Read Beowulf Online

Authors: Neil Gaiman

Beowulf (2 page)

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 demon…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.

THE END

 

As you can see from my treatment, my problem was
Beowulf
's odd two-act structure. It had always been the element that made it a difficult film adaptation.
Beowulf
is divided into major acts. The first half in Denmark, fighting Grendel and his demon mother. The second act taking place in Geatland, decades later, Beowulf now a king himself who must die killing a dragon to save the land. The two halves of the epic deal with the differences between the ambitions of youth and old age, and how it is a very different thing to rule a kingdom than it is to win one. The seemingly fractured structure of
Beowulf
is important to his arc, but in movie terms this bifurcated storyline was more of a detriment than an equity.

One day, while struggling with the second half of
Beowulf
, trying to make it work with the first half, Neil Gaiman called me. Neil had come to respect me, I believe, for leaving
Sandman
rather than bastardize it. He asked me what I was up to and I told him about my theories on
Beowulf
, not to mention my second act problem. And then, with that elegant English accent of his, he stated the obvious: “Roger, don't you see? If Grendel is Hrothgar's son, the dragon surely must be Beowulf's son—come back to haunt him.”

Had it been a snake, it would have bitten me. Neil had just conceived the Beowulf Unified Field Theory, solving a problem that has plagued frustrated filmmakers for decades as if it were simple grade-school addition. I asked Neil if he wanted to collaborate with me on the screenplay, inviting him into the process. It would be a boon. His depth of knowledge of mythology and tradition would lend itself nicely to the project. His measured and sensitive dialogue would serve as a fine contrast to my more berzerk tendencies. To my delight, and my great benefit, Neil agreed.

Our deal was that Neil would receive first position, and that I, as director, would control the destiny of the material. The sale, the production, etc. I would also provide a neutral location for us to conduct the writing. Neil lived in the Midwest, and I lived in Manhattan Beach, California. For some reason, though it made no sense considering the subject matter, I chose Puerto Vallarta.

I secured a quinta with a full-time cook and bartender. It was a massive, fortress-like compound, surrounding a large pool that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Next to the pool was a palapa, inside of which was a pool table. Neil and I would play some pool, then go in the pool, and then have a margarita—and then we would write—and then we would play some more pool, and then, of course, go back into the pool.

We wrote on two early Powerbook 120 computers, using a 3.5” floppy disk to transfer scenes back and forth. We divided the movie up between us, and then began furiously hammering out scenes. When a scene was complete, we would transfer it to the other computer, and it would be rewritten by the other writer. It went shockingly smooth, and in just under two weeks we had a first draft finished. We were also sunburned and fatter from eating burritos and drinking Mexican beer nonstop.

We returned to Manhattan Beach, looking like we were coming home from Club Med, and sent the script to our agents at the most powerful talent agency in the world, CAA.

It was around then that I discovered that in Hollywood, at that time,
Beowulf
was considered something of a joke. A sword-and-sandal hoity-toity lesson in ancient literature. People had entertained making it for years, only to be met with laughter. The truth, I imagine, is that most executives and producers would sit down to read the text and glaze over after the first paragraph. No one wants to be reminded of high school English, and this was a major strike against getting the material to be taken seriously as a Hollywood movie. My agents received the script, reminding me of this legacy, and then it sat. I assumed that they did nothing to promote the material, but I was wrong. The elves at CAA were quietly and feverishly reading it and passing it from stack to stack, and eventually it found its way into the right stack.

A few months had gone by when I received the call from ex-über-agent and former young Turk, Jack Rapke. I had always considered Jack one of the smartest agents I had ever met—and possibly one of the scariest (the smart ones are always the most terrifying). He has a slow and measured voice that articulates words so that they rise, dip, and then rise again. It's a mesmerizing pattern of speaking, and it causes you to hang on every word as if its formed from a complete story arc, with a beginning, middle, and end. I've never met a man with more experience eating at restaurants around the world. You can tell Jack that you'll be going to any city on the planet (say, Catolica, Italy), and he'll proceed to tell you the best restaurant to dine at, how to get there, and the name of the owner. For example, Catolica, Italy: “Roger,
there's a little bistro off the main Rambla, on a crooked street that leads toward the basilica, just across from the butcher, but there's no sign out in front. Look for the red door. If you go there between nine
P.M.
and eleven
P.M.
, on Thursday through Saturday, let yourself in and ask for Martina. Be sure to have the gnocchi—it's unparalleled.” If you ever meet Jack Rapke, pick a random city and ask him where to eat. He won't disappoint you.

Jack had just left CAA and was forming a new company with director Robert Zemeckis. Jack had read the screenplay, thought it was amazing, and had passed it to Robert, who insisted that this was exactly the kind of film that their new company, ImageMovers, should be making. They wanted to option the script.

I met with Jack and Robert in their lavishly decorated Amblin offices. After a lengthy and passionate pitch trying to convince me to option them the screenplay so that they could make it as a big-budget studio epic, I explained to them that I had only written it so that I could direct it myself. They told me that no one else would be better to pull it off. I think at the time they actually believed that.

I had always seen the film as a smaller-budget epic, dirty and raw—but the promise of having the tools to make the film reach a larger audience was a dream come true. It was all happening faster than I could have hoped. Attorneys drew up contracts and money changed hands. I was now in the ImageMovers fold, and through their output deal with DreamWorks I would be making my first studio film as a director.

But Spielberg had a hair up his ass regarding the project. Maybe he didn't like the script, maybe he didn't like my work as a director, or maybe he thought it was too violent. Regard less, after a year of working on rewrites, Jack and Robert resigned themselves to the unpleasant prospect of having to set the movie up outside of their first look with DreamWorks. One thing I will say about Jack Rapke and Robert Zemeckis (or Z., as I would come to know him) is that they never stopped believing in me as the director of the film, and they stood by me through thick and thin. But soon, the option had expired.

I continued to work with Jack and Robert for another year, but it had been years since my first film, and interest in me in the marketplace had waned. Soon, through no fault of my ImageMovers partners, the project began to wither a slow death on the vine. I moved on, yet again, hoping to one day return to
Beowulf
.

Time passed and occasionally I would speak to Jack, and he would ask if I would consider allowing anyone else direct the film. “Only Terry Gilliam,” I would dictate, not knowing that he had been Jack's client at one time and that Jack wasn't too keen on revisiting the manic energy of that relationship. What I didn't tell him, was that I would have let Robert Zemeckis direct the film. Besides, Zemeckis's slate was full for years to come. He was splitting the production of
Cast Away
and was squeezing in
What Lies Beneath
while Tom Hanks dropped fifty pounds. I've
always loved Zemeckis's work—especially
Used Cars
. On our first story meeting, at a country club in Montecito, I brought my laser disc of
Used Cars
for him to sign. He's a great American auteur, and a man who constantly pushes the boundaries of what's visually possible to better tell his stories. The thought of him directing
Beowulf
was enough a transformation—enough of a radical departure—of what I was envisioning that it recalled my seeing Tony Scott's
True Romance
for the first time after working with Quentin Tarantino for years on his vision for the same script. But I still believed I'd one day direct the script myself—maybe I would find myself in a position to make it again.

Jack always remained polite, and supportive of me, but as we were unable to pull the financing together, our relationship waned, and we gradually drifted apart.

Eventually, I directed a low-budget adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel
The Rules of Attraction
, and while doing press in Paris for the film I had dinner with producer Samuel Hadida, who had financed my first film. I love Sammy, he's always been there for me when the chips are down. His motto is “We like, we make,” and when he gets it into his head that he's going to make a movie, he's relentless and passionate. His Paris-based production and distribution company had grown to the point that he was now considered one of the big players in Hollywood: the Weinstein brothers rolled into an energetic French-Moroccan with a passionate love of movies.

“I have been thinking about your
Bee-Wolf
,” he told me in his highly accented English, “and I am in the zone of making epics. Why not we make this film?” It was unexpected, but welcomed. There was only one problem, and it was called…TURNAROUND.

In Hollywood, when you incur development expenses on a project and the project doesn't get made, the costs of development become attached to the project. DreamWorks had taken the option payments and added giant line items called simply “Development Expenses” to the turnaround on
Beowulf
, and they added up to a staggering figure. I realized that the flowers and oak and antiques in the ImageMovers/Amblin office all came at a price. Beware well-appointed production companies with comfortable chairs; they'll somehow find a way to write it all off onto dead productions. The only solution was to disregard all of the drafts that had been generated during development and go back to draft one, which Neil and I had written in two weeks while sunning in Puerto Vallarta. This was not a problem for Neil or I, for we loved that first draft. It was raw and pure. Our vision undistilled by the Hollywood process.

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