Monday, March 30, 2015

Interstellar Part 2: The 2008 Original Script vs The Final Movie

And now ANOTHER word from the ever passionate and perceptive Levin Menekse!

Hello everyone,

My last post on the Good and the Bad of Interstellar garnered interesting, pretty polarizing reactions. I got a lot of flack from the fans of the movie for not "getting" the movie. So as an intellectual who obsesses over "getting things", I went down a rabbit hole of research to make sure I understood everything that culminated with me reading the original 2008 draft of Interstellar.

This is pretty much what I look like in real life.

Initially set up to be directed by Spielberg, the 2008 draft is both more adventurous (cute aliens!) and darker in tone (oh boy, that ending) than the final movie. What I want to do in this post is not to simply contrast the two versions, but also try to figure out why those changes to the screenplay were made and if they were effective.

As those in the industry know, screenplays go through many, many drafts before they are shot and the differences between the original script and the final product are usually immense. (Check out Sean's great blog post about this phenomenon here.) What makes Interstellar a special case though is that this wasn't your usual "Studio Meddling", this was Christopher Nolan coming in and rewriting the entire thing. This was a visionary genius who nobody could say no to.

So, let's take a look at the differences and whether if they were good changes or not. (Honestly, most of them are in the grey area, so those of you who love the movie and Christopher Nolan -- you can put down your pitchforks.)

Just so we're clear: I love Nolan's movies. The saying goes: "It takes a hundred talented people to make one bad movie." Nolan made four legitimately great movies and the guy is only 45 years old. But, if you're especially bloodthirsty, I'm sure we can spar back and forth about which 4 of his movies are "great".

A Sense of Adventure (2008) vs A Desperate Journey Against Extinction (2014)

The 2008 script is a fun movie, no wonder Spielberg was interested in directing it. There is still a sense of desperation as the Earth is dying and Cooper still feels guilty about leaving Murphy behind, but there's no agonizing goodbye scene. There is no Michael Caine reciting epic poems or Matt Damon being super, super sad. The scene where Cooper watches the old messages of his kids is still there but Murphy actually makes peace with Cooper's absence, so Cooper feels more sad than guilty.

In the script, instead of the Water Planet and the Ice Planet -- there is only one planet that has ALIENS IN IT. And while they are initially terrifying, they end up being E.T. level cute and playful. They are these fractal beings that constantly break down their matter and fuse it back up and they can be as big as a forest or as little as a cat. At some point, Brand takes one of them with her and the creature basically hangs around until the end, doing cute stuff.

Plus, instead of our foes being broken human beings and crazy environments-- our foes are... wait for it... Chinese robot soldiers! No, seriously. They're basically Chinese versions of Tars and Case who arrived to this planet first and now want our American expedition group out. So Case gets into a robot-brawl with them in order to rescue a machine that can manipulate gravity... and so on.

You get the idea. This fits in with the Spielberg version of this movie, but when Nolan got on board, I bet he wanted to make something more unique and weighty. There is definitely a sense of existential desperation in Nolan's version, a great weight to the journey. In terms of antagonism, it's mostly Man vs Nature -- or Man vs The Universe, in this case -- which really makes the movie feel like this is the Human Kind doing their best to survive against all odds. The two human antagonistic forces -- Tom to Murphy, Mann to Our Team -- are motivated by sadness and hopelessness, which paints them as a flip side to the "hope-against-all-odds" Cooper and Brand.

The best way I can describe the tonal difference is that I can see a theme ride being made from the 2008 version -- you go through the alien planet, fight with robots, cute aliens do crazy shit... But you really can't make a theme ride from the final movie.

This is a real "Interstellar Amusement Park Ride" which could be yours for only 12k!

Central Emotion Spine -- Brand (2008) vs Murphy (2014)

The Brand - Cooper relationship is the central relationship of the 2008 version. Their chemistry is rather typical: The buttoned up, rational Brand doesn't initially like the rebellious Cooper but, as the time goes on, the two warm up to each other and have sex. The big "choice" of Cooper at the end of the movie is between staying with Brand and possibly going back in time to join with his family. Which isn't strong at all because of course Cooper is going to choose to go back to his family.

What's interesting is that we barely see Murphy in the 2008 version. Once we're with Cooper in space, we stay there. There are no scenes with him (in the 2008 version she's a boy) and he only becomes a bigger part of the story in the third act -- and that's independent of Cooper. There is no "ghost" stuff in this version and Murphy never even gets to meet Cooper again!

I think Nolan made the right call here. Rearranging the emotional axis to Murphy and Cooper gives a poignant undertone to the movie because she's the sacrifice Cooper had to make. Plus, their relationship is different than the predictable Cooper - Brand romance, which feels organic but non-consequential.

That being said, in my humble opinion, Nolan also went about doing this in a way that wasn't completely successful.

"Not completely successful, you say? You're an amusing chap, aren't you?" 

Makes Sense (2008) Vs Unbounded Ambition That... Doesn't? (2014)

Focusing on the Cooper - Murphy relationship allows Interstellar to be an epic but intimate movie. The climax, after all, is set in both a massive, 5 dimensional tesseract but also in a little girl's bedroom. However, Nolan uses this story device of the "ghost" in order to make this happen and while this addition is smart, I believe it needed another pass to be completely embedded into the fabric of the movie. As it is, the delicate balance of the script has been tampered with by these modifications and these changes are at the root of Interstellar's larger logical/story problems. Let me explain:

The 2008 version is much more straightforward. Instead of the "Ghost" directing them to the NASA base, Cooper finds a drone with those coordinates. When he takes the drone to the NASA base, he fixes something for them that they hadn't realized was fixable. So they ask him on board because he's a crazy good engineer who is really good at fixing things. Pretty straightforward.

This drone also functions in a similar way to the tesseract in the final movie as it's revealed that the future-Cooper was the one who sent this drone the past. After Cooper leaves on his mission, Murphy tinkers with this drone to find that it actually contains the instructions on how to build the "gravity machine" and saves everyone, similar to how Cooper gives the "gravity equation" to Murphy in the final movie.

I think Nolan realized that he can use this idea of a "ghost" to have the father-daughter communicate directly. However, this approach engenders logical problems. For example, this "ghost" brings them to the NASA base and Cooper is recruited in because "you're our best pilot!"... which makes no sense because if he was their best pilot, then why didn't they try to recruit him beforehand? "Oh, because we thought you were dead", Michael Caine states and that's that. Changing Cooper into a pilot also makes the scenes of him tinkering with stuff feel unnecessary. In the 2008 version, that's his "superpower", so to speak, so of course it makes sense that we would see him fix stuff in the 1st act. But in the 2014 movie, Cooper's superpower is his piloting skills -- which renders the scenes of him fixing stuff rather redundant.

Similarly, the "gravity machine" is replaced by this equation Murphy solves at the end of the movie. In the 2008 script, this machine is built by the Chinese Robots who, due to a time anomaly, had 4000 years to work and advanced technology as we know it to unimaginable heights. I really love that concept -- the "treasure" Chinese Robots keep talking about turn out to be, simply, 4000 years worth of time -- and I think it works with the themes and the iconography of the piece.

I was mighty underwhelmed by the way the "gravity equation" worked in the movie. It was vague, felt like a shortcut and it wasn't visual at all. As a result, I couldn't get behind the climactic sequence of the movie and it's one of the reasons why I don't think the climax of the movie works that well.


The Ending That Destroys (2008) vs The Ending That is... at least somewhat Hopeful (2014)

The 2008 version sails along with that playful Spielberg tone until the very end when shit turns DARK. Cooper arrives to a dead, cold Earth and accepts his death. He's rescued at the last minute and brought to the space station... where he's told Murphy is long, long dead. He meets one of Murphy's descendants and the descendant gives Cooper the watch he gave to Murphy at the beginning of the movie. Then Cooper, emotionally destroyed, says he wants to be useful but the people venerate him to such a point that he's not allowed to do anything. He's stuck tending to a farm, his worst nightmare. And then he steals the ship and goes after Brand... but it's desperate and soul crushingly sad.

The ending to the movie is much, much better. For all its faults, the movie absolutely nails its last ten minutes once Cooper is rescued. Having Cooper meet Murphy is infinitely more satisfying than the alternative.

That being said, the changes Christopher Nolan made to justify the ending, again, tamper the balance of the script. These little changes he made almost creates a domino effect that engenders the parts of the movie I couldn't connect with. For example, in order to make the Cooper-Murphy reunion feel as climactic as possible, Nolan makes Murphy into someone who couldn't, for 15+ years, get over the fact that her father went on a desperate mission to save Mankind. You would think that after some time she would grow to appreciate her father and his sense of duty. This doesn't happen so that the reunion scene at the end could have the largest impact, and, as a result Murphy as a character is rather one note and hard to relate with.

Weirdly, this also effects Brand's character. Because now Cooper's primary relationship is with Murphy, Brand is relegated to having a lover in one of the three planets. This results in her giving the goofiest speech in the movie about how they should travel to that particular planet despite it being the worst choice because... "love is awesome". This domino piece hits the next one and all of a sudden you have two hysterical women who are supposed to be scientists but acting irrationally because... emotions?

Ultimately: The lesson to take away from all this is that you can't change little things without affecting the larger structure of your story.

Writers, producers, directors, actors:
When you give notes or modify something in the script, it affects the entire project. You rewrite a scene, it affects the sequence. You rewrite a sequence, it might affect the entire story. And you might need to go through your script a few times to make sure everything lands properly and makes sense. No shortcuts. You're asking people to give their time to you, extend the same courtesy to them by working on your project a bit more until it's truly great.

Well, hope you enjoyed reading this blog post. See you next time,



Anonymous said...

I would much prefer the 2008 ending, which is sad but honest but then uplifting when Cooper takes things into his own hands and sets off for Brand - romantic!

The movie ending... as well as not really providing a wrap-up, it's just strangely acted out and filmed (that whole Murphy meet-up).

My main problem with the film is the space/earth flashbacks which dissolve the tension on both sides. I can't actually remember whether the 2008 script jumps about... I'm sure it doesn't? It sticks with Cooper & The Gang, right?

You're spot on about the place of the drone and Cooper's skills though. By making those changes incompletely, it weakens the 'characters' of Cooper, Murphy, NASA and the mission as a whole. They become 'plot gravity' rather than genuine characters acting from motivations and personalities.

Levin Menekse said...

Hahaha, I love how you put it in your last sentence. That (treating characters like plot devices) seems to me like a bad habit Nolan is developing. It was also obvious in the last Batman movie.

And yes, the 2008 version does stick with Cooper and The Gang.