(This one comes to us from the always wonderful Christina Ferguson. I really enjoyed reading this. The photo above is one of Sybil's real paintings. She called it "Blue is the Color of Love." Her real name was Shirley Ardell Mason. -MM)
I'm the type that writes comments on a script, usually when I get pulled out of the story or want to note significant beats or questions. My first notation on "A Crowded Room" is on:
Page 11: "So not if... but why?" [Why he committed the crimes.]
Turns out this is indeed the central question of the screenplay.
And now, for the comedic notes:
On page 13, the protagonist rips a toilet from the wall of his jail cell. I wrote: "Yeah, right... uh..."
Page 14: "Split personality - only one personality has the disorder [nystagmus]?"
Page 15: "Yep. Split personality."
Page 16: "This is feeling like Memento..."
Page 17: "Not just split personality - but multiple! Whoo-hoo!"
Page 18: Dialogue says: "I made a mistake telling you." My note says: "But I needed to move the plot forward." A few more exchanges and I wrote: "Ah, so Sybil." A few exchanges later where the characters themselves bring up Sybil, I wrote: "Ha Ha! Ha Ha!"
Page 19: "Judy will be our 'whiner' character - she'll probably be the one that saves Billy." I was wrong.
Page 20: At the end of an exchange between Judy and Gary, the public defenders, where Judy tries to talk Gary (her boss) into defending Billy. He agrees, too easily. I wrote, "Why [should he go]? I don't buy it - if she [Judy] had promised sex, maybe..."
Page 21: Yet the introduction of another personality, I wrote: "Tommy. Must start list of personalities..."
Page 22: "Why would the different personalities be willing to divulge so much [to the public defenders]?" Seems too easy. Oh yeah, to move the plot forward.
Page 23: "Okay, this is starting to ready like a mockumentary of serial killer... no, he's not a serial killer, okay - like a mockumentary of crime movies..."
Page 25: "I smell a role for Christian Bale."
Page 26: "So I guess the question becomes... Why? Why is he so fragmented?"
Page 27: "Central question now - will this be Sybil or the Usual Suspects?" I.e. is he really fucked up or is he putting on an act?
Page 28: "I think they [the public defenders] are convinced too easily. He [the accused] could have been faking IQ tests all along - a true sociopath would have."
Page 31: "One thing to note: I'm morbidly hooked and engaged [by this lame story]..."
Page 32: "He [Gary, the defender] 'wings' it pretty well... a little too well." And another note towards the bottom, "Ohhhhh... Will we get a Nurse Ratchet too?"
Page 36: A psych nurse watches Billy and notes his boring activities. I wrote, "Just like the Discovery Channel." Further down, "Allen - have we met this one [personality] yet?" And then when a patient in the psych ward introduces herself as 'Natalie Wood' to the protag, I wrote: "This is 'ha ha' funny. Don't know if it fits the tone of the script."
And then, on page 40 or so, the screenplay goes back in time to cover Billy's childhood. This is where it really lost me. I was enjoying it as a cliched crime movie up until this point. But the time spent on his childhood and the feuding between the different personalities was WAY TOO LONG. Someone said that good dialogue captures "the idea of a conversation." I think something similar here would work well - we should get the idea of many personalities... And the trial at the end? It felt tacked on. Too short and too late in coming. Bottom line: the thing reads likes a bloated, uninteresting "Capote."
Okay, from left field -- here is my suggestion on how it could work... !
Make the likable Gary (the pot-smoking but principled public defender that ultimately frees Billy) the main character, like Truman Capote was the main character of "Capote." As written, Billy is not engaging/sympathetic enough to carry the story. But if the main character were Gary and we followed his journey into the gray zone of deciding whether or not to free a man who is only half-well (as opposed to a more likable character like Sybil who didn't commit crimes and is completely well by the end), then we'd have contradiction and conflict that we could empathize with. It's not fair that Billy was tortured as a child, but is it fair to release him only half-healed? I think that's a much more interesting question than, "How did he get so fucked up?" Let Gary lead the uncovering of the events in Billy's life. Pare down the long childhood sequences and bring in the trial and Gary's dilemma within the first 20 pages. Wouldn't that work so much better?
As written, this feels like a quick attempt by a director at getting down scenes he can imagine shooting. There are a lot of "angle on" and detailed action description. I talked about the screenplay with my indie producer friend and he said that the reason it's probably not polished is because the director fully intends to hire a "Richard LaGravenese" to flesh out the story into something shootable. This is just a quick attempt to get the basic story down so that he can get the project set up. (I think my friend is right.)
My suggestion for our next "script club" read: a spec by a relatively unknown writer that sold for a high price that we can compare the quality of to this one...
Back to James Cameron's A Crowded Room.