Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Uglies: The Story of an Unproduced Screenplay

The pitch for my original script The Uglies (Ambler House Publishing) went like this:

“A down-on-their luck blue collar couple’s fortunes take a sharp turn when they’re kidnapped by a fractious gang of high-spirited bank robbers and taken on a cross-country crime spree.”

I wrote this screenplay in the early 1990s, when the United States was mired in a recession. Now, with unemployment up again and the middle class disappearing—maybe for a long time—it seems to be relevant again: You might call it a crime/suspense picture about the “99 percent.”

Still, I had reasons of my own for writing it.


The Uglies is the most “realistic” of my six screenplays, but it didn’t start out that way.

It was sparked by my great affection for the army of character actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age. During that halcyon era, each of the seven biggest studios employed in their factories a stable of supporting players they employed in film after film. Many of them, such as Walter Brennan, Edna May Oliver, Frank Morgan, Una O’Connor, and Peter Lorre, worked practically year-round. A tiny handful, like Brennan and Morgan, brushed real stardom, scoring Oscars and the like.

They were not the glamorous Crawfords and Gables, the buoyant Flynns and the glowing Lombards. They ran the beauty gamut from homely to ugly. They served many purposes, as they brightly colored the background of films, providing friendship to the heroes, comic relief, menace, or just carrying strands of plot and story.

Some of them, like Basil Rathbone, portrayed formidable indelible villains who created a genuine palpable threat that sometimes tricked you into thinking that Errol Flynn might be in real danger and made you cheer when Errol finally ventilated him with a sword. Few genre movies can do without a great villain.

These actors were always a pleasure to watch, like your favorite uncles and cousins. They saved countless movies from fatal dreariness, even if only for the few moments they were on. More interestingly, the European emigrants among them—many of them Nazi refugees, such as S.Z.Sakall—had been major stars in their own countries . . . but not here.

Right now, I can only think of one of these stalwarts who finally stepped to true stardom—his name was Humphrey Bogart.

Character actors were an often especially pungent presence in crime films and westerns. I’m particularly fond of the crew of rattlesnakes, alley rats, and dirt bags who populated the films and TV shows of the 1950s and 1960s: Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam,  Leo Gordon, Warren Oates, Strother Martin and many others who I’m sure many of you old-movie fans could name. (Among them, Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine, and Van Cleef managed to reach stardom; Borgnine, Marvin, and Ben Johnson won Oscars.)


As the studio system disappeared in the 1960s, so did reliable employment for this colorful gnarly bunch. Some of them, like Van Cleef, luckily found work in Europe and even did well for themselves.

Otherwise, they grew old, left the business, passed away. As time went on, the new actors failed to fill that gap. Starting in the 1960s, most of the new supporting actors were dough-faced, Caucasian bland, with the looks of dry clay and the personalities of gel implants. The character actor as distinct personality seemed to be disappearing. The movies—especially genre movies—lost a little of their color. Once in a while someone like Robert Shaw would pop up in Jaws, but otherwise . . . .

It was in tribute to that vanishing species that I started writing The Uglies, a movie with no blond bombshells or muscle-bound granite-jawed studs; no six-pack abs or buns of steel. Instead I populated it with homely people with old craggy faces, big noses, sagging boobs, beer bellies, no hair, and bad skin. I thought they deserved a movie all to themselves, so I wrote one.

Happy to say, though, I needn't have worried: the old tradition of the character actor is alive again, thanks to cable television, starting with such series as The Sopranos, The Wire, Justified, and Deadwood whose entire cast would fit nicely into the world of The Uglies.


I also wrote The Uglies as an ersatz Sam Peckinpah film. And it was ersatz in its early drafts. One afternoon, I had a couple of actors, Claudia Rosa and Michael Anduz, act out a scene or two for me. They giggled as they struggled through my faux existential, tough-guy twaddle. I still recall the sting as they doubled over laughing.

So, I rolled it back through the typewriter. I stopped thinking of it as a character-actor homage. I flushed out the pompous, cornball Peckinpah-isms and other Po-mo movie references (yeah, I’m lookin’ at you, Quentin Tarantino) and thought hard, like Sam would. (It had to be its own movie, not his):

Who were these people, these hard-luck souls in dead-end lives of poverty and crime? What kind of world did they move through with such feverish desperation? What’s the difference between real criminals and those forced to take up crime to survive? How far might someone go to stay alive? How might the urge to survive both pull us together and drive us apart? No matter how extreme the moment, does all armed confrontation end in bloodshed . . . ?

No movie can, or should, answer those questions, but it can bring them up in old-fashioned, entertaining way, and I think The Uglies succeeds in that sense.

Preparing it for publication, I found I still enjoyed its rousing action, its color, its coarse, crude, and boisterous humor, and the human vulnerability of its characters. Also, in part, it turned from an homage to Peckinpah to an argument with him.


Of the six screenplays I completed, it received the most praise, repeatedly called “entertaining” and a “good read” by numerous agents and readers.

But, as happened throughout my ten-year fishing trip off the Hollywood pier, many a fish nibbled, but not a one bit and they all swam away.

The Uglies also received the most criticism: One agent actually called, saying that while my writing was excellent, “everyone in it is ugly!” Then she lay down the condition that she would represent it only if I completely rewrote it to her specifications. Such a promise, I already knew, would never be kept and the discussion ended.

I also submitted the script to numerous workshops and contests. I received a few comments, the most memorable of which was from a reader who was bothered that Frank, the gang’s leader, wasn’t portrayed as a murderously evil figure, simply a criminal with gruff charm and delusions of folk-hero grandeur. Maybe he was right, but, with this script, I didn’t feel like turning loose one of my dazzling Dracula-like sociopaths. I wanted a sense of a group of people against the world.

The Uglies isn’t perfectly “realistic”—its climax is perhaps too hero-mantic—but I did wish to capture the reality of criminals, the grubby limitations and dead-ends of their lives, without taking away their humanity and even charm. All sociopaths may be criminals, but by no means are all criminals sociopaths. Based in part on my  observations during my brief employment in law enforcement, most of them are limited people, born into closed worlds and knowing nothing else. Some are smart, many are stupid, even downright hapless. “Short-sighted” doesn’t begin to describe them. All of them are dealing with life as they found it to be, which is, to say, not much.

In the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of meeting Stuart Whitman, an excellent actor and 1960s star. Then in his seventies, he would have been excellent as the bandit leader and loved the script . . .  but he too swam away.


Some caveats: The Uglies is about the criminal underworld and some working class and middle-class professionals who sink down into its mire. Therefore, there are many un-P.C. factors to offend both Left and Right. To many on the Right, to empathize with criminals is to glorify them. Also, everyone cusses a lot and almost no one believes in God, the Flag, or American exceptionalism. Ideological capitalism gets slapped as law enforcement is portrayed as subsidiary of big business.

As for the Left, well, criminals are not sensitive, pacifist, vegan liberals from Minnesota who carry ACLU cards in their holsters tucked next to the Glock. They lie and cheat, steal and sometimes kill; the threat of violence is never far away; they smoke, eat poorly, drink too much, are often drug-addicted, and laugh at concepts like “healthy lifestyle.” They are mostly male, sexist, thuggish, sometimes racist, always bigoted toward some group or other and while I wanted to avoid blunt messaging, I didn’t want to be egregiously dishonest either.

The sensibilities here may be generally liberal, but I don’t regard The Uglies as a specifically ideological work. If that’s important to you, well, there it is.


As for real-life sources for The Uglies, I’m vague on them 20 years later, but from my own life I drew the colorful Carlos, one of Frank’s partners in crime. I based him very closely on the first friend I made when I arrived in San Francisco in 1982. He’d been a criminal himself once—and had the knife scars to prove it, dug deep across his stomach. He was, in his way, an extraordinary man, uneducated but fiercely intelligent, lovable one minute, infuriating the next. He roared and danced with a love for life and was tremendously kind to this young naïve man trying to get his feet down on the hard streets of a big city. I used him not only in The Uglies, but also in an earlier script, The Devil’s Due, which will come out later this year.

Carlos and I drifted apart after a time and lost touch. In the late 1990s, I learned he had died of cancer. The Uglies in its small way is a remembrance of my friend Carlos. I pray he knows it.

(Re-edited 2/16/12; 2/23/12)

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

Photo by author; cover design by M.S. Corley.

Thomas Burchfield is the author of the contemporary Dracula novel Dragon's Ark, and the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, all are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, Scribed and now at the Red Room bookstore. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter and reads at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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