Black List Script #1 – The Beaver by Kyle Killen
MAJOR DISCLAIMER: Since these scripts, bought or not, are currently unproduced and/or in the midst of long, tedious development processes, they may not make it to the screen for up to three years, if ever. You should know that the synopsis contains MASSIVE, EARTH-SHATTERING SPOILERS, even though this screenplay may not resemble the finished film (if any) in any way. Read at your own risk.
Secondary Disclaimer: I refer to what follows as “coverage” by the loosest definition of that term. In keeping with this blog’s tradition, I’ve crammed the notes so full of rancorous rants, it’s 1/10th as concise as actual coverage, almost falling into the category of a review. However, since I’ve included the loglines and a detailed synopsis, it’s close enough to coverage for my purposes. Deal with it.
Logline (provided by The Black List): “A depressed man finds hope in a beaver puppet that he wears on his hand.”
THE BEAVER, in voiceover, introduces us to WALTER BLACK, mid-40s, a depressed man at the end of his rope. Appointed to CEO of a toy company — a position well beyond his abilities — he’s led the company to the verge of bankruptcy, his youngest son (HENRY, 8) is depressed and withdrawn himself, his oldest son (PORTER, 18, “emo kid”) wishes his parents would divorce, and his wife (MEREDITH, late 30s) spends much of her time weeping openly. Now, The Beaver continues to explain, Meredith is at the end of her rope and has finally taken it upon herself to throw Walter out.
At school, jock JARED tries to convince Porter to write papers for him. Porter explains that it’s a gradual process of building the grade up over a series of weeks, so he’ll only help Jared if he commits for the long haul. Jared reluctantly agrees and pays him. NORAH, a good-looking cheerleader, approaches Porter for roughly the same reason. Porter’s surprised because, academically, she’s smarter than he is. Norah says she needs help writing her valedictory speech.
Meredith picks Henry up from school and finds out a classmate threw him in the Dumpster. Aghast, Meredith encourages him to be more social so he stops being a target. Henry asks about Walter, but Meredith says his being gone is the best thing for all of them. At a liquor store, Walter emerges with a full stock. His car is loaded with crap. In a fit, Walter tosses all his possessions into a Dumpster. Surveying the refuse, Walter notices a beaver puppet. He tosses the liquor into the trunk, followed by the beaver puppet. At his hotel, Walter drinks and weeps as he watches Dr. Phil. He hugs the television.
Porter, Henry, and Meredith share an awkward meal, apparently their first at the dinner table. When the “conversation” thing doesn’t work out, they switch to the living room, where they watch television. Back in the hotel, Walter eyes the beaver puppet. He puts it on, and The Beaver begins to speak. He gives Walter a long, obscenity-laced pep talk about how Walter’s searching for answers in the wrong places — self-help books, medication, alcohol — but if he follows The Beaver’s guidance, he’ll save Walter’s life.
At school, Porter reads from a medical journal about genetic psychology as Norah approaches. She asks about the magazine, and he treats her like crap. When she calls him on it, Porter apologizes, saying the defense mechanism for “unattractive people” is to reject the beautiful and popular before they reject him. Despite the apology, he continues to hurl hostilities at her until she blows up and tosses an enormous stack of papers — writing samples for Porter to peruse — at his feet.
Meredith arrives at school to pick up Henry and is surprised when the teacher informs her that Walter has already picked him up. At home, Walter and The Beaver teach Henry woodworking in the garage. They show Meredith a memory box they carved together. Meredith’s baffled when only The Beaver speaks to her. Walter hands her a 3x5 card explaining his radical, new therapy treatment. She’s dubious yet somewhat pleased at Walter’s initiative. He’s allowed to stay for dinner, which enrages Porter (who eats by himself, watching TV, as the others chat in the kitchen).
Henry asks where Walter learned woodworking. The Beaver tells a long story about Walter’s youth. Walter’s father died, so he had nobody to teach him anything about tools. He had to carve a Pinewood Derby racer, and even though it looked like shit, it was faster than the other kids’. They didn’t care, however; the car was The Turd, whether it won or not. Enraged, Walter spent the next year reading books about tools, carving, woodworking, and engineering — he came back with a beautiful car, but the kids still called it The Turd II. It never raced because Walter told the other kids to go to hell and left. This story bowls over Henry and Meredith.
Later, Meredith wishes The Beaver goodnight and urges Porter to do the same. Porter runs into his room and blasts music. The Beaver shrugs it off as typical teenage rebellion. When The Beaver mentions going to work, Meredith is surprised and concerned. Porter calls Norah to tell her he’s been reading her stuff, and he wants to talk more about the speech. She invites him over the following day, after school. Seeing Walter and The Beaver going to his car, Porter freaks out and angrily pounds his head into an already-dented wall (covered by a poster).
The next morning, Walter and The Beaver go jogging, shower together, get all decked out in nice clothes, leave the explanatory 3x5 index cards on every employees’ desk, and host a company-wide meeting. To the surprise of the employees, The Beaver lays out a complete overhaul of corporate strategy. He asks the employees to give him two weeks to see how the changes affect them, and if anyone wants to quit at that time, he’ll give them eight months’ severance pay and a glowing recommendation, no questions asked.
Norah leads Porter into her bedroom. He’s impressed by her various awards. Norah complains that she’s been on a certain track for so long, she can no longer relate to the average student. As they talk, while Porter continues to act like a dick, he’s surprised and intrigued to learn she was expelled from junior high. Prior to her turnaround as an academic goddess and popularity queen, she went through a “rebellious artist” phase to get attention from her parents, who preferred her older brother’s overachieving. She did a complete turnaround when, after a floor-mural prank gone bad, the brother drove off to get a bunch of floor-repair material, had a car accident, and died. Norah shows Porter some of her paintings. He’s surprised by how good they are.
A montage, narrated by The Beaver, follows, explaining that his new initiatives turned the company around. The Beaver/Walter have eased their way back into the Black home, which continues to anger Porter and cause him to pound his head into the wall. Porter learns HECTOR — another student who pays Porter to write papers — has won an essay scholarship. His crush on Norah heightens. The Beaver/Walter renew their romance. Despite how well things are going, both Meredith and the company executives are a little concerned about how to present The Beaver to outsiders. Henry, meanwhile, becomes obsessed with wood and woodworking.
After the montage, Meredith goes to a gossipy book club full of Soccer Moms, who warn her about Walter’s “role-playing therapy,” offering that “people don’t put on a disguise unless they’ve got something to hide.” Even more concerned, Meredith asks The Beaver about Walter’s therapist and a possible timeline on ending the treatment. The Beaver shrugs off the notion of a timeline — you can’t rush treatment like this. Later, Meredith wakes The Beaver and sends him to the garage, where Henry is woodworking long past bedtime and refuses to move. Henry and The Beaver have a discussion about his disobedience, but The Beaver reluctantly lets him continue. It suddenly dawns on him how interested Henry is in woodworking. He immediately dashes off to work to orchestrate a new plan, which he pitches to the rest of the company the next morning: they’re going to drop their traditional middling toy lines in favor of a brand new woodworking kit and beaver puppet.
At school, Porter tries to work damage control with Hector. Porter’s “personal” essay went into detail about Hector’s own family, but when it became apparent that Hector doesn’t know any of the details about his own family or their lives, the family realizes he didn’t write the paper. They want him to confess to the principal. Porter promises he’ll set up a dummy paper-purchasing website that can’t be traced to either of them; getting caught writing others’ papers could lead to expulsion. Norah arrives, and Porter tells her he has an opening on the speech. They make a pseudo-date after school to discuss it.
The Beaver and Meredith go out to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Meredith demands to spend the evening with Walter, not The Beaver. The Beaver allows this, but the whole evening is awkward and miserable. Meanwhile, Porter and Norah discuss the speech. Porter continues to hype up Norah’s great paintings, which frustrates her. Despite this, he leans in for a kiss and notices one of his father’s mannerisms popping up — twisting a lock of her hair in his fingers. He freaks out and starts bashing his head again, confounding Norah, who talks him down so they can continue to make out. At the evening’s game, Norah’s parents notice she’s not among the cheerleaders. Just as The Beaver takes over to yell at Meredith about Walter’s condition and lack of progress — blaming her and the family for his problems — her cell phone rings. It’s Porter.
Porter and Norah wait at the police station as Norah’s parents talk to the cops. They’ve apparently been arrested (or at least detained) after getting caught making out, after Norah’s parents called the police to say she was missing. Porter’s parents arrive as Norah’s parents drag her away. Porter tries to keep eye contact with her, but she ignores him. At home, Porter pounds his head so hard against the dent in his wall, he breaks through. He pounds so hard, he knocks himself out.
After school, Meredith refuses to allow Henry’s many new friends to pile into their SUV. She also demands that he stop his excessive woodworking. He becomes sullen and withdrawn once again. Meanwhile, Porter makes sure Hector has the website address for his meeting with the principal. As Hector pleads that Porter doesn’t understand the situation, Porter blows him off for Norah. She’s not very friendly. He hands her a draft of the speech. She’s polite about it, offers him money, which he refuses. Norah gives him a kiss-off speech.
Meredith has called Walter’s therapist and knows he and The Beaver are lying — Walter hasn’t seen his doctor in nearly a year. The Beaver is so enraged by Meredith’s meddling, he finishes the insults he began on their anniversary and throws Meredith, Porter, and Henry out of the house. Alone, Walter wanders the big house and gets depressed again.
Some time later, a news reporter explains what a huge hit the “Mr. Beaver Woodchopper” toys have become. The Beaver forces his executives to book him on the morning shows. They agree but encourage Walter to get rid of the puppet. The Beaver laughs at the suggestion, nothing that Walter can’t. He’s not a mere puppet — he’s literally fused to Walter’s arm. The VP doesn’t believe it until he fails to pull the puppet off.
Norah’s ignoring Porter, who confronts her at school and demands to talk to her. Porter tells Norah it’s not her job to replace her brother. This enrages her. Porter presses on with his point until Norah shouts a few choices obscenities at him and storms away.
Walter and The Beaver appear on The Today Show and, after a lengthy treatise justifying his own existence, The Beaver becomes an instant hit. Another narration-infused montage follows, with The Beaver explaining the new phenomenon as the woodworking kits sell like hotcakes, average people all over the country begin wearing their own puppets, The Beaver gets a book deal and writes the same sort of self-help book he initially shunned, graces the cover of every popular magazine, appears on TV and radio shows across the country. As things go well for Walter and The Beaver, Hector puts on a puppet and tells the principal the truth, Porter loses his college acceptance.
As the montage ends, it becomes clear that, while The Beaver eats up the attention, Walter has become more depressed and disillusioned. Walter calls Meredith in the middle of the night, tries to talk to her, but The Beaver hears and forces him to hang up. Walter and The Beaver have a knock-down, drag-out brawl.* Afterward, a bruised and bloodied Walter is awakened by The Beaver, who complains about Walter’s lack of gratitude. Walter decides to do some woodworking to rebuild the team, when he notices the table saw. The Beaver realizes what Walter has up his sleeve, but he can’t stop the man. Walter saws his own forearm off.
An undisclosed time passes, and the fads of both child woodworking kits and adult self-help puppets have ended. Meredith drags Henry to a psychiatric hospital to visit Walter, who’s been fitted with a prosthetic hand and is making good mental progress. Despite this, Meredith is uninterested in having Walter released into her care.
At the house, Norah shows up to talk to Porter. He asks about the graduation ceremony — which he was not allowed to attend — and Norah tells him it was boring, but she decided to go with a different speech. Hers was about a concept where, with every breath a person takes, they inhale two atoms of everyone who’s ever lived. And so, therefore, her brother is still with them, and he’d want to tell them that each breath is a chance “to put [their] own signature on a trillion little pieces of the future.” Porter is impressed. Norah hands back Porter’s original speech and tells him the only reason she didn’t use it is because, whether he tried to write in her “style” or not, the content came straight from him. She tells Porter to read the speech.
Porter does, and over this extremely long narration (which basically just states, in bleak and blunt terms, the themes of change coming from within and our ability to control a very limited part of our own destiny — the way people perceive and remember us), a montage reveals Norah packing for college, Porter making reluctant amends with Walter, Meredith releasing Walter into her care, Henry quietly whittling… Norah blasts off down the highway. Porter sits on his driveway, waiting for something with a big backpack. Norah arrives, and he hops in. Together, they ride off.
I wanted to love this script. It’s loaded with interesting ideas, but the shoddy execution undermines every single one of them. Tonal inconsistencies, unbelievable characters (and/or actions), endless reams of redundant expository dialogue, and a theme that doesn’t exactly say anything new or interesting about the human condition despite having a perfectly weird platform? The script has significant problems.
At a certain point (around page 45 or so), I started to wonder why this screenplay isn’t titled The High School Nerd Who Got Hired to Write a Valedictory Speech. I haven’t tallied up the number of pages devoted to each storyline, but I swear this “subplot” got more attention, priority, and overall length than the “main” story of Walter and The Beaver. Maybe it just felt that way because the subplot was so fucking boring, repetitive, and unconvincing. I don’t care if this script is supposed to be a fantasy (or, at the very least, “fantastical”), very little about either character is believable or relatable. They don’t speak to each other like people; they speak like psych-101 sock-puppets, spewing therapy lingo as they profile one another and try to effect change despite barely knowing one another. I can buy them both as damaged goods — although the notion of a “forgotten” youngest child who has to rebel to get attention is, to put it politely, fucktarded — but the psychobabble would have felt a lot more convincing if both kids had spent most of their teen years in therapy.
Worse than that, the main story has very little impact on this cumbersome subplot (and vice-versa). The best we get is Porter’s anxiety over turning into his depressed father, which doesn’t amount to much. Porter catalogues traits he shares with Walter but does nothing to consciously break these habits and distance himself. He just whines about it and bashes his head against the wall (another supposedly inherited trait).
On a related note, possibly the worst reveal in the script is the development that Walter and The Beaver really are separate entities, with separate minds and goals. The idea of The Beaver as a construct of a damaged mind makes Walter fascinating, and you start to wonder how he’ll overcome this crutch and strike some sort of balance that allows him to function. The Beaver fusing itself to his arm and becoming its own thing destroys all of that. Instead, it forces us to the realization that we know very little about Walter aside from his depression. The woodworking story about his childhood was a little bit touching and shows the kind of drive, ambition, and loneliness that would both lead him to business success and depression. Even this is undermined by the throwaway joke that Walter doesn’t deserve his position and only received the promotion because the founder and CEO choked to death (roofles!) while on the town with an escort (DOUBLE ROOFLES!!). So… What? He doesn’t work hard, has no business acumen but was promoted beyond his competence… Because he’s so charming and witty? He loves toys? The original CEO owed him a favor? Without knowing anything about him other than “depressed,” this single, half-assed joke throws a massive wrinkle into the character. Why’d he get promoted? If he really didn’t deserve it, why aren’t the embittered executives gunning to have him committed as soon as he introduces The Beaver? It might seem like a minor detail to get hung up on, but if it’s so minor, why is it in the script? And why doesn’t it make any goddamn sense?
Since Porter does nothing to distance himself from Walter, couldn’t Killen at least have used the younger version of the same man to provide a window into Walter’s hidden-by-The-Beaver soul? Shouldn’t we see the early cracks in the façade that will lead Porter down Walter’s road of depression if he doesn’t change? Wouldn’t that make the dull resolution a bit more satisfying? Walter has to chop off his forearm and get committed to find peace, but Porter can avoid those pitfalls with the love of a woman who takes his verbal abuse with gentle good humor. Good times!
The frequent appearance of lazy, narration-saturated montages in place of real action and drama don’t serve this story well. We’re treated to dozens of pages of largely on-the-nose dialogue between Porter and Norah, but every time something interesting happens, a montage kicks in and The Beaver spoonfeeds everything to us — what’s happening and why, along with a dramatization of the events he’s describing. I don’t mind voiceover narration, and I don’t mind montages, but this script uses neither device effectively.
Tonally, the script clearly wants to be a genre-bending experience along the lines of Being John Malkovich (the movie it most closely resembles, despite lacking that film’s depth and insight), starting as a weird but bleak comedy and moving into something akin to drama. The tonal shift in Being John Malkovich came as a result of the natural evolution of the characters; in The Beaver, the characters spin plates for 100 pages, then change on page 101 and reflect on the change until the end. It does start with a few comic bangs — the introduction to Walter and his depression is pretty funny, and the opening montage quickly goes from funny to dire (which does, I must admit, hint at the jarring shifts later in the script).
The problem is, after the opening it pretty much stops being funny for virtually the entire script. The Porter-Norah mega-subplot is about as humorless as you can get, and the comedy in the absurd visual image of The Beaver disappears after the second time we see him. Beyond that, it just sort of struck me as lazy that the puppet has to be a beaver. Why a beaver, as opposed to any other small, rodent-like woodland creature? Because every time somebody says the word “beaver,” it’ll get laughs from the cheap seats. This kind of lazy comedy frustrates the crap out of me in general, but it’s more frustrating here because a solid dramatic story could come from some of these elements if Killen set aside the gimmicks and the hacky yuks — or at least made better use of them as reflections of his characters.
The Bottom Line
Right now, The Beaver is pretty much a disaster area. The development process gets a bad rap among outsiders, but this is a clear-cut case where sticking a script into the development wringer might yield a better product. A fresh take from a writer with greater insight into these characters could turn this from a bottom-rung chuckle-hut middle-act to something bordering on a dark masterpiece.
I can’t tell you how surprising it is that this received so many Black List votes — remember, this is the #1 pick with 67 votes. Considering the tepid loglines of the other top-ten contenders, it makes me worry about my sanity first and the state of the industry second.
*In case you’re wondering, the script kindly explains the tone: “If this plays with any humor at the start it very quickly disappears. This isn’t Liar Liar. Walter is truly self destructive and the damage he does is real.” [Back]