Today’s script featured on the 2012 Black List. At one time Olivia Wilde was attached to star but dropped out owing to scheduling conflicts. The movie was released last year, but I was unable to gather any box office figures. The writer is Julia Hart. As far as I can tell this is her only script to make Hollywood noise.
So, I opened this script from my Black List file knowing nothing about it. I liked the title and it was written by a woman… and those are the extent of the reasons it was chosen over the other couple hundred scripts in that file. [It’s been a long while since I’ve reviewed something written by a woman, and the title promised the hint of a mystery.]
I don’t think the script is up to a full review. Instead, we will focus on question three from my five question format:
Does the structure of the story have (a) a suitable number of reveals (b) an engine that fits its protagonist (c) a pinch point the engine funnels toward and (d) a thematic underpinning which, by Fade Out, explains why THIS engine and THIS protagonist were the subject of THIS story.
Part A) In truth, next to nothing happens in this script. This script wants to be about atmosphere, or tone. I’d never recommend writing a script whose central thesis presented to a reader is atmosphere, or tone, BUT, I often enjoy reading them. So, does The Keeping Room make amends for its lack of plot points with a surplus of style, or mood?
Let’s allow it to speak for itself. From pages 1-2:
In front of the Plantation, an empty ROAD stretches out
as far as the eye can see, stately trees creeping down on
A BLACK WOMAN appears, hauling bags of feed.
She spots our dog, and she stops.
EXT. PLANTATION GROUNDS – SAME
The dog BARKS at her. This gives her pause, until…
She begins to BARK right back at it.
There’s some distance between these two, but here they
are, barking. It’s loud and strange and just this side of
surreal. Until —
The dog gives in. The woman wins.
She lays down her bags of feed and slowly approaches the
dog, her hand outstretched.
The dogs sits, panting.
You a good boy or a bad one?
She reaches out…
SNAP! The dog’s jaws clamp down, the woman jumps back,
the dog’s teeth only narrowly missing the tips of her
And again the dog BARKS.
This is the first scene in the script. It runs two pages in length. A woman tries to make friends with a dog and the dog resists her offer. That is one sentence of plot and two pages of mood.
Another example, this one from pages 10-11:
The song ends. It’s followed by a long silence that
somehow feels like it’s part of the song.
And then —
There is a NOISE outside. They all start, but remain
quiet. Finally, Augusta is the one to stand. She walks to
the window and cautiously looks out.
She moves to the door and opens it. It CREAKS, and she
looks back at Louise and Mad. They stay still as Augusta
moves through it.
Mad and Louise don’t take their eyes off the door.
It’s so damn quiet.
Augusta POPS UP outside a window right next to Mad and
Mad and Louise JUMP.
From outside, Augusta laughs. Mad just shakes her head.
INT. FARMHOUSE – NIGHT
Mad and Louise light their candles off of Augusta’s.
INT. FRONT HALL – SAME
Louise puts on the gas lamp.
INT. BEDROOM – SAME
Augusta gets into bed.
Mad blows out the last candle.
In this scene, three women hear a noise outside. One investigates. There is nothing there. The three women go to bed. It takes 1 1/2 pages to tell these three sentences of plot because the writer isn’t writing about events, she’s trying to write atmosphere.
One last example before we sum up this section. From page 51:
INT. STAIRCASE – NIGHT
Augusta stands at the top of the stairs. Takes a deep
breath and makes her decision.
She smells something. Once she’s at the bottom of the
stairs, she darts to —
INT. FRONT HALL – SAME
A small fire BLAZES on the floor just inside the broken
window. The gas lamp has been shoved onto the floor and
there it has broken and set a fire.
Augusta drops the gun and looks around for something to
put out the fire. There’s nothing. Thinking fast, she
pulls off her nightgown and puts the fire out with it.
Once it’s out she picks up the gun again.
She moves through the house now, NAKED, gun in hand.
Another window BREAKS. She moves to the nearest HALLWAY
and hides in the darkness.
In the WINDOW:
A HAND creeps through the broken glass and goes to open
the window from inside.
From the shadows, Augusta takes aims at the hand. She
tries to steady herself best she can and when she’s
ready, she takes a long deep breath…
The hand RECOILS as the bullet passes through the tender
area between the thumb and forefinger.
Someone is breaking into the house owned by the three women. Their burglary attempt has started a small fire. Augusta has to get NAKED to put the fire out. Augusta shoots one of the intruders in the hand. [One wonders why the intruders are worrying with trying to open the window since they’ve already broken it. Perhaps there is a security feature of Ante Bellum style plantation house windows that I don’t understand.]
My point in highlighting these three scenes is to show how small events become big scenes of description in this script. This device of INTENSE magnification is used, I think, to try and make insignificant plot points carry the weight usually reserved for significant plot points. Since the script is 86 pages short, it’s clear the author used her affection for mood as a replacement for adding enough complications [in the form of plot points] to her story to justify a feature.
Part B) To identify an engine, we must first identify a protagonist. Augusta has the biggest part, but I think the three women are a collective symbol of femininity in the face of a male dominated world. These women are all alone in the deep south as General Sherman is ending the war by setting everything in sight on fire.
The war is the symbol of the male dominated world [I believe the author would say little has changed] and The Keeping Room is the symbol of the tiny space women can carve out for themselves in this world.
I don’t think this symbolism is completed. Therefore, I don’t think the engine works well. The script even ends with our heroines digging up the men they’ve killed and putting their clothes on to escape Sherman’s advancing army. They are “turning in to men” to escape.
In spite of the fact I believe the script is incomplete, I do believe there is the foundation of a good idea about gender roles and the value of women hidden in it somewhere. Perhaps, if the author had spent less time on atmosphere, and more time on structure, she would have uncovered exactly what she was trying to say.
Part C) The script has no pinch point at all. One of the women gets bitten by a rabid raccoon. This forces Augusta to travel to town for a cure. While there, two rogue Union soldiers see her and follow her home. The script then turns into a wildly improbable home invasion story which strains nine kinds of credulity.
Part D) The theme of this script is:
Women are not treated fairly by the world, their only real communion is with each other, and the only success they can have is by imitating males.
That’s about three times the preferred length, and is a bouquet of ideas. It is no wonder the script reads as wildly unfocused [there’s even an extended bit that seems to imply the plantation house is haunted by ghosts?].
I’m not sure why this script made it past the gatekeepers and onto The Black List. I’m less sure why Olivia Wilde attached [although I have no problem imagining why she developed scheduling conflicts], or how this ever made it to a theatre. The script is:
Rating: Not Worth Your Time (1)
Although since it’s been made into a movie I’ll [sometime soon] put it up on the new and improved forums in case you want to see if I am the outlier.