Been a couple of months since I last did one of these. I could say that I was enjoying the spike in comments following my post office blogs, and tried to shift to topics of more general interest. Might even be true. But there’s another reason. Deep down, I was avoiding returning to this topic because I knew that it would mean talking about how a script managed to go from “this is the best thing I’ve done” to “this is too embarrassing to show people.”
So buckle up for the rise and fall of the Jade Monkey.
What’s it about?
Jordan Bleachley, a shy, awkward graphic designer for a local newspaper, is living a quiet life, typically alone in his office, until the night Maya Tarlington crashes into him. Maya’s a globe-trotting woman of mystery, roaming the world having adventures, and decides that as long as she’s here, she may as well insert herself into Jordan’s life. Soon he and his two closest friends, investigative reporter Travis Thompson and travel columnist Saisha Porter (also Jordan’s ex), are pulled into Maya’s latest adventure: finding both halves of the legendary Jade Monkey, said to make whoever wields it unstoppable, before would-be supervillain Helena von Drax beats them to it.
Yup. Soon the whole gang is tracking the second half of the monkey to Indonesia while Jordan and Maya try to figure out if a timid shut-in and a globe-trotting madwoman can make it work.
So why’d that happen?
I had a dream. A dream involving a… mildly sexual encounter with an exotic woman of mystery who my dream-friends immediately distrusted. Despite their misgivings, I decided to help her on her quest, attempting to find a better reason for this choice than “I saw her breasts the night we met and if I help her I might get to see them again or maybe even touch them.”
Now, I’d recently joined a writers’ circle led by the playwright-in-residence of one of the big professional theatre companies in town, and in this group I confirmed something I’d been afraid of: as of Knoll, I’d grown stagnant, leaning on dialogue riffs and wacky premises instead of properly developed characters and emotion. I decided that this dream, whose details stuck with me throughout my shift at whatever movie theatre I was working at that week (odds favour Westhills), would be the script where I started to push myself to inject some real passion into the love story.
The love story that still involved a wacky premise. And a meet-cute. And an intrepid reporter. And like four comic-relief characters written to be played by one actor.
I’d have probably been shocked, maybe a touch offended, if someone back then had implied that Jordan was based on me and Maya was the personification of my secret desire to be a) swept away and b) found interesting by an international woman of mystery. I know this because people implied characters were based on me all the time and I at least acted shocked and offended each instance, even when it was blatantly true. And in this case, I didn’t think Jordan was secretly me at all.
And yet it is demonstrably the case. Right as my marriage was beginning to crumble I suddenly write a script in which the lead character is a quiet, shy, shut-in who runs across a bold, inhumanly friendly woman of adventure, who sees how deep and creative he is behind his awkward exterior and decides that not only is he worth knowing but she’s also going to bang him? Merciful Zeus, the wish fulfillment is just dripping off this thing.
But maybe I missed it because I was so enamoured with Travis Thompson, a character I’d experimented with in writing classes because Trasmetropolitan’s Spider Jerusalem made Gonzo journalists on a crusade for the Truth look so damned cool, and I wanted to write one. And including Saisha gave Travis a romance plot of his own, because why wouldn’t the crusading journalist be just as useless as me at telling girls he likes them?
I included a role I called the Titanically Talented Bit-Player, who would play Helena’s faithful Manservant, Jordan’s editor, an informant named Jerry the Snitch, and Jacques the pilot, who flies the gang to Indonesia at the top of act two. This was inspired by the extras from Supervillain. I decided this play needed some minor, often single scene characters, so why not have them all played by one person, and why not make all of them just as entertaining as Supervillain’s delightfully bitter cocktail waiter?
As for Helena, and her trusty Manservant, this was my first attempt to write villains who were both funny and menacing. Because any villain out to reunite the halves of the Jade Monkey has to be a little silly, right?
How’d it turn out?
Oh man. Where to start.
In 2002, when it was first staged, I thought it was great. I’d pushed myself to add more depth and passion to the love story than I ever had before (not hard, I think my only successful romantic pairing by that point was Illuminati, and we all know what I think of that one), and I was proud of that. Thus, I thought it was good enough to take to the 2003 Edmonton Fringe Festival, despite the fact that most Fringe shows are 60-75 minutes and this one came in at two hours including intermission. But during the not very successful Fringe run, one of the cast put the idea of filming it as a movie in my head, and I started thinking of what I’d change to adapt it for film. And I began to see problems. So many problems. Because I had pushed myself into new territory… and the first time we try something, there are usually some kinks to be worked out. On that note.
The meet-cute is terrible, even for a meet-cute, and what’s worse it’s excruciatingly unmotivated. Second worst I’ve ever done, possibly, after Illuminati in Love. At the time of writing, I suspect I’d been influenced by a Kevin Smith blog from a series about the casting process on Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. In said entry, Kevin Smith talked about how the studio had put pressure on him to cast Heather Graham in the female lead, but she’d balked at the role because she didn’t understand why the character falls in love with Jay. Smith had trouble answering, because, as he put it, who knows why anyone falls in love with anyone? The only answer he could think of was “Why does her character fall in love with Austin fucking Powers?”
And thus did I decide I could use the same logic to skate by the question of why, exactly, a world-travelling treasure hunter could possibly decide to hook up with a graphic designer who barely leaves the office. But I couldn’t. Because, 11 years later, it stinks of the aforementioned wish fulfillment and I want to punch their flirty scenes in the face.
Flirty scenes which, by the way, are nowhere near as engaging as they needed to be. It takes this thing until the end of act one to get out of first gear. Right before the act break, everyone escapes a trap laid by Helena and leaps onto a plane to chase down the remaining half on the Jade Monkey. Right after the act break, Jordan and Maya sit on the the plane and exchange backstories for at least ten minutes. Once we had to cut the intermission for time at the Fringe, it became all too clear that this little narrative choice killed the show’s pace like an overly wordy pause button. Any momentum we’d gained was brutally murdered by exposition and monologues.
Wow. Four paragraphs and I’ve barely scratched the surface here… time for an “everything wrong with this script” speed round.
1) Nearly every scene that the villains appear in features Travis complaining about how stupid the plot is. Admitting the plot is lame doesn’t make it not that.
2) Speaking of Travis, I thought his angry-ranting-but-he-really-cares shtick was pretty good… until I saw Dr. Cox from Scrubs do it about 50 times better. I thought “Oh, that’s what I was going for,” and was sad.
3) Half of the Titanically Talented Bit Player characters serve no real purpose. Mitchell the editor provides details that get repeated, and Jacques is only necessary for the plane scene, which the play would be better off without.
4) The Titanically Talented Bit Player also breaks the fourth wall at least once, which is not something the rest of the play does, so it kind of sticks out.
5) “Travis most of the time” and “Travis crushing on Saisha” are like two different people. A switch flicks and he goes from bargain-basement Spider Jerusalem to stammering mess on a freaking dime.
6) I’ve written my share of quiet saps who end up in shenanigans, but Jordan has to be worst of them. And by worst, I mean least interesting to watch.
7) But at least I made sure to have a conversation between Saisha and Maya establish that Jordan’s great at sex. Because that was necessary, apparently.
8) “Tarlington” would be my least favourite last name I came up with for a character if I hadn’t also come up with “Bleachley.”
9) I wrote this thing and I have a hard time getting invested in anything that happens. What chance does anyone else have?
I will say this. I do kind of like the resolution of the jade monkey nonsense. In front of everybody, Helena reunites both halves of the monkey… and nothing happens. Because, as Jordan puts it, “It’s not modular. It’s broken.”
Because fuck every movie in which some ancient artifact was broken into pieces but can be magically reunited every five thousand years or when the planets align or whatever. Because really, honestly, who thinks like that. If you’re going to break something because it’s too dangerous, YOU LEAVE IT BROKEN.
Would you stage it again?
We staged this one twice. We went through no less than five Mayas over the two productions. The two people who directed it left theatre entirely afterwards. I used to think it was because the show was cursed. Now it’s because I think the script is shit.
Trying to think of how to rewrite the script into “Jade Monkey: the Movie,” I came up with so many flaws (as you’ve seen) that I decided there was only one solution: burn it to the ground and start over on a white piece of paper. Because I still liked the concept, just not the execution. Watch the skies… we’ll get to how that turned out.
But as for re-staging Jade Monkey, in short, no. No a thousand times over.
Repeated theme alert
- This was my first attempt at funny-yet-menacing villains. But not the last.
- “Man and woman cannot be friends.” Travis and Saisha spend the whole show crushing on each other, and Manservant’s got it bad for Helena. Which makes even less sense than Maya liking Jordan.
- Pop culture references: Why a Jade Monkey? Homer the Astronaut. The whole B-plot is born of a Simpsons reference, and its resolution is a near-verbatim recreation of my reaction to the climax of the first Tomb Raider movie.
- “Let’s swap backstories for fifteen minutes like that’s not pacing Kryptonite!” I was still doing that last year.
- The Quiet, Shy Protagonist The Ladies Still Unaccountably Love. Somebody shoot me.