So Many Conspiracies, So Little Time
I think I'm going to start another script soon. I've had the idea bouncing in my head for years... January of 2007, according to my notebook. It's a political thriller, and a little different from the scripts I've written most recently (Captain Dishdrainer, The Western, Lipstick Lesbians), which are all action movies. I have lots of ideas in my notebook, going back even longer than this. Some are good, a lot aren't. The reason I've waited so long isn't because I didn't think the idea wasn't worth it, but because it's so complicated.
I should explain. I was inspired initially by Oliver Stone's JFK, about the Kennedy Assassination. One of the things that works so well in it is that it's chock full of juicy details- the man having a seizure near the book depository, a woman dumped on the side of the road with dire warnings, drunken sex parties with Kevin Bacon- that all add up to... something. We may not be able to put our fingers on it, but it certainly seems like something fishy is going on.
Since my initial burst of inspiration, I've come up with lots of juicy details- extramarital affairs, international intrigue, constitutional hair splitting- but I've never been able to make everything fit. There are so many directions the story can go that it's difficult to draw a straight line from beginning to end.
Even after three hours of JFK, I couldn't tell you exactly who Stone thinks killed Kennedy. The best case is probably for the C.I.A., as outlined by Donald Sutherland's Mr. X, but even then, there are so many things being thrown at the wall, they help hold each other up and create a wonderful atmosphere of paranoia.[ref] Don't look now, but there's somebody right behind you...[/ref]
Initially, I wanted to keep the details of the conspiracy behind everything ambiguous- even to the point of questioning if it even existed. I ran this by some friends, and no one liked it, so I set about trying to decide exactly who was behind it all, and what they were up to. Nothing seemed to work. Either it sounded corny, or was too preposterous to be believable.
Keeping the story plausible is especially difficult. Especially considering that the real conspiracies we know about were hidden in plain sight[ref] The Holocaust is the most obvious example- check out a chilling movie called, fittingly, Conspiracy, about the Wannsee Conference and the initial conception of the Final Solution. [/ref],[ref] In light of the tenth anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, I'm reminded that critics of the invasion who said Saddam Hussein didn't have WMDs and that controlling the country afterward would be impossible were all correct- and ignored. Whether this was because of bureaucratic ineptitude or something else I leave up to you. [/ref] or fell apart under the first bit of scrutiny.[ref]I'd include Watergate here- according to All The President's Men, Woodward first noticed something weird at the arraignment of the burglars.[/ref]
Even JFK doesn't stand up to close scrutiny: If you're a cabal of high power businessmen and government officials out to kill the President, why do it in public, in front of hundreds of witnesses? Wouldn't the number of people involved mean that somebody is going to let the cat out of the bag, accidentally or on purpose? How come, even after so many investigations and exposés, we still have a plethora of possible motives, culprits and accounts?
I think the key these conspiracy theories need is that air of mystery: Of not knowing exactly what is going on, but knowing something fishy is. The all-powerful villains who could strike at any time add to the paranoia. The juicy details dangle all the different directions the story could go.
But if we pull back the curtain (especially too soon), the narrative superposition collapses into something less intriguing. I saw this happen in several of the conspiracy thrillers I watched as research, in particular Blow Out, directed by Brian De Palma, and starring John Travolta. By the time the conspiracy [ref] Which has murdered a man who isn't even President yet. At least let him get to office, guys! [/ref] has been revealed, it feels kind of... trivial.
I'm hoping I can avoid these pitfalls myself, but it means going into the script without the detailed outline I usually make. I'm confident, though, because I have the beginning and end fairly well thought out, and my five act structure should provide guideposts so I won't get lost in the middle. The outline for Lipstick Lesbians lacked a lot of details, and was revised a lot during the first draft, and I think that script turned out fine. Hopefully this one will too.