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Published by Junsui Films | March 2012
In this exclusive blog for Junsui Films, screenwriter Clive Dawson recounts his experiences adapting Sydney J. Bounds short story ‘The Animators’ into a feature length screenplay for the upcoming film, Last Days On Mars…
FOUR YEARS ON MARS
By Clive Dawson ©
LAST DAYS ON MARS is a screen adaptation of the short story ‘The Animators’, by acclaimed author Sydney J. Bounds. It was published in 1975 and I first read it in the early 1980s. It was without doubt one of most evocative and creepy short stories I’d ever read and has remained a favourite of mine ever since.
In 2008, following the collapse of a previous feature, I began looking around for another project. More out of curiosity than expectation I decided to explore the possibility of adapting ‘The Animators’. Tracking down the rights-holder was relatively easy but I really didn’t expect the screen rights to be available. Yet, incredibly, this absolute gem had been completely overlooked by the film industry ever since publication. Not only that, Philip Harbottle, agent for the estate of Syd Bounds, couldn’t have been more helpful or accommodating. He trusted my sincerity and vision and together we drew up an option agreement, secured for an initial sum against a larger amount if I managed to find development funding. Without Phil’s kindness and support, the project would never have left the ground.
The next problem was convincing someone to take the project seriously, given that a horror thriller set on Mars immediately conjures up visions of massive budgets. To deflect attention from this, and to ensure readers focused instead on the human aspect of the story, I prepared a two-page outline, written from the perspective of one of the characters. It set the scene (stressing that, visually, much of Mars is not unlike any barren wilderness here on earth) and focused on the crippling fear and the survival hazards a human being would face if trapped in such an environment as things begin to go terribly wrong. I didn’t give away the plot in the outline, I merely set the tone of the proposed adaptation. I then attached a copy of Syd’s original eleven-page short, knowing his words would sell the story far better than any brief summary I could write.
My plan was to approach production companies with a view to landing development funding to write a first draft script. Had that failed I would have taken a gamble and written the script on spec. In preparation, I spent a while roughing out vague ideas and themes. I also story-boarded a few possible sequences, though these were purely for my own reference. Other writing commitments then kept me busy for several months more before I could again focus on pushing the idea. Finally, my agent began circulating a revised outline in 2009 and after only a couple of polite rejections I was invited to a meeting at Qwerty Films, the company run by former-Polygram Filmed Entertainment chief, Michael Kuhn.
Michael, and Head of Development Alex Arlango, were excited by the short story, but rightly wanted reassurance that it could sustain if stretched over ninety-minutes. They asked for a more fully developed outline. I immediately dropped out of an episode of ITVs THE BILL that I was due to start writing – a significant gamble for me at the time given the loss of the script fee and the possibility that I might not be asked back in the future – then spent three weeks thrashing out a seven-page treatment, detailing in full the proposed structure and characters.
In brief, Syd’s story concerns an accident on Mars, in which a curious geologist, Pugh, is killed in a cave-in. But Pugh’s body refuses to lie down. Invaded by a malign Martian intelligence, Pugh goes after his astronaut colleagues, one-by-one …
I decided I had two possible approaches to the script adaptation: I could focus on the crew of a rescue mission from earth, going to the aid of colleagues on the surface who had already unleashed something terrible; or I could play it out, as in the short story, by focusing from the start on the explorers themselves. I chose the latter, though the former approach could perhaps have worked equally well. I made the crew astronaut-scientists, on a mission to search for traces of life that may have existed on Mars in the distant past. Inspiration for this came from the 1996 announcement by NASA (later retracted) that scientists had found fossilised bacteria in a meteorite from Mars. Even now, via robot probes sent to the planet, the search is on for indisputable evidence of extinct life.
Syd’s story featured an all-male crew of six. I added two characters and made some of the crew female. I kept the three key locations of the short story but needed more for the screenplay. Research was vitally important, as knowledge of the reality of the Mars environment was essential in building a believable architecture for a manned mission to the planet.
The basic ‘spine’ of the screenplay was already apparent in the short story and, with the addition of a mid-point ‘twist’, it neatly comprised the second act of a classic three-act structure. Within this I built an introduction to the characters and their world, added new set-pieces, and crucially, since the short story ended on an abrupt and particularly bleak note, devised a suitable set-piece ending.
The seven-page outline found favour and I was soon turned loose on a first draft screenplay. The hardest job on the script was fleshing out the characters and their arcs, particularly as I wanted to make each character somehow responsible, through their character traits, for the fate that befell them. The second most important job was imbuing the script with Syd’s creepy atmosphere and a sense of inescapable horror. The entire narrative is set against a backdrop of enclosed, pressurised spaces – chambers, rooms, airlocks and crawl-ways – getting progressively more claustrophobic as the story progresses. Even out on the surface of Mars there is no escape; everywhere the characters go they leave footprints and vehicle tracks in the Martian dust, easily followed by a pursuing antagonist.
Looking beyond Syd’s story, I watched every decent science-fiction/horror film I could lay my hands on, soaking up influences along the way. I’d already tackled themes of confinement, isolation and group hysteria in a previous feature, THE BUNKER, so I was able to draw on that to a large extent. Indirect credit should also be given to script Guru Robert McKee, whose rare, one-day Horror Genre seminar provides incredible insight into the intricate mechanics of a much under-rated field.
After two more drafts, the script not only landed me a fantastic new agent, it was also voted onto the 2010 Brit List of best UK unproduced screenplays. It was a massive honour which ultimately led to additional agency representation, in the US. Soon after, co-producer Andrea Cornwell and Academy Award-nominated director Ruairi Robinson came aboard the project, propelling it towards production.
Adapting a published work for the screen can sometimes prove to be a curse instead of a blessing. In this case, it was an absolute pleasure. I hope I’ve been able to do justice to Syd’s story.
Qwerty Films/Focus Features’, The Last Days On Mars is currently in pre-production and is expected to start shooting 2012.