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Script Review: WHAT LIES BENEATH - by Clark Gregg (Second Draft, 12/5/97)

Reviewed by Christopher Wehner



Screenwriter Notes: Clark Gregg graduated from New York University/ Tisch School of the Arts. He has numerous credits as an actor. WHAT LIES BENEATH is his first major motion picture screenwriting credit.

This is a dated draft, but from what I know it should be pretty close to what ends up on screen.

When you read the first few names of the cast for What Lies Beneath you instantly think of talented thespians with solid credits. Award winners who are good judges of quality. You would like to think that any script Harrison Ford is involved with will be of a certain level of quality. So it is with these thoughts that I sat down and read this script. By the time I had finished it I realized I was not only disappointed with the material, but the fact that these fine actors were compelled in any way to want to do it.

What Lies Beneath is a thriller without thrill and a murder mystery without the mystery. I found the script not very suspenseful and almost dull.

Claire Spencer (Michelle Pfeiffer) is described as an "attractive, elegant looking women in her early forties with tiny crow's feet the corner of her twinkling blue eyes." We learn that today is the day her teenage daughter (Caitlin) goes away to college. This subplot, the relationship between mother and daughter, ultimately slows the story down at times and robs it of any kind of pace. Subplots should come together with the main story line. We should learn something new about the characters-a revelation, or it should shed some new light on the main story. Claire is a music tutor, and had been a very good cello player at one time. Her relationship with her daughter, though moving at times, is pointless.

We soon meet Claire's husband Norman Spencer (Harrison Ford), who is a scientist and described as older, tall and good looking. There really isn't much else to share about his character early on. We learn he can be very self-centered, self-absorbed, and very career oriented. Right away I'm thinking, "there's something about him I just don't trust." Norman is not the focal point of the first and second acts as this movie is clearly told from Claire's POV, it's her story.

After observing several heated fights between her neighbors (Feurs) from a second story window, Claire begins to suspects that there may be trouble brewing between the two. She even has a mysterious conversation with Mrs. Feur who seems very upset, and shortly after disappears.

That's when a ghost arrives. For most of the time it seems to only haunt Claire. She even catches glimpses of it: we clearly can tell it is a woman, young, blonde and attractive. Later on in the script, Claire has a conversation with her daughter, one of those pointless scenes. In it Claire tells her daughter that she has seen a ghost. Caitlin reveals that one day she heard a women signing when no one else was home, thus verifying what we already knew: there was a ghost in the house.

The ghost scenes could be done well and present some excitement in the movie, but I was so disappointed with the script I just didn't get a sense for how it will play.

Claire is convinced that Mr. Feur has killed his wife. Claire becomes suspicious and spies on him. Meanwhile Norman is works and tries to calm Claire's concerns, and then gets her to a shrink as fast as possible. Which was another story line that failed to bring anything of substance to the main story. It was pointless.

The shrink storyline comes to an end and leaves us hanging. The script is 127 pages, and with some serious editing it could easily be 100 to 105 and a much tighter story. Gregg needed to add stronger elements to the story with better plot points that instantly sent us in directions. I was left for several pages in the script wondering what next? There wasn't a strong narrative in my opinion.

Now the story brings Norman more into the fold. For the first two acts all he does is work. Harrison Ford could only have been attracted to this story because in a round about way it tries to be another Presumed Innocent. Which was a very intelligent story and a well crafted screenplay by Frank Pierson and Alan J. Pakula. In Presumed Innocent, Rusty Sabich (Harrison Ford's character) is accused of murdering a lover. But we're not sure if he did it. His wounded wife stands by his side. The ending was rather brilliant. Presumed Innocent had solid storyline, effective tone and mode, and it immediately raised the central question: "Did Rusty kill his lover?" In What Lies Beneath, there is no central question. If anything there are several. "Was Mrs. Fuer dead?" "Who is the Ghost?" "Is Clarie crazy?"

It becomes painfully obvious that Claire's husband is not all he is cracked up to be, as we are left with an obvious storyline and an ending that fails to inspire. While Claire obsesses, all Norman can think about is how it effects him, not her.

Shortly after Claire gives in and sees a shrink Norman takes her to a dinner with someone named Stan and his new girlfriend, Elena. Like a bolt of lightening from the sky, Claire and Elena have already met. They we're college friends. We've never met Stand before and suddenly the girl he brings along on the date happens to know her. Something important was going to happen I thought. At this point I was prepared to give into script and believe it. This scene gives us background on Claire as we learn she gave up her music career for Norman, and that she was kind of wild in college, but than wham we're out of the scene. This scene wasn't nearly as effective as it could have been

It was about fifty minutes into the script and though the scene was effective it ultimately failed to raise the stakes or move the story forward. If we had learned that Claire was hospitalized as a student for attempted suicide, or perhaps a college friend had disappeared. Something, anything, that will give the audience something to mull over would have been really effective here. Is Claire crazy? Maybe she killed someone who is now haunting her?

The script was blatantly bad at this point, but goes too far when Claire's psychologist suggests she try to contact the ghost via a Ouija board. I really could not believe what I was reading. Any Psychologist who recommends a Ouija board to a patient who may possibly be unstable should lose his/her license.

Finally, I have to tell you about the character I liked the most, Jody. She is Claire's best friend and whom we know very little about other than the fact that she is a divorcee who hates men and has a serious attitude, which was actually kind of fun to read. Jody pops in and out of the script to help Claire. She was also there for the Ouija board incident, and then she spends some time purposely avoiding Claire. Jody was embarrassed, but why, what's going on? Well, because she had information about Claire's husband that she needed to reveal. Jody enters back into the picture just in time to give Claire some important information, and wham the movie is over. I'm not kidding.

Through and through the script was a disappointment. I'll wait for this one to come out on DVD and maybe rent it for curiosity's sake. The one hit wonder Robert Zemeckis is the director. He will unfortunately not rebound here with this one unless the final script is eons better than what is in this draft.

-- Chris

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