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When Sacajawea Met Wally

Wally had found me - as many clients do - by reading screenwriting magazines and trolling the Internet. With full throttle enthusiasm, he wanted to engage my consulting services a few years ago to mentor him through his Epic.

Yes, you read that right. Epic. As in Huge. Wally was fixated on Lewis and Clark. In fact, he had spent much of his adult life reading everything he could about these intrepid explorers and decided the time was right to tell The True Story.

Wally had also checked his Calendar of Really Important Historical and Film-Worthy Dates for Aspiring Screenwriters and discovered that the 200th anniversary of the pair's journey to the Pacific Northwest was approaching. "If I write a movie now," he told me, "this could be huge at the box office."

I gently suggested that he might perhaps not be the only person on the planet who was aware of this auspicious occasion and that other Lewis and Clark fans might be planning a similarly themed blockbuster even as we spoke.

Wally was quick to point out there hadn't been any movies about Lewis and Clark since the 1950's. (For trivia buffs, the film in question featured Donna Reed as Sacajawea which gives you a sense of its gripping authenticity.) I opined that maybe there hadn't been any movies since then because, well, maybe because Lewis and Clark just don't resonate with moviegoers in the same way as giant sharks and extraterrestrials.

Wally , however, was determined to press forward and told me he’d be dropping his first draft in the next day's mail.

***

The story opens with an earnest young mapmaker feeding a thin barley soup to his bedridden mum.

“Isn’t today your very important meeting with Thomas Jefferson who is the third president of the United States, Edwin?” she inquires.

“Yes, I believe you are correct, Mother. When I am finished here, I will let my stepfather William and my two younger brothers -  James, aged 7, and Frederick, aged 4 -  know I am leaving on my trusted chestnut-colored steed, Freedom, which you gave me on my 17th birthday 3 years ago.”

“And what is the purpose of this important meeting, Edwin?”

“Well, Mother, I understand there is going to be a great expedition led by two men named Lewis and Clark and they will be in need of a good mapmaker such as I am.”

NOTE TO FILE: Work with Wally on crafting less doofy dialogue.

“Excuse me,” I said to Wally before I reached the end of the first act (and nary an appearance yet by L or C), “but who, exactly, is this Edwin guy?”

Wally explained that Edwin’s role would be to fill the audience in on what transpired once the expedition got underway. I reminded him of his objective to tell The True Story. How would this be possible, I queried, if he was throwing in characters like Edwin who didn’t exist?

“Movies do that all the time,” Wally insisted. “Look at ‘Titanic’. Everybody knows that Jack and Rose were just made up.”

Yes, I agreed, but the difference was that it’s easier to throw in a couple of  fictional personas against a backdrop of 2,000 than it is to let fictional mapmakers tag along on one of history’s best documented treks that had less than 50 participants plus a dog.

“Oh,” said Wally. “Then you’re probably not going to like Edwin’s Indian princess love interest and the riverboat gamblers they play cards with that ends in a duel…”

***

Breaking up is hard to do. Painful as it was for Wally to send Edwin to the cutting room floor, he grudgingly accepted my advice that if his epic was going to be about Lewis and Clark, the pair needed to be more than just a peripheral footnote in the plot. His second draft opened with Lewis and Clark sitting around a campfire.

“So, Meriwether,” says William, “I understand you are the private secretary to our third president, Thomas Jefferson.”

“Yes, that is right, William. It is a very interesting job.”

“I would think so, Meriwether. Though not as interesting as our current quest to discover a route to the Pacific Ocean and gather important information about the Indian tribes that live there and the dangers that future explorers who follow in our footsteps will have in establishing settlements in the Far West.”

“Well, we have had a long winter of training and preparation, William. Next year will be 1804 and—“

NOTE TO FILE: Remind Wally not to use dialogue to explain things to the audience that the characters themselves already know. They also don’t need to keep repeating each other’s names if they’re the only two in the scene.

By page 79, Lewis and Clark arrive at a trading camp and encounter a wily French trapper named Charbonneau.

“Allo meez-yours,” says Charbonneau. “Vellcomb to zee bess tradings post in zay ree-jione. Vood zah foors be of inter-ahst for zah freegid treks to zee Paceefic?”

“No, thank you,” replies Meriwether who speaks perfect French. “But who is yonder beautiful squaw starring at us in wonder and who looks quite young and appears to be heavily pregnant?”

“Zat eez mon savagette wife – Zakajaweejia.”

I asked Wally why Charbonneau’s phonetically scribed lines read like Peppy la Pue.

“I just want to be helpful to the actors,” he brightly replied.

***

According to Wally’s next version, an hour and 19 minutes elapsed and his plucky adventurers had yet to move past the trading post. I reminded him of the 1 page=1 minute of screen time rule. “If this is going to be a two-hour flick,” I pointed out, “you’ve only given them 41 minutes to make it all the way to the opposite coast, pack up, and come back to St. Louis.”

Wally pondered this. “Maybe I should cut out the backstory about Meriwether’s childhood and the troubling incidents leading him to become an alcoholic in later years.”

“Yeah, probably,” I said. “You might also want to lose the dalliance in the pantry between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.”

Wally was ruffled, reminding me that it was the first romantic scene he’d ever written and he was rather proud of it.

“But it’s off-message,” I said. “You need to remember the audience you’re writing this for.”

(beat)

“By the way, who is your audience?”

Even via email, I could picture Wally shrug. “Everyone,” he replied, as if this answer should be perfectly obvious.I needed a new strategy. “Whatever historical period you’re doing,” I said, “there needs to be something that resonates with modern viewers.” Themes about reward, revenge and escape, I went on, can be plopped into any century because this trio of concerns has plagued mankind since the beginning of time. “To carry it off, though, you need a relatable protagonist.”

Wally asked whether it should be Lewis or Clark.

“I’d go with Sacajawea,” I recommended. Ask any two people on the street to name famous Native American heroines; she and Pochahontas will top the list. Unlike the latter, however, Sacajawea’s life following her 15 minutes of fame is shrouded in a mystery that persists to this day. Did she die shortly after the expedition? Or – as claimed by her own people – did she live well into her 80’s?

“Think of it this way,” I continued, “she’s a young, pregnant woman in an unhappy relationship with a Frenchman her family isn’t keen about. She’s attracted to another man who is not only kind to her but also protective of her baby son. Unfortunately, he’s already married. Far from home and without job skills, she’s forced to do whatever will be best for her child.”

I could sense a glimmer of a lightbulb coming on. Even though it was roughly the wattage of an EasyBake oven, I was encouraged to hear Wally say he was now going to rewrite the entire epic from Sacajawea’s POV.My elation lasted up until I read the opening scene of his next draft.

EXT. – DAY – A babbling brook in the wilderness. Two BRAVES look up from their fishing as a third, RUNNING BEAR, splashes his way toward them.BRAVE #1: Why are you so excited, Running Bear?

NOTE TO FILE: Tell Wally to read this line out loud and without the comma.

RUNNING BEAR: I have just heard the most incredible news that my wife and I are expecting our first child to arrive at the beginning of spring. If it is a girl, we are thinking of naming her ‘Sacajawea’ which, as you both know in our native language, translates to mean ‘bird woman’.

BRAVE #2: That is a fortuitously splendid omen indeed. We should get everyone together this weekend and carouse with gusto.

***           

“People are not born interesting,” I told Wally. “They become interesting as a product of life experiences.”

“Huh?” said Wally.

Starting out Sacajawea’s life as a twinkle in her father’s eye is all well and good, I went on, except that if his epic was eventually going to be about her travels with Lewis and Clark, the final product would be roughly 175,200 hours long.Wally was stymied. He liked the notion of telling the story through the woman’s POV but had no clue where, exactly, that POV should commence.

I decided to help him out with a freebie idea – a bookend approach that would hook the audience, get to the heart of the journey, and fade to black with an enduring mystique regarding Sacajawea’s ultimate fate. It would also weave into the tableau that Clark subsequently became the legal guardian of her son, a situation that prompts us to wonder what influences compel a loving mother to give up her own child. Did she know she was dying? Did she see in Clark a more positive role model than her husband? Would a mixed-blood toddler have encumbered the return to her tribe?

“The film begins,” I said, “with a dark and stormy night in St. Louis.”

A cloaked figure carrying a bundle is hurrying through the rain soaked streets looking for a house, the home of the territorial governor. His housekeeper is reluctant to let her in and goes upstairs to tell her employer that a young ‘savage’ woman with a little boy claims that she knows him. Clark realizes who it is and hastily admits her. Absent Charbonneau, Sacajawea has come to see if he would be willing to raise her son.

There’s an underscore of attraction between them. Now widowed, Clark realizes he has an opportunity to make a home for both of them. Sacajawea is disinclined to acquiesce to his request but agrees to give him her answer in the morning.

“The bulk of the script,” I continued, “is the flashback of the journey where we see how their chemistry evolved into a love story that couldn’t be consummated because of their respective obligations.”

Wally was now bouncing off the walls with excitement and promised “the best ever” version within the week.

INT. – CLARK’S LIBRARY – MOMENTS LATER

There’s a light tap on his open door. He looks up and is astonished by the transformation of his guest. Helga the housekeeper had done well when she went next door to borrow clothes from the neighbor to replace Sacajawea’s wet ones. Standing before him now with a radiant smile meant only for him was his true love – her black hair swept atop her head and displaying the emerald earrings that perfectly matched the low cut Parisian gown Helga had procured. She carries two glasses of his best wine from the cellar.

SACAJAWEA: Shall we toast to the past and talk about our epic journey, William?

“And I’ve got this great idea for casting,” Wally announced in a margin note. “Catherine Zeta-Jones as Sacajawea and Michael Douglas as Clark. Whatcha think?”

What I think sometimes is that I’m not paid nearly enough to do this.