton rolling, then move time on a little. Come back to the club a short while later. Perhaps they don't talk so much in the mssing scene, perhaps they do. Just give the impression that they've had a bit more time to get to know one another.

Or maybe it's just me. I don't know. It's an important scene, and a relatively late one, and it contains quite a big reveal, so I won't reproduce it here.

My final problem concerns a scene with a ventriloquist's dummy and a police uniform that seems too banal - almost like something from an episode of a TV police procedural or a post-Silence of the Lambs serial killer film. Gaiman's world is more magical than this scene, and more idiosyncratic, and this suddenly felt like something... else.

And, truth be told, those are the only major issues I had with the screenplay all.

Gaiman's umpteenth representation of a magical underworld is as mesmerising and resonant as all of his others, from the strange rituals to the odd names and the curious characters to the odd deals. And like every one of his underworlds, it's satisfyingly different from all of the others. Knowing that he's directing is great too: he gets all of these things in a way that hardly any film directors ever have, and he's always been dedicated to making the audience, his readers, get what they want - even if, like Sexton, they won't admit to wanting anything at all to begin with.

This is a satisfyingly story-shaped story, with a great (belated) beginning, a fun, funny, wonderful and engaging middle and a true, fair and inevitable conclusion. I see no reason why Death and Me shouldn't be a bonafide smash. My years of anticipation have been quenched.

That's my review but... more later. Non-review things. There's a lot to say about this one.


Ted said...

Sounds great. I've been psyched about this one ever since I read it. One nitpick: The comic's set in San Francisco, not New York.

I bet we all look the same to you, huh?

Brendon said...

But it was obvious that a previous draft of the script was set in New York - that's my point there. Not unless they have a Central Park and a Manhattan in San Francisco which, I suppose, they might.

Rado said...

I'm always wary of original writers handling their own adaptations, especially when they re-use character lines verbatim. I'm glad Neil's expanding the story though.

And I'm not sure where I've read it, but I find it interesting that Gaiman said three issues of a comic equal 40 minutes of film. That should give something to think about to all those people saying "they should do such and such as an HBO series, one issue an episode!".

Brendon said...

I touched on that pacing issue a bit in the review.

Film scenes tend to have to be longer too, to not make the overall narrative feel choppy.