A couple of months ago I completed a second draft of a horror screenplay and submitted it to a producer I've known for a few years, and who I respect a lot. We've tried to make a film together a couple times, but the projects (which I would have directed, but not written) were derailed by outside forces. I've probably pitched a dozen stories of my own to him, and he's always responded positively - but none of those projects caught traction. Then, when I pitched this most recent idea for a film, something clicked. He became very enthusiastic, and he asked to read the screenplay.
Around this time, he was being whisked away to a five-week shoot for another film he's producing - which meant I had to wait for that to wrap before I could have his full attention again. When he came off the shoot, we again started talking about my screenplay. This included his giving me a round of notes to improve the script.
His notes were few and small, impacting the script very little... except for one major request he made.
The script contains an attack scene that sends one of the main characters into a downward spiral. This scene must accomplish these goals: A bad guy must attack the female lead. She must kill him in self defense, so that the other bad guys are motivated to hunt her down. She must be traumatized by all of this.
In the draft of the screenplay I submitted, the attack scene was a vicious, relentless, blood-soaked nightmare. The bad guy abducts our female protagonist from the street during a thunderstorm, drags her into the loading dock area of a mostly-empty warehouse, and attempts to rape her. She fights back ferociously. Before he is able to rape the woman, she brutally kills him. She runs away, and flees the town, knowing she'll be hunted down for this "murder" by the bad guy's co-horts.
The biggest change the producer asked for was to eliminate the rape scene. In all honesty, I agreed with his request. The film is a bizarre tale of the supernatural. It has a lot of violence and bloodshed in it, but it's all at least one step removed from reality. The horror of the "rape scene" was too real, and therefore out-of-place in a film where the rest of the horror is rooted in the occult. Even though no rape takes place in the scene (she fights him off and kills him before it can happen), the scene stood out in a very awkward way.
We also both felt that the screenplay, despite being extremely dark and oftentimes brutal, provided the groundwork for a spooky, enjoyable horror thrill ride. The "rape scene" derailed this thrill ride, because that subject matter is so vile and repugnant. It's not Fantasy Film Horror... it's Next Door Horror... and for this particular movie, it yielded more negative than positive.
I removed the "rape scene" and wrote a sequence in which a wallet is planted on our leading lady by the bad guy, who then takes the police to her and demands she be arrested for pick-pocketing. He is infatuated with the woman, but knowing what scum he is, she's always rejected him. He's embarrassed and angry. She's innocent of the pick-pocketing charge - but she knows that being arrested now means she'll be dead within a month. She panics and tries to flee. She struggles with the cops. One of their guns goes off and our bad guy is accidently shot in the face. As he crumples to the ground, our heroine escapes, knowing she'll be pursued by other bad guys for committing this "murder".
Here's the problem:
This scene, which is a catalyst for the entire narrative, is now so soft, it changes the tone of everything that comes after it. The bad guy used to be unpredictable and scary, like a wild animal. In Version Two of the scene, he's clever and conniving - too suave to be threatening.
Worse, all of the dramatic, horrific, and emotional scenes that come after this scene now feel wrong. When the scene was a rape scene - grating, harsh, ugly, and horrific - the drama, horror, and suspense in subsequent sequences had more impact. Also, it's important that the female protagonist go to some emotional extremes, and really struggle to rebound from the ordeal, for a major plot point to work, and for her relationship with the male lead to gel.
When the "rape scene" became a softer "escape scene" the domino effect was disastrous. We don't sympathize with the female protagonist as much. At the major plot point I mentioned, she now appears to over-react emotionally. It simply does not work.
Worse, the entire tone of the movie changed. It lost its teeth. The darkness, the drama, the layer of ever-present danger... it was like someone fired a gun into the movie and these much-desired elements leaked out through the bullet holes, all over the floor.
It was a great exercise, re-writing one pivotal scene, and seeing how it impacted the rest of the script. A fascinating experiment.
But there was no way I was gonna leave it like that.
I expressed my dilemma to another writer. We brainstormed some ways out of the predicament, and she helped me come up with a new sequence that added back the ferocity and madness of the original Version One scene.
The bad guy is still infatuated with our heroine, but he's now more maniacal and sadistic in his retaliation. He corners her in a rail yard, intending to throw acid in her face and disfigure her. I added back the rain, lightning, and thunder to reinstate the energy, chaos, and hellish tone. She fights back, getting some of the acid splashed on her, but dumping most of it on her assailant. He jumps into the rain, frantically ripping his clothes off to remove the acid from his flesh. A different scene in the movie involved a train decapitating a person on the tracks. I transplanted that idea to this sequence. Our heroine smashes the bad guy over the head with something as a train swiftly approaches. His flesh still burning from the acid, he falls - dazed, nearly unconscious - onto a rail. The train barrels through and decapitates him. She flees town by hopping another train pulling out of the rail yard. She is in shock, in pain, scarred both mentally and physically, on the run from the other bad guys who will try to hunt her down as her paranoia increases day by day.
I'm still massaging the scene. Much may change... but now the event is traumatic enough for her that later, when I need her to have an extreme reaction to fuel that key plot point, it works. She even has the acid scars to agonizingly remind her of the ordeal every time she looks in the mirror. Other scenes that tie back to the attack sequence also snap into place nicely - they no longer seem mismatched. And the tone I want the movie to have has been restored. The narrative is again built upon a nightmare... not a comparatively scrawny pick-pocket scenario. The dread and darkness of that one alarming, unsettling sequence permeates the rest of the story. Problem solved, I think.
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze