Welcome to the second installment of our new series on TCR’s blog, Then and Now, a column in which writers reveal and dissect earlier literary attempts which have helped form their current work. This week, John Schimmel takes a look back at an unfinished screenplay from 2006:
By John Schimmel
EXT. STANFORD UNIVERSITY – LATE AFTERNOON
ESTABLISHING – The glorious campus of one of the more interesting, forward-thinking institutions on the planet. Sprinklers water the ample lawns.
EXT. STANFORD PHYSICS BUILDING – LATE AFTERNOON
White, three stories, topped with Spanish tiles, wrapped in semi-Spanish arches.
INT. PHYSICS BUILDING – JANE GLEIZE’S OFFICE – LATE AFTERNOON
JANE GLEIZE (35), fit, focused, Stephen Hawking brain in a healthy female body, stands at her whiteboard. Clutches a black marker as she stares at neatly written if indecipherable equations.
A knock on her door. No reaction.
Jane finally looks from the board. Sees BOB MAIRE, tall, academic in dress.
(from some far away place)
Jane follows Bob out the door. Turns to lock it – with her black marker.
Probably won’t work.
No. I think I’m on the right track…
Bob points at the marker she’s trying to use as a key.
I do that.
Jane goes back in for her purse and keys.
I wasn’t asking for permission.
I mis-spoke. I should have said, “It’s perfect.”
As in, I envy the equations that intensity.
I know. Sorry.
Jane nods, leads him out of the building.
EXT. PHYSICS BUILDING – CONTINUOUS
Do you even know where you go
in those trances?
Someplace blessedly quiet.
No offense taken.
It takes a moment, but Jane finally smiles. It’s a gift that makes any day worth living.
It only lasts a moment. She gets very serious.
Do you ever get the feeling you know
something you can’t quite access?
Like if you could just go to where
the secret lies…
It’s a nice thought.
INT. CONCERT HALL – NIGHT
Jane and Bob listen to a lone cellist play Bach. Jane is enraptured. Bob is as well, but it’s not the music that holds his attention.
Bob startles. Looks down. Jane has taken his hand.
INT. JANE GLEIZE’S APARTMENT – LIVING ROOM – NIGHT
Books and plants. No computer. Lots of notebooks. Comfortable reading spot for one.
BEDROOM – CONTINUOUS
Series of shots – Bob has all the focus he was hoping for.
Post-coital. Jane rolls away, stares at the ceiling.
This is my space. I’m not so good with our. Or we.
We can move at the pace you want.
This won’t be regular.
(wants him to get it)
I’m not… regular.
Be careful what you wish for.
Jane smiles at that, cuddles into him.
TEXT. JANE’S BUILDING – MORNING
Jane and Bob exit.
See you tonight?
I thought we…
Can we make an exception? It’s my birthday.
Okay. See you tonight.
INT. JANE’S STANFORD OFFICE
Jane writes on her white board. Complicated equations. Someone knocks. She doesn’t appear to hear. Door opens. Closes. She never looks over.
COLONEL SAMUELS (O.S.)
Dr. Gleize, I need to ask you…
(never looks from the board)
The answer’s still, “No.” I don’t want a private
sector job. Especially yours. “Do no evil,” was
a great motto. You should have lived by it.
COLONEL (PETE) SAMUELS
You should look before you leap.
Jane turns at that. Sees COLONEL PETE SAMUELS (40), full uniform complete with medals.
I thought people only put all that
on for special occasions.
You’re right, Doctor. There can be no doubt about how important what I’m about to ask of you is. They thought the get-up might help.
Would you come with me?
What if I said no?
What if I told you I can prove your theory is right?
Off her stunned look.
EXT. LAKE TAHOE – ESTABLISHING – DAY
A mystical body of water trapped between residential-centric California and casino-mad Nevada. Impossibly deep fresh water.
DEEP IN THE LAKE:
A small submersible makes its way.
INT. SUBMERSIBLE – CONTINUOUS
Jane and the Colonel are piloted by a SAILOR toward what looks like a small, underwater garage.
Jane catches the Colonel staring at her.
Is there something…?
I took a huge chance back in your office.
And what was that?
Telling you I could prove your theory.
I thought it was a way to cut to the chase.
But if you had turned me down, it could
have been really dangerous for you.
You need to understand: Nothing you see
or hear today can ever be disclosed, no
matter the outcome of what comes next.
(a twinkle – this is all so absurd)
That serious, huh?
It doesn’t get more serious.
The sub pulls into the “garage.” THROUGH THE WINDSHIELD: A long, sleek craft rests on a pedestal. “HAIL MARY” is stenciled on the side.
Jane barely has time to notice as she’s hustled into a waiting…
It descends. And descends. A distant rumble crescendos.
Finally, the doors open. Thunder of rushing water is suddenly deafening.
INT. CAVERN UNDER LAKE TAHOE
A small cadre of worried PEOPLE – military, bureaucrat, scientists.
All watch as Jane and the Colonel step into the cavern.
JANE’S POV: A magic trick. Someone – or something – has drilled a large hole through the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
Water pours out – into nothing, disappearing into a swirling vortex before it can ever hit the floor. A wormhole devours all it is offered.
She moves toward the cascading water but is stopped by the Colonel.
You don’t want to get too close.
I assume you can’t just stopper the hole.
(A), we don’t think so. (B), even if we
could, this is happening all over the
world. Lakes, rivers, reservoirs.
And (C), we don’t really want to alert
whoever did this that we’re onto them.
POLITICIAN Not ‘til we’re ready for them.
Jane rolls her eyes, looks to the Colonel.
You all know this isn’t really possible,
right? The amount of energy required
to hold even one wormhole open for an
extended period is massive. And you’re
telling me – what? Dozens of them?
Which means what to you?
(to the politician)
It means, you don’t want to pick a
fight with these creatures.
INT. SAN FRANCISCO RESTAURANT – NIGHT
Nice place. Romantic. Or it would be if Bob wasn’t alone at his table. Waiting.
BACK IN THE UNDERWATER “GARAGE” – CONTINUOUS
Only Jane and the Colonel are in the room.
I’d like to go home, please.
You could be the first person to…
To get spaghettified? To get cooked by
radiation? To get killed by an alien
Don’t you want to know how the
Uh uh. I want to discover how it works.
While the world dies of thirst.
Who have you been talking to, Colonel?
Anyone who knows physics? They’d tell you,
any trip to the stars, we’d age differently than
people here. Maybe we’d come back twenty
years older, but hundreds of thousands of years
would have passed here. I’m thinking that
would be too late.
What if the wormhole connects different universes,
not distant places? No distance, no time dilation.
Jane can only stare.
It makes sense. If your planet was dying of
thirst, would you embrace a solution that
took thousands of years to enact?
No one’s proven they even exist.
Jane stares at the Hail Mary?
Is someone on your team Catholic?
You can’t fit an army in that thing.
Just you and me.
That makes no sense. How do the two of us
shut it down? What do you need me for?
Oh… You want the technology.
“While the world dies of thirst.” Take me home.
Do you always hate people you’ve just met?
No. I’m more democratic than that.
I hate pretty much everyone.
You’re going to be a great traveling companion.
As if on cue, the door to the elevator opens, disgorging two SOLDIERS. On the other side of the room the port into the craft opens.
Oh, come on.
One of the soldiers Colonel pulls out a Taser. Jane’s eyes widen.
EXT. LAKE TAHOE – UNDERWATER
The garage doors open. The craft powers out, deep in the lake.
This is the start of a project I began – but never completed – back in 2006. There are reasons both trivial and less than trivial for its hopefully temporary demise. The trivial reasons were all built around the class of “life happens” excuses. Distractions proliferated; time to write shrank.
And then there’s the more profound. There is a kind of seduction in screenwriting that makes the process infuriating. It isn’t so tough, relatively speaking, to launch a character on a journey. So we can block out a first act and think, wow, I’m onto something. And then that gigantic second act looms up and we have to map that journey out and it turns out that brilliant first act didn’t actually establish all we need as foundation for all that follows.
Billy Wilder, I think it was, described a good screenplay this way: create a character you love, send them up a tree, set the tree on fire, and watch them try to get down safely. That first phrase is all first act stuff. First acts absolutely have to establish the protagonist, what disrupts their life and sends them on the journey of the film. We have to leave the first act knowing what the protagonist wants after their life is disrupted, and what personal flaw of issue they’ll need to overcome to get to the other end. I hadn’t been able to do all that, I think, because I was unclear about the end point of the film. Heading off into the vast wasteland of act two, which has very few structural signposts as guides, is seriously unwise if you don’t know where you’re headed.
So, lo and behold, I found myself in development hell with no time or energy to take up the hammer and chisel needed to shape that sucker.
When a recent break in my schedule gave me the time to get back into a more natural and productive rhythm, I decided that I wanted to get back to this project. So I began the process of reviewing my original starting place for the script to see if there was anything worth salvaging.
The archaeology was fun. As I dug, I remembered…
– I wanted to make an allegory by transporting a modern scientist into a parallel world where the inhabitants had made far greater scientific progress than we had, but even less toward solving certain fundamental problems humanity faces; namely, overpopulation and the increasing scarcity of resources that implies.
– I liked the idea of sending an anti-social genius as one half of the tactical team assigned to somehow stop the plundering of earth’s water.
– My cynical side really liked the idea that the military’s top priority was not to save the planet but rather to get its hands on the alien technology that allowed for interdimensional travel.
– I really liked the challenge of finding a credible (in the context of sci-fi) version of a bridge between two parallel worlds.
Looking at this list, I realized that these are all themes and themes are not, as I often tell my students, a story. So I started hunting through my various outlines for clues to what that story might become.
Part of the stumbling block, I have to admit, turned out to be that there are aspects of the premise that are preposterous, even for science fiction. Now, a zillion years ago, I worked on Face/Off, which was based on the entirely absurd notion that two men with entirely different body types could masquerade as one another simply by swapping faces. Every part of that sentence is loopy, but we got away with it because John Woo, John Travolta, and Nicholas Cage were so thoroughly invested in the idea and so good at their jobs. It was so interesting watching a good guy become a bad guy and vice versa that the silliness of the premise vanished. But the whole thing was possible because the basic story was clean and simple and easy to understand.
During this process of digging, I quickly realized that there was nothing simple in my piece. The water transfer seemed like it could be made to make sense. But how could an army of two stop the sacking of earth? Also, the relationship I’d defined between a by-the-books military guy and an independent-minded scientist started to feel like a cliche.
I recently started watching shows like Killing Eve and Fleabag and Chernobyl. The thing that struck me about them, which seems so obvious now as to be embarrassing, was that pretty much every character was a walking contradiction, behaving in ways that constantly surprised.
I came to feel that pushing this envelop is part of what defines the current sensibility of the recent crop of great shows.
At the same time, I realized that I could use an obsession that is powering my current spec: runaway tech is destroying democracies around the globe. So, I thought, why not make the scientist the one whose drive to push the scientific envelope nearly leads her to betray her own mission? It certainly seemed like an idea worth trying.
The other thing was that I’d constructed my various outlines around the premise that this needed to be a mission in which two people might save the world. That could work, I suppose, in a superhero flick, but this was not intended to be that. Back when I was working on it, the time crunch made it impossible to lift myself out of the granular. But breathing space and a willingness to abandon the original idea has freed me up to contemplate a really simple change: What if this is instead a fact-finding mission that could, if successful, lead to creating a plan to save the world? What if the scientist becomes enamored with this parallel world and the scientific progress it’s made and decides to stay behind while the military guy returns to our version of earth in order to plan an attack?
I have no clue yet if any of that even makes sense. But, suddenly, embracing these changes instead of trying to force the original premise to work has opened a door that just might lead me out of development hell.
John Schimmel is in the middle of an extraordinarily diverse career as a writer/producer/musician. He is currently senior producer (narrative content) for Cloud Imperium Games’ Star Citizen and Squadron 42, an executive producer on the feature film Foster Boy, writer/producer on the film No Time For Kings, and part of the core screenwriting faculty at the University of California at Riverside’s Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. He’s been the President of Michael Douglas’ Furthur Films and Ascendant Pictures, a production and development executive at Douglas-Reuther Productions, Belair Entertainment, and Warner Bros, co-penned the Tony-nominated musical “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” and published both fiction and nonfiction.
Want to be part of ‘Then and Now?’ Send your early stories, essays, poems or one-act plays—and a short craft essay discussing your piece—to TCR’s Blog editor Diana Love at firstname.lastname@example.org. Open to all writers with at least two books out from recognized presses.