If ever there was an organization perfectly suited to piggyback on the current vogue for live public table-reads of screenplays, it would be the Black List, whose annual compilations of the most popular unproduced scripts have saved many a scribe from obscurity. On June 14, the group finally got in on the act, with a reading of Stephany Folsom’s screenplay, “1969: A Space Odyssey, or How Kubrick Learned to Stop Worrying and Land on the Moon” at the Los Angeles Theater.
Acknowledging the obvious influence of Jason Reitman’s live-read series at LACMA, Black List founder Franklin Leonard billed the evening as the first of many similar events to come, before introducing a sizable cast that included Clark Gregg and Kathryn Hahn. The script in question had an intriguing premise, looking to flesh out the popular myth that Stanley Kubrick helped shoot a fake moon landing for the U.S. government during the height of the Space Race. Hahn read for the script’s protagonist, Barbara Penn, a White House public affairs pro who enlists the cantankerous director and serves as his de facto “producer” throughout.
The evening got off to a rather bumpy start. The houselights went down 45 minutes late, and after the audience had sat through subsequent opening remarks from a space-suited Leonard, lengthy cast intros, and no less than two full musical preludes, the show was nearly an hour past its scheduled start time before anyone actually cracked the spine of a script. Snafus can always happen in live theater, of course, but the lack of any onstage acknowledgement or apology for the substantial delay felt a bit unprofessional.
Staging live-reads of unproduced screenplays can be tricky, as audience members’ memories of existing films can’t help smooth over any rough patches in the presentation, and excessive exposition can stall audience engagement when presented without visual sweetening. “1969” is not the first unfilmed script to get the live treatment, coming a few months after Quentin Tarantino presented his “Hateful Eight” screenplay, but without Tarantino’s force of personality, or his distinctively detailed scripting style, the proposition is a bit more difficult.
The screenplay nonetheless showed some promise, and Folsom clearly had a lot of fun imagining Kubrick’s biting responses to both government bureaucrats and gung-ho NASA staffers. Jared Harris read the Kubrick role with great relish and a wide Noo Yawk accent, while Gregg served as a no-nonsense CIA operative. But the script was ultimately far from a finished product. An “Argo”-esque subplot involving a pair of captured U.S. agents in Russia, and a power-hungry Soviet minister, was confusing and unnecessary, one of several overly formulaic plot strands that diluted the uniqueness of the script’s premise. It would take a very clever director to make this material work onscreen, but with some pruning and smart casting ideas, it could be worth a look.
Cooper Thornton served as the evening’s narrator, with other roles read by Thomas Sadoski, Lance Reddick, Rich Sommer, Aaron Staton, Shannon Woodward, Tessa Ferrer and Troy Ruptash.
(Pictured: Clark Gregg and Lance Reddick speak onstage at “The Black List Live! A Staged Reading”)