Fast, Twisted, and Deeply Paranoid

A year of notes on 'The Manchurian Candidate' remake's script

Fast, Twisted, and Deeply Paranoid

Director Jonathan Demme has been a friend since before we even started the Chronicle. Over the years, Demme has graduated from critical favorites (Melvin and Howard, Stop Making Sense, Something Wild) to the Academy Award-winning The Silence of the Lambs, his most successful film. Philadelphia (a commercial success) and Beloved (a disappointment) followed. Unfortunately, his last studio release, 2002's The Truth About Charlie, a remake of Charade, died at the box office.

Especially after the disastrous reception of Truth, I didn't believe it when I heard that Demme was remaking The Manchurian Candidate. Perfectly capturing the era's deep paranoia in its tale of brainwashing and politics, directed by John Frankenheimer, based on Richard Condon's novel, it starred Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, and Frank Sinatra (and was produced by his company). Released in October of 1962 to a healthy box office, Sinatra withdrew it from distribution after the assassination of John Kennedy in 1963.

But Demme, in his remake risk, possessed a great equalizer: His film would star Denzel Washington. He asked if I would read and comment on the script. Warning him that I am notorious for totally missing the director's film in the version I saw in my head as I read, I agreed.

During the next 8 months I wrote more than 20,000 words of notes on The Manchurian Candidate. I read three different versions of the script, visited the production, watched dailies as well as a rough assemblage of over an hour of the film. Through it all I kept worrying about the film as a remake and cautioning him again and again about how it had to be a contemporary paranoid thriller and not an overly faithful remake of the original. In April 2004 I attended a screening of the film-in-progress. Slapping myself I realized I had been obsessing over the film I was seeing in my head and not the one Jonathan was making.

What follows are excerpts from my notes. These have been rewritten, rearranged, edited, and, in some cases, added to, to reflect conversations. I did not expect Demme to comment on/respond to my notes – even when specific, they were intended to spur thought and not be explicitly applied – and he didn't, but he kept sending drafts. I also have no idea how many other people were similarly commenting on the script.

February 2003

Received the script in early February 2003. It was Daniel Pyne's Oct. 26, 2002, rewrite based on the novel by Richard Condon and the screenplay by George Axelrod. Although it reimagined and adapted the script, it was more faithful to the original than not.

Feb. 27, 2004


This is a brilliant script that would make for an amazing movie, especially as directed by you. Still, my first vote would have been against doing it. Not because of the script but the second remake in a row for the most boisterously original and brilliant American storyteller?

Timing: Every day you are working on MC, the political situation birthing this film will change. Between when it's finished and it's released, everything will change. Your work has always been ahead of the cultural curve. Here there is no curve. What is going to happen in Iraq and after Iraq is a complete crapshoot. The amount of time to make MC and get it distributed will distance it. Which might work to its advantage but might not. The world it is released into won't be exactly the world now. It may not be very different; it may be. MC may be even more relevant.

Content: Hey, this is your old knee-jerk liberal pal calling in. The film defines the enemy as the boogeyman we all agree on now. Renegade CIA operating with multinational corporations boasting no morality, no ethics, no center. Throw in tobacco and you hit the trifecta. Without being too big a jerk, there is a Lethal Weapon-type quality to the villains.

Renoir said the truly terrible thing is that everybody has their reasons. Chester Himes added that anyone is capable of anything. Pogo said that we have met the enemy and he is us.

Rather than being intentionally evil and plotting against good, maybe entertain the consequences of what Renoir suggests: People with the best intentions committing the worst acts. The script for MC poses the enemy as some "other" – a loosely defined conspiratorial malevolent force determined to do us harm. There are so many mundane malevolent forces at work every day. If you're going to create an atmosphere of paranoia, make the ways to exit it more difficult and less specific. Not a Protocols of the Elders of Zion assault, but neighbors leaning over the back fence talking ...

I haven't seen the original MC in years. I remember some of its power was in the iconographic meaning of Sinatra (which was always mixed, the all-American pop idol with an unmistakable air of danger, both pure and corrupt). Some was the classic Yellow Peril – even Fu Manchu had mind tricks the West had never heard of.

But mostly I think it was metaphoric for a feeling of us as a people and a culture losing control – that things weren't clear cut anymore; cause and effect were seemingly unrelated. A sense of ideological confusion – in a weird way communism is supposed to be pure democracy – MC suggested that the disease eating us was within us. The real tools of destruction were more science and intelligence as guided by enemies of our way of life than just bombs, planes, and tanks.

In so many ways, this is an evil perfect for these times. But what is the tone? ...

Yen Lo is too classic a villain. The last shot of Yen Lo and Gomel in the present before the flashback rings hollow. We know evil is still loose in the world and will try again. This reminds me of the ending of Silence, except there, as sick and evil as Hannibal is, it is still evil as avenger – on the idiot hospital administrator. Evil as humor; Hopkins as Hannibal. Evil as class. Evil as being based in a moral center – though his sense of self is the same that led to concentration camps – in his heart he loves Starling because she is not evil/him. The romantic construct of Lector as Starling's impossible love makes this the darkest poem. Royalty for the good of the country returns to the throne abandoning love, but this is even more abstract; it is not romantic love, but something deeper and sicker. If Starling could have taken out Lector at that point would she have? Yes: If not, she wouldn't have been able to respect herself – and why would Lector have been interested in such a compromised person? The ending with Yen Lo and Gomel is too pat and not resonant.

Jonathan, do the best movie you know how to do. As UT's legendary football coach always said, "You dance with the one that brung you."

Coda: I'm selfish. I want this to be 1930, when beginning directors were forced to make five films a year and then, after success, two or three. I want a John Ford filmography from you (146 films, not just 26). Not a film every two and a half years. I just want to see more Jonathan Demme films. More and more.

Aside: Who plays Ellie? ...

Watching The Truth About Charlie the third time, this is what I thought. With Will Smith, every objection would have disappeared. The film's exuberance, New Wave-ish intensity, love of setting and character would have triumphed. Mark Wahlberg was fine; as a director you used him as an actor to the best effect you could. You notched the film in different directions, shifted the focus, accepted and cinematically accommodated the anti-Cary Grant. At the very end, we know Thandie Newton's failings in her taste in men. Witness Charlie. Smith would have slid down like ice cream more than medicine.

In that last sequence – in our heads, our hearts, our groins, we know that Wahlberg is of one world, and, even as immature as she might be, Newton of another. On the most intuitive unspoken level we don't buy closure. Charlie still works because Charles Aznavour as always saves the day.

April-May 2003

With a title page marked CONFIDENTIAL: FOR LOUIS BLACK'S EYE ONLY came the April 30, 2003, version. Within a day or two I received a new title page dated May 1, 2003, with about 40 pages to be substituted into the script. This version really began to breathe on its own, owed less to the original and more to current events.

May 6, 2003

JD and gang,

1) The Good: As a 2003/4 updating/adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate, this script is great in so many ways. It is fast, twisted, and deeply paranoid. The action unravels forward, backward, and around itself. We are not sure exactly who is what. The mise-en-scène allows for a substantial disorientation. The script is much more complex, ideologically loaded. And filled with political and event references. The ending really rips. Still, I have hesitations. But I did race through the reading in one sitting.

2) The Bad: The MC in 2003/4 is a different vehicle than in 1962. In 1962, brainwashing was exotic, and paranoia as an internal American theme was innovative. My concerns are that with X-Files, Alias, and 24 on TV, what drives this movie? Aren't the twists and turns conventions instead of innovations? This may be too faithful an adaptation, no matter how different. Again, I'm terrible at reading scripts and seeing their movie, not my movie. This was great to read. But is it unexpected enough? In '62 the thought of killing the president was so traumatizing that after '63 Sinatra yanked the movie for a couple of decades. Now, this territory isn't that taboo. Instead of being re-imagined for the new century, is this just imaginatively rewritten with a greater depth of character?

3. The Ugly: The online fan boys carry no great intellectual weight, but they set a tone. They bemoan the old, demand the new, but all they really care about is Lucas, Cameron, and Spielberg, and they can't wait for the next Matrix. They want to appear smart. They rent the DVD and then without thinking denounce remakes UNLESS favorites are involved. This movie is vulnerable.

Too many contemporary critics are hardly more sophisticated. They rent the DVD, then offer the lazy review of comparing it to the original. With Charlie, almost every review also re-reviewed Charade ...

Mess around more. Make Shaw saner, Marco crazier. We don't know. Marco may be nuts. Go The Searchers – the true heroes may be too crazy to function. From the very first we know something is wrong with Shaw. From the very first we know Marco is a hero. Push away from this. Maybe Marco is nuts.

MC needs to connect to a real threat. We just saw the country insist that because we have the freedom to speak we should only speak when appropriate. Those who talk patriotism the most, the love it or leave it, the ones who swear by the sanctity of this country don't get the real principles upon which it is based. Freedom is scary, democracy a kind of chaos.


August 2003

The Aug. 1, 2003, version of the script by Daniel Pyne is the best yet, the most stand-alone but, as a reader, I still can't shake the original.

The Script: Easily and by far the best. Pumps along. Doesn't overdo the flashbacks. Doesn't linger too long anywhere but races forward layering information. Structurally it seems much tighter, much more focused. I wish I had the time and energy to lay the three scripts out side by side, just to see the changes, the decisions. But this one really works. It seems more economical and tighter, but the relationships and personalities are very clearly depicted. The tension builds. A lot of information is conveyed very quickly. I feel as though most if not all of the technical/narrative/construct that seemed troubling in previous versions has been dealt with handily. This one really soars!

Why Remake MC? The original was produced in the paranoid heat of the cold war at the tail end of the red scare/blacklist period. Horror films used to feature monsters, creatures from out of space and unreal maniacs, but then monsters became people who looked like us, our families and community – coming not from the laboratory or outer space but from the nuclear family – itself part of the horror. Communism was ideology as the enemy and the red scare illuminated that it was spreading among us. MC brought this all home. The enemy didn't only look like us but was our heroes and our protectors/champions – the military. Our core ideology – participatory Democracy and our way of life – a free open society – was under attack. Their goal was to take over our government, control all of us, and change our lifestyle, not just to kill a few people or destroy a city.

What Is the 2004 Version About? We can't trust our own government and politicians, not that we ever did. But now the ones who most passionately preach freedom seemed determined to subvert it; talking straight at the common guy the president distorts and manipulates information to lead us into war and undercut the economy. Right wing talk radio and hard-right Republicans argue the real threat is the Democrats: they are traitors, they are the enemy within. Democrats argue the hard right wingers are almost fascists, determined to save America even if it means destroying every principle and freedom that define the nation. The threat to America is Americans and even freedom itself.

What Is the Theme and How Is It Relevant? As the problems are within us, the answers are within us. As the enemy is of us, the hero is of us. Despite government dictates, family upbringing and social, political, and cultural influences, there is personal responsibility and destiny. The modern world is overwhelming, the enemy has lost its familiar face, and we feel threatened in all directions. But as the monsters are us, the solution is us, deep within us, our basic decency as people and Americans, our shared humanity. By the end, most of the characters reach within to do what they must do, to do the right thing.

The Theme – Problems to Highlight: Without being ideologically specific I think you can focus on a few common concerns:

Louis Black (l) and Jonathan Demme during South by Southwest 04
Louis Black (l) and Jonathan Demme during South by Southwest 04 (Photo By Todd V. Wolfson)

1) American Identity

2) Terrorism. In classic revisionist horror styling (Hitchcock, Carpenter, Romero), the horror can be anywhere – we are always exposed. The American people no longer feel safe.

3) Jobs. The country is undergoing a massive reorientation of our core economic identity. What will we and our children and our children's children do for work? Will our standard of living be downgraded and never recover?

4) Electoral Politics. Florida, the recall in California, low voter turnout – what is happening?

5) Technology. Pervasive, changing the world, corrupting values.

6) Security. Is Big Brother watching all the time? Is Big Brother watching enough? Every transaction, phone call, traffic light stop is being recorded – what of our freedom? ...

Within the Script: p.35: Raymond tells Jocelyn that he hasn't been with another girl since her. The literalist in me has to note that an American politician who hasn't been involved with a woman in years, even a medal of honor winner, would set off media alarms like a tank going through the carry-on luggage check-in at an airport.

p.54: Here is classic Hollywood filmmaking 101. The hero. The beautiful woman. They meet. They talk. They don't even say much. They fall in love. How about a bit more?

November-December 2003

On Thanksgiving, my family visits the set of MC that is shooting in New York City. We watched dailies, watched them shoot, and looked at an hour's assemblage of footage.

On MC: I still think the film is going to be a hard sell with critics, as most of them will watch the DVD right before and review that, but that said, I thought it was terrific.

The first was about the foreign threat, insidious new technologies and the ways in which our enemies could look like us/pass as us.

This came across much more as about us, the political system as it is now. In light of Florida; the California recall; our own redistricting fiasco; Bush's seemingly bland, good-old-boy statements that have terrible consequences for working people; and the whole situation in Iraq. The deepest danger is from those who really believe they love the country and are doing right but feel democracy/the people/traditional politics can't exactly be trusted. That what they are doing is for good.

Washington's brilliant, focused performance really drives the film; he believes and would like to think himself crazy but just can't. There is too much information that argues he's not insane.

Liev Schreiber in many ways is the center pin holding it together, because he is so many people: reluctant candidate, convinced candidate, reluctant hero, functioning pawn, willing pawn, very troubled/sure of himself. This really is about where we are, a political landscape where all the familiar signposts are gone or misshapen. There really is a drive combining paranoia, world upheaval, and domestic uncertainty. Who to trust when there is no one to trust?

All the background noise, radio and TV reports, headlines beautifully accentuate the story.

Streep's performance still has to be shaped I think. Certainly the scene where she calls him by his full name needs to be more chilling, and watching her manipulate him into the vice-president position will be crucial.

Keeping in mind that I've always thought Carrie was at its creepiest and most horrifying until right before the mayhem started, I was so deep into the film that I found the scene where Washington tears out the bug with his teeth a bit disconcerting. The bug was almost too literal an indicator. The mood of uncertainty and paranoia was so deep and surrounding.

Remember Romero's Crazies, where most of the town takes hallucinogens without knowing it, most but not all? So you're not sure who is crazy and who isn't, and when the troops come in, sane people can appear crazy until you have no center.

I felt much like that. What was crazy and what wasn't and why would anyone believe him and how could anyone believe him?

Watching the film with Jim Roche, he said he hadn't seen the original but knew this would be a hit. That's because it really captures the mood of the country: we're in a kind of whirling motion; what you believe one day you might not the next. This film casts off, aimed at and finding no point but compounding its motion and denying its moorings.

The original was about the enemy outside invading us and the potential horrors of science and the future. The threats were the unknown, the mysteries of sciences, and the manipulations of those that would destroy us.

This is about us, about today. It is about where we are BUT we have no idea where that is. It is about those that love this country so much, too much, and though they would do anything to preserve it, in that they'll kill it because by its nature it can't be preserved by a small group.

Congratulations! Get it out as quickly as possible. Editing Meryl is going to be a bitch. This is heading toward being a really great film that intensely talks to its time more than most of what else is going on in the culture because it is so willing not to be one thing.

April 2004

On April 12 I saw a very far along cut at a screening room in NYC.

April 22, 2004

Jonathan, Polly,

Okay, so I missed the forest for the forest. I'm asking myself what Manchurian Candidate scripts did I read to make the comments I so far have; certainly not the ones for the movie you made. I said remakes were a bad idea, but missed the obvious. That just because so many remakes suck or are done for the wrong reasons it doesn't mean all remakes do. In a way your MC is not a remake. Truth About Charlie was more of a remake. MC is a different film with the same source novel as the first and some aspects of the characters and the plot, but they are such different movies.

I felt so overwhelmed by how powerful the film was, how brilliant the performances are, and how exquisite the timing that I feel like I just watched the outer layer of the movie.

Every major point I've raised over the past months and 20,000 words seems irrelevant, obvious, or aimed in the wrong direction. Yes, the political situation has changed, but in a way that so accommodates this film. The film is about America and Americans; it is about politicians who we can no longer trust and an electoral process we're suspicious of. This is an MC for our time. A time when George Bush goes from failed business career to partner in a major league team to governor to president. A time when Howard Dean comes out of nowhere, takes the lead, and disappears even more quickly. A time when an in-the-background off-to-the-sides senator like John Kerry emerges from a field of 10 as the candidate.

This isn't about communism, it isn't about the "other," it isn't about smirking evil villains. It is about us, about We the People. It is about our country and where it is. What I mean is that it was so startling an experience that reading three versions of the script, and watching an hour of assemblage and some of Meryl's footage during SXSW had still in no way prepared me for the film. It was almost unexpected.

And it was so right!

So I want to see it again. I want to watch it for the actual construct of the narrative.

And then for the performances.

And then for the camera work, sound, music, and cutting.

And then for Meryl. Just Meryl! (I'm trying to figure out how I could have been more wrong about Streep's performance and can't. I kept looking for the deliciously evil but essentially one note turn of Lansbury. What an idiot! Streep is beyond acting and into some place else!)

Stay with the July deadline. The sooner this gets out there, the better ...

Right afterward I talked with some of the people who worked on the film: They thought you should get into the flashbacks sooner. One indicated that there had been a lot of discussion about where and how in the narrative Liev's character was indicted, his corruption, hollowness, complicit robotness first approached.

I felt different, I guess, than everybody. I thought the first couple of flashbacks could have more faithfully followed the Manchurian version and the veracity of Denzel's suspicions not be confirmed so quickly. Denzel is so dead ahead, almost naive, definitely wearing blinders in his firm conviction that if he just says the right thing to the right person under the right circumstances, they'll listen. He's in denial as to how complicit everyone is in the corruption – not as conscious collaborators, but because the moral corruption and blatant hypocrisy are so commonplace, most don't realize they've run across a particularly diseased variant. On the DVD, I want to see the director's cut where it isn't until three-fourths of the way into the movie that we are given a hint as to the truth of Washington's feelings but instead view him as a PERHAPS near lunatic, dangerous, madman – I'm probably kidding about that and bow to others' wisdom as to where to bring the audience in and as to how to bring them along. BUT Denzel is so brilliantly and powerfully in his own movie, so convinced of his world, that it is a shame not to let that breathe a bit more and let the audience wonder as to whether he is crazy or not.

Bless you all,


end story

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