It’s official – the Beaufort International Film Festival is underway and tonight it launches a new event: a table-read of the five finalists for best screenplay. I’m actually stunned that mine made it in – it’s a dark drama with a very unlikely, un-likeable protagonist – a father who winds up on the internet Sex Offender Registry.
“The Scarlet Registry” was my second attempt at writing screenplays, and back when I wrote it I didn’t know that dramas rarely sell, unless they’re adapted from best selling novels. When I pitched it at a pitch-fest in LA last October, I got some strange looks. One production company rep asked me if I’d thought about exploiting the humor in a guy essentially wearing a modern day Scarlet Letter. Uhm, no. Can’t say that I ever did. Another young agency staffer interrupted me halfway through the pitch. “Ooh Ooh,” she said. “I bet I know what happens. He’s really a computer genius and hacks his way into the registry and erases all the evidence.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her my protagonist, who was wrongly accused, ends up killing himself and the son he leaves behind develops a relationship with an on-line predator.
Thankfully all this didn’t scare whoever judges the screenplay entries for the Beaufort International Film Festival. And when Ron Tucker, who runs the festival, came up with the idea of staging a table-read so that audiences can see what a script is all about, he didn’t bat an eyelid either. I told him the theme is, well, dark would be an understatement, and that with a topic like sex offenders you’re bound to have adult language. I offered to let the actors substitute words as they saw fit. Afterall, the theatre where this all happens is owned by a church which holds services there every Sunday. I couldn’t believe how open-minded everyone was.
And then I had to go and blow it in an interview with a terrific local newspaper, the Lowcountry Weekly. As I’m sure I’ll be asked tonight, the reporter wondered why I wrote the screenplay. I hadn’t thought about it for a long time and blurted out that I’d known three men I thought had been wrongly accused. Their lives were ruined and now, with the advent of the internet registry, a false accusation is like being on a No-Fly list. Everyone thinks you’re a terrorist. Not exactly the most intelligent answer I could have given. It’s true, I do know three men I believe were wrongly accused. But I made it sound like that’s the norm. It isn’t.
And I was reminded of that by a wonderful young actress who had been cast to play my protagonist’s wife. Turns out her day job is a victims advocate. My screenplay is set in Florida but in South Carolina, where she has done far more research than I have, she’s found that it’s rare that a sex offender even goes to trial, let alone gets wrongly convicted and listed on the registry. She couldn’t, in good conscience, play the role of a wife who doesn’t believe the victim. Especially a victim who is a child. It’s too close to what usually happens.
A wonderful stage actress, Suzanne Larson, agreed at the last minute to step in and play the role of the conflicted wife. She, and the actress who refused, are my new heroes. The table read hasn’t even happened and I’ve learned so much from both of them. What I should have said to the reporter is that I am a writer. Drawn to the extremes of the human condition, not the norms. I wanted to explore the most dramatic theme I could think of. What could be worse than a man wrongly accused. Who can’t handle the unintended consequences of the registry. Who isn’t smart enough to defend his family or strong enough to think of a way out, other than suicide. Whose ultimately selfish action leaves behind a vulnerable son, who becomes the perfect target for online predators.
I’m a big fan of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” – and how I was never really certain who was innocent or how you define it. That questioning, that nuance, is what I was shooting for with “The Scarlet Registry.” It may never have a shot in Hollywood, but I tried to have each of my characters twist and turn and eventually grow. Tonight, I’ll be a little closer to finding out if I succeeded.