Hello &

Hello &

Wentworth Earl Miller III

Wentworth Earl Miller III



Sunday, January 29, 2017

Mailbag - THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM (Original Screenplay)


Note: THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM [TDR] is fiction. Open to interpretation. Once I pushed it off my desk, like a baby bird out of the nest, I surrendered control of the story.

If I ever had it to begin with.
Script/movie SPOILERS to follow.

* * * * * *

Q: Hello Wentworth, you wrote the script but where does the story comes from?

A: In 2010 I was home watching an episode of HGTV's "If Walls Could Talk," normally an upbeat reality show about old homes with unusual features, like a hidden speakeasy in the basement. But things took a somber turn when they visited a house in Rhode Island with an odd room in the attic. Intrigued, I reached out to "L," the woman who owned the house...

(I don't think she'd mind if I used her real name, but I'll err on the side of discretion.)

In early 2011 I traveled back east for a funeral and found myself just down the road from L's house. I arranged to visit and she was kind enough to show me the attic room and tell me her story in person...
When L first bought the place she planned to turn the tiny room into a music studio. But its curious features - a door that locked from the outside, a metal floor with a drain - gave her pause. One day she was at the local library, describing the room to a friend, when an older woman overheard them. She said, "My dear... It sounds like you have a 'disappointments room.'" She explained there was a time, not long ago, when children born with disabilities were considered embarrassing. 

"Disappointments." Especially if the family was prominent. These children would be kept secret and spend their lives hidden from sight, their existence known only to a few. When they died, they would be buried as quietly as possible...

L began to research the house and its previous occupants and discovered a respected judge and his wife lived there around the early 1900s. There was no record of children. However, when L visited their graves at the town cemetery, she found a small marker for "Ruthie," a child who had died at the age of 5 or 6. L believed (and I believed L) that there was a strong possibility Ruthie was their daughter, that she'd been born with special needs, and that the room in the attic had been outfitted for her specifically. There was no definitive proof (at the time anyway), but the circumstantial evidence was hard to ignore...

L also shared that since her episode of "If Walls Could Talk" had first aired on TV, she'd been contacted by people across the country claiming to live in houses with identical or similar rooms, suggesting this sad practice was at one time widespread...

Sitting on L's porch, imagining the little girl who had perhaps spent her short life locked high above our heads, a fictional story based on L's discoveries began to take shape...

My heart went out to that child... And my mind to those who, by choosing to keep their flesh and blood prisoner in their own home, had effectively imprisoned themselves as well...

* * * * * *

Q: I cannot help but notice that the character locked up, remind me Bertha, the woman imprisoned in the attic along with all of her obligations and social conventions, in Jane Eyre - oh, the concept of the attic as a place to hide the stigma and shame... I guess you have an opportunity and permission to publish your draft of the screenplay so that everyone can understand... How much this story have borrowed with your real-life experience? Or how much has influenced your household - with its problems - for the drafting of this story?

A: The Jane Eyre reference is spot on. Also "The Yellow Wallpaper." I wrote my senior thesis in college on both texts (plus Wide Sargasso Sea, which reimagines Bertha's story) and they provided inspiration for TDR.

My thesis was about how we're conditioned to conceal certain parts of ourselves, and the characters condemned to the attic in Jane Eyre and "The Yellow Wallpaper" are meant to embody those parts, reflecting back the secret fears, desires, and sins of those below. The characters in the attic also serve as a threat to those below. "This is what happens when you reject the roles dictated to you by class, gender, sexuality, race, and place." (Not a new concept. But as a young, closeted gay man on a conservative college campus, it appealed.)

Dana's arc is about unraveling the mystery of the attic room but it's also about unearthing (so to speak) her own mystery. And history. Exploring the figurative attic room where her personal disappointments are kept. By which I mean her heart.

The film's ending suggests (among other things) that through a traditional, patriarchal lens (which is not how I would've thought about it or phrased it when I wrote this 6 years ago, but it's what I was speaking to), Dana herself is the disappointment. (I don't agree with that assessment. But that's me the person. Not me the storyteller.)

Back to the idea of an internalized disappointments room. It's one of the elements that drew me to this story. Because I believe we all have one. A room within where we keep the parts we think (or have been made to think) are shameful. Not worth sharing. Or loving.

It’s a concept I could and can still relate to. I grew up with clear expectations as to what was acceptable in a son/student/man. And did what I could to tweak/mute/erase what wasn't. My journey as an adult looks like rediscovering, reclaiming, and cherishing those abandoned parts. What's left of them. (The Brooklyn accent is, I'm afraid, gone for good. Except for the occasional hard 'A.')

* * * * * *

Q: What does " Based on true events " really mean?

A: Great question. From what I've read online, "Based on true events" or "Based on a true story" means what you're about to watch is based on something that actually happened. It suggests a degree of narrative truth. Which is why my original script doesn't say that.
"Inspired by" means the story isn't true but it's inspired by something that was. Dana and David never existed, but their story came out of my visit to Rhode Island, L's investigation, and the possibility that her attic room was once used for a particular, sinister purpose.

* * * * * *

Q: Did you have a playlist of songs/music whilst writing the script like you did for Stoker (Philip Glass)?

A: Yes. Music is critical when I'm writing. It sets the mood. And helps keep it. Once I've put together a "soundtrack" that feels like it's in the spirit of what I'm working on, I’ll play that on a loop every time I sit down to write.

My soundtrack for TDR was "TRON: Legacy" by Daft Punk (minus the first 2 tracks). If you listen to track 7 ("Rinzler"), for ex., that's the kind of intensity I was going for when I wrote Dana's descent from the attic to the backyard on pg. 69.

* * * * * *

Q: How was the writing process different/same, from other pieces you have written?

A: Now that I've been writing for a while (screenplays, personal essays, etc.), I've noticed my narrative voice changes depending on what I'm trying to convey. There's a difference between the "me" in "Drive-thru" and the "me" in "Into Practice." For ex. And that's doubly true of my scripts. It's like I've got multiple narrators (characters) inside of me and they all want a turn at the mic.

The narrative voice in STOKER and UNCLE CHARLIE [UC] turned out to be remote. Chilly. TDR evoked/required another voice. More muscular. Physical. And sweaty. To better match the action. (And possibly Dana.)

If there was anything that remained the same in all 3, it was my attraction to dark humor. There are moments in TDR that make me cackle. To this day. Which probably goes back to the way I was raised. If the Millers had a family motto, it'd be "Laugh Or Go Screaming Into The Woods." Advice that's served me well. Especially since last November.

* * * * * *

Q: Do you often come up with the ending first and work your way backwards or do you often go with the process and let occurences changes your perspective and how you'd like to see the story unfold?

A: It varies. UC began with a single seed. I wrote STOKER first, so I knew Uncle Charlie had taken cooking classes at Wrenfield. The rest grew out from there in concentric circles.
With TDR, I knew Dana would be sentenced to the attic but the question was how? And would she "belong" there or would she be more of an innocent? So I guess I decided on an ending and then worked my way backwards.

By the time I wrote TDR I was pretty sure UC would never be made into a movie. So I didn't mind lifting an element or two to reuse at the end of TDR. (Uncle Charlie is to David as Dr. Walker is to Dana... Dr. Walker is one of Uncle Charlie's most formidable opponents, Dana is David's... When Dr. Walker and Dana are undone, they're treated with similar, similarly perverse degrees of "care" etc.)

* * * * * *

Q: How much does the film differ from your screenplay?

A: I don't know because I haven't seen it. But I'm assuming the answer is "a lot."

* * * * * *

Q: When you sell a screenplay and you put your work into someone else's hands do you then find it difficult when they envisage a scene differently from how you imagined it at the time of writing?

A: I've said this before, but I feel like we have 2 choices when it comes to creative output: Lock it in a drawer so it stays sacred and intact and experienced by no one, or give it up to the world and allow other people to get their fingerprints on it.

As an actor, my job is to show up on set and make choices. Then other people (most of whom I'll never meet) pick and choose which bits and pieces they're going to edit together. That's what shows up onscreen. So in a sense, no one has ever seen my "Michael Scofield." Not in its entirety. What they've seen are my choices filtered through the director's idea of "Michael Scofield." Also the editors, producers, and all of Fox Television.

Wrapping my head around that was good practice for when I started writing screenplays.
Like STOKER, my involvement with TDR ended with the first draft's sale. When I heard they were doing rewrites I said, "Okay." When I heard they were making it more "genre" (i.e., more of a horror movie) I was like, "Alright." When I heard they were adding "scares" I thought, "Got it." And when they asked me to share writing credit I said, "Absolutely."

It's a collaborative process and you have to be okay with that. Or keep it in the drawer.

* * * * * *

Q: Reviews not so positive about the film bother you?

A: No. For the reasons I just outlined. And because - big picture - TDR evolved me as a man and a writer. That's more important than a percentage on rottentomatoes.com.

This story, putting it down on (electronic) paper, was a significant, challenging, and  unexpectedly therapeutic process. I was going through a tough stretch at the time. Starting to face up to the fact that who I was, who I'd spent 35+ years becoming, wasn't going to cut it. If I was a car, I wasn't going to get me much farther down the road.

When I sat down to write TDR I thought I was writing a fiction. A thriller-ish drama with elements of horror and the supernatural. What I wrote was a pseudo-autobiographically-themed narrative about what happens when everything you've tried to keep boxed and wrapped in plastic comes back to you.*

The night I sent TDR to my agent to read... was rough. I felt exposed. It's not my story. But the energy of it... the spirit of it... was something I resonated with. What it is to find yourself locked in your own disappointments room. And you don't have the key.

In real life, it turns out, I did. For me, that looked like rigorously investigating the ways in which I felt (or had been made to feel) like a disappointment. And turning that on its head.

On the other side of writing/sharing TDR (and the script that followed) was my men's work with MKP, coming out publicly, starting this FB page, returning to acting, leaving a city I found alien and inhospitable... All sorts of radical, life and identity-altering events.

There's no denying the transformative power of art and self-expression. Whether the end result is judged as "worthy" by strangers is - must be - considered a footnote.

*TDR is, in some ways, like pages torn from my mental health journal. That said, readers shouldn't assume that I'm one of the characters. I'm several. ;)

* * * * * *

Q: I'm relatively sensitive to such type of film (although I'll be glad to see that) and sometimes I'm so dejected after watching some thriller. So my question is: In what way you cope with it? In what way are you fighting with a bad thoughts / black mood during writing a dreary script? Or you can't fight with it? .... Aren't you afraid that you'll have a worse black mood or more deep depression after that? Because there's nothing positive Or maybe it helps you in any way?

A: If asked to take a hard look at the parts of myself I spend all day polishing and hiding behind pretty screens, I'm usually like, "pass." My "higher self" knows this. It's clever. So instead of inviting me to sit down at the table, it'll lay out my favorite snacks and wait for me to wander over and start grazing. "Hey! Let's write a scary story based on that thing you saw on TV! It'll be fun!" Me: "Okay!"
Cut to A Dark Night Of The Soul...

My mental health was suffering when I wrote TDR, and spending time on this material made things worse before they got better. It was cathartic, but I wouldn't recommend it. Not unless you've got the proper support system in place. A therapist, a group, a job to go to, unavoidable commitments that will pull you out of that headspace, other pots on the creative stove to keep things balanced and varied, a self-care routine...

In other words, all the things I didn't have.

I'm profoundly grateful for TDR (and every other script I've written). Would I choose to go through that again? Let's just say I'm glad my higher self didn't leave it up to me.

* * * * * *

Q: My question would be, why was it marketed as a thriller? My personal thought is it would have done much better and been more well received if it had been marketed as a drama.

A: We'll never know.

* * * * * *

Q: Why in Stoker/Uncle Charlie the figure of men is attractive but at the same time is dark, is death, and in The Disappointments room the men are completely useless? do you see women stronger than men?

A: Do I see women as being "stronger than men?" Depends. On the woman. And the man. I think Dana is terrifically strong. The strongest person onscreen. A warrior. But that doesn't mean she "wins." David's a warrior too. As it turns out.

* * * * * *

Q: what part of the script or storyline would you change if given the chance to rewrite it?

A: I don't think this - and by "this" I mean the script, its timing and development, the end result - could have manifested any other way. And I try not to spend time wishing things were otherwise. I believe that's time wasted. 

And - it's a "both/and" not an "either/or" - I wish the movie had worked as a launching pad for a more serious conversation about what was done, historically, to these children. To so-called "disappointments." How we treated - and in many ways still treat - people who are different and differently-abled is something that needs looking at.

If there was an opportunity for TDR to help facilitate that discussion, it was likely missed.

I'm sorry about that.

Many thanks dear Went.

Love Always!


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