The Business of Screenwriting: Movies are a director’s medium

“But that’s the whole point of the goddammed movie!

That would be me, shouting in a cramped conference room in the Beverly Hills offices of Castle Rock Entertainment.

“I disagree.”

That would be the movie’s director.

We are gathered for a pre-production meeting on the movie called Alaska. The people in the room include us, the aforementioned director, his producing partner, and a couple of Castle Rock executives.

Some background: The idea for Alaska’s story came from our fascination with the state, an immense frontier and one rarely the subject of a movie. After doing a bunch of research, particularly about the Inuit, indigenous people who live above the Arctic Circle in Denmark, Russia, Canada, and the U.S. (Alaska), we came up with this premise:

What if a commercial pilot (Jake) based in Chicago lost his wife in a car accident. Seeking to get away from that place and those memories, he moves his two children Sean (16) and Jesse (12) to Alaska where he becomes a bush pilot. Jesse takes to the new environment immediately, embracing outdoor life. But Sean despises the place, filled with anger that shrouds a deep pain tied to losing his mother.

After a heated argument in which Sean flings some especially bitter words at his father, Jake heads out for an emergency run in his plane. A storm hits. The father crashes. When search teams can not locate any trace of Jake, Sean and Jesse head out to find their father.

Meanwhile we have met a polar bear cub whose mother is killed by a poacher. Sean and Jesse stumble on the poacher’s camp and free the cub, who had been taken captive. As Sean and Jesse continue their trek in the Alaskan wilderness to locate their father, the polar bear cub tags along, eventually becoming part of their ‘team.’

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Thora Birch, Vincent Kartheiser, and Cubbie in the movie ‘Alaska’.

We pitch that story to Castle Rock. They like it, but still aren’t sold on it. We spec the first act. They read it. Buy it.

In my research for writing the complete script, I discovered a cool Inuit tradition about spirit guides in the form of animals, the reincarnated spirits of deceased human beings. Such a creature is known as a Tornak.

So we run with this idea: Sean eventually comes to believe that the polar bear cub is his Tornak, the reincarnated spirit of his mother.

Here’s the kicker: What lies at the heart of Sean’s hurt is the fact that he never got the chance to say goodbye to his mother. She left one day on an errand. And just never came back. With that setup, our story had what I thought was a big satisfying ending. After the two kids and the cub find Jake, saving his life, the family flies the cub out way above the Arctic Circle so it can be free. Once there, Sean says good-bye to the polar bear — and in doing that, he says good-bye to his mother.

In truth, it’s that psychological dynamic that becomes my main interest in writing the project. Otherwise it’s just a run-of-the-mill adventure story.

Okay, so here we are, back in this pre-production meeting whereby the director says he wants to drop not only the idea that the cub is tied symbolically to Sean’s mother, but the entire concept of reincarnation.

Why? Because he doesn’t think that children will understand it.

As a screenwriter, you need to learn to pick your battles. I choose this one. I argue how central the idea is to Sean’s metamorphosis, how it imbues the relationship between Sean and the polar bear with depths of meaning, how poignant the ending is.

“Kids won’t get it.”

I say two words: “Lion King.

“After Mufasa dies, he reappears to Simba as a spirit in the clouds. That is essentially the same thing we’re talking about here, the reincarnated spirit of a deceased character appearing in another form. If it worked for Disney, why can’t it work for us?”

We never get the chance to find out. After our next draft, the director hires another writer who does a quick polish and excises the reincarnation theme.

Which demonstrates one unalterable fact: Movies are a director’s medium. They are tasked with going off and making a movie. And that’s precisely what they do: They make their movie.

Now obviously every director is different. So are screenwriters. Each project, too. So some movies are going to closely resemble the original writer’s vision of the story. And others are not. Unless you are an A-list writer, and even in some cases not even then, how and what happens with a movie all depends upon the creative whims of the director.

In other words, instead of arguing my point so passionately in that cramped Beverly Hills conference room, I could have just saved my breath — because at the end of the day, movies are a director’s medium.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

UPDATE: James mentioned this in comments:

Hey Scott James here — I’ve mentioned it a couple times, but I have a slightly tangental story to Alaska. Years ago, when scripts were written in Word, and run through a program called Scriptor (which became Screenwriter), I was a script assistant up here in Vancouver. I did the production formatting for Alaska. I’m assuming, by your story, that I was working on the new writers rewrite. But no mind.

A year ago I did a film called The Thaw, direct to video thing. And we shot (filmed) a big old polar bear who lives on the outskirts of town. She was the cub Mark Weiner trained from birth for Alaska. She’s a lovely bear and Mark has an amazing relationship with her. He’ll climb in her pen and roll around with her for hours, snuggling and hugging. If got in the pen, or even looked her in the eye, she’d ripped me limb from limb. But she’s still pretty cute!

Anyway, thought that might be fun for you, even if the film didn’t end up being the way you originally envisioned.

That’s Agee who played “Cubbie” in Alaska. In fact, you can see her featured in this documentary:

Here’s a car commercial starring Agee:

Agee lives on a 10-acre wilderness compound in Canada with her trainer Mark who has worked with her since she was discovered in Sweden, an orphan cub — just like in the movie Alaska. It was a case of life imitating art.

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