Written by Dylan Callaghan
In an era where an almost scientific focus on structure dominates the scripts for many of Hollywood’s biggest films, David Scarpa -- the scripter behind the giant new Keanu Reeves-starred remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still -- is refreshingly, even shockingly simple in his approach.
While so many screenwriters today are obsessed with systems and metrics for structure, Scarpa seems to think if you have a good story, structure is the last thing you need to worry about.
“If you’ve written the perfect little campfire tale, then it will work out,” says the Connecticut-raised and NYU-schooled scribe. “That’s why pitching can be so helpful. If you can verbally tell that campfire story and grab your audience, then you can tell it in a 120-page screenplay. You have to understand your story on that simple fundamental level, otherwise you will have trouble with the whole process.”
“It’s not a math equation,” he continues. “In a sense, the structure is implicit -- it arises naturally out of storytelling. Those early cavemen all the way up to Mark Twain never thought in terms of structure. The problem is writers now are trained to put the ‘structure’ first when they should let it come out of the story and characters they’re tyring to explore. I think structure comes last.”
During a conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, Scarpa got into more specifics about his approach and how he transposed the original The Day the Earth Stood Still into a modern movie.
This was a unique gig as you were working with Edmund H. North’s original 1951 script. How significantly have you altered it?
Photo: © 2008 20th Century Fox
Keanu Reeves in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Basically, my agent was contacted by Fox about doing a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still... I had frankly never seen the movie. So I threw my hat in the ring expecting there would be like three or so other writers pitching their takes on it. But lo and behold, as soon as I said I would do the job, they offered it to me.
So I wound up having the job before I’d seen the movie. I was obviously familiar with it, but it was one of those gaps in my cinematic education. So I chose to keep it that way at first and just took the idea and began wondering what the modern version of a space alien landing on Earth, coming out with a fish bowl on his head and saying, “Take me to your leader,” would be like. After formulating some ideas, I then watched the movie and it informed what I had already thought about.
What was good about that is, if I had watched the movie first, I would have been so overwhelmed by trying to recapture it that I would have been stuck. That’s a danger in remakes -- you wind up so worshipful of the original material that you can’t attack it.
Did you ever work off the original 1951 script?
Not directly. There’s also a short story on which the original script is based called Farewell to the Master [by Harry Bates]. I eventually looked at everything, but I didn’t want to be too intimidated by them going in.
So is it right to say that this remake is based more on the general premise than the specifics of the original film?
No, because after getting my initial take I went back and watched the film very closely. By the way, this movie is very much in the spirit of the original. The original movie was incredibly important. You’re in a very unique position when you’re asked to remake a masterpiece. Let’s say I called you up and said Paramount wants you to remake The Godfather. You’d say that was crazy, there’s no way you could do that. But let’s say you’d never seen The Godfather. As long as you understood the basic story, there are a lot of interesting takes you might have on it. None of them will equal The Godfather, but you’re able to come up with a brand new movie as opposed to being so awed by the original that you’re paralyzed.
In terms of plot points, how similar is this narrative to the original?
I would say it follows the broad strokes: alien comes to earth in spaceship, gets shot, goes to hospital, escapes and goes out amongst humans. The broad strokes of it are very similar, but the specifics are all different. The original proceeds in an almost leisurely way. He goes out and lives in a boarding house and goes to a baseball game and eats ice cream. He’s examining human beings at his leisure, whereas in our case, it’s a chase movie practically all the way through it, but he’s still fundamentally experiencing humanity. The incidents that happen and the pace at which they happen are quite different.
Was that something the studio directed you to do?
I think it was something I knew intuitively would have to be done for today’s audiences. For a big, $90 million movie, it’s really gotta move but you still have to accomplish the things the original movie did. You have to convey the same ideas.
How well did you find the original transposed itself into a modern film?
The original film is really the first “A” science fiction movie. They were starting with a blank slate, essentially. Since then, there have been tons of studio sci-fi films. So you really can’t attack each of the moments in the story the same way. You have to find a way to render the same thing in a different way. How do you get there?
There’s a lot of sleight of hand that has to go into every one of those moments to make something that audiences have seen now dozens of times happen in a fresh, unexpected way.
It sounds like a lot of problem solving.
In a way it’s all intuitive, though. You just ask, “What’s the most surprising approach?” or, “How do we do this today?” A lot of it is transposition. It’s not really problem solving as much as it is making it new, which is always your challenge as a writer.