Not long after I first moved to LA, about four years ago, I was sitting at a corner table in a bar called North in West Hollywood with a group of people who were either friends or in the process of becoming friends or at least friendly acquaintances. One of them was a spirited and intelligent woman in her late thirties who was a successful indie-film producer. She told me about a screenplay she had recently read, and hated*, and that everyone she knew also hated it. “But the studio is going to make it anyway,” she said. “They’ve got a good cast for it.”
I was trying to follow the logic of this.
She saw the look on my face. “It’s because they paid a lot of money for it**,” she said. “And then they actually read it, and now they regret it, but now it’s too late.”
I was already interested in this particular screenplay because it’s by a writer I like named David Benioff. He’d had some (really good) literary fiction published in Zoetrope All-Story and had written a novel, THE 25TH HOUR, which was adapted into one of the most underrated movies of 2003. I’d heard he’d written and sold this screenplay, STAY, and that it was some kind of horror or ghost story, and I was intrigued. And envious.
I still don’t understand how a studio can fight for the opportunity to pay 2 million dollars for a script and then suddenly realize they don’t like it. That they ‘hate’ it. Isn’t there at least one teeny tiny minion somewhere who’s paid to, you know, actually read these things?
At any rate, movies came and went and STAY never appeared in the theatres. But TROY did, starring Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom. Benioff wrote TROY — was actually the sole writer on that project, which is an extreme rarity with big-budget studio films — and I have to say I liked it, in the yes-it’s-flawed-but-it-hits-all-my-personal-pleasure-buttons-and-so-let’s-see-it-again kind of way. But when I went back and watched it again it was like I could see through the movie to the screenplay and see some of the things Benioff was doing, which impressed me; I wondered if maybe it was one of those cases where the screenplay was actually better than the movie, in that it reads well in a way that doesn’t always translate to screen.
And finally — several years after that conversation at North — the trailor for STAY starts running in the theatres. Decent trailer, I thought. The film came out and got trashed by a lot of critics, in that one-star or less kind of way.
Then I read this review by Roger Ebert that made me curious about the film all over again (I used to see absolutely everything, including the horrible stuff, but since the twins showed up in my life I’m forced to be more selective). I took my lovely mother, who had one day left in LA before returning to Canada. At some point during the first hour of STAY, I looked over to her and realized she’d fallen asleep. I myself was bored and intrigued by the movie at turns; and I quickly realized that this was not another standard entry in the “I see dead people” genre. STAY is a thoughtful, writerly film, and it’s one of those cases where the ending illuminates the rest of the movie but not in an easy, O.Henry kind of way — it’s not a ‘trick’ ending — and it doesn’t quickly bring the rest of the movie into focus. The more I think about STAY, the more I realize how it does all come together, that is has more meaning and purpose than I originally thought when I walked out of the theatre and made somewhat scoffing comparisons to JACOB’S LADDER (a film I really liked, and which has a similar revelation at the end). It’s the kind of movie you need to see twice, but people who go to this film with certain genre expectations that then get subverted or disappointed won’t be willing to do that. STAY has a leisurely, dream-like pace; it raises questions that don’t get answered in the way you expect or want them to; so you get frustrated and, I think, write the whole movie off much too quickly. If this film wasn’t a ‘genre’ movie — if it was playing in the independent art houses instead of the big mainstream multiplexes — I suspect it would have had a slightly different reception, a more patient and willing audience.***
Benioff is a young writer — he’s around my age, so I get a lot of pleasure out of using the phrase ‘young writer’ — and a really interesting one — a talented, literary guy who wants to entertain — maybe, at least as far as movies go, he hasn’t truly figured out yet how to merge those two sensibilities, the literary writer and the entertainer/genre storyteller — but when he does (and he will), he’s going to knock it out of the park. I look forward to that.
*This same woman also hated LOST IN TRANSLATION, so her opinions often go against the grain.
**There was a bidding war over STAY, of the kind that hadn’t been seen since the peak of Joe Eszterhas (BASIC INSTINCT) in the early nineties. STAY ended up selling for 2.2 million dollars.
**I made the mistake of seeing A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, which is a great movie, at a shopping mall multiplex. Theatre was full of people — young guys — who had come in hoping for a gory thriller and booed and hissed at the movie’s more subtle and surprising moments. I overheard a man behind me say, “I’m never coming here again. This theatre is full of morons.” But when art meets genre, you get that — people who walk in expecting and wanting one type of story and getting something else instead. So they feel cheated. Meanwhile I also made a mental note to see certain movies in certain other theatres, because those ‘morons’ annoyed me too. Hate the film all you want, but please just shut up about it!