MORIARTY Rumbles About ADAPTATION, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and CATCH ME IF YOU CAN!!
Published at: Oct. 10, 2000, 8:09 a.m. CST by staff
Hey, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab.
Okay, okay, so I missed my intended publication day by about, oh... a week. No worries. You have to realize that in Moriarty-time, that’s practically the next day. Besides, I blame Knowles entirely. I don’t know why, but I do. If you trace anything back far enough, it’s bound to be his fault. I’ve been packing in the reading and the screenings and the like, even managing to have breakfast with Jackie Chan... but more on that a little later in the month.
Must remember... Tuesday, October 24... Turner Classic Movies... Lon Chaney documentary premiere...
One of the films I caught was Christopher Guest’s wonderful new BEST IN SHOW, a film which never quite reaches the delirious perfect heights of WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, but which offers continuous pleasure for its entire 90 minute running time. It’s gentle, mild comedy for the first half of the film. I thought Michael McKean and John Michael Higgins and Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara were the standouts in the first stretch of the film, with Chris Guest doing quietly charming work as Harlan Pepper, whose bloodhound is easily the most amazing dog in the film. Once Fred Willard shows up at the actual Mayflower Dog Show as one of the show’s announcers, it becomes immediately apparent who the best in show is for the film. Willard is insanely funny in the film. He wore me out from laughter. He is the perfect embodiment of that particular breed of dunderheaded American broadcaster who knows nothing about the subject he’s speaking on, but who believes that every word out of his mouth is a gem. The almost constant patter from Willard in the film’s second half lifts it way above average, and there is any number of small moments along the way worth your time. I was also impressed with the trailers for DANCER IN THE DARK and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, neither of which I’d seen before. Beautiful, unusual stuff in both trailers, and it promises interesting things for the rest of the year.
I’ve been reading, too, though, and thinking about the question I asked in the first part of this article: what keeps an artist interesting or vital? Last time, we discussed upcoming films by Steven Spielberg and Barry Sonnenfeld, as well as an older screenplay by PT Anderson. This time, we’ve got sneak peeks at the next films from Spike Jonze, Gore Verbinski, and Wes Anderson. It’s a great batch of material, well worth discussion, so let’s dig in.
SPIKE JONZE, NIC CAGE, AND ONE PERFECT GHOST ORCHID!!
I remember when I first read BEING JOHN MALKOVICH. It was Charlie Kaufman’s original draft of the script, and my initial reaction was that it was 2/3 of a very good film. The original ending was a full slide into surreal fancy, with Cusack’s character facing off against another puppeteer in a duel between a 60 foot Teddy Roosevelt and Malkovich. There was none of the emotional resonance of the film that was finally released to theaters, something I can only attribute to the chemistry that ignited between Kaufman and Jonze as they developed the film. I wasn’t prepared for the final image of the film, peering out from behind the eyes of that little girl, with Cusack’s mournful private prayer echoing in our ears. It was a surprise, and proof that these guys are more than playful artistic anarchists. Between them, they created a classic, a film of real depth and lasting power. In doing so, though, they also set up nearly insurmountable expectations for whatever they do together next.
The surprise here is just how much stronger this second collaboration between the two of them promises to be. Let’s be clear about this. ADAPTATION is not a good script. It’s not even a great script. It’s one of those rare reads that elevates the art of screenwriting. It’s a meditation on the art of adapting material from print to screen. It’s a powerful story about how people adapt to life as it changes around them. It’s literature, and it’s already more affecting than most finished films manage to be. Starting with Susan Orleans’ nonfiction book THE ORCHID THIEF, Kaufman has spun an incredible story that is both intensely personal and totally universal. He’s created a surprisingly naked piece of art that lays bare all the fears of every artist when they sit down to create. He’s also managed to create the most clever debate I’ve ever seen about the value of art versus commerce in the film industry, the idea of truth versus entertainment being a major theme of the piece.
Kaufman’s well aware of his reputation around town. Between MALKOVICH and his wicked, sick Chuck Barris biopic CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND and assignments like adapting Philip K. Dick’s mindbending A SCANNER DARKLY, he has cemented his reputation as a strange writer. Undeniably gifted, but weird. He’s weird the way the Coens are weird. These are all real artists, tuned in to some private radio station, sharing these amazing things with us from time to time. It’s impossible to describe the way ADAPTATION builds its power. He opens on a barren volcanic landscape, then cuts to a living room in Hollywood, four billion and forty years later. It’s a laugh, but he defuses it immediately. Charlie Kaufman, "a fat, balding man in a purple sweater with tags still attached" is pacing, speaking in frantic voice-over.
"I am old. I am fat. I am bald. My toenails have turned strange. I am repulsive. How repulsive? I don’t know for I suffer from a condition called Body Dysmorphic Disorder. I am fat, but am I as fat as I think? My therapist says no, but people lie. I believe others call me Fatty behind my back. Or Fatso. Or, facetiously, Slim. But I also believe this is simply my own perverted form of self-aggrandizement, that no one really talks about me at all. Why would they? What possible interest is an old, bald, fat man to anyone? I am repulsive. I have never lived. I blame myself."
We cut abruptly to a lonely two-lane highway in a Florida swamp, and we find ourselves in the world of THE ORCHID THIEF. We meet Laroche, due to be played by Chris Cooper, who’s described as "a skinny man with no front teeth." Susan Orleans’ book THE ORCHID THIEF deals with Laroche figuring out a scam by which he could remove rare orchids from protected Florida swampland, as well as his subsequent arrest and trial. We don’t just see the events of THE ORCHID THIEF unfold. We also see Susan Orleans writing the book THE ORCHID THIEF. We also see Charlie Kaufman as he meets with the producer of the film version and discusses his ideas about how to adapt the book into a film. Then, even beyond that, we see him with a woman he’s attracted to and mentioning the book to her. Her responses are words he parrots in his pitch. And as all this unfolds, we see Charlie Kaufman writing the script that we’re watching, discussing the decisions he’s making as he makes them. We see the story behind the story behind the story behind the story. And instead of seeming like a gimmick or seeming jumbled, it’s somehow elegant, simple, communicative on many levels.
Nicolas Cage is attached to star as Kaufman in the film, and the news floors me every time I flip through the script. This role could very well be the pinnacle of everything he’s done before in his career. I’ve been a fan of his since VALLEY GIRL was in theaters. I remember when new Cage performances were exciting, unexpected things. VAMPIRE'S KISS, PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, MOONSTRUCK, BIRDY, WILD AT HEART... these were all thrilling pieces of work that are still vital, that still seem risky and daring. I’m not a big fan of the whole GUARDING TESS/IT COULD HAPPEN TO YOU/CON AIR version of Cage. It seems a shame to harness all that fabulous freak furor that Cage can unleash on command. It’s like hiring Crispin Glover to play straight. What’s the point? The great thing about this script is that it doesn’t just give Cage one great role to play. Oh, no. Kaufman, you see, has given himself a twin brother named Donald.
On the script’s title page, it actually reads "ADAPTATION by Charlie Kaufman and Donald Kaufman." I am in total comic awe of Donald Kaufman, as original a comic voice as Ignatius O’Reilly, a boisterous comic counterpoint to all of Charlie’s self-doubts and fears and values. Donald is an aspiring screenwriter, a faithful devotee of famed screenwriting guru Robert McKee, and he is staying with his more successful brother while he writes his serial killer thriller. His relationship with Charlie is one of the most deranged internal monologues made external I’ve ever seen someone attempt, and at the same time, it also manages some genuine pathos. There’s a deep rift between the two of them that only Charlie can heal, and watching them struggle towards a peace is both hysterical and touching.
It’s Kaufman’s writing about love and the desire for love and the way attraction blossoms that gives the film a deep constant sadness that BEING JOHN MALKOVICH just began to hint at. As Kaufman works with the book, he begins to find himself fantasizing about Susan Orleans. Meryl Streep should be amazing in the film. There are several different versions of Orleans that we meet in the film. There’s the author we see working. There’s the romantic figure Kaufman imagines. There’s the real Orleans he finally meets, and there’s an amazing sexually carnivorous Orleans that appears near the end, drugged up on an orchid extract. She’s not the only focus of this attention, though. Every woman he deals with is at least a passing erotic fancy. He can’t help himself. He’s so frustrated and stifled in his real life that he seems unable to turn off the fantasies. He dreams of love and romance and sex in varying degrees, and in his real life, the women he’s attracted to tell him about their boyfriends over lunch or turn down his fumbling advances without even thinking it over.
And all of this is wrapped around a dissection of the very idea of structure in screenplays, the notion of the three-act model. By using the teachings of Robert McKee as the subject of scorn through most of the script, Kaufman mocks the sort of development speak that drives writers crazy. But when Kaufman finds himself stuck for a way to make sense of the dense tangle of ideas that is ADAPTATION, he turns to McKee in a remarkable sequence that actually sets McKee’s common sense ideas in a positive context. Charlie is changed by the encounter, not just as a writer, but as a person. What spins out from that encounter can’t be described in any way that would do it justice. Suffice it to say, Kaufman has topped the inspiration of his earlier work, and he’s done it without creating something that feels artificial or forced.
Don’t worry about having had the film spoiled. Every page is thick with surprise. Every character is etched with precision and insight. There are times when I build warnings into these script reviews, possible pitfalls to avoid, but there’s nothing that I would be able to tell Jonze, Kaufman, or their talented cast that they don’t already know. This is that rare script that doesn’t just promise to be a good film. This is one of those liberating experiences that is going to change the way a lot of people think about the art of writing for the screen. It’s an honor to realize that you’re witnessing a significant step forward from such major artists, and it’s going to be interesting to see if you all agree when the film is finally released.
LEO’S MAKING QUITE A CATCH!!
And now for some names that might not be familiar. Jeff Nathanson. Barry Kemp. Devorah Moss-Hakin. Gore Verbinski. You may know one of them or maybe even a few of them, but at first glance, this film would seem to be an odd inclusion in this article. Wes Anderson, PT Anderson, Steven Spielberg, Spike Jonze, Charlie Kaufman, Barry Sonnenfeld... even Dave Barry is a more recognizable name. All that’s going to change, though, by the time CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is released by Dreamworks. For one thing, Leonardo DiCaprio has signed on to star in the film as Frank Abagnale, Jr. For another thing, Dreamworks is releasing Verbinski’s THE MEXICAN next year, and the buzz that’s building on that film is amazing.
Wouldn’t surprise me. I thought Verbinski’s MOUSEHUNT was underrated, a dark and witty little bit of fun. I still regret the fact that he didn’t get to make THE SKY IS FALLING, a completely out of control script by Eric Singer. His sensibilities struck me as setting him in the same class as David Fincher and Spike Jonze, video filmmakers who had become truly individual directors. I figured it was just a matter of finding a great piece of material. And CATCH ME IF YOU CAN is exactly that piece of material. Jeff Nathanson is the screenwriter, and it was developed by Bungalow 78 Productions. They were the people behind COACH on television, but they’ve had a quiet little film division chugging along for a while now. This is the biggest thing they’ve ever been attached to, and it’s proof that there’s nothing more important than having a great story to tell. This isn’t some clever twist of an idea like "dinosaurs are cloned for an amusement park" or some star vehicle that’s just been cobbled together. It’s just an amazing story that will both entertain and astonish people. It’s an easy sell, too. Just tell people the bare bones details about the true story and they’ll be hooked. I’m actually amazed that no one has done a film about Frank Abagnale before now. After reading this script, I’m dying to pick up the recent book about him and find out more. He was the youngest person ever put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. He posed as a pilot and few millions of free miles all over the world. He forged payroll checks and bank deposit slips and personal checks, and he was the most succcessful bank robber in US history, all without ever using a gun. He was the head of a pediatrics unit, posing as a doctor, and he was an assistant district attorney in New Orleans. And all of this was before he was eighteen years old.
The script is surprisingly funny and doesn’t feel like a film based on true events. There’s none of the formal stuffiness that can kill a project like this. It’s not THE HURRICANE, overly serious and too aware of itself. Instead, Nathanson has wisely placed the focus of the film on the bizarre relationship that developed between Abagnale and Joe Shaye, the FBI agent who tirelessly pursued him around the world. One of the moments that most delighted audiences in THE FUGITIVE was the brief face-to-face between Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones, whose dry delivery of the single line "I don’t care" practically won him his Oscar. There’s a similar beat here, one I actually prefer, a scene where Shaye surprises Abagnale in a hallway, and Abagnale somehow talks Shaye into letting him walk away. It’s funny and it’s heartstoppingly tense and it’s perfectly balanced. From that point forward, the two men antagonize one another in any way possible, maintaining a friendly chase.
I’m not going to give away the mechanics of the plot here, since it’s just so much fun to watch unfold. I love movies in which someone is scamming someone else, and the scam is laid out, explained in loving detail. Abagnale was a bit of a genius, and Nathanson manages to etch in a solid, believable reason for Frank’s moral evolution without ever judging Frank. He’s good at what he does, and the thrill is undeniable. Shaye’s no bumbler, either. He’s a bit of a maverick, pushing the FBI fraud division to think outside the box, to be smarter in the way they pursue suspects. He does some damn fine detective work in the movie. It’s refreshing to read a script where we’re allowed to just enjoy the characters without having heavy-handed judgements about them imposed on us. The result is a piece where we are drawn to both main characters for the same reasons: passion, intelligence, determination. Whoever steps in to play Joe Shaye is going to be stepping into a duet that he’s going to have to share with DiCaprio. I hope whoever it is creates a dynamic where they’re both pushed to do stronger work than ever before. The opportunity for greatness from cast, director, and all involved is certainly there.
HOW DUMB CAN A BUNCH OF GENIUSES... ER, GENII... UM, REALLY SMART PEOPLE BE?!
It’s no accident that I saved the new script by Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson for last. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is their follow-up to RUSHMORE. I can’t even imagine the pressure of following up a film that good, but the thing that makes the world so wonderful that Anderson and Wilson are creating with their scripts is the unpredictability of it. BOTTLE ROCKET has a loping, goofy, gentle comic rhythm, part crime film, part romance, part coming of age story. RUSHMORE is even more complex in terms of construction. Max Fischer may be a riff on Benjamin Braddock, but that’s just where Max begins. His relationship with Herman Blume is original, and his relationship with Miss Cross doesn’t play out in any of the expected ways. There’s a definite aesthetic that’s emerging, a skewed sensibility that’s so delicate, so ethereal, that simply trying to explain it runs the risk of ruining one’s enjoyment of it.
It wasn’t long after the release of RUSHMORE that Anderson and Wilson started referring to their next film as the "genius family movie." They said they were writing it for Jason Schwartzmann, Bill Murray, and the Wilson brothers to all star in. Whatever I thought the project might be, I certainly didn’t imagine the script I finally read. Royal Tenenbaum, the central character in the film, seems to be the Murray character, but he’s opted out of the film in favor of his reunion with Howard Franklin, PRESS YOUR LUCK. Instead, it seems that Gene "The Machine" Hackman is going to be starring, and I’m ready to predict a career high. Hackman is obviously one of our best working character actors, a guy who has given defining performances time and time again for over 20 years. Royal Tenenbaum, a father without a family, has been an absentee for most of the lives of Chas, Margot, and Richie. Circumstance brings him back into their lives with an announcement: his heart is crapping out, and he is dying. He reaches out, determined to make amends in his final days.
When I first moved to Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, I was working as a theater manager. That was right around the time Gene Hackman had a heart attack. His family made public announcements about him taking some time off, and that’s pretty much all that was said about it. I was surprised when Hackman turned up at our box office one Friday morning. He was one of the first customers there, and when I looked up and recognized him, I couldn’t help myself. I was still new to LA, and I hadn’t learned to filter my excitement at seeing someone I admired. I bubbled. I enthused. He was gracious about it, made me feel at ease as I told him how much his work meant to me. He asked about a ticket for one of the films, and I told him not to worry about it. I walked outside and motioned for him to follow me inside. When he hesitated, I told him there was no way I could charge Gene Hackman admission to see a movie. I was the manager, and that was the rule. Gene Hackman didn’t pay. He laughed, then went in and enjoyed his film. Afterwards, as he was leaving, I saw someone stop him in the lobby. The woman was nervous, almost apologizing. She said she’d worked with Gene years before on a film, and she didn’t expect him to remember, but...
He jumped in and told her not only her name, but the name of the film they’d worked on together, her husband’s name, and then he asked about her little girl. She was flabbergasted, but I could tell it wasn’t just a trick he’d learned to keep names straight. It was more than common courtesy. He was pleased to see the woman, and he spent a good ten minutes catching up with her.
Over the next few months, I saw him every couple of weeks. It was always on a Friday morning. I always let him in for free. And he always spent a few minutes chatting casually in the empty lobby. He talked about taking his time off and using it to build a plane with his son. He described the progress from week to week, and he talked of how amazing it was when they finally flew it. And as I read this script and thought of Royal Tenenbaum and the sorrow he carries around at having missed most of his childrens’ lives, I couldn’t help but flash on just how perfect Hackman is for the role. He got that moment in his life that Royal is chasing. He faced his own mortality, and he took the fear that is natural in a situation like that and turned it into a chance to make his family bonds stronger. If anyone will understand what it is that Royal is after, it’s Hackman.
When I first heard that the film would be about a family of geniuses, visions of a sort of Noel Coward reality flashed in my head, people seated around a dinner table trading Dorothy Parker-worthy banter. That’s not at all the film or the vibe that Anderson and Wilson have imagined, though. In fact, it doesn’t matter how smart these people are or how gifted they are at certain things. They’re idiots when it comes to telling the truth about how they feel. They’re emotionally retarded, broken and incomplete. There’s resentments and secrets and complicated affections simmering just below the surface. Even if there are people who adore the family from the outside, it’s not easy to be a Tenenbaum. It damn near kills Chas and his two sons. It causes a creative freeze in Margot. And it drives Richie from tennis, the sport he has a natural gift for. What seems like a selfish act on Royal’s part, something designed to make him feel better before he goes, may actually be one last selfless attempt to fix the damage he’s done over the years, a last ditch effort to set Chas and Margot and Ritchie free.
As with BOTTLE ROCKET and RUSHMORE, unconventional romantic entanglements fuel the film, and there’s something so powerfully optimistic about the way these writers view love. They believe in happy endings. They believe in soulmates. They believe in second chances. It’s intoxicating, contagious, and I want so much to believe in the same world they do. There’s several relationships in this movie that spin out along the strangest tangents. Another thing that this has in common with RUSHMORE is the use of a framing device. RUSHMORE was staged like one of the productions of the Max Fischer Players, with the opening and closing curtain, with scene cards to signal changes. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS is a book that we spend the film flipping through, going chapter to chapter as we trace these eccentric orbits of people. These devices could lend to artifice in the hands of some filmmakers, but Anderson managed to make us believe in the world of Max Fischer. It’s not real, but it feels real as we’re watching it. He’s one of the new masters of mise en scene, and I savored reading this script knowing that I don’t know everything, that there’s layers and layers of texture that Anderson will be creating, and that I have this great big gift waiting for me at the end of next year.
So what is it that keeps an artist vital? Is it sticking to what they do well and refining their central theme, or is it stretching their artistic wings and trying new things? I'd say it's a healthy mix of the two. As long as an artist is free to do either depending on what muse they're chasing at the moment, their work should remain interesting and provocative. The people I've discussed here are all pushing themselves in interesting ways at the moment, and I admire each of them for the effort. We'll see the fruits of those labors start to unfold on our theater screens sometime next year.
There’s a few more projects I want to talk about this week, including a special report called, "Hey, Isn’t That Supposed To Suck?!" featuring TOMB RAIDER and THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, and I am working on some of the long-term things I’ve promised in the past. Look for October to be a busy month at the Moriarty Labs... but not so busy I can’t sneak off to the giant HALLOWEEN party this Friday the 13th at the Egyptian. Tonight I’m going to devote my attention to another project I consider very important, the preposterously sexy Marla Singer. This one, even science can’t help me with. Pray for me. Until then...