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Burning Man

Author: Jonathan Teplitzky
Genre: Drama
Storyline: 3
Dialogue: 5
Characterization: 4
Writer’s Potential: 4

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After his wife dies of cancer, an Australian chef struggles to grieve and take care of his son.


One hand wrapped in bandages, TOM attempts to have sex with LESLEY, a prostitute, but he’s unable to climax. A montage of scenes, seemingly shown backwards, show Tom first rushed into the hospital, then getting into a car accident. Then, Tom’s in his bedroom with MIRIAM, an attractive therapist, who’s in the midst of arguing with him. Then, he’s working in a restaurant, a harried chef. A woman, KAREN, barges into the kitchen, declares Tom a selfish asshole, and then it cuts back to the car accident, showing that he’s surrounded by a bunch of meat cuts that make the scene look much more disturbing and graphic than it actually is. After the opening titles, Tom is back in Lesley’s bed. She wakes him and asks him about his hand. She doesn’t allow Tom to pay him. Tom runs around to commercial butchers, fish markets, and produce stands searching for food for the evening menu. He’s harangued by Karen, who’s angry about Tom ditching his son, and SALLY, who manages Tom’s restaurant. At the restaurant, Tom is angered when a patron sends back his duck, calling it undercooked. In Tom’s opinion, it’s perfectly cooked, so he has the waiter explain this to the patron. When the patron sends the duck back again, Tom kicks it around the kitchen, rubs it in the garbage, tosses it in the toilet, and then sticks it in the deep frier until it’s crispy.

At his home, Tom has sex with Miriam, but it’s interrupted by the appearance of OSCAR, Tom’s eight-year-old son, who wakes screaming from a nightmare. Miriam’s horrified and disturbed — she doesn’t know Tom has a son — so she flees while Tom ignores her to comfort Oscar, who wonders why Tom’s sleeping on the wrong side of the bed. Another day, a distant Tom introduces himself to two real estate agents, PETER and CAROL, who are thrilled to be selling his home. Tom is less thrilled, letting them poke around the house while he waits outside. At the restaurant, Tom snorts cocaine while baking a cake. Tom speeds through the city streets, driving like a maniac, when a red light stops him. He watches intently as a BLIND MAN crosses the street. Tom and Oscar check into a fleabag motel. Tom tries to figure out what to make Oscar for dinner, but Oscar nixes everything. Eventually, Tom lashes out at Oscar, then apologizes.

The next morning, Karen arrives at the motel, demanding to know why Tom hasn’t taken Oscar to school. She browbeats him until he drives Oscar to school. When he arrives, many of the mothers — particularly LISA — give Tom dirty looks. Tom flashes back to Oscar’s birthday party, in which Tom flips out in front of a large group of children and parents, tearing apart the decorations and smashing the cake he was baking in the earlier restaurant scene. Tom is arrested. Karen comes to bail him out and take Oscar away with him. She yells at Tom for acting like a hooligan. At night, Tom shows up at Lisa’s home unannounced. Her husband calls her for dinner, so Lisa excuses herself, mouthing for Tom to call her. Tom gets hammered at a bar with Miriam and another couple. Miriam argues with him, so Tom goes out to his car and has sex with the woman from the other couple. Karen drives Oscar up to Tom’s house and sees the “for sale” sign. She’s shocked and goes to Tom’s restaurant to confront him. Tom goes to Karen’s house to apologize. Karen’s husband, GRAHAM, tries to relate to Tom’s struggles. Tom verbally abuses Graham and leaves.

At the fish market, Tom runs into an old friend, BRIAN, who hasn’t seen him in awhile. Then, we’re back in the police station, as Oscar explains to the police constable that Tom is very sad. The constable asks for Oscar’s mother’s number, but Oscar explains that she can’t be reached. Then, we’re back in Tom’s house, where we finally meet SARAH, Tom’s lovely, curly-haired wife. She’s crying and apologizing for unknown reasons. Back in the fish market, Tom has just explained something unknown about Sarah. Brian is so stunned, he doesn’t believe Tom. Tom flashes back to arriving in a hospital, where a nurse leads him to Sarah’s dead body. In the police station, Oscar tells the constable to call his aunt, Karen. In the fish market, Brian invites Tom for dinner with his wife. Tom gracelessly declines. From the motel, Tom calls his house and listens to the answering machine, which has Sarah’s voice. He flashes back to happier times, when they recorded the greeting. In the motel, he receives a message from a DR. DENT, who has an urgent matter to discuss with Tom. Tom goes to the hospital, where Dent explains that Sarah signed an organ donor card, and while most of her organs were compromised from the cancer that ravaged her body, a diabetic patient needs a retina transplant, and Sarah’s are acceptable. Tom asks to think about it; Dent allows it, but warns him there’s a small window before the tissue starts deteriorating.

Tom flashes on taking Sarah to the oncologist for her first round of chemotherapy. She’s funny, optimistic, and sunny. Back at the intersection with the Blind Man, Tom notices he has bandages covering his eyes. Tom leaps out of the car, stunned, and stares at him. Sensing him, the Blind Man begs him to leave him alone. Tom flashes on coming home and overhearing Sarah telling Oscar a story about them going to the beach, then flashes on the story itself, as he and Sarah camp on the beach and gather seafood and Tom prepares an expert meal despite the lack of provisions. In the motel, Tom gives Oscar a dinner of junk food, then brings in a former one-night-stand to babysit while he goes to a brothel and meets Lesley. Tom gives Lesley a curly-haired wig that looks similar to Sarah’s. Tom flashes on intercut memories: Sarah, ravaged by chemotherapy, weak and bald and cranky; Tom barging in on their oncologist, demanding to know why her prognosis was sunny six months ago but now she’s been handed a death sentence (the doctor explains the cancer has spread and she hasn’t responded well to the chemo); and Tom and Sarah having passionate sex, ending with Tom fondling her breasts and discovering the lump. Back in the brothel, Lesley and Tom discuss the relative merit of their “service”-oriented jobs. Tom thinks his is more difficult. Tom goes to the hospital, shouting for Dr. Dent, because he’s discovered the patient who received Sarah’s retinas has died. Dent tries to calm him down while nurses call security.

Tom calls Lisa to meet for a cup of coffee. They have sex in her kitchen. Tom flashes on meeting Miriam for the first time; Lisa introduced them shortly after Sarah died, suggesting he might want to see a therapist. He flashes on an argument with Sarah about his emotional distance; then, Sarah gets morbid and starts talking about death. Tom flashes on waiting to receive her ashes at a crematorium. Tom flashes on meeting Sarah for the first time, at a pub just after he and Sally learn they got the restaurant. He flashes on being in the restaurant kitchen, accidentally burning his hand, then intentionally putting it into the flames. Sally witnesses this and is horrified. Tom goes to the hospital to have the burned looked at. He sneaks into the surgery recovery room and learns the blind diabetic died on the operating table. Tom storms away. Tom flashes on Sarah giving birth while he tries to put in an order for his restaurant, to Sarah’s great annoyance. Tom flashes on meeting Lesley for the first time, at a strip club. His bandaged burn turns her on.

In the motel, Oscar asks Tom if Sarah knew she was going to die. Tom placates him. He remembers their camping trip on the beach. Tom finds a huge, old lobster, which he intends to cook. Sarah refuses to allow it. Tom remembers waiting for Miriam at her office, then going out a pub, where Miriam announces he’s not ready to confront his grief and is more interested in sleeping with her. She declares she’s not that easy and leaves. Tom accidentally-on-purpose runs into Carol, his real estate agent, and brings her back to the motel to have sex. She’s wild in bed, which sort of creeps Tom out. Back on the beach, Sarah marvels at his food. At some point after her chemo, Sarah decides she wants to stop treatment and concentrate on meditation. Oscar tries to say goodnight to her while she meditates, and Sarah yells at him. Tom and Sarah fight about her mistreatment. Tom tries to open up to Miriam, who refuses to allow it; now that they’ve slept together, it ruins any possibility of them having a therapist-patient relationship. Tom brings Oscar to a school music recital (Oscar plays the trumpet, poorly), where Lisa confronts him about their one-night-stand. Tom devastates her by letting her know their encounter meant nothing. After the recital, Lisa spots Tom getting high in his car. She throws a garbage can at his car.

Back on the beach, Sarah admires the lobster. Tom admires the meal he intends to prepare. The next morning, Tom discovers the lobster is gone. Sarah dumped it back into the ocean. He’s more amused than angry. In the motel, Tom has finished telling Oscar the story of “Louie the lobster.” Oscar loves hearing it. At the restaurant, Sally confronts Tom about his irresponsibility. When he responds with apathy, she gets angry and quits, leaving a stack of customers waiting to be seated. Tom follows Sally outside, where he apologizes. She apologizes, too. After confronting Dr. Dent, Tom is dragged out of the hospital by security guards. He’s surprised when Tom’s oncologist stops them. Tom wants to know why the oncologist agreed to let Sarah stop treatment. The doctor says it was Sarah’s decision, and he respected it. Tom flashes on helping a very weak Sarah to the car. Then he flashes on the awkward conversation with Oscar about Sarah’s inevitable death. Oscar first refuses to accept it, then starts crying. By that night, he’s bounced back to normal. Tom is stunned. At the fish market, Tom buys two huge, old lobsters, takes them to the beach, and throws them back into the water. He frantically drives around, picking up food for the evening, and this is when he has his car accident.

While unconscious, Tom remembers watching Sarah die. He’s revived in the hospital. The accident looks much worse than it is, because his meats fell all over him. It turns out, he hardly has a scratch on him. Tom realizes he needs to make it to Oscar’s recital. He rushes out of the hospital, where he sees the same blind man finally taking the gauze bandages off his eyes and looking at the world, laughing like a maniac. Tom is pleased. He leaps into a cab, which speeds to Oscar’s school. Tom arrives late for the recital, which is truly awful. Oscar gives up his performance halfway through and starts reciting ridiculous jokes he learned from Tom. The confused audience of students and parents laugh at his audacity. Tom beams with pride, then starts weeping. He excuses himself.

Afterward, Oscar asks Karen what happened to Tom. Karen explains that Tom had to go back to work, but Tom surprises them all in the parking lot. He asks Karen for a ride — back to their house. Tom and Oscar pull down the “For Sale” sign and go inside.


Burning Man has a jumbled structure in a calculated effort to make audiences think the trite story is much more complex than it actually is. The nonlinearity adds nothing but intentional confusion to the story, but once Sarah’s introduced, Tom’s journey through grief is as obvious as it is tedious. As written, the script merits a pass.

As a consequence of its disordered scenes, it’s hard to identify a clear three-act structure. Jumping around in time never serves a dramatic purpose, and, in fact, it actually undermines what little drama exists in the story. It’s very difficult to build any sort of narrative momentum when scenes shift backward and forward in time with no warning, and the writer here is not up to the task.

In the “first act,” a series of disconnected scenes introduce the people in Tom’s life at various points in time, culminating in the first appearance of Sarah — dead, in a hospital bed. From this point to the end, the writer struggles to make Tom’s grief into compelling drama. It works in a select few scenes, but as an overall story, it fails.

The lack of a coherent narrative direction, added to the fact that the writer’s mistake of laying all the cards out early and then backtracking to fill in the details, makes this story duller than it ought to be. After the shocking introduction of Tom’s dead wife, the nonlinear structure doesn’t make the story any more surprising or intriguing — it just serves as a distraction from the script’s flaws, ironically becoming a flaw itself. In the last few pages, the writer inexplicably attempts to turn this into a father-son bonding story, but how or why it wraps up this way remains the script’s biggest mystery.

Part of this has to do with the character of Tom, who’s shown doing a lot of unpleasant things and remembering a lot of slightly-more-pleasant things, but he remains an enigma throughout. While it’s clear that much of his self-destructive behavior — random one-night-stands, cocaine abuse, neglecting his son, random angry outbursts — stems directly from the loss of Sarah, the writer makes no effort to show that Tom wants to work through his grief and become a better father. It comes across as an unbelievable 180 in his personality, as he simply decides one day to cut out all his shenanigans and cheer for Oscar.

Although the supporting characters have a fair bit of depth and nuance, they fail to serve as catalysts for Tom’s eventual transformation, which contributes to the unearned, “random” feel of the resolution. While it’s true that many of these characters — particularly his sexual partners — eventually get fed up with him, Tom’s change seems to come more from exhaustion or loss of interest than a real desire to learn from his mistakes, get some help, and move on with his life so he can take care of his son.

A good story could come from this script, but it’s at least a half-dozen drafts away from anything that qualifies as watchable. Burning Man will likely leave audiences more frustrated and disappointed than anything else.

Posted by D. B. Bates on October 25, 2009 12:24 PM  |   | Print-Friendly  | Professional Script Coverage

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