Adapting 'Blood Meridian'

Many have tried and failed, but maybe I can.

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Jul 6 2014, 5:48am

I have always dreamed of adapting Cormac McCarthy’s great novel into film. Many have tried and failed. There were discarded screenplays from dead adaptation attempts scattered about Los Angeles even back when I was an up-and-coming actor.

Tommy Lee Jones came closest to making it, I think. He was a close friend of McCarthy’s – maybe because of his attempt at making this very project – and later would act in a McCarthy film, the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men. He also directed a strange but valiantly attempted TV movie based on McCarthy’s two-character play called The Sunset Limited. It was just too hard to make the film feel dynamic with all that dialogue. One thing about McCarthy is his great descriptions of nature, and in this play, all that energy is infused into the dialogue – the dialogue has to carry the weight that the description in books like Blood Meridian does. Maybe it would work on stage – I think the Steppenwolf Theatre Company put it on decades before. That sounds interesting.

I was cast opposite Tommy Lee Jones for two days in a great but little-seen film by Paul Haggis shot in New Mexico about violent Iraq war veterans. I spent a lunch with Tommy, along with the other young actors, some with no professional experience because they had been hired for their military experience – one had actually killed in Afghanistan. He showed us a picture of a mangled pile of flesh and clothing that had – five minutes before the picture was taken – been a man. Over lunch, Tommy told us that he would, the next day, go visit Cormac at his house in Santa Fe.

When I asked him about his attempts to make Blood Meridian, Tommy said that ultimately he couldn’t make the movie because it was too violent. “I was going to make it just like the book,” he said, “but studios get a little scared when a black guy cuts off a white guy’s head and the shooting jets of blood douse the fire. I wasn’t going to cut it back.”

In fact, Tommy’s script wasn’t just like the book because it was only the first third or so. But of all the scripts – the later one by Monahan, Oscar-winning writer of The Departed – Tommy’s was the most loyal. He also said that he had talked to Nicholson about playing the Judge. I see the Judge as Marlon Brando circa Apocalypse Now. But if you could take Brando’s Kurtz character and throw in Nicholson’s smile, then yes, baby.

I dreamed about adapting that film, never thinking that it would happen. If Tommy Lee Jones couldn’t do it and Ridley Scott couldn’t do it – Scorsese and Oliver Stone were even rumored to have attempted it – how could I? But maybe those guys were making it too big. I had recently made a film about the poet Hart Crane, who lived in New York in the 1920s. He went to Paris, Mexico, and Cuba, and we shot it all for less than half a million. So why couldn’t I do Blood Meridian for a good price and keep it bloody as hell? I also saw that the great director and former actor Todd Field (In the Bedroom, Little Children) had recently been attached and then pulled out of Blood , and then by coincidence had been talking to Andrew Dominik about another McCarthy, Cities of the Plain, the third in the Border Trilogy.

Dominik came to visit me in Utah when I was shooting 127 Hours. He witnessed the arm-cutting scene, and then had a chat with me in my trailer. “Weird playing pain, isn’t it?” I said that it was. He wanted me to do Cities of the Plain. As much as I loved McCarthy, Dominik’s film Chopper, and much of The Assassination of Jesse James, the prospect didn’t have the right glow about it.

Dominik continued to court me, and one time during the long courtship I was outside the Columbia University library, late at night, on a break from studying, and he mentioned that he too had once pursued Blood. He said he liked that the characters were basically apes out on the plain, and then everything would be punctured by the dark eloquence of the Judge.

I said that the Judge would be a tricky thing to do in a film, because he was basically Satan but couldn’t be played as Satan. Some of the Judge’s speeches were not exactly realistic, at least not for a film – like how a film version of some of Ahab’s speeches in Moby-Dick, if done as they are in the book, would seem highfalutin. But that’s when I realised that Blood was just sitting there to be adapted. All I had to do was persuade the producer with the rights (who, for now, will go unnamed) to let me adapt it.

I shot a test on my own dime (or on my agent’s dime – she, out of her belief in me, gave me her commission from 127 Hours to fund the test) in order to convince the producer that I could make the film where Ridley Scott, Tommy Lee Jones, and everyone else couldn’t. We shot the sequence where Tobin relates the first time they met the Judge, out on the range, running from Apaches and out of ammunition. We had Scott Glenn as Tobin, my old acting teacher, Mark Pellegrino, as the Judge (in a bald cap), and even Luke Perry from 90210 – he was great in the silent moments. Our test was awesome and I got permission to do the adaptation.

It was a dream come true, but, for various reasons, it fell apart. The unnamed producer got mad at me and took the rights back, so, bam, that’s it. I don’t get to do it. I did another McCarthy adaptation based on his slim but great third book, Child of God, about a necrophiliac – one of my running themes.

As time went by, I realised that McCarthy took much of his material for Blood from other sources – mainly an actual 19th century memoir called My Confession, by a guy named Samuel Chamberlain. Chamberlain participated in the Civil War and even rode with the actual Glanton gang depicted in Blood. There was even a character like the Judge – Aatall man with alopecia who propounded on nature and history. I think My Confession is a future film for me.

In the meantime, I thought I would go through a little of Blood Meridian and rewrite it to see what’s in a word and what’s in a story.

Click through to read James Franco’s alternate draft of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Introduce the Kid. He is lean and mean. He is sitting by a stove, stoking it. His father is there. He is poor. His wife died long before, at the child’s birth, this is what was exchanged for that: a lean, illiterate runt, 14 years of age, for the woman who had chosen to track through this delirious world of waste with him, only to leave him for the blackness after first bequeathing him with a daughter – off wandering the world, and dying in it, never to be seen by father or brother again, swallowed like a morsel in the maw of earth – and this son, her death knell and her successor. They speak nothing of this, ever, and he, the son, is nothing of her, instead he is a silent, brooding, knuckle of flesh and violence, a killer birthed on the scorched earth to fulfill its destiny.

The stars fell that year. We talk of 1933.  A recorded falling of stars, like Lucifer and his minions outcast and damned, except that this is the new domain of their damnation, a planet inhabited by man in dubious battle with his own kind and self, a race who would use its superiority over the other creatures of this earth to but build engines of its own destruction.

The father is a teacher, although his family is of the Tennessee logging tradition, something rough and hard, men and women living on the essentials of the new Eden, harborers of small traditions of humor and song – but mostly beaten down like proud flags in the dust, white folk ground into nothing, and bitter for it. He, the father, ground into dust by the grain alcohol that he spends his dwindling hours consuming while quoting from the poets, whose names and words are lost on the boy and forgotten as the natural power of the earth arises before him like a lord and master.

This is no country for old men. And aged man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick. My soul is fastened to a dying animal and it knows not what it is; gather me into the artifice of eternity.

It’s a long, hard road and soon the son makes for new parts, the father not much of a memory, certainly not any vestige of emotion, a vessel and ragged instrument that made one final gesture, hardly, of the human imperative of passing something on, but only passing on the flesh. And the deep-seated hate, which was the animus and the vessel, the child, who passed on. See him on the road. He walks into a single sunset that is all sunsets on this trek unto darkness, for be sure – there will be darkness and there will be heat. The blood will serve as the mixture and there will be scalding. The men in the fields work and are dark silhouettes in the background screen of his life story.  It is darkness and the work continues in the sightlessness, with beasts and hackings. The boy moves on, he is walking into manhood, and engagement with the ambulation of the world of importance, read: conflict and power.

Glimpses of the boy in the old days of St. Louis before he is taken by ship to New Orleans, down the great river, old grandfather, for over 40 days, until he is amongst the great old pirate city, and, a regular, inducted in the mix-cultural soup of derangement, swilled liquor and prostitution.

He boards above a tavern and a square, where, for whatever reason, he descends from and faces of with the transitory sailors who challenge him. He is still a boy, but we are not allowed to see him clearly. He is a kid, but also a kind of killer, a creature trained to lock with others in bouts of fist, knife, and otherwise; pressing their faces down into the suffocating mud, he is champion and satisfied. He fights and for no reason.

In a bar he is pressed by the pistol muzzle of a Maltese sailor, no reason need be given, and shot through his back. He turns on his attacker and pierced by a second ball below his heart and bleeds away half of his life while comprehending nothing, heavy breathing on the floor.

That tavern he lived above? The wife of the tavern master takes him on, after he wandered through the streets holding in the precious serum of his own blood. She spends her mornings on her family and the days on him, extracting the metal from his ribs and then cleaning and tending his wounds, making one extra plate per day, gumbo and rice, and sometimes a little sauce; and in the evenings he takes away the pan and disposes of it in the sewer. When he sweats, she mops his brow. When his strength allows he rises in the night and hunches to the river and, four hours later, at sunrise, he is taken on by a boat that is bound to Texas.

Aboard are the cretins found in myths of caves, men cast out from civilised circles, the ones who fled from the light of the fires when that was the center of life, the men with wayward eyes when women and children are about, and lowered glances amongst men, in order to disguise their deep imbedded intentions, the actions that have marked their eyes from the inside. And he is among them, and of them; his father and the songs he sung, and whatever decency and order they could weave, are lost and faded under layers of time and distance, the boy is now the man, that was planted in the howling and restless nexus of his spirit, fertilised by the drift of his life. And the country he rounded, on the rough and robust sea, an old companion to the coast, nuzzled in his shape, canines, of different colour and make, but cohorts nonetheless, was still young, and roughhewn, an open theater where men of his untested temper could roam and cut themselves on it, and allow it to cut them. Scars and molding on both sides.

In the port of his landing the earth had dried so dust was of the temper, it was about men and inside men, creating them, wisening them into beings like the old trees banished to this land from paradise and sucked of their verdure, a land of craggy beings, sentient and insentient, and even then, knowing – knowing and no telling.

He is amongst men and built dwellings once again, and from labor, organized and executed in the tacit understandings of men and women just trying to comport themselves thorough this vale, clean and unmolested, and trusting this wayward beast for the few days and efforts. He wanders. In each town the tacit mold has been stamped on the order, so that in the dark night wanderings, the cries of the whores becomes familiar, as if they were creatures not bred of such societies, but extorted from the ground in one great rising of damned souls, pleading for his succor.

There is a hanged man, one who killed the father, the father rightfully killed for his ignorance and bequeathing of ignorance to the animal that would learn the one lesson that would kill them both, and the minute battle that was waged ended and choked in the dust as the hanged man’s friends fall in to pull his legs as he dangles, helping the passage to the blackness at the end of an ill-dropped rope, he pants are soiled and then they cut him down.

See the portraits: he, in a sawmill, sweat amongst the chips and dust, he works in a diphtheria pesthouse, what this is and what he does, not even he is aware, but he is silent and gets money. Along the way he obtains a mule after working the yard for an old man. This is his life, an aimless piece of energy rounding an unseen beacon. The mule he takes into the land of Fredonia, and centers on the town of Nacogdoches. He is 16.

The Reverend Green has pitched a tent amidst the rain that falls like a solid sheet, and his preaching has drawn crowd in amongst themselves, the tent interior so hot groups brave the rain for periods before pulling back in through the wet flaps and the preaching, a gathering of the spiritual amongst the outlands, civilisation and god, tripping lightly after the vanguards where white men have infiltrated the broken consortiums the peoples of the Americas. Here is the man with the cross abreast the backs of the men with the guns and the swords. The kid stood at the back.

My people, said the Reverend at the front, I could not keep away, this being my place, my place, my home, which is amongst the people, and what do we call hell? Hell is among us if it is among us, but I am home when I am amongst my people, where my people go is my house and my home. And I will brave hell, and round out hell, for these people are my home.

Next to the kid, a man with heavy mustache leans over and breathes down thick breath on him, he is as weathered as the rest, the kid included, sogged with rain, the hat brim hung, and the crown stove.

What a land for rain. And his eyes expectant.

Yeah. The kid, but for his lack of arms, is amongst the outlaws akin to his own self.

In from the rain, a flap of the tent’s membrane is pushed through, steam rising from his shoulders and head – a man, large, a giant. Removing his hat in the dim light he reveals his head, round and hairless as marble, carved long ago, his lips also free of hair, his eyebrows and lids hairless. He resets his hat and mounts the stage. His face is placid and content like a child’s, the hint of a smile, his hands, a child’s hands.

This man before you is an imposter. He is neither who he claims nor does he represent the institution he poses in front of. He quotes a few lines learned from campfires of the damned, and repeats them across these open lands in order to take in unsettle people such as yourselves. He is wanted in Mississippi, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

This man is the imposter, he but claims I own his own guilt. He turned his head into his bible and began reading as quick as he could while the bald giant continued.

His crimes are but the worst exposed by man, but doubly so when they are perpetrated by a man posing of the cloth: a child of 11, one sired by those taken in by his spiels across the states, he was discovered with such lamb en flagrante, in the very robes you see across his back now.

The crowd was audible. Women’s voice rising above the deep grunts of the men.

I’ll kill that son of bitch, from one side of the tent.

This man is the devil. See him before you. He stands Satan.

There was a twinkle of a smile on the great man’s face. The crowd began to move like water, or a unified beast and the shouts became distinct and independent. One woman was seen to collapse to her knees.

Sodom. Sodom. Was heard from the crowd, and in the same area a man unholstered his gun and shot the Reverend Green in the chest. The mustachioed man unbuckled his knife and cut upwards a hole in the tent and pulled the kid through after him, they moved across the rain-pelted road, behind them the tent exploded inward from shots and cries, other expellees pushed through holes as the whole thing began to move like an animal, desperate, until it finally crumbled on one side and then the other, an elephant brought to its knees.

The man with the bald egghead was at the bar when they entered. He had a drink before him and two finger-lengths of coins by his arm. The kid and the mustache man moved behind him and down the bar. The bar is tall, built for a land of giants, but the bald man meets it with ease, leaning over it and planting himself in half poise.

When the kid pushed forward coin to the bartender it was pushed back.

This is on the judge, yonder.

The bald man didn’t look over, but the tooth in his back mouth revealed itself.

Just then a crowd from the tent entered, mud-caked and bloodied, like creatures from the bog. They had organized a posse to relinquish the false preacher.

Judge, how did you know of him?

Who?

The Preacher Green, when was you last at Fort Smith?

Fort Smith, you say?

Yes, such perpetrations of the preacher, he was last seen at Fort Smith, before this, when did all this come down? When was he met before this?

I’ve never seen that man in my life.

But…

There is a silence among the men and the room, and then laughter arose from one, then two, and then the group. All and the judge were laughing and it filled the room with a clapping exaggeration, like barkings of seals out from mustached portals full of blackened teeth.

(Things happen. He meets Toadvine, a man without ears, as they were cut from his head. He does other things. Then meets up with Captain White and goes hunting for Apaches. After days of traveling in the desert the company finally has their showdown.)

They are on the plain, far to the south there is something. The captain stops the troop with a raised hand and pulls a collapsible glass from his saddle bag, there is a small rupture in the surface of the horizon, but far, so that it looks like smudged haze, just on the surface of the earth. He hands the glass to the sergeant.

Looks like cattle, he says.

It’s not buffalo.

Bring Candelario up here.

The Mexican comes to the front of the line and the sergeant hands him the glass, then he lowers it and looks with his naked eye.

They not buffalo.

We know, horses most likely.

Si.

The captain takes back the glass and collapses it, then motions and they move forward.

The herd comes into focus, a motley of horses, mules, and cattle, running with a handful of riders at the edges, Indians, ragged on small ponies and others with hats, possibly Mexicans. The captain hands the sergeant the glass again.

What do you reckon?

Horsetheives?

So do I. Think they’ve see us.

Yes, they’ve seen us.

They don’t seem concerned.

Nope.

Well, we might have a bit of fun this day.

As the head of the heard passed the company stands by, first a raw bevy of mismatched cattle, long and twisted horns, no two of the same color or size, and amongst them black coated mules with their dumb anvil heads, lifted above the dustcloud mass, forward moving and of the crowd, working their lot, and then the vanguard of the riders is there, parallel to the mass of ponies, hundreds in breadth, thin and muscular, of the plains, dried and mean; the riders, when abreast the company, peel back to the back of the stampeding beasts.

The captain is up and down the collection of his company pointing at the flanking riders and yelling above the pounding of hooves. There, on the sides of the ponies were the passing collage of markings, drawn up from ancient stores of symbols, fish, and antelope, forked spears, black points, idealized forms that rose from the dust and endured and fell by the hands of man, ancient, regressive, and wild, a civilization based on the essential, passing in zoetropic motion, when amidst the thunderous rumbling round and round, annular systems, the piecing and very straight sound of the quena, the sharp familiar of the pipe made from men’s bones, high and shrill.

From the back of the heard emerges a host of warriors, hundreds strong, riding the waves of dust, some of the riders popping up from suicide positions, revealing their numbers at the last minute, the legendary death bands, horrible, their shields bedecked with shards of mirror, clasping and refracting millions of shards of light into the eyes of the onlookers bestride their hoof-shifting horses.

They, the animals aware of the superior threat bearing down in a nightmare swoop; on the demons, at first unified and riding the sounds of the routing flute pitch, painted faces like fairground horrors, and voodoo grandfathers, skulls of white and black slashes, bold and thick, projecting perennial grins of death; lank bodies of muscles, begird in nothing at all beneath the thick and wild skins of various beasts, tanned and flapping, condoning the stripped beasthood upon the new wearers, and on some the scrapings of the kills of whites and Mexicans: fun house jewelry, decadent and sun dazzling, uniforms of cavalry, braided but torn and worn open and rebellious, bedecked with feathers and twisted braids of hair, both human and animal, and black nuggets that would be skin, ears, and noses, curled and shrunken in the days of sun without relent, and flowing like haunting wraiths on the hosts of greater demons, wisps of white and colored cloth stripped from dresses and undergarments, a full wedding veil, streaked with blood like a prop from a night of virginal horror, and one in a top hat like the nightmare spoof of a doctor come to call, and a pair on one side bareback abreast two black beasts, they calico companions: one bare-assed in white stockings, the other in a white dress raised above his knees, their black hair trailing off behind in ropy tails, like pythons, two sisters of death, animal and man connected and driven; a whole race emerged from the dry cauldron of the earth, where the heat and cracked earth fostered demons, and the rolling-eyed, slack-mouthed madness of fighters were the animal norm, and meat was planted on the earth to be torn from beasts and beings and torn by sharp teeth.

Lord, help us, says the sergeant.

The horde lets loose a cloud of arrows that pass through the company, men pause and then drop from their horses, the mounts trip about and fall forward or sit on their haunches, arrows like matador piercings sticking from their bare sides and faces, the men fire but too soon – the dust of panicking beasts is about them, blinding and encompassing, as if the raised elements were functions of the savages, now howling and whipping their hair about, they ride on the falling company with lances, and gallop over the shrieking faces of the white men; the Kid’s horse sinks down like a deflated balloon figure and he leaps from the doomed beast, all around him men shriek and try to reload their pistols and rifles amidst the cutting feet of horses and the reaching hands that would on horseback pull men to their feet and scalp them standing and drop them like denuded offal, the Kid’s own rifle is expended and he can’t make amidst the rounding to reload.

A confused horse comes within the swirling cries of dust and kicks and bites at him like a dog, the other men mad and confused, in efforts to retreat or just exercise the last agency they would have on this earth, staggering about and walking into the exterminating points of their foes who felled them like paper targets on a range.

And then the warriors dismount, leaping from their mounts midstride, and taking up the momentum in barefooted beelines they race toward the staggering cavalrymen and rip their knives about throats like can openers, or stick and up thrust bellies so that intestines are twisted into each other into impossibly tangled bunches of cut seaweed falling in lumps on the wrong side of the epidermal walls, some men pulling their wasted guts back inside only to be yanked into kneeling backbends and have a knife worked around their crowns in bloody excavations of their heads, blessed and tonsured to the skull bone. Ambling about, dead on their feet but for the bleeding out; the screeching, grounded Apaches whirl about the fallen whitemen and cherry-pick their victims, taking scalps from the living and dead, cutting noses, lips, ears, and genitals from the living and dead.

One man, already scalped watched with wide-open eyes as he is held down by his forehead, fringed by the remaining hair on the browline and the native, with three quick blows, knocks in his teeth and then claws the chicklets from between the man’s empty gums.

Some of the warriors wear the blood and grime like clothing, one wears a man’s stomach on his head and all around dead and squirming bodies alike are choked with their own severed cocks, their pants with holes pouring blood like vaginal passages erupting; and some howl as they sodomize their victims, slashing and stabbing as they ride, screeching and leaping about, from body to body as the men lay dead or dying in the settling dust and the pathetic cries of horses.

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