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Script Review: THE SALTON SEA - By Tony Gayton (Revised Draft 8/2/99)

by Christopher Wehner




Tony Gayton is the brother of writer/director Joe Gayton (Warm Summer Rain, Sweet Jane). Tony is also writing Murder by Numbers, which will be released in 2002 as well.


The Salton Sea centers on Danny Flynne (Val Kilmer), also known as Tom Van Allen, an incredibly diverse character and one of more interesting ones youll see on screen next year. The story opens with Danny in a hotel room. It is on fire. Hes playing a trumpet, seemingly oblivious to his certain death. Theres also a duffel bag full of money on the bed, and its on fire too. A photograph of a women taped inside the trumpet case is visible, as is a teddy bear and a greeting card. Then a voiceover:

"My name is Tom Van Allen or Danny Flynne I dont know anymore. Maybe Ill let you decide. Maybe you can help me. Friend. As you can see, I dont have a hell of a lot of time left."

With the voiceover we move back in time to a house in L.A. and the underworld of drugs and drug addicts. Inside the house a binge party is taking place. Drugs and whacked out people are everywhere in the script. Danny is among them of course. The world of "tweakers" as they are calledthose unfortunate enough to be addicted to Methedrene. The script changes scenes, but never the tone. They hang out in abandoned and burnt out buildings, and trashy bars. Its dark and creepy.

Danny tells us how the time is spent, "Day swallowing night and night swallowing day, the crank compressing time like some divine piston on its awesome downstroke."

Its a pathetic environment and a desperate world that the story places us in. Its one that is very uncomfortable, and thats good. Thats the screenwriters job, make the audience think and feel.

The story is non-linear, with two narratives, and somewhat reminds me of Memento, though its not as fragmented. The screenwriter cant be accused of borrowing from Memento as The Salton Sea finished shooting right about the time Memento was released. Both stories do have some similarities that are hard to overlook. Non-linear structure, hotel rooms, guys with tattoos, and strange men searching for the killer of their wife.

The script opens with what will be the ending sequence and then moves back in time to establish the narrative. Then it moves back in time again, but deeper into the past to the "Salton Sea" and the women from the photograph who is Dannys wife. And then back to the main narrative. And the story does this a few times until it all comes spiraling down together and were back in the burning hotel room. At which point, both narratives form an accretion and we know how he got to be in that room and why.

The two different storylines (timelines) represent two different versions of Danny. In one he is nothing more than a "tweaker," and then an informant in search of his wifes killer, and in the other he is an aspiring jazz trumpeter married to his beautiful wife, Liz. The orchestration of this dichotomy is effective in establishing sympathy for the character. All of us are really only one traumatic event away from despair.

Danny is haunted by the death of his wife, but most importantly he is tormented by his lack of action when she was killed. There is even something deeper that is revealed towards the end of the script that I wont share. But suffice it say, the script evoked a lot of emotion from me while I was reading it. Characters that are tormented and conflicted are almost always a safe bet when writing a dramatic narrative. Towards the end of act two, Danny acts on his inner need to heal and to forgive himself. He starts helping others around him like his best friend, and fellow tweaker, Jimmy. After making a big drug deal, Danny gives him ten thousand dollars.

During the flashback narrative of Danny and his wife the dramatic event happens when they stop one day for directions, mistakenly, at a crack house near the Salton Sea. Its described as a "dilapidated" house. I quote the script here as I thought it was amusing. Before that heading everything was described with plain and simple words, then Gilroy throws this in there. It made me laugh.

Dannys wife doesnt want to stop. They get in an argument and he stops anyway. Unfortunately, what he didnt know was that a gunfight was about to take place. While Danny is in the bathroom his wife is trapped in a crossfire. Danny gets out in time to see she is trapped. He hides from view, but can see her. He panics and does nothing as the gunmen find his wife and execute her. He watches it all happen.

Danny slowly develops a new love interest, Colette (Deborah Unger). She lives in the same building as he does. Her boyfriend beats her on a regular basis. Danny eventually helps her out. This is about the same time he helps out his best friend Jimmy. These selfless actions are his way of finding redemption.

The writing is fluid and coruscating. There are also some Tarantinoesque characters and scenes in the script that might even be better than what Tarantino has come up with lately. There are also some quirky bits of comedy that liken themselves to something David Lynch would contrive.

One such character is Pooh-Bear (Vincent D'Onofrio, one of the most diverse actors of our time). Hes a drug dealer and an all around bad guy. He is also wacky, nutty, and deeply insane. We are told that he once beat a pimp to death with an "electric wheelchair." Some wickedly funny writing prevails in the script.

One of these dark humor scenes deals with Pooh-Near and his violent and silly gang. Being horrified while laughing out loud was a nice reaction and something I dont usual experience. When Danny shows up to do his drug deal Pooh-Bear thinks hes a cop. His men remove Dannys pants and make him stick his penis in a cage where a rabies infected weasel starts gnawing at a fiberglass gate trying to get at the tasty morsel. Dannys in a panic, having to answer questions, and just as the weasel breaks free he is allowed to remove himself.

This noir tale has a unique mood and tone effectively established in the script. It doesnt just fall back on the dark and edgy clichés, but strives for something a little different and off-center. The screenwriter does everything possible to establish this. All the director has to do is ask that it be recreated.

The theme of the story is about redemption and having the courage to stand up for yourself and those who are too weak to help themselves. The writing will get you connected with Dannys character on that all-important level of trust. It does take awhile and I think thats okay. The drama is unwavering while we learn about Danny and what his fate will be. Thats the whole idea to good storytelling. Give us a unique character we can care about, place obstacles in his or her way, and then in the end pay it all off.

DJ Caruso is an interesting choice as director, but very explainable. Caruso made his directorial debut a couple years back on Black Cat Run, which was co-scripted by Frank Darabont who is producing The Salton Sea.

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