Huntsville

electric chairI decided to review this Black List script because, of all the loglines on the list, this one promised the most straightforward story. I was in the mood for character, and genre… and not in the mood for spies or magic, or biographies. I wanted to read a simple story, well told.

Huntsville is simple. It has a very low character count, a restrained location count, and not a single request for special effects. It’s a plot twist script [and the plot twist works, without duplicity]. The author even manages to pay for the twist with his character work. In other words, Huntsville is also well told. Should be a slam dunk, right?

We meet Hank within a ten page intermittent voice over that tries harder than any script I’ve ever read to get you NOT to keep going with your read:

MAN (V.O.)
There are all sorts of stories.

{omitted}

MAN (V.O.)
Mundane ones.

{omitted}

MAN (V.O.)
Sad ones.

{omitted}

MAN (V.O.)
Pathetic ones.

{omitted}

-After one more bite, the man turns his head and looks right
at us.

MAN
Mine.

We’re at the top of page 2 and the writer is breaking the fourth wall to tell us that he’s about to deliver a sad, pathetic story. I kept reading because the author presents his script as a challenge to a reader’s understanding of screenwriting knowledge. (1)

List of Rules Not to Break, Broken by This Writer on The First Page:

1. Don’t do voiceover
2. Don’t break the fourth wall
3. Don’t make your protagonist unlikeable

It’s like the writer was daring me to quit reading.

You can tell in a page when a writer can write, and this writer can write. So, I took the challenge. I kept going. Along with me, the voiceover kept going, and the unlikeability kept going, but the writer felt in charge of what he was creating, and I never found a decent place to quit.

This was so because the writer kept dribbling out little mysteries. I was about to quit on page three when I ran across this:

QUICK FLASH: We quickly reverse from Hank’s POV and see a
LONG HAIRED MAN sitting in the boat and staring straight back
at Hank. His hair is stringy and greying, just like his
scruffy beard. His clothes are orange and dirty.

In the moment before this flash, there was no man in prison garb sitting in the boat with Hank. As quickly as he appears, he disappears:

BACK ON: Hank, his reel still spinning, but he keeps looking
straight ahead. Finally, the reel runs out of line and the
pole JERKS in his hand. Hank SNAPS OUT of it, looks back over
toward the bobber and begins to reel.

WIDE ANGLE: We see Hank is in the boat alone, reeling in the
fish.

Since the author then exits the scene, I am left with a mystery I want to know the answer too. Why does Hank imagine people in prison garb riding in his boat with him? I decided to give the script a few more pages to see if this plot point developed.

I soldiered on and the script was smoldering. I got to page eleven and the thing wouldn’t catch fire for me, but it wouldn’t quite go out either. I had resigned myself to a wasted 10 pages of reading time, when the top of page eleven hit me with this:

HANK (V.O.)
Betcha weren’t imagining I was for
real when I said a story about me
would be boring, mundane and
pathetic.

He reaches into the sink where he set the fish earlier and
pulls one out. Over the other side of the sink, He begins to
clean the fish – scraping off its scales, filleting it,
removing the bones, etc. He continues to do this with each
fish that’s in the sink.

HANK (V.O.)
Truth is it would have been…

We follow Hank as he breads the filets from the fish in flour
and throws them into a pan of scalding hot oil.

HANK (V.O.)
…if someone didn’t knock on my
door this one night.

The author knows how I’m feeling. The first line on this page tells me that he knows he’s telling a smoldering story:

HANK (V.O.)
Betcha weren’t imagining I was for
real when I said a story about me
would be boring, mundane and
pathetic.

Of course I don’t imagine that a writer with any designs on selling a script is going to purposefully write a boring, mundane, and pathetic story. There HAD to be more. The promise in that knock on the door combined with the feeling the writer knew what he was doing, lit the fire that kept me going to Fade Out. [At 93 pages, Fade Out was only a stone’s throw away anyway, so why not go ahead and finish it?]

At the door is Josie, a seventeen year old girl asking for help moving in to her new apartment. [Her parents are unmentioned in this scene.]

Josie begins to show up everywhere in Hank’s life. She enrolls at the school Hank works at. [He is the parking lot attendant.] She makes friends with Hank’s “friends”. She seems to be an all-around innocent girl who [for some reason peculiar to her] wants to be friends with a loner like Hank.

Except, of course, Josie isn’t COMPLETELY innocent. The first indication of this is when Hank’s neighbor Martha asks her some “getting acquainted” questions. From pages 21-22:

MARTHA
What brings you to Sebring?

JOSIE
School actually.

MARTHA
Oh you going to the local JC?

JOSIE
Sebring High.

MARTHA
That so? I figured with you bein’
up there all alone, you couldn’t
still be in high school.

JOSIE
(How’d she know that?)
Uh, well yea, I am there alone –
for now. My parents are coming in a
week or two but they wanted me to
get situated in my new school
before the year lets out.

It doesn’t take a seasoned reader to sense that Josie is lying. We find out for sure five pages later when she faces similar questions from a boy from her new High School:

MARCUS (CONT’D)
So how the hell does a girl in high
school get to live on her own?

JOSIE
My dad’s in the military. He’s been
stationed all over the place –
Southeast Asia, the Middle East,
all over the US – so we were always
moving.

MARCUS
You live all those places?

JOSIE
Yea. Seems like it’d be fun, and I
guess I saw some cool stuff, but
mostly you’re just on the base.
Then you gotta pick up and move
again. Anyway, I got tired of it
and when he got stationed in
Germany last year, my mom went with
him. I’d had enough though and they
agreed to emancipate me.


Without giving away too much more of the plot, this is a modern day Lolita story with a revenge twist. Hank is led to his demise because he opens up his life to let Josie into it. I like the fact that the author keeps Hank from doing anything more than suggestively flirting with Josie—it makes Josie’s revenge more poignant when she lets us in on the real reason she’s interested in Hank. And, you guessed it, it has to do with that imaginary prisoner floating around on Hank’s boat all the way back there on page 3.

As I said in the beginning, the plot twist works. The author gives enough hints about Hank’s life before he became a high school parking lot attendant that you don’t feel cheated, but it also won’t make you feel like you just read the greatest plot twist ever, either. If this script reduced to just its plot twist, it wouldn’t be worth reading.

Fortunately, the script has a consistent tone to back up its slightly interesting plot.

I realized after reading that the real reason I made it through to the end was because the author wrote EVERYTHING in that drained voice which is synonymous with Hank’s character traits. It just feels like the script is always about to die, like its operating on muscle memory alone. The heartbeat of the script is arrhythmic, and you always feel like you’re hearing its very last beat.

Rating: Worth Reading

If you have a lot of extra time and you find tonal ingenuity in screenplays interesting. If not…

Footnote:

1. walker made a similar comment about Yellowstone Falls. Reading this one directly after that one, I can definitely say he is really onto something with his idea about spec scripts as reader-first story designs.

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