Sunday, November 03, 2013

(Unproduced) Screenplay Review: Shangri-La Suite

Premise: In 1974 two young lovers break out of a mental institution so they can kill Elvis Presley.

Written by: Eddie O'Keefe & Chris Hutton

Technical: Draft VII. May 3, 2012. 105 pages

"Don’t worry, Teijo. In California it’ll all be different. There’s lots of people like you there. Like us. Sun is always shining. People don’t age there. People don’t die."

It's 1974.

Karen Bird is eighteen. She grew up in a nice family, but developed severe anxiety in childhood. As a teenager she self-medicated with narcotics, alcohol, and sex. Karen eventually drops out of high school and begins dating a black boy. For these offences, her parents forcibly send her to Second Chances Rehabilitation Center.

Half-Chippewa Jack Blueblood is twenty five. Jack's mother died giving birth, and his father always blamed him for it. For this, Jack was constantly beaten as a child by his resentful, drunken father. Eventually Jack developes a barbituate addiction, as well as an obsession with Elvis, so the state sends him to Second Chances.

Jack and Karen meet at the hospital and quickly start a relationship. Jack eventually reveals that his dead mother is communicating with him, her message audible when a specific Elvis record is played backwards. Jack is utterly convinced that his mother wants him to kill Elvis Presley.

After a doctor at Second Chances sexually abuses Karen, Jack murders him, and the two escape the hospital. Jack finds out that Elvis is playing a concert in L.A. soon, and so he picks that day to murder his idol. After Jack kills his father and picks up his best friend, Teijo, the two lovers and Teij hit the road, outrunning the law, racing towards L.A...

The opening of the script (approximately the first ten pages) is very mediocre. But deeper in, especially after the halfway point, there is some fantastic writing. Shangri-La, thankfully, doesn't take itself too seriously.

What drives the film is Jack wanting to murder his idol, Elvis Presley. Dr. Nash's brief words are as deep as the screenplay goes into the psychology behind this, but even just the concept of a person wanting to kill their idol is really interesting. Jack obviously has some challenges psychologically (seeing delusions, hearing voices) and it is accurately portrayed, not just a thin plot device.

Shangri-La Suite does a fantastic job of remaining objective. The writers do not condone or condemn the characters' actions. O'Keefe and Hutton simply tell the story, and let the reader come to their own conclusions. The script almost has a tone of casualness, indifference. This is not to say that there is no emotion; there is plenty of it. But the fact that the script is written from an objective point of view allows the reader to better see things from Jack and Karen's perspective. We understand how they can murder, and do the things they do.

Since reading Shangri-La for the first time (this is my second time reading it) Teijo has been exceptionally memorable. Because not only is Teijo an absolute joy to read, but he is unique and unconventional. Teijo is not the best written character, but he is the stand out, lighting up every page he is on. His relationship with Jack is especially touching; these two opposites, who love each other unconditionally. Teijo brings out the best in Jack and Karen (whereas Jack and Karen bring out the worst in each other), and he is the glue that holds the trio together.

After the halfway point, Jack and Karen's personalities truly blossom. And Jack, as delusional as he is, is way, way, way beyond his years. Perhaps the ultimate cause of his tragic end is that he's just too smart for his own good (I do believe that, to some degree.) I wrestled with whether Jack truly cares for Karen and Teijo, or whether he is just loving himself through them. It's hard to say, but he is definitely more selfish in his relationship with Karen. A prime example: In a very despondent emotional moment for Karen, she reads her mother's words in a newspaper, begging her daughter to come home. Jack recognizes Karen's sadness, and asks what's wrong. Karen says nothing and Jack instantly drops the subject. As she looks out the window in sadness... Jack just tries to dry swallow another handful of pills, oblivious to Karen.

A major concept in Shangri-La Suite is the idea of freedom. Are Jack and Karen really free, once they get on the road, or have they inadvertently doomed themselves by running away? In the end, I saw Jack as finding some sort of peace, some sort of freedom; but I saw Karen as immutably imprisoning herself.

My biggest problem with the script were the scenes with Elvis (excluding the penultimate confrontation). They are poorly written; meaningless and uninteresting. Also, showing the intimate details of Elvis' life destroys his esoteric intrigue. And though I know nothing about Elvis, his scenes in Shangri-La don't seem terribly authentic; there is no unique diction, or body language, or personality. The Elvis parts are crummy.

The last third is the strongest section of the screenplay, and I really enjoyed Karen's uncertain fate. But re-reading Shangri-La, I am not as impressed with it as I was the first time. The bottom line is  it left me hungry for something more substantial. The script mostly wastes the opportunity for any sort of criticism, or conversation, or exploration of character psychology. Despite the exceptional characters... dialogue... scenes... there is still something sorely missing.

Writing a screenplay is arduous, delicate work. The writers of Shangri-La have obviously put a lot of time and effort into this script, and it shows. Eddie O'Keefe and Chris Hutton have done a lot of fantastic things with Shangri-La Suite. I have read many screenplays, and for more than one reason, this is one of the few that has always stuck with me long after I read it. Both men should both be very proud of their work. They have written a solid script that is light years better than ninety nine percent of the other scripts out there. I do not want to discourage them in any way, in case they ever see this. I hope this review didn't come off as too hard; these were just my thoughts on reading the script, and I am one person, one voice in an ocean of them. And at the end of the day, the only opinion that matters is theirs. If this script is ever produced, I will be seeing it in theatres and supporting it, because these two at least tried to do something different. For that, I give them enourmous credit. Shangri-La just wasn't my favorite... and that's ok.

About: Eddie O'Keefe & Chris Hutton are best known for their Blacklist-ranking screenplay "When the Street Lights Go On," which is currently in development.

On June 27, 2013, it was reported that Emily Browning and Luke Grimes were set to star in Shangri-La Suite. The filmmakers (as of then) were still trying to secure financing for the film. That article can be found here.

On October 22, 2013, Eddie O'Keefe posted the following on his blog:

Shangri-La Suite is the name of a feature film I will (hopefully) be directing in the (very near) future. If all goes according to plan, it could shoot as soon as this winter (or, you know, in like eight years)*. Things are looking good, but you never know. The film industry is a fickle place and it’s tuff stuff to get dudes to donate millions of bones to a movie co-written and directed by a freckle-faced, 25-year-old hipster. Who knew?

O'Keefe also posted some cool teaser stills he took for Shangri-La, to build up interest in the film. The photos (a few are posted below) and the rest of O'Keefe's post can be found here.


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