Finally able to sit down at the blog again, but it’s been a few days since I uploaded the first screenplay assignment, so I figured I’d expand on it in a new post rather than edit the original one and have nobody realize it. A commenter* suggested that it could be useful to include a look at the thought process and headspace that went into these screenplay exercises. I think that’s a great idea, so I’ll include that commentary below future screenplay posts. As for the prior screenplay post, I’ll opine on it below.
*(Stuart Danker of https://stuartdanker.com/, go check him out! He’s got several posts specifically on the topic of writing, and I must say, there is some advice there that I wish I’d had pounded into my head much earlier in life. I recommend starting here. )
It might help to have the Intro Imagery post open in a second tab. I’ll reference scene numbers (they’re the digits on the left of things like “1 FADE IN”) as I make comment. If I were a better person, I would repost the script here and add commentary in between relevant segments, with good formatting and everything, but I am unfortunately barely adequate at best. Anyway, without further ado:
Scenes 1, 2, and the beginning of 3 – The assignment was one in which we were tasked with setting up our scene, scenario, characters, and/or world via imagery. My hope was that the initial cruise around the kitchen as it enlivens to its early morning rituals would draw on shorthand that would make the reader/viewer feel homey and comfortable. Stumbling out into the morning light for some coffee with a loved one has a very specific feeling to me, and I have to figure this holds true for others. There’s a vulnerable domesticity there.
You can tell a few things about a person by examining the environment in which they approach the day. You get to see that we’re in the living space of a teacher; specifically, a college professor. They’ve probably been one for a while, given how beat up the coffee mug appears to be. We also get the sense that maybe this professor is a bit behind on their work, or that they’re the ruffled and casual sort who is always scattered, or perhaps they’re just cavalier about the endless stream of tasks involved in their profession. There is also a bit of foreshadowing in the newspaper about the suspicious destruction of a controversial project. David waking up is meant to show that he is not a Type A, up-and-at-em sort of guy who rises with the dawn and sprints out the door. He luxuriates in the comfortable slouchiness of spooning with his husband in their messy bed, and he’s in no great hurry to leave it. The goal here was to create a quiet and reassuring atmosphere so that it would be all the more jarring when the atmosphere is punctured by unpredictability and danger.
Scene 3 – I wanted to efficiently display some things about these characters as individuals and as a couple. They’re clearly loving towards each other, with a good rapport. They’re obviously past the self conscious stage of a relationship, and are quite comfortable in each others’ company. They have in-jokes, and a good sense of humor about each other. We also, hopefully, start to see that David is a bit more together and scheduled than Leon. We also learn which field David is a professor in.
Fun fact: David Gilbert was named after my own philosophy and ethics professor, though I think he is happily married to a woman, as opposed to our protagonist. He was a fantastic teacher, and was massively influential not only regarding my intellectual outlook on the world, but on my perception of myself as a scholar and a person; probably much more than he would ever have realized. Thanks for everything, Prof. Gilbert! If any of you ever get a chance to take a philosophy class with him, go for it. It’s insane to me that he was a community college adjunct and not a tenured University professor. As for Leon, I chose his name because it seemed like something that any number of American men might be named, so the casting could be open to any ethnicity. I try not to deliberately assign things like race unless I feel it’s somehow necessary to the character’s identity and characterization.
Scene 4 – We see that Leon’s day probably starts later than David’s, or at least doesn’t require getting into a button-up shirt before breakfast. There is also more characterization about their relationship; David clearly humors Leon, who clearly enjoys teasing David. A little more attention is given to the pipeline seen in Scene 2’s newspaper, and we get our first glimpse of David’s attitudes about the world. Being a professor who studies ethics and philosophy, his worldview is one in which he is constantly weighing the arguments between various actions and uses of power, even if the argument is only implicit, or one he began in his own head. Like a true professor, he enjoys talking to someone even if they’re only sort of listening.
Scene 5 – Now we’re getting to the twist, and the real meat of this scene. When deciding what to write about, I had, as usual, superheroes on the brain. It is probably not surprising to discover that I’m a big ol’ dork who plays tabletop RPGs with my friends and grew up reading comic books. I’ve seen nearly everything in the Marvel cinematic and television universe, and still enjoy it all despite knowing full well that it is not without a host of problems, as well as being the slimy brand appendage of the Great Beast Disney. I can enjoy things while also knowing they are ridiculous and stupid, because I contain multitudes. Anyway I think Infinity War had just come out, so I was thinking about supers.
Moreso, I was thinking about the kind of subjects we haven’t seen superhero movies address yet (or at least movies in which people have super powers, if one cares to make the distinction). I was thinking about how the super powered decide when, where, how, and why to act. I was thinking about they way in which a superhero almost always defaults to defending the status quo from someone who is trying very hard to change it, for better or worse. If you’ve been anywhere near online film or comics discourse in the last several years, you’ve probably seen debates about Magneto Being Right (he is, a lot of the time), or Killmonger Being Right (his motivation and reasoning was correct, and even some of the steps he planned to reach his goals, though the movie needed to make sure he stayed a villain, so they just dumbed it up in a few eyerolling ways), or Thanos Doing Nothing Wrong (if you believe this then you’re genuinely not qualified to sign documents without a witness).
I was thinking about how, even under the best of circumstances, the idea of the super powerful individual with vastly more agency, who decides to unilaterally throw their outsized weight towards some social outcome, is a pretty authoritarian and borderline fascist situation. It’s comparable to the way Citizens United has given the mega wealthy even more of a voice in how the world is run, and how normal people have to live their lives under the outcome produced by that voice. Massive personal wealth and massive personal superpower are both reality-warping influences that give one person (or a small group of people) significantly more say in the shape of the world we live than is given to most of the people living in it. So I was curious about what would happen if someone realized they had this kind of power, and thought they should use it in favor of good, but then realized that social change is more difficult and complicated than they might have thought.
Part of this thought process came from how annoyed I got at the way Death Note was written. I tried watching it for a while, and the best thing that the owner of the Death Note (a journal in which you write someone’s name and they inevitably die) could think to do in order to improve the world was to just write down the names of various criminals, a number of whom were already in jail. It was the kind of blinkered and shortsighted writing I see a lot when it comes to impossible powers. The characters are almost never interested in asking larger questions, such as “What conditions create a world in which robbing a convenience store is even something a person would feel they need to do?” They don’t ask if killing random petty thieves and drug users is less socially useful than, say, going after insurance execs who create healthcare regimes that intentionally lead to death and life-destroying medical debt, or military industrial complex oligarchs who manufacture wars to prop up their business, or Wall Street gamblers who rob entire generations of their retirements and homes, or fossil fuel execs who hid evidence of the effect that massive carbon emissions would have on the fate of the world. I chalk this incuriosity to the unexamined worldview of the authors, because I rarely see it discussed through the characters in question. We don’t see a character using their powers this way because they’ve shown that they have a conservative view of mankind, wherein some people are simply do crimes because they’re bad people and they like to upset their community. Instead, we see that conservative worldview as an unexplored default setting. It’s boring and asinine.
So I wanted to see what would happen if a person with crazy powers decided that they needed to give serious consideration to the ethics of how they use their power, and I wanted to see what would happen to a professor of ethics who suddenly has to counsel a confused, godlike being. All of a sudden, many of the impossible thought experiments one might encounter in a philosophy lecture are actually on the table. It’s no longer the domain of idly musing about the theoretical, or pushing a concept to its ultimate and ridiculous conclusion for the sake of prodding at its strengths and weaknesses. No, there are no real stakes and real time constraints and real life-or-death consequences.
How will David handle this situation? Why did the Young Man choose to act against Lucas Parish, and why did he then flee to seek counsel from David? What will the Young Man ultimately decide, and does he have any of his own firmly held beliefs that he refuses to back down from, and which might throw wrinkles into David’s attempt to use the kind of philosophical reasoning that only functions in the void of conjecture-space? How will this all affect the life, safety, and relationship of David and Leon? What does Leon think of all this, what outsider advice will he offer, and who would he side with on the issues?
Another note: I intend the Young Man in this case to explicitly be cast as male and white as opposed to the more blind style of casting I discussed above. That is because, in this character’s case, the identity is important to what I want to explore. The metaphor at work here is, how does someone with an unfair amount of influence ethically unpack that influence and how to use it? Obviously, the inherited social benefits and privileges that individual white guys like me enjoy in the US is nothing compared to being a literal godlike superhuman, but a big reason speculative fiction exists is because it can be fun and instructive to hyperbolize issues and watch them beat the hell out of each other. I think it could be interesting to see this super powerful kid come to decide that he should act on behalf of oppressed and marginalized people by asking them what kind of help they need, whether that be defending water protectors at a place like Standing Rock or opening border cages or keeping violent police riots at bay. Sort of have him reach the conclusion that it’s important to be an accomplice in tearing down harmful power structures instead of deciding entirely on his own how the world ought to be.
Anyway, that’s all I got for you on the Intro Imagery assignment. Do you like these ideas? Do you hate them? Do you agree with some and disagree with others? Have I totally mischaracterized Death Note and need to watch the rest, because all my gripes are addressed? If you have any thoughts or responses, please let me know!
PS – Peter Parker, aka your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man, generally gets a pass on the “being a mildly fashy authoritarian” thing, because he’s usually written as a working class defender of the common person. It’s notable that his enemies tend to be psychotic captains of industry, dishonest media assholes, corrupt businessmen, grifters, and plain old bullies who could probably do beneficial things instead of destroying rent controlled apartment blocks so that Wilson Fisk can buy the land and develop it cheap. Good on ya, Petey.