The Script Book
With Insights from the Authors, Their Early Concept Art, and the First and Last Drafts of the Script for the Film
Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary
Foreword by Roger Avary
Middleword by Roger Avary
Final Shooting Draft
Afterword by Neil Gaiman
About the Authors
About the Publisher
Map drawn by Roger Avary to aid in the writing of the screenplay.
BY ROGER AVARY
We’ve included in this book both our first draft and our final shooting script. We wanted to show the circuitous path a screenplay takes towards getting made, and to perhaps put the changes that come about over the course of development into some kind of context. So for this foreword I’ve chosen to tell our story of getting the film produced, rather than to analyze the work itself. I figured it would at very least be more entertaining to read.
The script for Beowulf was written quickly, under a palapa in a Mexican quinta I obtained for the writing process, knocking out a first draft in just under two weeks. However, the process of getting the film made took Neil Gaiman and I ten years together, and for me a total of twenty-five years from gestation to completion. During our development of this script, the Internet sprang from the mists, and our computers went from early Apple Powerbook 120’s to screaming Dual Core MacBooks and 2GHz Dells, spanning Final Draft 2 to Final Draft 7. Collaboration isn’t easy, but when it works, and the muse comes to you both at the same time, it’s a pretty hot threesome. Beowulf was like that. Through it all, Neil and I have become close lifelong friends, and I love few the way I love him.
My fate was sealed for me by Lorenzo DiBonaventura, the studio honcho then running Warner Bros., who had me into his office because he loved the “manic energy” in my film Killing Zoe. He repeated his favorite scene to me several times—Julie Delpy being thrown naked and wet out of a hotel room and into a hallway—laughing with an odd nostalgia at how ludicrously insane and unpredictable the movie was. Then, quite to my surprise and delight, he looked me in the eye and said, “We’re making a movie with you, we just need to figure out which one. I’m just gonna rattle off titles, and when you like the sound of one, stop me.”
I thought to myself that this was probably the best kind of situation to be in. I sat back, and readied myself for the barrage.
“Sergeant Rock.” Wow. What a way to begin. “—And it’s written by John Milius.”
“Go on.” I could barely contain my excitement. I had somehow wandered into the treasury. He went on to list several titles, some awesome sounding, some dreadful sounding. I went through the list, “yes, no, yes, no, maybe, that sounds interesting, not for me, yes, no…”
Then, Lorenzo casually mentioned a title that cleared the slate of competitors: “Sandman.”
“Sandman?” I questioned. You mean, “Sandman Sandman?”
“Yes.” He jumped up and walked over to a large bureau and opened it up.
“Not…Neil Gaiman’s Sandman?” And in that moment he pulled out two little statues. One was of Dream, the other of Death. I literally stood up. Unable to contain myself, I gushed to Lorenzo about Neil’s work, pronouncing my love of it. I was immediately attached to the film.
I had been introduced to Sandman in 1989, while working in the mailroom of D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles—the advertising agency. I had taken the job because it was next to the attorney Quentin Tarantino and I were using to put together the limited partnership paperwork for True Romance. I would literally shuffle mail in the mornings, load the Coke machines, and slip out for hours at a time to sit in the office building next door and prepare budgets and schedules and partnership documents. But months passed during that process, and many of my hours were spent with the ad people, sorting their mail and loading their Coke machines.
One of the executives had DC Comics delivered to him, probably for the purposes of placing ads. He never wanted them, so I ended up getting them—and so over those months, I read the serialized version of Sandman: The Doll’s House.
It was like having a third eye open in my forehead. As I read them, I imagined the movie in my head—widescreen. Johnny Depp as Dream. Fairuza Balk as Death. I would subcontract Jan Svankmajer or the Brothers Quay to animate the transitions from the Dream realm into our own world, so as to simulate the graphic style of Dave McKean’s covers. It would be a glorious and magnificent epic.
A year and a half after my meeting with Lorenzo, I politely left the production, not wanting to be the guy who ruined the Sandman film adaptation. I simply couldn’t imagine the Lord of Dreaming throwing a punch. Just because it looked like Batman at first glance didn’t mean that it was Batman. But Jon Peters, the “savant” producer Warners had attached to the project, couldn’t be dissuaded. I moved on, a year and a half of my life lost to the ether. No more real to me now than the memory of a dream.
In the months that followed I tried to figure out what I would do next. I went through my files of half-finished projects and notes on things I’d always wanted to do. I stumbled upon some notes I had written in 1982, thirteen years before. They were notes on how to turn Beowulf into a feature film.
It was during a high school English lit class that I was first exposed to the epic poem Beowulf. It was the Burton Raffel translation, and its cover depicted, in stained-glass styling, a warrior driving a sword into a fiery red dragon. I was a Dungeons & Dragons geek whose favorite film at the time was Excalibur, and so the passing out of a fantasy book as a credit assignment was like manna from Heaven. I opened it up and read the the first verse:
Hwaet! We Gardena in geardagum peodcyninga prym gefrunon hu oa aepelingas ellen fremedon.
This book didn’t even resemble the English I knew. Even Raffel’s translation taxed the cognitive capacities of my seventeen-year-old brain. I struggled with it for weeks, well after the assignment passed and I received my C–, until one night I began to read it aloud.
Beowulf was spoken and told around a fire for generations before it was put to parchment by Christian monks, and even now it demands an oral delivery. When spoken, the texture of the writing comes alive, and with breath the arcane nature of the language somehow finds life. But, as a story with an oral tradition, it was no doubt subject to alteration and embellishment. Anyone who’s ever played the game Telephone Operator as a child knows how a simple sentence can transform when passed from one person to the next, and I suspect that Beowulf was subject to this same process. It certainly reads at times like a Paul Bunyan tall tale, with Beowulf using his near superhuman strength to slay scores of sea monsters bare-handed, and fighting underwater for days on end using a single breath. Perhaps scenes had been added to spice up the tale. And perhaps, as I increasingly suspected, critical elements had been left out, edited by the passage of time.
My notes simply asked questions:
If Grendel is half-man, half-demon…then who is his father?
Why does Grendel never attack Hrothgar, the king?
How does Beowulf hold his breath for days on end during the fight with Grendel’s Mother? Maybe he wasn’t fighting her? Or maybe he isn’t human?
When Beowulf goes into the cave to kill Grendel’s Mother, why does he emerge with Grendel’s head instead of hers? Where’s the proof that the mother was killed?
It all seemed to add up to rather nefarious conclusions. As I reread
those notes, my mind began to swim. Though it’s not in the poem, clearly, Grendel was Hrothgar’s bastard son. He had sired the child in exchange for worldly wealth and fame. But ill-gotten gains always come back to haunt you—at least in the epics I was weaned on as a boy. And what of Beowulf? Surely he wasn’t telling his thanes the full truth. Had he given into the siren-witch and accepted her offer of gold and glory for his seed, which she needed in order to procreate? I had the time, I had the desire, I had the passion—I would write Beowulf into an epic. It was my intention to remain true to the letter of the epic, but I would read between the lines and find greater truths than had been explored before. It was a lofty ambition. I sat down and wrote the following treatment:
a treatment for a motion picture by
draft dated April 30, 1995
© copyright 1995
A castaway ship of some ancient Nordic design is adrift in a stormy gray sea. Its large swells carry the craft with the current, as the oars are placed straight upward. It would appear that the boat has no crew…and no passengers.
The boat runs ashore and is discovered by a tribe of people calling themselves the “Danes.” When the tribe of people peer into the boat, they’re astonished to find vast treasures of gold, myrrh, guilded weapons, and gold-encrusted armor. Surrounded by the gold is a young baby wrapped in gold-lined cloth of purest white. The baby grows to become their leader and king. The baby is the Scyld Sceafing.
The Scyld Sceafing, having built a great kingdom, eventually dies…passing the throne to his son. They put the body of the dead king aboard a boat, load it with treasure, and set it adrift…giving him back to wherever he came from.
Many new moons go by…three generations pass.
The Scyld Sceafing’s great grandson Hrothgar is now leader of the Danes. Hrothgar lives in the castle the Sceafing built (with his own hands). Hrothgar is a mediocre king…a bit of a lout, living off of the deeds of his forefathers. He is tormented by his mysterious and fantastic great grandfather…and he’s tormented by the fact that he’s never going to be as great a man as he was. We get the feeling that he harbors a dark secret as well.
Hrothgar, to cover up his inadequacy complex, throws great and lavish parties where everyone gets drunk and boisterous. Because of this the land begins to suffer.
Hrothgar’s jealousy ultimately manifests itself into a large, man-like monster named Grendel, whose form we see in shadows on the flickering fire lit walls of the castle. The monster invades the drunken celebrations and devours men whole. It is a slaughter of cataclysmic horror…yet somehow Hrothgar is spared.
Hrothgar’s thanes (and the people of his land) all look to him to save them…and as it turns out, he can’t. He shows his true colors. Instead of standing up to the monster himself, he looks to the sea…looking to the same storm-covered ocean from whence his great grandfather came.
Sick with dispair, he instructs a guard to watch the coast. Many of his men secretly think he may be insane, but they watch the coast regardless…he is their king.
FINALLY SOMEONE COMES
From the ocean comes another craft, a Viking ship similar in design to the one that brought the Scyld Sceafing. But this boat isn’t adrift…it’s many oars strike the water and guide it through the great swells toward its destination. Its sails are filled with the wind. A man stands at its bow, looking into the storm…looking past the storm. The man is Beowulf.
Beowulf lands and asks the astonished coast guard to be taken to King Hrothgar. He rides a miniature horse, big enough to bring with him on his boat. It is a freakish sight, the large warrior on the little pony-sized horse. But he has many thanes with him who seem to take him quite seriously, so the guard dumbfoundedly complies.
They arrive at Heorot, the castle Hrothgar resides in, and leave their weapons outside to show that they arrive in peace. They’re greeted in the great hall by King Hrothgar’s aide, Wulfgar, who presents them to the King.
Beowulf tells Hrothgar that he knows about the Danes’ oppression and that he has come to them because he has had experience in combat with water monsters in the past. Using his famous hand grip, he will grapple with Grendel and rid them of the monster. But one of Hrothgar’s thanes, Unferth, begins to heckle Beowulf…suggesting that Beowulf is all words and no action. Beowulf recognizes Unferth’s envy and retorts, eventually embarrassing the man. It would seem that the two are enemies.
THE COMING OF GRENDEL
After a long and drunken night of song and exchanges (like the one above with Unferth) the men all resign to sleep. It is in the darkness of night that Grendel comes from out of the dank moor…pained by the song and boisterousness of the thanes. As the monster picks up and rips apart one of Beowulf’s men, Beowulf watches the fiend’s method of attack. Then, when the monster attacks Beowulf, a terrible battle ensues that results in Beowulf ripping the monster’s arm from its socket. Grendel’s howls of pain echo through the hall, and with Beowulf’s men together at arms against the fiend, the hideous monster runs off into the night…leaving its severed arm behind.
The next morning Hrothgar looks at the arm, which Beowulf has hung from the rafters as a trophy, and praises him. Even Unferth recognizes Beowulf’s deed of valor. The inside of Heorot is cleaned up, new tapestries are hung, and a great feast is prepared. Gifts of helmets and mail are given to Beowulf and all the thanes continue into another of their infamous drunken parties. During this party the scop (the court singer and weaver of “history”) sings about “The Fight at Finnsburg.” Also at the feast, Hrothgar’s wife, the Queen Wealhtheow makes a veiled pass at Beowulf.
As the party continues the men drink deeply, as they did before Grendel’s raids, and all pass out…thinking they can sleep without fear for the first time in twelve years.
GRENDEL’S MOTHER EXACTS HER REVENGE
That night, Grendel’s mother comes to revenge the death of her son. Far more horrific and terrifying than Grendel, she snatches up Aeschere, one of Hrothgar’s most trusted thanes, and vanishes into the night.
Grieving for Aeschere, and perhaps even believing that he may still be alive, Hrothgar begs Beowulf to travel to where they believe Grendel’s mother’s lair is…in a dark lake underneath a fiery volcano mountain. Unferth goes as far as to offer Beowulf his family’s sword to help him fight the monster…which is of course a veiled forfeit of heroism on his part.
THE QUEST TO DESTROY GRENDEL’S MOTHER
Beowulf and his men arrive at the cave which leads to the underground lake and find Aeschere’s head on a stick. With his men terrified, Beowulf decides to go into the cave alone.
Inside of the cave Beowulf finds a vast cavern of stalagmites and stalactites leading to a mineral pool that draws Beowulf into it. He swims through the waters, dropping his armor and avoiding strange albino water snakes until he reaches the other side…a sunken city, destroyed and half submerged…abandoned long ago by the Dwarven kind.
Beowulf, wet and without armor, holding only his sword, wanders the dark kingdom until he finds Grendel…dead from Beowulf ripping his arm off. Then Grendel’s mother approaches Beowulf…not as a hideous monster, as one might expect, but as a beautiful woman. A siren. A succubus. A demon which looks into Beowulf’s very soul. He drops his sword…and it seems he gives in to her.
Beowulf’s men have been waiting for days outside the cave. They wonder if he died at the clutches of the hideous monster that killed Aeschere. Then Beowulf emerges, pale and drained of his life force…half dead…but claiming to have destroyed the monster.
BEOWULF RETURNS “VICTORIOUS”
Beowulf is praised by Hrothgar for destroying Grendel and his mother. It isn’t until Beowulf is on his ship sailing home that he confides in one of his thanes what really happened.
It seems as though Beowulf gave into the temptation of the succubus and was lost in the rapture. Grendel was half human and half d
emon…the unholy child of the bond between man and monster. Grendel’s mother would send her hideous child into the world of men to steal them and bring them to her. But she was far too powerful for most men to take…ripping them apart as she tried to mate with them. Beowulf gave her his seed…and barely escaped with his life. He makes his thane vow never to tell of what had happened.
Beowulf arrives home to a hero’s welcome, surely uncomfortable with his terrible secret. Hygelac, Beowulf’s king, gives him his own hall and an enormous tract of land.
KING BEOWULF AND THE DRAGON
Years pass, and Hygelac and his son die in battle…leaving Beowulf to be king. His reign is harmonious and peaceful until one of the Geats steals an ornamented cup from a hoard in the lair of a great sleeping dragon. The dragon, furious (as dragons often become when their treasure has been stolen) lays waste to the land…perhaps metaphorically in the form of famine and disease.
Beowulf, now an old man, travels to the dragon’s lair…knowing that he is too old to battle the fierce and ancient monster. The dragon (which is perhaps never seen, as I believe it is Beowulf’s conscience) breathes its fiery death onto Beowulf, who is too old to kill the monster easily. Beowulf’s thanes, seeing that he is being overwhelmed, all run…with the exception of Wiglaf. With this one trustworthy man Beowulf is able to deal a mortal blow to the monster…but his own wounds are so great that he dies in Wiglaf’s arms, naming him the new king.
Beowulf is placed onto a splendid funeral pyre hung with helmets and shields. They ignite the greatest of funeral fires, which consumes his body into smoke and flames. There is much mourning and lamenting. The body of the dragon is thrown into the sea, and as for the treasure…like Beowulf’s ashes, it lies buried in the earth, even now.