Salt: the tortuous route from script to screen

It’s not more than an average action film. But still it was an interesting scriptwriting exercise for me because I had read one of the earlier drafts of the screenplay circulating in the net. It gave me an opportunity to see the changes and understand how the Hollywood film industry (more specifically the Hollywood creative executive) thinks. What makes some one change a screenplay when they have bought it in first place because it is good? And are there some parameters regarding what needs to be changed? If what I read about Ridley Scott’s Robinhood is correct, there are none.

What are the major changes that occurred between earlier drafts and the movie? 1st and foremost thing is that original salt is a male character who turned into a female in the movie. Heard different stories about that. One is that Angelina Jolie’s star power forced the tailoring. Second is that Tom Cruise was already doing a spy movie (Knight and day) because of which he declined himself. But this gender change doesn’t really change the script on itself much.

The early draft

The story revolves around E. Salt, a CIA operative who is given the task of interrogating a defected Russian spy. During the course of the interview (which is observed by higher officials), it turns out that a Russian mole has penetrated USA who have reached the country 20 years back. This Russian kid was handpicked at an early age, given intensive training, brain washed with Soviet ideology, taught English before Russian so that even his American accent is perfect and then was planted for an original identity inside USA. This kid is now grown up, and after infiltrating the CIA, is waiting for the word to go. The defected Russian agrees to give them the name of the spy. And he gives the name of Salt! What follows is a wild chase where Salt is hounded by CIA according to whom he is even trying to assassinate the American president. Now the key question is- Who is Salt? Is he a Russian super spy? Or is he being framed? The whole movie is about the identity of Salt and much more than that, its about the chase. Though there is something about an assassination attempt on American President, it is a much more grounded element. Salt is trying to take his wife and child out of the country. The climax involves a spectacular sequence in a highway involving trucks and aircrafts.

The movie

What are the differences between the earlier draft and the movie? Major differences are in the second half. The earlier draft of the script is much more concentrated in what it is trying to achieve. As a result, the structure is also more disciplined.

But in the movie, the events are scaled up. The second half spins off into much more elaborate elements after the assassination plot of Russian President (instead of the American one).

(Warning: spoilers till end of this paragraph) Saving Salt’s husband (or not being able to save him) becomes an element covered towards the middle of the movie. After that the narrative is about various sleeper spies coming together for an all and out attack on US (Here instead of a single Russian spy, there are multiple spies who have infiltrated US 20 years back). You will get an idea of the scale when you know that final sequence takes place inside white house in an underground bunker with country in the brink of a nuclear war and President’s life at the mercy of a Russian spy.

So what do you think? Yeah, I know. It is very subjective. But let me tell you, I would have gone for the earlier draft any time of the day. Because as a writer I feel that the final draft that became the movie went over the top. It becomes an exercise in hyperbole. A song with every note landing a high pitch shriek.

In writing, the toughest thing is not to generate ideas, but identifying the most appropriate idea. To  develop that sixth sense to monitor when you are straying and when you are not- that’s the crux of good writing. I read somewhere that in the original draft of ‘Good Will Hunting’ by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, Will, the orphan genius, is chased by NSA and they are even trying to kill him. It was William Goldman (long live the king!) who advised them to chuck all the spicy espionage stuff and make it a simple story about how Will  finds his way in life with the help of a lonely, ‘not successful by the conventional standards’ Psychiatrist. So some times, all that clever plot ideas that you can think of, may not fit together well. Never undermine your own work by pouring oil in water.


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