Prometheus, Alien: Engineers, and the perils of early draft hangovers

Aww, remember this? Remember how excited you were…?

And then you saw the movie.

Some have been scathing of PROMETHEUS, but I rather enjoyed it. No, it wasn’t Alien or Aliens, but it looked jaw-droppingly stunning, and there were great performances. But something wasn’t quite right, and it was largely the screenwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof who came in for a kicking.

Spaihts has already spoken in some detail about what was in his original draft, and then this week it was released free-to-read online for a few days (though it now seems to have disappeared from the Prometheus website).

It’s an absolutely fascinating read, and if you’re a screenwriter I urge you to read it. i09 does a great job of highlighting the main differences, but for a writer it illustrates one of the main perils of rewrites: THE EARLY DRAFT HANGOVERS!

I mean those little moments that made perfect sense in draft 6, but now seem completely nonsensical in draft 12. And I’m not talking big things, like the alien goo and losing the xenomorphs from the story, it’s usually little things; a character’s motivation, a single line, a brief moment, the tiny hole that can sink a very big ship.

For me, the best example of this is the character of Vickers: in Spaihts’ version, her motivation is very straightforward: she’s there to ensure that Weyland gets the technology that allows the company to terraform new worlds. Simple. She’s following the company line and if it means a few people die along the way, then so be it. A good villain is the hero of their own story and that’s what we have here.

In the filmed version… oh, blimey, can anyone figure out what she wants? There’s the whole father/daughter thing, and she sleeps with Janek, and she torches Fyfield, and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah… A lot of the original motivations are there and make sense, and maybe the daughter-superbitch thing makes sense too, but then the early draft hangovers get confused with the new stuff and you end up with a bit of a mess, squashed by a spaceship that looks like a giant croissant.

One of the projects I’m working on is at draft 15 and it looks like (fingers crossed) that we’re going into pre-production. Therefore we have to deliver a script for the producer to budget, the cast to read, the production HoDs to start doing their thing. This is it – the map that will steer the ship. And we’ve spotted a couple of these moments. Not big things, but scenes that used to make perfect sense, but now seem a little… odd, out-of-whack, ‘Why is he saying that now?’ ‘Why does he give that to them here?’. We’re fixing them and the script has improved tremendously as a result, but then we perhaps have the luxury of time that Damon Lindelof didn’t have when the juggernaut of PROMETHEUS went into production.

So next time you spot a plot hole or weird line that doesn’t seem to fit, spare a thought for the poor writer, head in hands, suffering from a bad case of early draft hangover. It can happen to us all.

PS. Thanks to Kevin Lehane for the tip-off.

Research, Vikings and Bernard Cornwell

I recently finished a first pass on a spec script that I’ve been working on for a few months.

I’ve been a good boy and left it alone for about a week, just to give myself enough distance so that when I read it again I might have a bit of objectivity and be less precious about making cuts and changes.

During that time I thought I’d go back and just revise some of my research. The script is a children’s adventure film set in Anglo-Saxon Britain and I did some fairly considerable (for me, anyway) research on the period, including the following books…

Out of all of them, Michael Woods’ IN SEARCH OF THE DARK AGES was by far the most thumbed and useful; it was packed with information and still seems to be the best book on the dark ages and Anglo-Saxon Britain. Just a shame the TV series isn’t available on DVD.

But the others were all very useful too, particularly for cross-referencing, and I slowly began to piece together a document with ideas that appealed to me and I would use this as a one-stop fact-checker when writing (I do a lot of writing on the move and don’t always have access to books or the net).

In addition to these books I had a whole folder full of websites, and also eBooks of TERRY JONES’ MEDIEVAL LIVES and Brian Bates’ THE WAY OF WYRD, though I refer to these less, probably because they’re not on the shelf staring at me (I find that eBooks can easily be forgotten, mainly cos one doesn’t have to dust the buggers every few weeks).

And in the last week I decided to read my first ever Bernard Cornwell THE BURNING LAND. This novel is set about 100 years after my script. Politically, his Britain will have changed considerably in that century, but the day to day grind of life wouldn’t be too different. I stumbled across it in the library and the quotes on the back boasted of Cornwell’s historical accuracy, so I thought I’d give it a go.

It’s a cracking read and I can see why Cornwell’s so popular and I was gratified to see that many of historical touchstones were mine too, but one thing niggled. His hero, Uthred, seemed very familiar. He’s a ruthless, heroic warrior (much like Cornwell’s Sharpe), he plays by his own rules and clashes with authority (much like Sharpe), he’s quick to shack-up with the ladies (Sharpe again), and he has dry, sardonic gallows humour (hmm…). And I know just the guy who could play him in the movie…

Still, if it works, it works. I was surprised to find that THE BURNING LAND is book 5 in a series. I had no problems jumping in enjoying the book so late in a series, but I also stumbled across the synopsis for book 6 recently and very little seems to have changed, so maybe the bigger arc is more of a slow slope.

But I learned a lot from the Cornwell book and I’ve added plenty of notes for the next draft of the script. If you’re interested I’ll keep you posted on developments.

Here are those research books in full…

IN SEARCH OF THE DARK AGES, by Michael Wood. Best book on the subject that I’ve found.

LINDISFARNE HOLY ISLAND, English Heritage book. Good on archaeology nitty gritty.

NORTHLANDERS, gritty comic book series with bloody Viking action. Good fun.

A HISTORY OF ANCIENT BRITAIN by Neil Oliver. Really accessible and easy to dip into. I have the DVD of the TV series too.

THE TIME TRAVELLERS’ GUIDE TO MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, by Ian Mortimer. Entertaining and informative. One of the first books I read and instrumental in my decision to switch the story to the dark ages (things are too settled in Medieval times for my story).

A.D. 500 by Simon Young. Written as a guide book to Britain in A.D. 500. Fun, though too early for my story.

TERRY JONES’ MEDIEVAL LIVES – fun and informative, but the wrong period for me.

THE WAY OF WYRD by Brian Bates. Good on magic in Anglo-Saxon Britain.

THE BURNING LAND, by Bernard Cornwell. Sharpe axes!