“Perseus roams, half-purposefully.”
Friends, let’s get right to it.
Travis Beacham’s January 25, 2007, draft of Clash of the Titans evoked so many thoughts and feelings, I’m not sure I can contain it all in one little script review. The heart of the matter is this – If Mr. Beacham has any aspirations of having a career as a screenwriter, of having HIS scripts filmed and not passed off for others to rewrite, he must address the fundamental flaws in his thinking as a screenwriter.
On the one hand, Beacham is certainly intelligent and imaginative. On the other hand, the necessary strengths of every screenwriter – character, dialogue, story – are Beacham’s weakest elements. Plus, this is yet another example confirming my suspicion that we are in a screenwriting state of emergency with such a lack of tension and suspense. (Can you imagine a Clash of the Titans that lacks tension?)
Where are the great screenwriters of today? Where are the leaders of the next generation who will bring on a new golden age of cinema, of true cinema in all its heart and drama and visual storytelling?
So let me go through my list of complaints.
First, we established in the last article that Beverley Cross, the author of the original Clash of the Titans, gave us 3 solid scenes within the first 10 minutes. (If you cut the opening credit sequence with the white bird flying to Olympus, this could’ve been about only 7 or 8 pages.) Briefly, here are the scenes, which we all know so well:
1) In the opening scene, we learn important exposition through emotional high drama the scandalous origin of Perseus. We observe the King of Argos angrily denouncing his own daughter, Danae, for giving birth to a son out of wedlock and sealing her (and child) inside a coffin and throwing them out into the crashing waves to die.
2) This was followed by a scene with Zeus in Olympus that established a) all of the gods, b) the fact that Zeus himself took advantage of Danae, and c) we learn that the gods are powerful but so very flawed in their personalities and can be terribly unjust and unfair to the humans. And thus, Zeus opts to destroy the King of Argos and all of his people despite their zealous, faithful loyalty to him and despite the King’s lack of knowledge about the child’s true father.
3) Thus, he brought on the Kraken.
1, 2, 3. Economical storytelling. These are scenes that get your attention. As soon as the film begins, something’s wrong. Lives are at stake. And you’re drawn in. That’s how good drama works. We’re given exposition through high emotional conflict, which is always effective. It also appears deceptively easy (although it never is – only for perhaps the most schooled playwright), and it's under-appreciated.
So what does Travis do? He gives us nearly 5 pages filled with voice overs to explain two things: 1) the origin of Perseus and 2) lots of backstory about a current war that’s waging between the gods and mankind. Pages FILLED with voice overs! The gods need mankind to worship them, as worship is their source of power, but man has turned their backs on the gods in pursuit of art, invention, self-determination, etc. So the gods have chosen to wage war in order to keep mankind in awe and fear so they will continue to worship them. We’re given so many images of massive war scenes and of minotaurs colliding with human armies that are operating clockwork soldiers (?):
The bronze automata ratchet their arms, raising battle-axes. The storming beast armies crash into the charging humans. The spring-loaded arms of the clockwork soldiers SNAP down in a wave that rolls along the front...
Now, I must point out that the first thing one notices in Kasdan’s revision is that he got rid of all of that insipid, amateurish voice over. He establishes all of these same plot elements in only 3 pages with almost no dialogue. Yes, really. A dog runs through fields of dead soldiers, sneaks into the Palace of Acrisius (and past Acrisius himself who’s arguing about how to achieve victory), and then into the bedchamber of Danae, who in this version is the wife of Acrisius, not the daughter. The dog transforms into a man who looks just like Acrisius and takes advantage of her. Later, the dog leaves and is nearly killed by Acrisius who hates dogs. Cut to a wordless scene where they throw a weeping Danae (and son) into a coffin and toss the coffin out to sea. Then, Acrisius wakes in his bed from a nightmare. An earthquake begins. He’s condemned verbally by Zeus. The foundations of the palace break. The earth opens up and swallows Acrisius.
Kasdan’s opening is, as Hitchcock always called it, pure cinema. I’ll gladly take Kasdan’s opening over the versions by both Travis Beacham and Beverley Cross, although what Kasdan wrote probably wasn’t achievable in Cross’s day. Yet, Cross accomplished similar goals via good, quality craftsmanship that should be admired.
How Beacham fails in his opening sequence is in the way that he was too high-level about this system that exists between gods and man, about a war (and providing many expensive images of that war) and later, an overly-intellectualized debate on Olympus about peace. All of it is cold, uninviting, and hollow to us. None of this moves us emotionally because we have yet to find an entry point into this story through characters, which won’t arrive until at least page 10. That’s where Cross and Kasdan succeeded. Instead of having the birth of Perseus EXPLAINED to us, we EXPERIENCE his origin story THROUGH SCENES, which makes us feel the emotions the characters are feeling IN THAT MOMENT. You cannot glide over it. You cannot be high-level about it. You have to present a story in the trenches through the eyes of the characters. The scripts of Kasdan and Cross are built upon characters we can feel and whose actions push the story forward.
I’m not even done bitching about characters. My biggest complaint has to be the fact that Perseus, the hero destined to bring peace to mankind, is a weak, passive protagonist. The story design makes him weak, which is less satisfying, because you can’t root for a hero that’s un-motivated and not pushing this adventure forward. An example - the king of Joppa agrees to marry his daughter off to a demigod (Perseus) to appease the gods and bring peace to the war. Thus, Perseus is plucked from his home, taken to Joppa, and told he has to marry Andromeda before even meeting her. He does not fall in love with her. And after her mother misspoke in the temple about her beauty just as in the original film, Perseus agrees to save Andromeda simply because he was the chosen one and the hero destined to bring peace. That’s it. He never goes to save Andromeda because HE wanted to save her, because HE was in love with her, or because HE had a personal stake at all in what happened to her or in Joppa.
There is a line in the script that perfectly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with Perseus as a protagonist. When he’s taken to the King of Joppa, they discover that Andromeda had snuck out and they ask Perseus to go find her and bring her back. Beacham writes:
EXT. STREETS OF JOPPA – NIGHT
Perseus roams, half purposefully.
SCREENWRITING 101 – YOU CANNOT HAVE AN UNDER-MOTIVATED HERO PROTAGONIST. Beverley Cross gave Perseus every reason under the sun to go on this adventure, the highest reasons a writer can give a hero protagonist – TRUE LOVE, PEACE, and a little SEX. Hehehe… Who can’t sympathize with that? Who wouldn’t root for that? He was called to be a hero. He accepted the calling. He obtained supernatural aid. He rose to the challenge. He crossed the threshold, and he succeeded. That’s a hero’s journey. What happens in this script? He does what he is “destined” to do. Pre-destination is a terrible narrative, because it lacks motivation and robs the story of tension. Let me add that essential to a hero’s journey is the threat of death. Here, Perseus is invulnerable as his wounds quickly heal because he’s a demigod, and all this does is rob the story of more tension.
Not only that, Beacham gave us horribly weak antagonists. And there is no careful, loving devotion to suspense whatsoever. Do you recall in the original Clash film that we saw the Kraken in action in Act One so that we would fear his return in the end? Of course, that does not happen here, and Beacham had to resort to SO much dialogue in order to try to instill fear about what he called “the Leviathan.” Cross had it right. Show the Kraken in the beginning so that it requires no explanation and use dialogue to instill fear about Medusa.
The worst scene had to be the encounter with Medusa, which was only a pale shadow of the original film. Remember what we said in the last article about all the ways they made that Medusa scene great? None of those points are evident here. He has Perseus and another soldier enter the temple wearing blindfolds. Medusa just shows up. No great introduction. She does not have her famous bow and arrow. Nor does she have acid for blood. She simply sneaks up behind the soldiers and unties their blindfolds in order to get them to look at her. Are you kidding me? If you’re going to do a remake, you have to make a scene like this one BIGGER and BETTER and MORE TENSE, not less.
Now, other soldiers are fighting some centaurs outside on the island as Perseus takes on Medusa inside. Some soldiers survive. Because those soldiers are still alive on the island, when Perseus exits the temple with Medusa’s head, we are robbed of the iconic image known around the world of Perseus holding up Medusa’s head.
He walks out with her head in a bag. He couldn’t hold her head up because it would kill his fellow soldiers.
Speaking of Medusa, an ironic thing happens on the way to the meeting with the three witches (and one glass eye). One night by the camp fire, Perseus simply asks Cheops, the singing poet / storyteller, to tell the story of Medusa. OH SO COINCIDENTALLY. In the original film, it wasn’t until after they visit the witches that Ammon, the playwright (Burgess Meredith), told the story of Medusa, which is the way it should be. It’s not until after we learn that Perseus has to defeat Medusa that we’ll want to know her story. Because we’re asking ourselves, “Who is this monster?” “What’s she like?”
Speaking of the witches, there was ZERO tension in that scene. Perseus asks another soldier: “Will they give us any trouble?” The reply: “No, they owe me,” and he then goes on to explain why. Then the soldier speaks to the witches on behalf of Perseus!
The scenes with Pegasus also lacked tension. They just so happen to come upon a bunch of Pegassi and just so happen to try to mount one for fun (despite the fact the clock is ticking on Andromeda’s life, but Perseus has no real motivation anyway, so who cares, right?). Well, Perseus fails with the horse. Later, for reasons I’m not going to explain, Perseus simply summons with his mind a Pegasus who comes to his rescue and then he flies to Joppa to save the day. In the original film, the moment with Pegasus was far more important and meaningful because Perseus desperately needed Pegasus’ help and they bonded. Here, there’s no emotional connection between them at all.
There is also another problem, which is quite common in amateur scripts. There is an over-emphasis on prosy, novel-like action lines. Beacham gets so caught up in the descriptions of the setting and this world he’s imagining and how everything works, that he loses sight of his scenes. You do not sell your scenes by your action lines. You sell your scenes by what happens in that scene, how it plays out. That’s what’s important, never how well you write the action lines. Only the most minimal words should be used to describe setting and action.
Remember the ferry that took Perseus and a few soldiers to see Medusa? Here’s Beacham’s ferry:
EXT. THE TETHYS SEA - DAY
The prow of the trireme cuts the ice sheets. Rows of oars slice the ice with a mechanical rhythm like the legs of a millipede, pulling the boat thru at an arrow's pace.
INT. BELOW DECK - CONTINUOUS
Sweltering, dark, and loud. SHUDDERING pipes. HISSING steam. RUMBLING gears and pinions.
CHARON, a grizzled old explorer who never went home, shovels coal into the furnace and slams the hatch.
He walks past rows of benches and his "crew"- mechanical oarsmen of tarnished brass, clockwork automata powered by the boiler. Rowing, tireless.
Charon dons heavy furs before climbing out onto the-
EXT. UPPER DECK - CONTINUOUS
Caked in an icy slick. The men huddle around meager coal stoves in a gray mist, slashed by flecks of snow.
No one speaks. Just the STACCATO RHYTHM of the oars, the GROANING of the hull, and the deep SNAPPING of the ice.
INT. HOLD - DAY
Cluttered with barrels and bundles of rope...
How do any of these details matter – the fact that Charon shovels coal into a furnace in order to operate rows of mechanical oarsmen that will play no part in the story or that he’s donning heavy furs? The point of this scene is Perseus - his preparations, his emotions, and you have to concentrate on HIS story, not all these extraneous, inconsequential details. Remember the Dark Knight script? They had no time for details, sightseeing, explanations of processes, etc.
Another example from pg 29: “Gooseflesh prickles the nape of her neck.” Do we really see this? Is this a close-up of her neck? Does he even know the principles about writing the shots?
I’m going to stop here. Without giving away the story, and believe me, I avoided so very much, I have to say one thing. I mentioned in the last article how this is the kind of story where the filmmakers must have the courage of their convictions. That is, they must know what the story is and tell it. It’s that simple. Clash of the Titans has always been a romantic adventure with Perseus fighting for the love of his life. Either have the courage to tell that story or don’t tell it all.
Next, the script review of Kasdan's revision.