Not So Super...8MM
By Mike Thompson
Joel Schumacher. Easily the two most horrify words you can associate with any film. For years he's been torturing audiences. ST. ELMO'S FIRE, DYING YOUNG, FLATLINERS, FALLINGDOWN, and what most people feel is the ultimate cinematic travesty, BATMAN AND ROBIN—the crescendo of his career has built to a level of almost unbearable pain caused by the mere mention of his name.
However, BATMAN AND ROBIN is a walk in the park, a fine example of "entertainment" compared to Schumacher's brutal rape of what was once a fine screenplay. I'm talking about "eight millimeter," or, as Schumacher would have us know it, "8mm."
Two years ago I had the pleasure of reading Andrew Kevin Walker's original script for "eight millimeter," a gut wrenching trip into the worst aspects of human behavior. For the guy who wrote SE7EN it's not exactly new territory. Andrew Kevin Walker is a master at exploring human frailty. He isn't afraid to show people as they are. In his work, heroes are often created by accident, rarely profiting from their actions and instead, more often punished for them. The script was powerful, uncompromising and poignant. As fellow staff writer Rich Osmond assured me, it would never be made. And, for all intents and purposes, it never was.
Walker's script tells the story of Detective Tom Welles, who is called in to find the men responsible for killing a woman and filming it. To find them, Welles goes on a bizarre odyssey into the disgusting world of illegal porn. The journey changes him, and not necessarily for the better.
Now I understand that the above description isn't too different from the film released to theaters. The main narrative thrust is the same, but it's the subtle differences in character and reaction that turn a strong work into a pointless movie made by a director getting off on the "horrible" world he is showing.
One of the general "rules" of screenwriting is to never tell the director how to move the camera or what to show. The reason for this is that nine times out of ten the director will purposefully do something else (usually just to show that s/he is the boss). Screenwriters break this rule sometimes because either a) they really want to direct the movie or b) they know how a particular part should be shown because the way it's presented is critical to the story. In the script, Walker specifically states that the actual murder shown on the eight-millimeter film is not seen and never will be seen. The reason for this is obvious: what's happening on the film is so horrible, that there's no way to show it without undermining it. Schumacher, deluded master filmmaker that he thinks he is, decides he can show at least part of the murder and what comes out looks like a grade-Z horror movie made in somebody's house one afternoon—Herschell Gordon Lewis would scoff at it. Maybe Schumacher did this so the audience would wonder if the film was indeed real, but then why is Welles so distraught at what he's seeing? Personally I think Schumacher just couldn't resist the idea of showing this kind of brutality on the screen. His rational, I'm sure, is that he didn't want to walk away from it—that it took courage to show the brutality. Or, it could just be that he just gets off on it.
As the film continues, Welles manages to discover the name of the girl in the snuff film (requiring considerably less work in the film than in the script). From there he is able reach her mother and searches the house for clues. After some digging, he finds the young girl's diary (in the film it's in the toilet (which is a powerful statement in and of itself), while in the script it's in a velvet box underneath an old silverware tray). In the film, he skims through it briefly and then leaves it for the mother to find. The film Welles isn't interested in finding out who this girl was, just where she went.
Conversely in the script, Welles sneaks the diary out of the house and photocopies the entire thing. He reads the whole diary, discovering who this person was. As he continues his search we, the audience, hear voice-overs from the diary, so we know about the girl too. She becomes a character to us, giving her murder weight and relevance.
While some might make the case that this omission was merely to save time, it's a critical blow to the success of this story. We need to know the victim. We need care about her and be angry over the fact that she died. But Schumacher isn't interested in her, only in her death. For Schumacher this girl was just another victim. Like his penchant for putting style well over substance, it's the murder act, and not the person he cares about.
As the story pushes on, Welles meets a porno store clerk, Max California. Max is Welles' guide into the illegal side of porn. When Welles first meets him, Max is sitting behind the counter reading a copy of Anal Secretary, using a high lighter to underline certain passages. Welles asks him what he's really reading. In the film, Max pulls the cover back to reveal Truman Capote's In Cold Blood underneath. In the script, however, Max is reading Truman Capote's Music for Chameleons.
Now what could possibly be the point of changing the books? Both of them have the same affect: we know Max California is obviously smarter than the average porn store clerk. The only reason I can think of is that Schumacher figured that no one had heard of Music for Chameleons and everybody knows In Cold Blood. You have to keep it simple for your audience, right down to the smallest detail apparently.
After agreeing to help Welles, Max takes him to an underground porn dealership, which features all sorts of different horrors. In the film, as they walk through the door, the "bouncer" asks Max if he is a police officer. Max responds "Fuck you, Larry." When the bouncer asks Welles, he responds "Fuck you, Larry." It's a light laugh, but fairly meaningless. In the script however, Welles' response is "No." The character that Walker is painting is a man who is serious about his job and serious about the situation. He doesn't want to make light of where he is or what has happened. Schumacher, however, seems to want to lighten the mood a little. Just because it's a movie about illegal porn doesn't mean it can't be funny, right?
In terms of this particular line of dialogue, I'm not sure if Schumacher or Cage is to blame. It should be stated that Cage does a particularly awful job in this film, moving through the film like a mindless automaton, displaying little emotion or purpose until the end (at which point it comes off as almost comical).
Inside the porn bargain basement, Welles flips through some plastic packets holding pictures. In the film, the packets have the word "KIDS" written on the front. Granted, it's a horrible idea. In the script, however, the packs are separated, with the numbers 16 and 5 written on them. The idea of kiddie porn is horrible, but by assigning age Walker gives a much stronger image for the audience to deal with.
The pictures are a perfect example of the main problem with the film and Schumacher approach. He doesn't know how to balance the subject he's dealing with. Walker understands that this world is horrible and there are parts of it we have to face and other parts best left to the imagination. Schumacher, however, works to throw certain things in our faces (the actual murder), while shielding us from other aspects (kiddie porn). It's as if the director has taken it upon himself to reveal this dark side of human nature while protecting us from it all along.
The script features a long speech from Max California about the insidious nature of pornography:
Walker is not into softening the blow. Schumacher apparently doesn't feel the speech is necessary. Maybe he thought it was too long, or heavy-handed. A shot of two prostitutes in front of acres and acres of dead cattle is apparently much more effective in the oh-so-subtle world of Joel Schumacher.
After a brief skirmish, Welles captures one of the killers. He drags the man, Eddie, to an abandoned house and tries to find out why they killed this poor girl. In both the script and the movie, Eddie isn't afraid of Welles and stands up to him, even taunting him. Welles knows he's out of his league. He hasn't reached a point where he can take revenge on these men. He wrestles with this idea internally and then places a call to the mother of the victim. In the script he tells the mother what happened to her daughter. The mother is terrified, wanting to know why he's telling her this, why he's doing this to her. And Welles doesn't know why. He's lost. He's gone further than he thought and now he's a new place emotionally. He's looking for an anchor, but can't find it.
In the film, however, Welles wants the mother's permission to kill these men. Schumacher wants Welles, and the audience to know that it's okay to kill people if they really, really deserve. And if their victim's mother tells you so. In both script and film Welles does go in and kill Eddie, but in the film he comes across like John Wayne, out to deal some American style justice (we even get the cliché shot of our hero walking toward the camera, with burning chaos behind him), rather than a tortured soul about to forever damn himself as he's presented in the script. Cage does try a little to show that Welles is having a hard time with this, but Schumacher gives us no reason to doubt or questions Welles' actions.
As the film stumbles along, Schumacher heavy, protective hand destroys another of the most effective aspects of the script. In both the film and the script, one of the evil characters is named Machine. Machine is the man who killed the girl on the eight-millimeter film. In the script he wears a wrestling mask, and never takes it off. In the film, he wears a leather, zipper mask. And when it comes off, what little the movie had going for it really falls apart (although there is an even worse travesty afterward which will be addressed momentarily).
In the script, Machine is the personification of evil—a faceless creature with no soul or compassion, able to kill anything. At the script's climax, Welles finds Machine living with his grandmother. After she leaves, Welles enters the house and struggles with Machine, eventually strangling him to death. After his death, Welles pulls the mask off, but we never see his face. Why? Because there's no reason to. Machine was the mask on his face. There isn't anything underneath that mask that will explain to us what or why he was.
Schumacher, however, cannot live with that. In the film Welles finds Machine living with his grandmother, as in the script, only this time Machine's room has Danzig posters on the wall, which, of course, mean he's evil, right? Welles and Machine fight for what feels like an hour and then Welles forces him to take of his mask. Machine stands there and puts his glasses on (which were somehow not destroyed during a fight in which he fell from the second story window of a house), making him look even more like a child molester. He looks at Welles, accusingly. "What did you expect?" he asks. "A monster?" Machine goes on to explain himself. He tells Welles that there's nothing wrong with him. Machine didn't have a bad childhood, his father didn't rape him; he just likes to kill and hurt people.
In Walker's script there is no explanation because there can't be one. Evil is evil. It's not explainable or understandable. And when you cross evil, it doesn't help you deal with it.
As the script draws to a close, Welles character is torn apart by his actions. He has found the killers and he has killed them. But rather than feeling as if he has served justice, Welles is feeling tremendous guilt. He is a moral man, and in his world murder, even of people who are evil is wrong. Walker was quoted on the Mr. Showbiz site as saying "[he] certainly never intended [Welles] 'to be let off the hook,' as he is at the end." "There's no attempt to justify [the murder of those guys] in my script," says Walker. "In my opinion, if you feel kind of horrified by someone being murdered in cold blood, that's the way it should be."
But not Joel Schumacher. After Welles kills all of the men, he receives a letter from the mother of the murder victim, telling him that she's glad the men are dead. It's a moment reminiscent of the letters from Iris' parents in TAXI DRIVER, except that Schumacher presents the letter without irony. So now, he's done the right thing and even though it wasn't the best way to do it, he's been forgiven. And that is just bullshit. But it's Joel Schumacher, who gave us the revenge-promoting movie A TIME TO KILL. Murder's okay when the people are really bad isn't it? And aren't we all lucky that we've got Joel Schumacher to show us who the bad people really are.
In the months following the completion of this article, the gods of screenwriting publishing have seen fit to release Andrew Kevin Walker's scripts for both SE7EN and 8MM in a single volume (ISBN: 0571200982). The scripts inside are the original first drafts. The script for SE7EN is similar to the movie although the ending is a little different (actually darker if you can believe that). The script for 8MM is the same one addressed in this article. There is also an interview with Walker at the beginning where he talks about what went wrong with 8MM. Many of his comments echo what you've just read, although Walker doesn't come across as disgusted with Schumacher as I have. The interview and original script make a fine example of what can happen when a good screenplay falls into the hands of an idiotic, shallow egomaniac. At least now, you can know what might have been, and more importantly, who to blame.