A "Peek Under the Tent" at Script Development

From Michael Sellers

A number of you have said you enjoy the “peek under the tent” type posts that provide insight into the process of doing what we do here. So, with some trepidation, I’m posting a fairly routine email exchange I had today with Blake Rogers, a very talented young writer who’s doing the first draft of Way of the Dolphin. I brought him on board because he’s the most talented 22 year old writer I know, and I wanted to “youthanize” the first draft …. trying to inject a young writer’s point of view into it.

So….what follows is Blake’s email to me, and my response to him. I just want to say — I have some reservations because this is a little like showing you a beautiful actress with no hair and makeup, whereupon you discover she’s not so beautiful until/unless the hair/makeup is applied. On the other hand, I think you in some fashion deserve the right to “take the ride” and experience the process….so here is an early example of how a script starts coming together.

From Blake to Michael
10/4/2007

Michael-

A few things:

1) Been thinking about our enemy and the US Navy’s involvement. Let me share some thoughts.

Let’s say that the Navy has fully developed an underwater acoustic weapon, as described in that infomatics article. Let’s also say at some point an international arms dealer stole the weapon or stole the blueprint and had the weapon made. Once in his possession, he tests in the Bahamas. Why?

Let’s also say that this arms dealer does regular business buying and selling against the major powers of the world (as the top ones typically do). Once tested, the US Navy is now aware their technology has been stolen, and the Russians, the Chinese, or the Iranians now also know that said arms dealer really is in possession of said weapon. The arms dealer offers the US a deal- pay him and his organization a hefty hefty some of money and they get the weapon back and the blueprints are destroyed, or he goes ahead and sells it to another nation. The US, not wanting the technology to go to another nation, pays him off. Not wanting the public to know that their top secret weapon was stolen, tested, and bought back, they classify the case and cover up the initial blast. Most of this is back story.


Our story begins with the initial test blast killing a large pod of dolphins (who we see wash ashore at the beginning). Once Dr. Hawk and Alyssa believe that the dolphins have been killed by US Naval testing of past low-frequency technology (as in 2000), they go public with a press conference. The Navy, terrified of the cover being blown, is adamant that the testing never occurred, and indeed can produce their records showing that they never tested the weapon there (which technically, they didn’t). But Dr. Hawk and Alyssa are adamant that they did test the weapon. This is compounded by their new research assistant, Jim Crawford, who used to work for the US Navy’s Military Mammal Program and who convinces them that the Navy is indeed covering up something fishy.

Dr. Hawk is called to the states at the behest of a Navy top official, who explains to him the real situation and the great danger that would come to him, his daughter, and his facility if he continued making noise about the incident. At the meeting, Dr. Hawk mentions Jim Crawford’s time with the Navy, which arouses suspicion in the top official, who does some research of his own. When he finds that no one of that name has worked for the Navy, he lets Dr. Hawk know by telephone just before Hawk flies back to the Bahamas.

Alyssa and the rest of the research have in the meantime remained at the lab, continuing their research with dolphin communication. Jim Crawford traps the crew inside the facility, and floods it (providing the film’s most significant action sequence, which I think could be longer than the scene I wrote, could involve characters such as Daniel, and could involve the dolphins even more). Jim Crawford actually works for the international arms dealer, and was hired to make the research team believe they should go to the press (putting more pressure on the Navy to pay dealer). Once he’s been paid, the arms dealer has no more use for the researchers and doesn’t want to leave a connection to himself, so instructs Crawford to dispose of them and the facility.

Dr. Hawk arrives back just in time to help save Alyssa and surviving members of the team.

Now, obviously this is just a rough idea, mainly for you to see how we could involve the US Navy, and even keep them in a suspicious light, but not have them be the real bad guys, just another a player. Tell me your thoughts on this.

=========================

And here is my response:

From Michael
To Blake
10/4/2007

Blake — good stuff. My notes are in [[double brackets]]

On Oct 4, 2007, at 3:34 PM, Blake Rogers wrote:

Let’s say that the Navy has fully developed an underwater acoustic weapon, as described in that infomatics article. Let’s also say at some point an international arms dealer stole the weapon or stole the blueprint and had the weapon made. Once in his possession, he tests in the Bahamas. Why?

Let’s also say that this arms dealer does regular business buying and selling against the major powers of the world (as the top ones typically do). Once tested, the US Navy is now aware their technology has been stolen, and the Russians, the Chinese, or the Iranians now also know that said arms dealer really is in possession of said weapon. The arms dealer offers the US a deal- pay him and his organization a hefty hefty some of money and they get the weapon back and the blueprints are destroyed, or he goes ahead and sells it to another nation. The US, not wanting the technology to go to another nation, pays him off. Not wanting the public to know that their top secret weapon was stolen, tested, and bought back, they classify the case and cover up the initial blast. Most of this is back story.

[[EXCELLENT. I think this can definitely work and my first reaction is that it is the basic setup we were looking for.]]

Our story begins with the initial test blast killing a large pod of dolphins (who we see wash ashore at the beginning). [[good]]

Once Dr. Hawk and Alyssa believe that the dolphins have been killed by US Naval testing of past low-frequency technology (as in 2000), they go public with a press conference.[[this can work]]

The Navy, terrified of the cover being blown, is adamant that the testing never occurred, and indeed can produce their records showing that they never tested the weapon there (which technically, they didn’t). But Dr. Hawk and Alyssa are adamant that they did test the weapon. [[i’m still with you]]

This is compounded by their new research assistant, Jim Crawford, who used to work for the US Navy’s Military Mammal Program and who convinces them that the Navy is indeed covering up something fishy. [[okay…i have a thought about crawford which i’ll explain later]]

Dr. Hawk is called to the states at the behest of a Navy top official, who explains to him the real situation and the great danger that would come to him, his daughter, and his facility if he continued making noise about the incident. [[i think the trip to the states and visit with the navy is good. where does the threat to them come from, though? The arms dealer is being aided by their public outrcy,no? and the navy would not be threatening them directly with physical harm……i.e. the navy’s not going to off them or, being paranoid, even if they were so inclined they wouldn’t openly threaten them…..anyway, in a general sense — i think this works with the navy basically saying “you’re messing with a situation that can quickly get out of control — back off”…that much I’m good with. It’s how to up the threat to them personally that worries me. Need to think this part through a bit more.]]

At the meeting, Dr. Hawk mentions Jim Crawford’s time with the Navy, which arouses suspicion in the top official, who does some research of his own. When he finds that no one of that name has worked for the Navy, he lets Dr. Hawk know by telephone just before Hawk flies back to the Bahamas. [[i think this is good. i’ve still got some Crawford thoughts to go over separately.]]

Alyssa and the rest of the research have in the meantime remained at the lab, continuing their research with dolphin communication.

Jim Crawford traps the crew inside the facility, and floods it (providing the film’s most significant action sequence, which I think could be longer than the scene I wrote, could involve characters such as Daniel, and could involve the dolphins even more). Jim Crawford actually works for the international arms dealer, and was hired to make the research team believe they should go to the press (putting more pressure on the Navy to pay dealer). Once he’s been paid, the arms dealer has no more use for the researchers and doesn’t want to leave a connection to himself, so instructs Crawford to dispose of them and the facility. [[I need to hear/think more about the motivation for the dealer to destroy the facility. And I’m bothered by the fact that this is just an offhand plot-driven thing rather than a character driven thing. In other words, I think I would like it better if Crawford had some character reason for wanting to destroy the facility. Fell in love with Carly and got rejected or something (hopefully better) than that. ]]

Dr. Hawk arrives back just in time to help save Alyssa and surviving members of the team. [[could be some good cross-cutting tension if he is trying to get back, trying to get in touch with them, but can’t. THis can also help us break up the extended action sequence into more manageable pieces…..i.e. the cutaways to Hawk mean we don’t have to follow it beat by beat from beginning to end, and logitistically that can help.]]

Okay — more general comments.
1) I think this really works pretty well on the “suspense thriller” level. I think it’s what we’re looking for and it becomes a skeleton we can starting putting flesh and muscle on.
2) I would like to think hard about the characters and try to figure out ways to have some of the “plottiness” have more character driven aspects. For example — who is the arms dealer and what is his deal. Could he be someone who has an intereesting backstory and some ax to grind with the navy? Maybe he was the guy who developed the weapon in the first place and he didn’t steal it — he just recreated it. Maybe he never got the recognition, or got booted off the project, or something. Read the story of Edward Lee Howard, CIA officer slated to go to Moscow who got fired by the Agency and, disgruntled, volunteered to the KGB and became the first CIA officer to be “turned” and become a KGB agent. I’m talking about his psychology….maybe we could model something on that. (I don’t know if Mark told you but I was a CIA officer for 10 years and knew Howard well, and so I could probably help build a character like this.))
3) What if Crawford were the son of the arms dealer? It might keep the “family” tag slightly intact……It might also be interesting if Hawk and the father knew each other, or know each other, and interact in some way.
4) I’m not sure about the attempt to sink the facility being the “main action sequence”….maybe. But it feels tome like the penultimate sequence, with the last sequence involving the dolphins and their behavior, and perhaps a solution that somehow involves the human-dolphin communication system or something else that brings the science and the human-dolphin connection back into focus a little bit more. Or, alternatively, we amp up this aspect of the way the “destroy the facility” scene is resolved.

Now … let’s factor the following thoughts in — thoughts that came out of my conversations with Ken Levasseur today.

First of all, he and I were talking about the steps or phases in the Third Phase program with the goal of pinpointing where we are in that program at the time of the inciting incident of the story. I will try to sketch this for you to consider — and also because this may provide some clues as to how the ending might be structured so that the science comes back into play and human-dolphin interaction/communication plays a major role.

Here is a quick summary of the Third Phase Program. This is the “real” Third Phase Program — not the movie situation per se:

Phase 1: Dolphins are captive. They are taught the “human whistled language” which gies them a vocabularly, eventually, of 1,000 words with which they can communicate with humans. This enhanced communication allows them to understand and accept the program and responsibilities that it includes. The training is model-rival training, and it results in dolphins having some substantial ability to commnicate with humans.

Phase 2: Dolphins begin going out into open water on escorted, structured outings in which they are taught the survival skills necessary to survive in the wild. These begin as 2 hour, 3 hour outings and after 6-9 months, culminate in a “final exam” where they live in the wild for 7-10 days on a 34/7 basis, but with human swimmers in dol-fin suit always with them.

Phase 3: Dolphins now come and go on their own. They have agreed to participate in the program. They have the skills to forage in the wild. Their language skills are refined. And, because they are now capable o interacting with wild dolphins without being “spooked” by them, they can now provide a “bridge” by helping the researchers understand wild dolphin communication. In other words — they are “interpreters” so you have a situation where they are in the wild, there are wild dolphins int he area, and they can explain to some degree what communication is going on among the wild dolphins.

Now — the movie situation is slightly different because, in the first movie, Alyssa’s empathetic connection with the dolphin substitutes for the enhanced whistle-language communication and the dolphins are already in a “free to come in and out ” state. So that piece doesn’t fit the “reality puzzle” exactly. But other than that, we want to try and follow the sequence of Third Phase as outlined above.

So … in the movie, in the backstory, what has happened is that Hawk/Alyssa have figured out that the way to move Hawk’s research forward is to teach the dolphins a human whistled language and use model rival training to do so. They are now at the point where the dolphins have learned a limited vocabulary — maybe 50 words? — and they are beginning to try and gain knowledge about wild dolphin communication from the dolphins who communicate with them. So we’re kind of in Phase 2, but with some of Phase 3 starting to happen.

Another thing … somewhere in the first 10 minutes or so, we need to have a scene where Alyssa gives what amounts to a whiz-bang presentation of how they got to where they are, and what they are doing. Think the scene in Jurassic Park where they do an AVP which explains how they got to the point where they have dinosaurs on the island…..This would be kind of an efficient way of filling the audience in on how they got from the where they were at the end of the first movie, to where they are now — without having to spend a lot of screen time on it. Alyssa, the precocious teen wizard, could put this kind of multi-media presentation together and whip through it while Hawk stays in the background and kinda goes yep, that’s my daughter, kind of thing.

Okay, enough for now. Look forward to our meeting tomorrow.

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