Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Andrew Ulaszek Cthulhu Screenplay

Sometimes I surprise myself.

While editing another batch of stories for e-book publication, I ran into this section of "The Cthulhu Orthodontist," which I wrote for the anthology Cthulhu and the Coeds: Or, Kids and Squids. It's a story about how the divorced father of the young teenager writes two screenplays to help raise money for her orthodontist bill. Sounds simple enough, but it's a story about stories and storytelling and how the making of stories affects our lives in all sorts of ways at all sorts of levels.

This passage explains what Andrew Ulaszek, the dad, writes when he believes that the announced production of "The Call of Cthulhu" is legit and that macabre master Mario Bava is slated to direct:

"Dad kept the period setting of the 1920s, but the first change he made was also the most radical: he replaced narrator Francis Wayland Thurston with Elizabeth Thurston Wayland – heiress, adventuress and noted archaeologist. She was a liberated woman who was just as at home dancing to hot jazz as she was to deciphering hieroglyphics in the reading room of the British Museum.
"After her great-uncle’s mysterious death, she acquires his files on the Cthulhu cult and deciphers the pictographs on the relief made by the artist Wilcox. Not only does she learn of the original events in the story, but that those events are a prelude for another rising: the pictographs are a sort of calendar or timetable, and Cthulhu’s next appearance is in a matter of weeks.
"Elizabeth is the sort of woman who has no hesitation about flying down to New Orleans on a biplane to enlist the aid of the retired police inspector John Legrasse. The shy, milquetoast, artist Wilcox accompanies her too, and finds himself emboldened by the fearless Elizabeth. And of course, along the way, the followers of Cthulhu continually threaten and thwart them.
"From New Orleans, the threesome sail to Australia, where they plan to set out to meet Cthulhu and send the monstrous thing back to its watery tomb. To do so, Dad stole (or borrowed) Yog-Sothoth and the Shining Trapezohedron from other Lovecraft stories, the former as a nemesis to Cthulhu and the latter as a means of bringing them together.
"Yog-Sothoth dispatches Cthulhu and the sunken city sinks again, but not before Legrasse is killed and the dreams of humanity are profoundly unsettled by visions of unworldly horror.
"In the end, the victory is at best a bitter triumph. Cthulhu’s retreat is temporary, and the influence of the monster is already being manifest in Germany and Italy through the spread of fascism. The world will never be the same. Elizabeth and Wilcox, though romantically inclined, go their separate ways.
"In Dad’s hands, “The Call of Cthulhu” was transformed from an antiquarian’s nightmare to, as Dad called the project, Doc Savage Meets H. P. Lovecraft."
 
Encountering these lines again, I thought: Cool! What I wouldn't do to see what this screenplay would have been like! Imagine, the time is about 1969 -- no plethora of strong female characters. My first choice for casting Elizabeth Thurston Wayland would be Diana Rigg (of course). 1969 -- looking back on the late 1920s. The world is changing in so many ways. The revival of interest in Lovecraft would have been in its infancy.
Wait a minute: the screenplay for the The Call of Cthulhu is fictional. The screenwriter is fictional. You invented them. If you're ever going to see that screenplay, you're going to have to write it yourself.
Well, I don't have time to write a whole screenplay, but I began to wonder if I couldn't create a scene that might help describe where the difference lies between the original story and Andrew's version.
So, I imagined this scene, early on in the story: Elizabeth Wayland has arrived at the home of Wilcox, the artist, to ask him about the bas relief he made, and to the account of his dreams found in Professor Angell's papers. Wilcox is intimidated by this confident, "modern" woman, but he shares the story of his nightmares and all the strange things he heard and saw. He also hands to Elizabeth his own account of the experience. Wilcox's opening lines are same as the opening sentences of Lovecraft's "The Call of Cthulhu." In some regards, Wilcox is conceived as a kind of Lovecraft surrogate -- if not the one we find in the biographies, the one that filled our imaginations in the late 1960s.
Here's Elizabeth's reaction:
 
ELIZABETH:
[Opens manuscript] What is this rot? [Reads] 'We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant we should voyage far.' [puts down manuscript] Do you really believe this drivel, Mr. Wilcox?
 
WILCOX:
Miss Wayland, if you had seen --
 
ELIZABETH:
Seen?
 
WILCOX:
Well, what I dreamed --
 
ELIZABETH:
Dreamed, then. You had a bad dream, therefore you believe the world is doomed.
 
WILCOX:
Not a bad dream, Miss Wayland. The bad dream -- the ne plus ultra of bad dreams! A bad dream for the ages!
 
ELIZABETH:
Mr. Wilcox, you have no more to base your morbid fatalism upon than a dream. I grant you that there is much to be said for the influence of dreams. But for you to back away in fear, to embrace ignorance, to abdicate your reason in the face of a threat -- a threat you believe may not simply bring about your own end, but the end of humanity itself --
 
WILCOX:
Miss Wayland --
 
ELIZABETH:
[takes up manuscript again] ' . . . some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality . . . that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee . . . into the peace and safety of a new dark age.' [throws manuscript across the room]
 
WILCOX:
Without context, it does sound cowardly --
 
ELIZABETH:
Your words, Mr Wilcox.
 
WILCOX:
You have not seen --
 
ELIZABETH:
I have seen this! [holds up the bas relief] I have seen a dozen accounts collected by my great-uncle. I do not know what you have seen, Mr. Wilcox, but I will tell you this: before I crawl off into some hidden corner and await the darkness I will find out what is at the cause of this cancerous madness. I will find out and -- if I can -- send it back to the hell where it came from.
 
WILCOX:
Miss Wayland, have you any notion of the danger --
 
ELIZABETH:
Even if I didn’t, Mr. Wilcox, it wouldn’t matter. I have experienced my share of dangers. I will seek out this cult and the object of its adoration. Do you know why?
 
WILCOX:
Because . . . well, because . . . [shrugs] No.
 
ELIZABETH:
[Smiling] Because I am curious, Mr. Wilcox. Not duty, not honor, not courage. Curiosity. I want to know. Life is knowledge. Life is danger.
 
WILCOX:
So is death.
 
ELIZABETH:
You plan to escape death?
 
WILCOX:
There are worse things than death.
 
ELIZABETH:
I know one thing worse than death – it’s not having lived at all.
 
[WILCOX looks away]
 
ELIZABETH:
[Still smiling] Mr Wilcox – How would you like –
 
[WILCOX looks back at ELIZABETH, but says nothing]
 
ELIZABETH:
[Smiling even more intensely – alluringly] – how would like, for once, to live?
 
[WILCOX stares back, speechless]
 
CUT TO
 
EXT. AIRFIELD OUTSIDE OF PROVIDENCE
 
[ELIZABETH is dressed in aviator’s jumpsuit and leather helmet as she strides out onto the runway toward a waiting biplane. WILCOX trails behind, apprehensively, in street clothes with the exception of a leather jacket. He is having trouble donning his leather helmet – the goggles keep falling down.]
 
ELIZABETH:
Have you ever flown, Mr. Wilcox?
 
WILCOX:
[raises goggles] Not under these conditions.
 
ELIZABETH:
Under what conditions have you flown, then?
 
WILCOX:
Well, the pilot was . . . a man!
 
And so on. One thing I like about the interaction between Elizabethand Wilcox, other than the story now having some relationships develop through the course of the story, is that it questions Lovecraft's premise about the piecing together of "dissociated knowledge." Is humanity better off wallowing in its ignorance or seeking out knowledge, even aggressively? This isn't "revisionist" thinking, but a logical dialectic. The inclusion of Elizabeth Wayland introduces an added depth to the proceedings, not diminishing Lovecraft's fictional reality but validating it -- by continually challenging the premises of his traditionally male, tradtionally white, traditionally westernized narrators.
 
Not to mention being able to see Diana Rigg battling monsters in a biplane.
 
I hope perhaps someday we'll be able to see the entirety of this screenplay surface. You never know what might be found in the back cellars of my brain. 
 

1 comment:

  1. Rich, you have to finish this script! :) I want to see a movie of this. I wonder if Scarlett Johanson could play the Elizabeth role (though it would be excellent to see the Avengers era Diana Rigg in it).

    That last exchange is great.

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