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Friday, May 7, 2021

‘Chimera’: Writer Mark Hanlon Heads Back Out to Sea to Detail His Original Version of ‘Ghost Ship’ [Larval Ink]

Welcome to Larval Ink, a recurring feature which will take a look at the earliest iterations of certain genre films as they existed in their early scripting stage, long before the transformation which significantly changed the original vision into its final form for the silver screen. Here, we will be chatting with the writers of these initial eggs to gain their unique insights into their screenplays and the finished films they would eventually metamorphose into, and all the painful phases in between.

With this installment, we’ll be delving into Mark Hanlon’s Chimera, the screenplay which eventually became Dark Castle’s 2002 supernatural horror film Ghost Ship. Mr. Hanlon is on hand to chat about his original screenplay, its inspirations, the many changes made to his original story, and his thoughts on the film it eventually became.

“It was a spec script,” Mr. Hanlon begins, charting the genesis of the project. “It was something I was working on, off and on over the years, before I finally did something with it. It was right after I had made this film called Buddy Boy, which had just wrapped when I started work on what was Chimera. This was the late 90s, early 2000s. I ultimately ended up showing it to my agent, who sent it over to Warner Brothers. They expressed an interest in it. A few other companies did, too.

This was in its first round form, which was very different to what it ultimately became. It was more of a psychological thriller and a little bit internalized in its horror, rather than being more obvious and slasheresque. I guess it was interesting enough to Warner Brothers at the time for them to want to buy it. They thought that it would be a good option for Joel Silver’s Dark Castle label, which sort of focused on lower budget horror films in the ‘Castle’ genre, because you could say that [Dark Castle inspiration and celebrated horror filmmaker William Castle] had his own subgenre. So they kind of crafted it into that kind of genre form, which I didn’t have a whole lot to do with.

“I took my obligatory pass, which they probably just threw in the garbage and then started over again because they wanted it to be something completely different than what I originally envisioned.”

For those not familiar with Ghost Ship, a recap: opening with a gruesome sequence detailing the murders of numerous passengers and crew aboard a luxurious ocean liner in 1962, Ghost Ship then leaps forward to the present day, introducing us the salvage crew who will act as our heroes for the story: crewman Maureen Epps (Julianna Margulies), our heroine; Murphy (Gabriel Byrne), the salvage tug’s captain; and their fellow crew members Dodge (Ron Eldard), Greer (Isaiah Washington), Santos (Alex Dimitriades), and Munder (a very young Karl Urban).

In an early sequence that plays almost as an action setpiece, our crew patches up a large ship for salvage, towing it in for a large payday. After, the group hits a bar to celebrate when they’re approached by Ferriman (Desmond Harrington), a weather service pilot who has discovered a massive ship seemingly abandoned and adrift in international waters. Seeing a potentially massive reward in salvaging the huge ship, the crew heads back out into the water with Ferriman in tow. They soon discover that the ship they’ve found is the Antonia Graza, a legendary lost ship which had disappeared forty years prior. The supernatural elements start up a mere twenty minutes into the film, with a child’s toy that moves by itself and the appearance of a ghostly little girl named Katie (Emily Browning), seen only to Epps.

Not long after, the crew decides that the boat is rightfully theirs under maritime law and is absolutely worth the considerable effort to tow in. The crew then sets about exploring their new acquisition. Strange occurrences abound, with Epps discovering empty shell casings and spotting Katie once again just before the ship’s pool fills with blood and bodies. Meanwhile, the crew sets to repairing damage to the ship’s hull, as Greer discovers the ghost of Francesca, an Italian songstress previously seen entertaining passengers in the film’s opening sequence.

Julianna Margulies as Epps in ‘Ghost Ship’ (2002)

Before long, the crew discovers a hidden fortune aboard the ship: numerous crates full of gold. Just as the crew decides to take their newly-discovered treasure and ditch the ship, their tug explodes, killing Santos and stranding the others on the Antonia Graza. All manner of creepiness ensues, with Dodge and Munder finding themselves unwittingly eating maggots, Greer being seduced by Francesca and led to his death, and recovering alcoholic Murphy sharing a drink with the Graza’s ghostly captain.

Katie then shows Epps the truth of the ship’s haunting: in 1962, the passengers of the Graza were all murdered by a small band wanting the gold on board for themselves. The killers then turned on one another until none remained, all manipulated by…Ferriman, appearing to be the same age four decades prior. He’s revealed to be a soul salvager, a demonic collector of souls. Once a certain amount of souls are collected and marked with his symbol, Ferriman is able to send them on to his “management”. Being just shy of his quota and contending with a sinking vessel, Ferriman had elected to lure Epps’ crew aboard to repair his ship and began picking them off after they’d outlived their usefulness.

Murphy is drowned in an aquarium, Munder is chewed up in the ship’s gears, and Dodge is murdered offscreen by Ferriman, who briefly assumes his appearance before attacking Epps. A battle ensues between the two, with Epps destroying both Ferriman and the Graza with explosives before narrowly escaping the wreckage. Epps watches the freed souls depart the ship in a large display of swirling light and ascending ghosts as the burning wreckage is borne below to the ocean depths.

The final scene sees Epps loaded into an ambulance on the mainland. She catches a glimpse of the gold being carted onto another ship, with Ferriman dutifully following after it. Epps screams out in horror as the film cuts to black.

So was Mr. Hanlon ever offered an opportunity to rewrite his original draft? “Oh yeah. I mean, that’s pretty common. Often agents will negotiate as part of the sale that you get first crack at a rewrite. I guess the direction that they wanted to go with … it was so radically different from where I wanted to go with it, and I was still pretty much sticking to my guns on that. So I rewrote it, taking into account some of the suggestions that were offered to me by the studio, but really still sticking with the psychological elements and not kind of jumping too far into that William Castle world that they really wanted to go to.

“So the rewrites that I submitted were satisfactory, but it wasn’t what they wanted. So then they brought in a couple of other writers. Chris McQuarrie [The Usual Suspects, The Way of the Gun] was going to do a pass, and he was going to direct it. Then, for whatever reason, he jumped out. I think it was another commitment.”

Wait, Chris McQuarrie of eventual Jack Reacher and Mission: Impossible fame was involved? Did he do any work on the film? “He directed the rewrite a little bit, but he was off the picture even before I was done with the rewrite. We had a bunch of meetings with some Warner Brothers executives. I think Jeff Robinov was there at the time, and he and McQuarrie were good buddies. So I think maybe Robinov brought him on. I had some long conversations with Chris about kind of the direction he was interested in taking. I’m not sure that he was so thrilled either, frankly, with where Warner Brothers wanted to go with the film at the time. So that was that. I think it was really less of a creative difference related to his departure than it was that he had a scheduling issue that couldn’t be worked around.”

Desmond Harrington as Ferriman in ‘Ghost Ship’ (2002)

After McQuarrie’s departure, another writer named John Pogue was brought onto the project. Pogue, who had worked on such films as U.S. Marshalls and The Skulls, is listed on the finished film as its co-writer, with Mr. Hanlon given both a co-writer credit and the film’s sole “Story by” credit. “He stuck with it into production. He did a production rewrite down in Australia, and I had nothing to do with any of that. I was out of the picture by then. They were off and running.”

Surely Mr. Hanlon must have been disappointed that the resulting film bore little resemblance to the movie he’d initially intended to make, but what about the other collaborators involved? Were they expecting to make Chimera, or Ghost Ship? “I kind of feel sorry for Julianna Margulies in that. I’m not telling you anything that’s top secret or anything, because I’ve heard her say this before. She told me at the premiere party that they all got down there thinking that they had signed up for the film that was based on my draft. When they realized what they had, they were a little shocked. And, I got the sense, a little disappointed to discover that it was what it became. You know, take that or leave it for what it is. The movie is what it is. It’s different, and a lot of people seem to like it, but it’s not really what I envisioned for it. But you can’t really deny what people like.”

So what was Chimera exactly, and how wildly does it differ from Ghost Ship? Opening with a sequence that resembles the second scene in the finished film, we meet our heroes as they are dragging in a salvaged ship to make a meager payday. Here, we have a considerably smaller group of characters populating the salvage vessel Arctic Warrior, consisting of: Epps, described as a crewman in her late 20s; Dodge, the scruffy chief engineer; Greer, the first mate; and Murphy, the ship’s master. Personality-wise, the group is pretty much the characters who made it onto the screen. The script allows us to spend some time with them before the plot kicks into gear, painting them as a believably blue collar crew. An early bar fight sequence illustrates how tight knit and protective they are of one another.

Heading back out into the sea, the crew discovers the massive titular passenger ship adrift. Murphy and Epps board and scour the boat, finding it empty and having likely been out of service for decades. Realizing that the salvage fees on a vessel of Chimera’s size could bring in millions, Murphy proposes to his crew that they undertake the unlikely task of towing the huge ship into harbor, with the reward being that they’ll split the money four ways.

Gabriel Byrne as Murphy in ‘Ghost Ship’ (2002)

Not long after the crew affixes tow cables and begins to pull the ship forward, the tug throws a turbine blade, stranding the smaller boat for days. The group then surveys the ship, with Murphy perusing the crew manifest and discovering that the Chimera’s last voyage was in January of 1953. Dodge voices his concern with how “freaky” it is that they’ve come across a vessel lost at sea five decades prior, while the more practical Murphy, Epps and Greer insist on fixing the tug and bringing home their money.

While exploring the Chimera, Epps discovers a cargo hold containing a 1951 Ferrari sportster…and fifty million dollars worth of gold ingots. Realizing that they’ll still need the ship to prove the salvage and lay claim to their treasure, the crew continues to repair the Chimera for its upcoming journey. Unfortunately, an oil fire on their tug effectively strands the group aboard the Chimera until their own boat can be repaired.

Later on, Epps catches sight a shadowy male figure on board the Chimera who promptly disappears. When she reports this to her fellow crew members, a debate rages over whether or not this hidden passenger may have any claim to the gold. Dodge suggests killing them if so, to preserve their shares of the treasure. Murphy resists this, but insists on standing watch to protect the gold while the others remain on board the Arctic Warrior while trying to repair it.

Epps is the first up, armed with a shotgun to protect herself and the gold. That night, while investigating a strange booming sound aboard the ship, Epps makes a horrific discovery: a number of dead bodies impaled on bent steam pipes within the Chimera’s engine room, determined by our heroes to be fresh enough to have only died a month or so prior.

Dodge redoubles his efforts to repair the Arctic Warrior, sending Greer off into the Chimera to find a spare compressor. Meanwhile, Murphy discovers the ship’s call log in its radio room, using it to chart the Chimera’s strange history. In the log, he sees that the ship’s captain had been relieved of command back in ’53. Just after, he discovers the ship’s SOS and a handwritten message scrawled onto the log reading: “GOD SAVE US”. Soon after, Greer is discovered having a seizure, spouting words in an unintelligible language. As the strange events aboard the ship escalate, divisions form within the crew over how to handle their situation and secure their shares of the gold.

Greer eventually comes to, while Epps and Murphy discover the ship’s log. Within it, they discover an entry penned on the same day the ship was meant to have gone down. It reads: “The crew have gone mad with greed and fight among themselves like wild dogs over fresh kill”.

Isaiah Washington as Greer in ‘Ghost Ship’ (2002)

A turbine then blows on the Arctic Warrior, sinking the tug and stranding its crew aboard the Chimera indefinitely. Greer turns on Dodge, accusing him of sabotage. Tensions boil amongst the group, all as the screenplay introduces its major supernatural element: Katie, here the ghost of a sixteen year old girl. As in the finished film, she appears only to Epps, warning her that she and her crew must leave, as there’s a “great evil” on board the Chimera. Epps then sees a vision of the ship’s swimming pool filling with blood and bodies. Murphy arrives, just as the vision vanishes. Epps confides in Murphy, describing what she’s seen, but admitting that it may not be real.

Elsewhere on the ship, Dodge is attacked by an unseen assailant and is later discovered to be impaled on a steam pipe, just as with the previously discovered bodies. Greer loses it again, spouting gibberish while attacking Epps in a sequence that surely inspired the Epps vs. Murphy battle seen in the finished film. Murphy joins the fight, helping to knock Greer unconscious. They drop his body into an empty aquarium tank to act as a makeshift cell. Murphy notes that it must have been Greer all along who sabotaged the tug, destroyed Chimera’s radio and killed Dodge.

Epps and Murphy then set about finding materials to build a raft to escape the Chimera. While searching the ship, Epps walks into a living memory, revealing Katie and her family when they were still amongst the living. Here, Epps sees the events that led to the killings aboard the Chimera, seeing the ship’s mutiny play out before her. In a truly disturbing sequence, a group of mutineers are shown raping Katie in front of her father before she’s murdered with an axe. The ghostly Katie appears again to Epps, warning her to not “allow the evil inside”, and that she must leave the ship.

The Chimera hits land, while Murphy informs Epps that Greer has escaped the aquarium. They discover Greer’s body, dead from a gunshot. When Epps discovers Greer’s shotgun inside Murphy’s duffel bag, he admits to killing both Dodge and Greer. “It was only a matter of time before somebody killed somebody,” he tells her, and that Dodge and Greer were making their own plays for the gold before Greer went crazy and Murphy had to take matters into his own hands.

Realizing that Murphy intends to kill her as well, Epps pleads with her captain to realize the truth of the ship – that the gold never leaves with anyone. Nobody gets the treasure, it’s just the bait the ship uses to suck in its victims. Murphy dismisses this as “supernatural mumbo jumbo,” that “there’s nothing supernatural about greed.”

Just as Murphy is about to execute Epps, the Chimera hits another island. The concussion proves to be enough of a distraction for Epps to escape. A cat-and-mouse chase ensues between the two. The ship goes down, taking Murphy with it. Epps follows Katie to safety, then watches the Chimera sink. The final moment ends the tale on a wonderfully ambiguous note, revealing that there is no sinking ship to be seen beneath the surface of the water. “There is no ship at all, only the vast empty depths of the ocean.”

“Just the idea of a big, scary ship is in and of itself pretty fascinating to me,” Mr. Hanlon notes, discussing the inspirations for his screenplay. “Something that is kind of moving on the ocean and had a life of its own. That was the sort of fascinating, seminal idea for it. Then, you know, I’m just a big fan of psychological thrillers. Or horror, if you’d like to go that far. So it just seemed like a natural fit, a natural pairing. Big ships are cool, and big empty ships that have been abandoned on the ocean are even more cool, and the psychological component of that was even more irresistible. The idea of a ghost ship, you just can’t beat it in Hollywood, and it hadn’t been done for a while. I think that was why it got picked up so quickly.”

The screenplay features a smaller crew than the film, with only four characters. No Santos or Munder along for the ride. Even though the script feels like its has a large scale at times, it’s also quite a contained story. It’s a blockbuster and a stage play, all at once. “You know what, I think that’s more a function of my own kind of limitations as a studio writer, because I wasn’t thinking in a broader way of huge visuals and huge set pieces. I was thinking in terms of more internalized psychological drama and visuals that could accompany that drama, but more in the context of something that was potent more in and of itself, less than as a result of its scale.”

It’s also worth pointing out that Chimera has no supernatural antagonist manipulating our heroes, as Ferriman did in the eventual film. Here, it’s simply the presence of the gold that gets our characters to turn on one another. It allows the tale to act as a bit more of a morality play. “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is kind of the same idea,” Mr. Hanlon admits. “I guess [Sam Raimi’s 1998 thriller] A Simple Plan is maybe a more complex variation on that. You know, I wasn’t really trying to explore the nature of human greed and avarice, I just needed something to pit them all against each other and create a kind of scary, paranoid dynamic, and that seemed to be the best option.”

The presence of the supernatural is quite muted in the script, as opposed to the overtly otherworldly Ghost Ship. One can even imagine, given that the ghostly visions are seen only by Epps, that the story’s supernatural elements are all figments of her strained and stressed mind. “I think that that’s a good interpretation, and that’s one that I would tend to agree with. I think that it was all mental, it was all a mental game. They took that in the rewriting of it and they ran with it. They said, ‘Yeah, well, we are going to go full-on supernatural with it.’ And, you know, it works for what they intended to do, but that really wasn’t where I was going with it. I was really trying to keep [the supernatural elements] part of the psychological dynamic.”

Emily Browning as Katie in ‘Ghost Ship’ (2002)

In Ghost Ship, the ocean liner is the Antonia Graza. In the original screenplay, whose title shares the name of the story’s big vessel, the ship is named Chimera. Did Mr. Hanlon intend to evoke Greek mythology when he chose this particular title? “Yeah, I did attempt to play into a Greek myth. You could maybe draw parallels to the Greek sailors and then the name of the ship. It’s sort of a half-monster. Obviously, it didn’t go too far there, but that was for sure an element of it, kind of coloring of the thematic elements of the story. Ultimately, all of that totally went out the window. So there’s none of that in the final film.”

With the ending of the film, there seems to be a definitive conclusion for the ship. In the screenplay, things are a little less clear. One can almost imagine the Chimera just popping back up elsewhere for another group of hapless sailors to run afoul of it. As a result, one wonders if the script was written with an eye toward the possibility of a sequel. “I saw it as kind of a one-off,” Mr. Hanlon says. “I did see the ship sort of sinking into the watery depths. But also, it being a potentially non-existent thing, an element of the mind that could appear again for sure for another group of sailors on the sea.”

So given the major differences between Mr. Hanlon’s original vision and what ultimately made it to the screen, one could forgive the writer if he’d never bothered to view the film. Nevertheless, he reveals that he watched the film straight away back in 2002. “I saw it when it first came out. They had this awesome party on top of the W Hotel in Los Angeles. There’s a music video associated with the film, so they projected that onto the building across the way. It was like a classic Hollywood junket. Really hilarious, and a wonderful kind of thing to experience, but it wasn’t what I signed up for myself when I opted to become a filmmaker. It wasn’t like I wanted to make MTV horror movies.

“So anyway, that was the experience. It was kind of a surprise to me. I think it’s the kind of movie that Joel Silver wanted to make, but it sure wasn’t what I’d wanted to make.”

It must have been a shock for the writer, seeing this radically different version of his original screenplay. “I was braced for it, but I’m pretty sure that anybody who creates something from the ground up … it’s still a little shocking to the see how another filmmaker interprets it. And for me, you know, I’d written it to direct it. It was going to be my second feature. They saw me as a kind of independent filmmaker, and they didn’t really want to trust $32 million to an independent filmmaker. They wanted to go with higher profile directors, like Chris. They wound up going with Steve Beck because he’d done Thirteen Ghosts before that, which is another Dark Castle production through Joel Silver’s company. So he was a known quantity.”

All these years later, this writer wonders if Mr. Hanlon’s original screenplay might possibly be revisited so that a more faithful adaptation could be made. “I don’t know how likely it is, but I would love to be able to actually shoot it the way I wrote it. I kind of feel like, if I had directed it the way it was written, it could have crossed over to so many different audiences and maybe actually have been more successful.

“It wasn’t a super successful film, but over time it’s sustained itself fairly well. So they may actually be considering something like that. I’ve not heard of it. People ask me that question often, so I don’t think it would be unreasonable to think that at some point Warner Brothers might consider remaking it or doing a sequel, but I really kind of doubt that there would be that much of an appetite for Warner Brothers to make it as it was written the first time. I feel like they’ve already done it, and they’re not going to go there again.”

In closing out our conversation, Mr. Hanlon offers his final thoughts on Chimera and the film it ultimately became. “Overall, I think it’s great that there is a fairly substantial, loyal audience to it. I love the fact that there are groups who write their own fiction based on the characters and some of the scenarios. It’s just a wonderful thing. Like I said, it wasn’t the film that I wanted to make, but it became a film that was appreciated by a large number of people For that, I’m grateful. I’m grateful to them for appreciating it in that way.”

Very special thanks to Mark Hanlon for his time and insights.


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