Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The catalyst

Another screenplay that I toyed with in my undergraduate days - and, like the last story I described on here, similarly revealing of my yearning to break free from a dull and unsatisfying life, and from the deadly weight of societal expectations - featured a mysterious stranger who seemed to have magical powers to transform the lives of people around him, to liberate them from their inhibitions and enable them to follow their enthusiasms, to live life more fully and freely. (I fancied getting Tom Waits to sing "When you wish upon a star" for the closing credits.)

This was basically an excuse to splice together lots of fragmentary ideas I'd had for bizarre little scenarios. One image I wanted to use, for example, was that of cashpoints incontinently spewing money into the air whenever the stranger passes nearby. Another was a running gag of a group of people conducting vigorous paintball battles on the streets of London (initially, of course, this may seem threatening; we perhaps think that we have seen someone get killed; but we discover that the blood is only red paint, and that the fighting is just a harmless game).

One element I was particularly fond of had originally been a separate short story idea, but it was a perfect fit with this theme of cathartic transformation. A brilliant classical pianist is an obsessive perfectionist, and chronically shy. He refuses to perform in public, or even to record his music. A supposed friend, his would-be manager has sequestered him in a luxury apartment, where he plays the piano all day long in a padded basement. The friend is secretly recording the performances, but is repeatedly frustrated by the pianist's refusal ever to finish a piece (perhaps because he suspects what his friend is up to, perhaps just because his obsessive-compulsive streak demands that he breaks off a few bars from the end of the piece if he's not satisfied with his playing). I hadn't worked out how the pianist was going to come in contact with the transformative stranger, but I had the idea that what was making him so crazy was that he just didn't really dig classical music, it was something he'd been forced into specialising in from early childhood. In the first version of the story, he'd simply taken an axe to his piano one day, and then had strode out into the outside world for the first time in years. However, for this film script, I came up with what I thought was an even more powerful image - less violent, more liberating, and a nicely incongruous gag. I pictured him sitting down at his piano to play, brow furrowed in thought as he tries to choose a piece, and then beginning to play something unfamiliar, perhaps - for the first time ever - something improvised, not part of his regular classical canon. He plays four heavy chords, slowly, one after the other; pauses for a while, then repeats them slightly faster; pauses, then plays the chords again much faster, the introduction to a rollicking honky-tonk tune, which we now recognise as 'Great Balls of Fire'. He begins channelling the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, exuberantly ripping up the keyboard, playing with his elbows, his feet - and singing, with devastating appropriateness to his peculiar situation, "You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain; too much love drives a man insane." For once, he's going to finish a performance; but it's not going to be a recording his manipulative 'manager' can use (in fact, I'd planned to have the pianist discover the hidden microphones and destroy them all just prior to this).

Another gag I was fond of - inspired by the technical challenge of filming it - involved the hero (just a regular guy, a put-upon everyman) and his new friend, the 'catalyst', being pursued by the police through an apartment building. The stranger confidently leads them to a doorway which he says can be a means of escape; but they discover that the building has been part demolished and the door opens into thin air. The stranger says simply 'Jump'; the hero hesitates, because it is a 50ft drop to the ground; and the stranger pushes him out. This is where the difficult special effect comes in: the hero would be falling on his back, looking back up in dismay at the friend who has pushed him to his death, and I wanted the camera to move with him, following his fall all the way down to the split-second before he hits the ground. And the gag was: cut to next scene, hero has survived fall but appears to be in a bad way, lying in a hospital bed swathed from head to foot in bandages and plaster casts; the stranger enters the room, grins at him, and starts cutting the casts off, revealing that the hero is in fact unscathed after all. "What's the matter?" his strange friend asks him. "You didn't trust me?"

Silly - but I liked it.

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