MORIARTY Captures The Shooting Draft Of SUSPECT ZERO And Puts It Out Of Its Misery!!
Published at: July 2, 2002, 10:28 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
This is a mercy killing. Trust me.
Every now and then, a script sells for a lot of money, and it becomes the hot read in town. Sometimes, the films end up being really good (THE SIXTH SENSE) or big hits (INDEPENDENCE DAY, AMERICAN PIE), and sometimes, they end up being spectacular misfires (THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT) or interesting failures (THE LAST BOYSCOUT). I do my best to read each of these big spec sales when they happen, and what I’ve noticed is that more often than not, the scripts that sell aren’t the films that come out. Instead, they are promises of what the films might be. A great spec script... the kind that generates real discussion in town... is a script that gets the reader all hot and bothered, no matter how the film finally ends up.
SUSPECT ZERO was one of those scripts.
I first tracked the script down when Ben Affleck and Sylvester Stallone were circling it at Universal. I managed to get hold of Zak Penn’s August 1997 draft, the same draft that was used to get actors aboard the film, even after other drafts were written. There’s a reason Penn’s script generated enormous heat in town and got him a deal at DreamWorks and got him rewrite work on REIGN OF FIRE and got him the gig on X-MEN 2. It’s a great concept, executed with little or no adornment. It’s clean writing, well-researched. And it was one of the best police procedural thrillers since SE7EN.
The opening scene of the script set the tone right away. HAROLD SPECK sits alone in a diner, one of those middle of nowhere side of the interstate places, in the wee small hours of the morning. He’s a nondescript little guy, reading the paper, quiet. A disheveled man, O’RYAN, takes a seat across from Harold in his booth and begins talking to him. It’s apparent right away that O’Ryan has been watching Harold for some time. He starts talking to Harold about life on the road, about how lonely it can be.
And as they talk, O’Ryan slides a photo across to Harold. Then another. Then another. And Harold freaks out as he sees them, even though the audience doesn’t. He calls O’Ryan sick, then goes to leave. Before he can, though, O’Ryan grabs Harold’s hand, squeezing it to force it open. He looks at Harold’s middle finger, which extends at least an inch and a half longer than the rest of his hand. Harold snatches his hand away and storms out. Once he’s on the road, he realizes that O’Ryan is in his car with him, and there’s a struggle. O’Ryan forces Harold off the road and into a small, seedy rest stop, and just as O’Ryan attacks Harold, we cut to --
THOMAS MACKELWAY. Former cop. Hotshot new recruit to the Bureau who feels like he’s stuck in a shitty job in the San Angelo, Texas FBI Office. He’s our lead. He’s pretty much your standard issue lead in a film like this, much like David Mills in SE7EN. Almost but not quite a blank slate. On his first day, he gets pulled into the investigation of the murder of Harold Speck. Seems that after he was murdered, his car was pushed so that it was straddling the state line between Texas and Oklahoma, making it a federal case. When Mackelway investigates Speck’s car, he finds a case full of knives and other carving instruments, and the discovery of lime on the outside of the trunk leads to the grim cargo of the trunk, the bodies of two dead young women. A search of Speck’s house reveals more bodies buried in a crawlspace. He was obviously a working serial killer, which raises the question: who killed him, and why?
Examination of Speck’s body leads Mackelway to EVBD, or Episodic Violent Behavior Disorder. It’s a common chromosomal deficiency in rapists, murderers, serial killers. There are physical markers that show up whenever EVBD shows up, “linked attributes.” One of those is an elongated middle finger. Bruises on Speck’s wrists show that his hand was forced open by someone looking for something... looking for that middle finger. In his conversations with Fran Kulok, a medical examiner, Mackelway advances the theory that they’re looking for a modern-day Van Helsing, someone hunting serial killers, our modern-day vampires. He and Kulok end up on O’Ryan’s trail, and they are viciously attacked and beaten for their troubles. O’Ryan challenges Mackelway, dares him to come chase him down. He carves a clue in Mack’s flesh.
All of that is just the first act of the script. It’s so well-built, such a sure-handed thriller, that I was willing to go anywhere with it. I wanted as wild a ride as possible, and I knew that it would be handled well. When a writer does his job building a first act, you can’t help but get sucked into it. Even if the form is familiar, style and presentation goes a long way. Penn tells his story with absolute conviction. There’s a quiet earnest quality to it that makes it work. There’s not a single pretentious flourish to the script. There’s a scene where Mack goes to talk with a professor, an author named DAITZ, who lays out the idea of Suspect Zero, which ties in to the symbol that O’Ryan carved into Mack. Daitz asks Mack if he’s ever seen a fifty foot shark. Off Mack’s confused reaction, he continues:
I assume the answer is no. The largest predatory shark ever caught was twenty four feet. But does that mean a fifty foot shark does not exist? A group of biologists tried to answer this question. You see, sharks only come near humans if they run out of food. For a fifty foot shark, the ocean would be a never-ending buffet table. He could feed off whales, octopus; he’d never have any need to surface or come to shore. So these biologists decided that if there was a fifty foot shark, we would never know about it. And as a result of this conclusion, these scientists decided that there are fifty foot sharks. We just never see them.
Suspect Zero is a similar theory. It posits that if a serial killer were smart enough and had the means at his disposal, he could conceivably kill for an indefinite period of time without being caught. Swimming under our radar, so to speak.
Mack finds himself becoming obsessed with the idea of Suspect Zero and whether or not he really exists, even as he finds himself drawn to the mystery of O’Ryan, determined to track him down and figure out who his next target is. That leads him to Virgil Ray Starkey, who just might fit the profile for Suspect Zero, and who has just been released on a technicality.
Keep in mind, what I’m describing is the script that sold. Zak Penn’s script. And there’s a reason for this. I’m trying to paint you a picture of what might have been. I’m trying to explain to you why people like Steven Spielberg got excited when they read the script, so that when I explain to you what Cruise/Wagner and Intermedia have done to the script in their recent draft, the shooting draft that Elias Merhige is preparing to put in front of the cameras, you can understand the level of the travesty. You can get some sense of how you’ve already been sold out as an audience, and just what sort of pretentious prattle they’re going to try to pawn off on you.
In Penn’s draft, O’Ryan is a haunted man, determined to find Suspect Zero. He hunts down Virgil Ray Starkey before he can do anything terrible, and their encounter is brutal, sudden, and shocking. O’Ryan kills him, saving the life of a hitchhiker who was about to be raped and killed. When Mack hears her testimony later, he is hit by his first pang of moral conflict: if O’Ryan’s doing something for the greater good, how hard should Mack be chasing him?
Mack’s even more conflicted when he learns the truth about O’Ryan’s background. O’Ryan was one of the first generation of profilers with the Behavioral Sciences division of the FBI, and the pressure of it supposedly made him crack. He vanished, and some letters to his wife led everyone to believe he had killed himself. Mack’s work on the case leads to him being promoted, and he falls into O’Ryan’s hall of mirrors, wrestling with the notion of Suspect Zero and the ethics of the chase. In the end, he has to cross into O’Ryan’s way of thinking entirely if he plans to catch O’Ryan. He has to believe in Suspect Zero without question.
There’s a wild third act, breathlessly told, and it ends with the same kind of dark, hard edge that I love in films like TO LIVE OR DIE IN LA or SE7EN. It doesn’t pull back from where it’s headed, doesn’t compromise at all. It’s almost like UNBREAKABLE in terms of where it leaves its lead character. It’s about obsession being passed from one person to another like a virus, and it really is about how lonely it must have been to be Van Helsing. The fact that the subtext is made text here is effective because of the grace with which Penn does it. He strikes just the right balance between commercial and challenging.
And if they start shooting the script they have now, you’re never going to see the movie I described. Because what they’re making bears no resemblance to it.
When the spec originally sold to Universal, Tom Cruise flirted with starring in it. As part of that flirtation, Cruise/Wagner Productions got attached, making them co-producers with Penn. Remember... Penn got a hard education early in this business. He was around 22 when he and his writing partner sold INCREDIBLY VIOLENT to Sony, the spec script that became THE LAST ACTION HERO eventually. He went through an insane rewriting process on that film. He has rewritten other writers since then. He’s been on both sides of the process, and he’s made a real place for himself, something I always find impressive. I just read another script of his recently that I’ll be writing about in the weeks ahead, an amazing, taut little action/SF piece called JOHN DOE. I feel for a guy who went into this process, ready to fight for what he believed in, who found himself outmuscled on the film. In the end, I’m sure it was more important for Universal to keep Paula Wagner (and, by implication, Tom Cruise) happy than it was to keep the writer happy. Writers get replaced all the time. I’m not sure what happened between when Cruise/Wagner came onboard and when Intermedia got involved, but I know several writers had their hands on it. Most recently, Billy Ray took a shot at the script. I don’t know Billy Ray’s work very well. I know he was one of the many writers who worked on VOLCANO and HART’S WAR and THE COLOR OF NIGHT, and that he’s been attached to various projects over the past few years like Fox 2000’s remake of THE PAPER CHASE (produced by Jan De Bont), Richard Linklater’s film about Texas high school football, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, A.W.O.L., the Bruckheimer picture that might star Will Smith and Ben Affleck, and a project I’ve got a particular interest in called THE NAPOLEON OF CRIME, based on a non-fiction book about the real-life figure who inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to create Professor Moriarty in the first place. Maybe Billy Ray is a great writer. Because I haven’t read his other work, and because I don’t know what notes came from Intermedia and what notes came from Cruise/Wagner and what came from Ray himself, all I can say is that the draft of the script with his name on it is an abomination. Elias Merhige also has his name on the front of the script, and it’s obviously a Director’s Shooting Draft. I’m sure that Merhige had enormous input into this version of the film, and that this is what he wants to make.
And that’s what scares me.
Right away, what strikes me about the new version of the film is a level of pretension to the overall reconception of the film. This film wants to be something serious, something eerie, something both dreamlike and frightening. But it’s thrown out almost everything that made Penn’s original script so interesting and replaced it with what William Goldman would call “Hollywood horseshit.” The difference is apparent right from the beginning. At first glance, it looks the same. Harold Speck. Diner. Middle of the night. O’Ryan across from him. But there’s little details that are different. O’Ryan doesn’t check Speck’s finger. He gives him drawings instead of photographs. There’s a real different vibe to the whole thing.
Mackelway is still new to an FBI office, but this time he’s been busted down from a better job because of a screw-up in evidentiary procedure. He screwed up and someone terrible went free. As he’s getting settled into his office, someone starts sending him mysterious faxes of missing persons reports from around the country. As he works to figure out why, he catches a case. It’s Harold Speck, dead in his car. Parked on state lines so it becomes federal. And when Mack starts to investigate, lime on the trunk leads him to open it so he can discover...
... nothing. No dead bodies. Instead of a major clue that leads to detective work, Mack is suddenly struck by a strange psychic vision of wheat fields and gunfire. Meanwhile, in a motel room somewhere else in Texas, O’Ryan is having the exact same psychic vision. O’Ryan begins to draw, and ends up with a picture of that wheat field, of the muzzle-flash. And of Mackelway.
Okay... what the fuck? Psychic visions? Are you people out of your minds? It was already as high concept as you ever need a film to be. A serial killer who only kills serial killers chasing the serial killer to end all serial killers. And the best part of Penn’s script was the research. It was accurate. That thing with the elongated finger... that’s true. I heard Spielberg went home after reading the script to check his children’s hands. It’s creepy and effective because it’s real.
But psychic visions? For one thing, it removes any and all tension from the detective work in the film. In Penn’s script, Mack was a good detective, and he managed to piece together enough information to find O’Ryan. He’s a great profiler, and that makes him a worthy adversary for O’Ryan, the best profiler, even while gripped by madness. In this new draft, these mysterious faxes do all the legwork for Mack, rendering him inactive, and whatever blanks are left open are filled in by his psychic visions that begin to come more and more frequently, along with blinding headaches. And those visions... they keep him linked to O’Ryan, who the FBI says never existed. Because, you know... the FBI can just erase one of their own from existence. Happens all the time. All of a sudden, Quantico and a university and someone’s family and friends are all just convinced to not remember that someone exists. The way that Mack begins to track O’Ryan down in this new script is ludicrous, based on luck and magic. They weren’t content to just have one set of preposterous coincidences in the film. Instead, every new beat seems to be built on another coincidence.
For example, the case that got Mack busted in the first place was the Virgil Ray Starkey case. He sent some evidence to the wrong lab, and so Starkey walked. O’Ryan hunts Starkey down and viciously murders him, and of course, it’s Mack that catches the case. Now, instead of Mack being led to Daitz because of the symbol carved into his skin, Mack just happens to stumble onto the work of Daitz and decides to visit him. And Daitz just happens to be O’Ryan in disguise. And now Mack’s involved in an affair with a secretary from the Bureau, and she just happens to have a friend who may have been abducted by Suspect Zero, and her case may just contain the clue that only Mack would be able to pick up.
I mean, my god, they don’t even reveal the truth about Speck until page 60. It’s a serial killer film, but they’re afraid to use the term. They hold it off as long as they can before revealing it. It’s coy and it’s phoney, and it means that there is all sorts of awkward, unsuccessful restructuring going on, decisions that just plain hobble the film instead of helping it. Mack spends an inordinate amount of time not only trying to prove the existence of Suspect Zero, but also of O’Ryan, which seems like wasted energy.
And when the whole monotonous subplot with the mysterious faxes comes to a head, it has got to be one of the most anti-climactic, nonsensical, pointlessly arty decisions I’ve ever read in a rewrite. Mack ends up with thousands of missing persons in his file, and he gets a wall-sized map of the US, putting a black pin in every spot where someone was abducted. What he ends up with is described like this:
And those black pins, seen from a distance, form a patter we weren’t expecting – something that never quite took shape when the pins were yellow.
Looks like a big black WAVE. And that’s just what it is.
1,000 black dots conspiring to form the exact same shape that O’Ryan had painted onto the wall of his room – massive wave of darkness, gathering strength.
But this black wave is consuming America...
Huh? A black wave? That’s the big scary reveal of the film? An abstract wave shape made of black pins. We’re supposed to believe that a killer has been intentionally creating an Impressionist painting with the pattern of his abductions? This is where the script really lost me, but it manages to get worse as the plot continues to get overcomplicated by things like a secret government program called Icarus, designed to promote the development of psychic talents like remote viewing. Somehow, this has linked O’Ryan and Mack, and what plays out is like a really, really silly version of the big confrontation with Leo Crow in the hotel room in MINORITY REPORT. It’s supposed to be a shocking and provocative climax, but it’s the exact opposite. It’s insulting and stupid and a completely ridiculous place for the film to end.
There are so many things wrong with this draft that there’s only one way for it to get better: pull the plug, go back to basics, and start again. Someone has overdeveloped this film, and it’s time to just accept that. I know how it is when execs become determined to justify the money they’ve spent on a film. They have to have something different, something that completely breaks from the original.
But I always thought the point was also to have something good.
I’ve met Elias Merhige. It was at the premiere in Westwood of THE EXORCIST: THE VERSION YOU’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE. I was with Harry, and Merhige approached us to talk about SHADOW OF THE VAMPIRE, which we had both already written about on the site. He was pleased by the support we’d offered the film and he seemed very genuine, very proud of the movie he’d made. I’m not sure if he’s going to read this and take it as an attack. I’d hope not. I think he’s got ability as a filmmaker. If it were some near-mongoloid directing this film like Renny Harlin or Tarsem, then I wouldn’t bother writing any of this. I’d just shrug it off and assume that the film was never meant to be. But Merhige has a good film in him. I’m sure of it. I wonder if he’s even seen the older drafts of this thing. I would urge him to take a step back before film rolls later this month and look at what made this story worth telling in the first place.
One way or another, it looks like SUSPECT ZERO is about to finally find its way onto film.
Let’s just hope and pray that someone takes control of this out of control 18-wheeler, someone who can make it work before it flips and the whole damn thing goes up in flames.