Moriarty’s One Thing I Love Today! Brian K. Vaughan’s ROUNDTABLE Script!
Published at: June 17, 2008, 12:11 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Hyperbole has become the coin of the realm on the internet, and I’m as guilty of it as anyone.
Harlan Ellison famously growls about the use of the word “awesome” in everyday conversation, rightfully pointing out that if everything is awesome, then you’re either easily awed or you’re using the word wrong. There are all sorts of words that have been cheapened by their use online. “Best ever” is a phrase that leaps immediately to mind as perhaps a wee bit overused.
But the other day, a fairly jaded script collector friend of mine msg’d me to say he’d gotten his hands on... yes, “the best script ever,” and I should read it. He sent it over, and as soon as I saw what it was, I was intrigued. Brian K. Vaughn is one hell of a writer, turning out quiet, controlled, brilliant mindbombs like Y THE LAST MAN, EX MACHINA, RUNAWAYS, and PRIDE OF BAGHDAD, as well as playing a major role in the ongoing pop genius of LOST.
DreamWorks bought Vaughan’s new spec script, ROUNDTABLE, after a bit of a bidding war last week. And much was made of how top-secret it was and how producers Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald have it on lockdown. Only... it was a bidding war. And the script was slipped to other people, and then it got slipped to people who weren’t bidding, but who wanted to know what was being bid on, and they sent it to people, and now... well... it’s pretty much everywhere. And my fairly jaded script collector friend came on after reading it and bandied about titles like BACK TO THE FUTURE and GHOSTBUSTERS, fairly big comparisons to make in my book. I think BACK TO THE FUTURE... the first one... is one of the very best commercial scripts ever written. It’s awesome. It’s so well-constructed, so good-humored, so impeccably timed. It’s a well-oiled thing, amazingly tight considering all the tinkering that went into the construction of it. And the first GHOSTBUSTERS is the same way. These are films that were so manhandled and oddly-throttled that they shouldn’t have worked, but the elements gelled just right, and the perfect versions of the screenplays for those films managed to click into place somewhere between page and screen.
So when my friend sent over ROUNDTABLE and suggested I read it, I was surprised by his enthusiasm. That’s not the way it normally goes. Keep in mind, there’s a sport in LA that’s very popular. Writers get hold of a script that just sold for a ton of money. And then they read it so that they can reassure theselves that it’s terrible and if that piece of shit sold for a lot of money, then that masterpiece they’re tinkering with in the off-hours is going to be set a new record for how much money someone can make on a script. It’s only fair. It’s a bitter, angry game, but it’s been going on since at least when I moved here in the early ‘90s, and it hasn’t changed in that entire time. Almost any script can be torn apart by the determined and the bitter if they try, but I’m guessing that they’ll find themselves tied in knots as soon as they all get hold of this script, because it is indeed a tightly-constructed and hilarious commercial script that is most probably going to make DreamWorks a small fortune when they finally release the film.
By now, you may have read the logline for the film: Merlin the Magician, trapped in modern-day, must assemble a new roundtable of knights to defend England against a magical foe. And that’s accurate. That is the movie. What that doesn’t really convey, though, is the profound sense of smartass that runs through this thing, or the way it mixes humor and crazy SFX setpieces in a way that we don’t often see. It’s inventive, and it’s a nice way of playing off the Arthurian legend without drowning the viewer in minutiae. You don’t have to know every detail of the King Arthur story to understand what’s going on here, but Vaughan’s obviously done his homework. What he’s crafted is a modern GHOSTBUSTERS, something that uses the humor to actually make the fantastic seem real, and that should play to the fantasy crowd just as well as it plays to a mainstream comedy crowd.
The only problem I see with the script at all is that clearance lawyers are going to have aneurisms trying to sort out which of Vaughan’s jokes they can leave intact, and there are some casting roadblocks that are built into the fabric of the piece. I hope Vaughan gets everyone in his dream cast (which is pretty clearly spelled out with the way he’s written his four knights), but if he doesn’t, there’s going to have to be some specific tailoring to revise the script for someone new.
The beginning of the film establishes who our Merlin is, and just as importantly, it sets up the threat of Morgana, this film’s major villain. Set at the end of the reign of Arthur, the opening battle sees Morgana and her zombie army destroy Lancelot before facing off against Galahad and Merlin. They defeat her, but just barely, and she’s able to curse Merlin before she goes: if he ever steps foot off of English soil, he will never be able to return. He seems unconcerned, though, and as he and the knights walk away, they ask what will happen if she comes back. Merlin tells them not to worry. “For so long as our kingdom has her knights... darkness will never fall on England.”
Of course, knights today are not the same as they were back then, and Vaughan seems delighted by the idea of putting some of today’s knights head to head with a real threat, asking them to step up and live according a code that’s been dead for centuries. We meet SIMON MINTZ, “an affable British dude in his 30s” who would not be inappropriately cast as Simon Pegg, a scientist who is about to be knighted for his work with newts. Queen Elizabeth II seems as underwhelmed with the entire idea of knighthood as she can possibly be, and we get a quick glimpse of just how silly the entire thing is. It’s a nice bit of social commentary that is actually an important part of the set-up, because by page ten, Morgana’s been resurrected, and it’s up to Merlin to assemble a group of real knights to stop her. The thing is... Merlin made the mistake of traveling to America back before the Revolution, so when the Declaration of Independence was signed, he suddenly found himself cursed and trapped, and now he’s got to stop Morgana without leaving the Brooklyn apartment where he lives.
One by one, Merlin summons a group of men to meet him in America. SIR RICKY BUTLER is a former championship athlete who has let himself go since his knee blew out, and I’d guess it was Ricky Gervais who Vaughan was picturing while he wrote. SIR EDMUND WORTHINGHAM is not as obviously cast on the page, a self-made billionaire who has forgotten what it was like to struggle. And then, finally...
... nah, I don’t want to ruin it. Suffice it to say, there are a number of movie stars who have been knighted in real life, and the one who Vaughan picks as a member of this roundtable would be hilarious casting. I hope he does it, and just in case, I won’t fuck up the surprise.
It’s flippant and silly to write in a real-life knight, given the honor for nothing more than saying lines in front of a movie camera, but that’s as good an indictment of the value of a modern knighthood as I can imagine. These four unlikely men (including Simon) are asked to stand as the defenders of the realm, charged by Merlin with finding a way to defeat Morgana. The biggest challenge is getting them to accept that what’s happening is real, and once they do, they have a hard time seeing how any of their skills might serve them in a fight with a powerful supernatural enemy. Everyone in the film, including Merlin, is given a natural and satisfying character arc, and the adventure itself is so well-constructed, so rousing, that I would imagine we won’t see much major restructuring before this goes in front of a camera. This is a great example of a spec that deserved to set off a bidding war because this isn’t a script you put into development... this is a script you make. This reads like a movie, and I think it’s a hell of a statement from Vaughan overall. This guy’s going to be one of the great geek storytellers in the next few decades, and I think this is going to be the moment where Hollywood starts to understand just how valuable he’s going to be. By the time that dragon shows up (verrrrrrrrry clever and verrrrrrrrrry cool), ROUNDTABLE proves to be the very model of what we want from commercial filmmaking. Fun, smart, inventive, and crazy. I don’t think I’d go quite as over-the-top as my friend who sent me the script, but his instincts are right. This is the real deal, and as I’m sitting here wrasslin’ with budgetary notes that make me afraid I’m about to ruin my own script for the sake of getting it made, it’s good to read something that rekindles my passion for the art of screenwriting. It’s great stuff, and I hope we’ll be able to bring you coverage of the movie all the way through to its release in a few years.