The only bad thing about writing ‘classic’ screenplay articles? I can’t share all the cool unproduced screenplays that I read. The Black List, for example, is a yearly list of the best unproduced screenplays floating around Hollywood, as voted by industry execs. and agents. Actually getting your ‘hands’ on and reading unproduced screenplays is a decided controversy; but be that as it may, it’s hard to quantify the rush one gets from reading a classic screenplay that, in a mind’s eye, is a perfect film.
I read it (and wrote this coverage) during my first semester of film school at USC. I probably read 200 scripts that year, but I remember this one distinctly, because upon reaching the last word I promptly flipped back to page one and read it again.
If that’s not a mark of a classic screenplay…! August goes on to say that the Natural Born Killers screenplay was one of two documents that made him most want to be a screenwriter—as well as other intriguing comments, where you can find a link to the actual coverage report.
If I indulge full disclosure, earlier in this article, I wanted to finish a certain sentence with: ‘…before it’s tarnished by the filmmaking process.’ That directors often ruin a perfectly good screenplay is a clichéd notion, but in the case of Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers screenplay and Oliver Stone’s film … well, clichés are clichés for a reason.
Tarantino’s script starts out as the film does, introducing us to Mickey and Mallory, an unhinged couple who are murdering their way across the U S of A, gaining a cult celebrity status. Tarantino’s script then quickly sets-up the story’s main plot, of a ‘thinly veiled Geraldo Rivera’ who wants to interview Mickey and Mallory, who are incarcerated, for his TV show American Maniacs. Tarantino’s unconventional story structure then jumps back and forth between the salient events that established Mickey and Mallory as a veritable Bonnie and Clyde—including an awesome courtroom scene—before coming to the interview with American Maniacs host, Wayne Gale, after which a prison riot ensues, and Mickey and Mallory escape with Wayne Gale, who does his interview live amid crimson mayhem.
Unfortunately, Stone made the egregious decision to rewrite Tarantino’s draft. In the film, we see scene after scene of Mickey and Mallory killing people, mixed with a bit of childhood backstory, and it’s not until halfway through that Mickey and Mallory are captured and the subsequent media interview plot begins. By not framing and anchoring the story to something early on, at least for me, I lost interest while wondering where all this is going? Maybe I was biased because I knew where the story was supposed to go, but the point remains that it’s hardly best practice to not establish some goals quickly. There’s myriad other differences from Tarantino’s draft, and I have trouble justifying any of them. Admittedly, Tarantino hadn’t one two Oscars back then.
John August never mentioned what he thought of the final Natural Born Killers film. Nonetheless, the differences between a screenplay and the subsequent film are useful things to dissect for screenwriters (and filmmakers) developing their craft. It’s not revolutionary advice for aspiring filmmakers to read early drafts of scripts and compare them with the actual films; it’s just sage advice worth repeating, as sage advice is apt to be.