The Words on the Page

What Lies Beneath

August 15, 2017

 

What Lies Beneath

by Clark Gregg

Production Draft v2.0 - December 1999

Psychological Drama, 113 pages

 

"There was... I thought I saw something." - Claire

 

The biggest thing I remember from seeing What Lies Beneath years ago was how much Amber Valletta and Michelle Pfeiffer (were made to) look(ed) alike. To my surprise, there was no mention of this in the script. Claire, Pfeiffer's character, was never even described as blonde. The green versus blue eyes, however, certainly came into play. 

 

Honestly, I think What Lies Beneath worked even better on the page than it did in its final version. Reading it was like solving a mystery, and Gregg skillfully pointed out clues by underlining things I needed to notice. For example:

 

"As she passes the coat rack mirror, her computer can be seen booting up in its reflection."

"We can see in the mirror that her eyes are a DEEP GREEN."

 

Because these elements were things I was meant to notice, I found myself considering Claire to be a trustworthy protagonist. Even as she questioned her own sanity, I knew that there was something more going on. This was a very fast read for me, and I flew through the pages as I wanted to know what had actually happened. (Incidentally, the other reason I was so quick to believe Claire was because Cooper, the dog, also sensed a presence or that something was off. Including him was very smart.)

 

Part of the suspense in the script came courtesy of a  skillful series of misdirections and justifications. The sequence with Mrs. Feur, Caitlin leaving for school, and vague references to a horrible car accident that Claire had been in all pointed to other, perhaps more innocent, explanations. They were studied one at a time, and all had supporting evidence.

 

Most importantly, Claire trusted Norman. She wanted him to work with her to figure out what was going on. Their love seemed real, and this kept me from suspecting him too early or even being too far ahead of the script. Luckily I didn't really remember the plot from when I saw it, so reading it was almost like experiencing it for the first time. Before I suspected Norman, I got caught up in the car accident. I wondered whether Claire had accidentally killed Madison in her car crash. Therefore, for me, the "mind bending twist" of Norman being a murderous bastard still struck home.

 

Structure wise, two techniques Gregg utilized stood out. First, he buried his plants in the plot to avoid deus ex machina moments at the climax. For example, we, and Claire, are first introduced to the "yellow chemical" as Claire approaches Norman's lab:

 

Man's Voice (O.S.): It's a neuromuscular blocking agent. It immobilizes motor functions but leaves her conscious so we can monitor neural patterns on the EEG.

Young Woman's Voice (O.S.): So they can't move, but they know what's going on?

 

In addition to being told this, we see, with our own eyes, how it works on lab mice - and we discover that it only lasts three minutes. When Norman eventually drugs Claire with this chemical, we understand what it is and we know what to expect. But, because of the 76 pages separating the two, it doesn't feel like a plant. This technique was also used with the cell phone service, which was introduced on page 39:

 

Claire: Who are you calling?

Norman (punching a number into a cell phone): Restaurant. Let them know we're running late. 

Claire: You're not at the center of the bridge. There's so service until --

The phone flashes... "NO SERVICE."

Norman (overlapping): I know I'm not at the center of the bridge.

They near the far side of the bridge. Norman looks down at the cell phone, which now reads, "ROAM."

 

Since this is built into the action, it gives us the information we need in a way that feels normal. When the climax comes about, we understand why Claire has to leave the house to use the cell phone and exactly how far she needs to go to get service.

 

All in all, I thought What Lies Beneath was a very well written script. My only question comes from a transition:

 

"BLORPH INTO BATHROOM"

 

What's a BLORPH? Is it a typo? A blur/morph? We may never know.

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Writing for film, television, and the stage is, in my opinion, one of the most difficult - and most rewarding - art forms. The language needs to be visual and evocative as each script must achieve two important tasks...
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