COVERAGE CASE STUDY: Gods and Monsters by Bill Condon

Bill Condon

 

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TITLE: Gods and Monsters
AUTHOR: Bill Condon
FORM/PAGES: Screenplay/110
COVERAGE DATE: 8/19/13
DATE: 5/30/1997
READER: GC
GENRE: Drama
CIRCA: 1950s

CHARACTER BREAKDOWN:

JAMES WHALE (67/M): A gay former movie director recovering from a stroke. A sensitive, kind soul who is depressed by his current condition.

CLAYTON BOONE (26/M): A handsome, troubled gardener who forms a bond with Whale, but is bothered by Whale’s homosexuality.

HANNA (late 50s/F): Whale’s long-time housekeeper. She cares deeply about him, but is a devout Christian and disapproves of his homosexuality.

DAVID LEWIS (55/M): Whale’s former lover. A semi-closeted Hollywood producer who seems uncomfortable around Whale.

EDMUND KAY (22/M): A sycophant desperate to get into the movie business. He interviews Whale and, later, gets a job with George Cukor, and invites Whale to a Hollywood party.

LOGLINE: Over a decade after his last movie, an elderly gay director suffering from post-stroke complications struggles to make sense of his life as he forms a deep bond with his young, straight gardener.

COVERAGE:
There is considerable merit in this period drama about an elderly stroke victim (and former Hollywood director) looking back on his life, and the unlikely friendship he develops with his gardener. While GODS AND MONSTERS is far from a “high concept” in the conventional sense, the main characters are expertly depicted and the profound effect Whale and Clay’s friendship has on both men is deeply moving. This story is so universally human and so thematically affecting that its emotional resonance seems likely to stay with many viewers long after they leave the theater.

Almost all successful movies feature a protagonist struggling to accomplish a clear goal. In overtly commercial films that goal may be something as straightforward as going the distance in a title fight (ROCKY) or killing a shark that has been terrorizing a beach community (JAWS); however, character-centered “indie” films are also generally driven by the protagonist’s goal, but often simply in a more subtle way. For example, in AMERICAN BEAUTY, it is the protagonist’s goal of seducing his daughter’s teenage friend that drives the narrative, serving as a framework that allows that film’s deeper themes to emerge and truly shine. Whale’s goal in GODS AND MONSTERS is to form a genuine bond with Clay, and in doing so, to come to terms with his past in some way.

Generally, that would be too vague and internal a goal to successfully drive a narrative, but GODS AND MONSTERS is so well-written that the pace rarely lags, and Whale’s struggle to befriend Clay actually does move the story forward and connect seamlessly to key plot points. For example, the inciting incident is when Whale first sees Clay (and learns Hanna hired Clay while Whale was hospitalized). When Whale announces his intent to sketch Clay, the sketching itself, (which we later learn was simply a series of meaningless doodles, as Whale couldn’t really sketch Clay at all), is actually Whale’s method of bonding with Clay. This is the “point of attack,” which comes at the end of the first act when the protagonist begins actively pursuing his goal.

All of this – (as it presented in GODS AND MONSTERS) – is rather subtle, but it is still undeniably there, and it is helped along quite a bit by the high level of execution. In a lesser writer’s hands the plot point at the end of the second act in which Whale and Clay return from the Hollywood party, both let down and acutely aware of how much they feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, would either be clumsily obvious and overwritten, or else barely there and essentially just anear-meaningless sequence bleeding into the third act without a true act break or change in the dramatic tension.

Yet the manner in which the hope accompanying the party (for both Whale and Clay) rises and then is crushed, is depicted in a manner that is simultaneously clear and subtle – as if the glimpse we are granted into Whale and Clay’s respective reactions to the party are enough for us to understand how crushed they are by that evening, but also, realistically, that much of this is bottled inside of them, and that we are only observing bits and pieces here and there – puzzle pieces that the writer deftly places for us (yet with an invisible, steady hand – as if the pieces are naturally fitting together), hinting at the full picture in subtle ways, but never revealing it, until suddenly the final pieces are in place and a beautiful but heartbreaking painting is displayed fully at the perfect time.

The expertly written dialogue provides each character with a distinct, memorable personality and voice, and often includes multiple layers of meaning. While a common complaint about screenplay dialogue from lesser writers is that it is too “on-the-nose” (i.e. characters just come right out and say how they feel or what they want in ways that people would never do in the real world), this screenplay is a near-perfect example of how to convey information through completely believable conversation, including the inferences and hints people tend to give in reality.

For example, Clay reveals a tremendous amount about himself when he talks to his friends and ex-girlfriend about Whale (and shows them one of his movies) at a local bar. When these “friends” try to dampen Clay’s mood by suggesting that Whale isn’t really famous, Clay replies, “If he were that famous, he probably wouldn’t give me the time of day. This way, he’s like my famous person” (laughs at himself) “Yeah, my own personal famous person. Who treats me like I’m somebody worth talking to.”

Clay never literally comes right out and says that he is lonely and feels like he needs a friend, or that he has low self-esteem and worries people don’t respect him or want to hear what he has to say, or how much he values having somebody think he’s smart enough or interesting enough to have a good conversation with, but we can intuitively tell all of that about him just from that brief speech (which almost certainly takes less than twenty seconds).

Clay’s desire to be respected and to have a real friend who wants to spend time with him and who values him as a person is part of a theme about the need we all have for genuine bonds that runs throughout GODS AND MONSTERS. The screenplay actually ends with a brief moving scene in which we see Clay, years later, as a family man, watching one of Whale’s movies. We understand that Whale’s advice to Clay and Whale’s regrets about his own life may have led (or at least helped lead) to Clay being able to open himself up enough to bond with his wife and start a family.

Another theme pertains to the way that Whale “created” monsters in his horror movies, and how he has been compelled to “create” people (by trying to force them to change for him) throughout his life. When Whale manages to truly bond with Clay (despite the fact that Whale kills himself afterwards – which has to do with his diminishing capacities from his stroke and his depression over the future he feels awaits him with his health problems and his advancing age), he has finally learned to accept somebody else for who that person truly is, and not to try to “create” or change Clay. In a sense, by bonding with Clay and passing along lessons that will allow Clay to have a better life than Clay otherwise would have had, Whale has established to potential viewers that his life (however it ends) – has not been in vain.

As moving and commendable as GODS AND MONSTERS is, there are still some concerns. Flashback sequences involving Whale’s misunderstood youth, his family, his time working in the mines as a teen, his experiences during The Great War, and some of his time on set as a movie director, occur rather frequently. Some of these flashbacks feel 100% organically connected to Whale’s delusions (as a result of his stroke) or seem to be triggered so strongly by a statement or event that they come across as absolutely organic. However, some other flashbacks occur at times when Whale does not seem to be at all delusional or “overtaken” by a moment, and these sorts of flashbacks disrupt the flow of the story a bit, reminding potential viewers that there is a “man behind the curtain” who is deciding what they see. Streamlining the script just slightly, so that all of the flashbacks that remain feel completely holistic would likely improve the overall flow, elevating the already smooth rhythm and crisp pace to an even higher level.

Another issue is that the concept itself is not inherently cinematic and lacks a commercial hook. In fact, this screenplay seems as if it would work just as well as a stageplay, losing almost nothing in the transition from screen to stage. GODS AND MONSTERS is a moving, extremely worthwhile project, but there is nothing about it that directly relates to film as a medium (as opposed to the stage). Movies that do not directly connect to the specifics of the movie-going experience in a clear way can be a hard sell. There is also no getting around the issue of some potential viewers being put off by a protagonist who is an elderly gay stroke victim who suffers from depression – the “date night” or “escapist” crowds – (and even some filmgoers who are a bit more discerning, but still just don’t want to see a movie that sounds quite so unusual and/or quite so sad) – will very likely look for other options, and, rightly or wrongly, that will probably effect the box office.

Yet, the worries in the above paragraphs feel either nitpicky, similar to complaining that a great novel would be improved by substituting the word “melancholy” for the word “somber” on pg. 239, or rather crude, similar to lamenting that “One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich” will probably lack strong commercial appeal because most American readers are not eager to read a realist Russian prison novel.

Ultimately, GODS AND MONSTERS features an extremely high level of artistic merit, but commercial prospects are nonetheless rather uncertain (and perhaps even doubtful). However, with the writing and the character depictions/dialogue at such a high level, this screenplay may be able to draw in A-list talent to the main roles, mitigating commercial concerns to at least some extent. Despite the commercial question marks in play here, GODS AND MONSTERS must be at least a STRONG CONSIDER.

Coverage written by GC, Script-Fix reader.

 

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