What: Ben, an unwilling celestial guide, has been given the task of “saving” Harper, abused foster child and old beyond her years, despite the constant presence of her stuffed dog Ragamuffin.
Who: For good or ill, we are all watched over by celestial spirits who guide us toward light or dark depending... Ben, one of those spirits, has been condemned to his afterlife as an angel without wings, so to speak, until such time that he has sufficiently redeemed himself for sins committed before he died. He has been assigned the difficult case of Harper, a foster child who has been forced by her foster father Knox to collect drug debts in the neighborhood. On one such errand she inadvertently witnessed a murder committed by Knox’s gangbanger drug handlers. More importantly, they have seen her and she must now run for her life.
Harper, injured while running away, is visited in the hospital by Ben who already knows way too much about her. Realizing that the gang has tracked her to the hospital, Ben spirits her away (this time in the physical sense) but not before he is shot by Harper’s enemies. Harper, no fool, knows something is up by the lack of blood from Ben’s wounds; that and the fact that he’s not dead. She has questions, lots of questions and Ben, himself, needs guidance.
INT./EXT. AMTRAK TRAIN - TRAVELING – NIGHT
Ben nestles a sleeping Harper into a seat. Rests Ragamuffin beside. Calmly sits at her side. Listens to SLEEPY SNORES. She curls into him. Grasping him. Melting him.
Ben: I'm just some guy in an elevator, stuck between floors.
Ben stares out the window.
Harper’s way ahead of him.
EXT. JOLIET TRAIN STATION – DAY
Steel town-turned-exurb. Harper follows Ben to a food cart. Eyes him as he buys coffee, juice, pastries. She edges up, swipes a fork -- stabs him in the hand.
Ben: What the--?!
She removes the fork. No wound. Not even a scratch.
Harper: Why didn't it leave one of those black things?
The COFFEE GUY raising a brow. Ben pays, guides her off.
Ben: It wasn't an act of malice. The marks are from wounds that could've killed me.
Harper: But didn't -- you better explain this shit straight up or swear to God I'll scream for the cops. (no response) COPS! HELP -- I NEED COPS!
He mutes her. Sighs, sits on a bench. Points up. Up, up.
Harper: What? You from Mars??
Ben: Little higher. Juice?
Harper: I don't want any goddamn juice.
Ben: Careful with the whole name-in-vain thing. That one's true.
Harper: You're saying you--?! As if. Then where are your wings?
Ben: Don't have any. I work with the ground troops.
Harper: Great, my Guardian Angel don't even got wings. Figures. How come I can see you?
Ben: Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't. You speak Swahili? Ni-kinunua nyama wa mbuzi soko-ni, pika leo. It's like that, impossible for you to understand.
Harper: So what, you show up outta the clouds and I'm supposed to just roll with this bunk?
Ben: Pretty much.
Harper: Screw that.
He marches off, around a corner. She follows...he's gone?!
Ben: (O.S.) Worst coffee I've had my entire afterlife.
He's right back on the bench. She ogles.
Harper: How -- do you do that?
Harper: Do it again.
Ben: (O.S.) I'm not a monkey.
Suddenly on the opposite bench, slurping coffee.
Harper: Teach me.
Ben: No passengers allowed. Seriously, tastes like an oil spill.
Harper: What else can you do?
Ben: Not as much as you think.
Harper: C'mon, do a miracle or someshit.
He stands. Rather dramatically proceeds to lick his elbow.
Harper: Something messed up with you.
Ben: Can you lick your elbow?
Harper: Even if I could, I wouldn't.
Ben: (heads on) It's the small stuff, Harper.
Harper: Where you going?
Ben: Where I'm taking you.
He leaves. She attempts to lick her elbow. Can't, dammit.
As they draw closer to both their destination and destiny, Harper still has questions.
Ben and Harper driving through downtown Joliet.
Harper: Damn, how much angels pull down a year?
Ben: It's just money. Trickle down theory.
Harper: So, like can you read minds or anything?
Harper: You got x-ray vision?
Harper: See the future?
Ben: Think I'd have money on the Bears if I could?
Harper: Can you fly?
Ben: I walk real fast.
Harper: What's he look like? The Big Dude?
Ben: Couldn't tell ya.
Harper: How's he keep track of everybody? Like how's he hear everybody praying all at once?
Ben: He just does.
Harper: Shiyload of people. I'm just saying.
Ben: I imagine it's quite organized. Like Twitter.
Harper: God's like Twitter?? Is there a devil?
Ben: Check the Fortune 500.
Harper: So there's really a hell?
Ben: East Texas.
Harper: This one foster loser I had said in heaven there's a heated swimming pool and an all- you-can-eat buffet.
Ben: Never been. But I hear the weather's lovely.
Harper: Never been? What kind of angel are you?
Ben: Santa's got lots of helpers, each have different jobs.
Harper: So what's your job?
Ben: To protect and serve.
Harper: When I kick it are there gonna be 72 virgins waiting for me?
Ben: Excuse me?
Harper: I mean, like which heaven is the heaven? All-you-can-eat-buffet or 72 virgins?
Ben: Just -- trust it all works out.
Harper: How? By licking your elbow?
As they continue on the journey, neither will be out of danger – for Harper it’s physical, for Ben it is eternally spiritual. But each will get where they need to go.
No Meaner Place: “Touched by an Angel” was never like this. If anything, Camp has combined elements of “The Professional” and “Dead Like Me” to create something new and novel that should have enough comfort-level familiarity and new world (as opposed to “new age”) spirituality that some CBS exec should have grabbed this up without a second thought. Not only is the writing exceptional, but the main character is fresh (in both senses of the word) and the dialogue is highly entertaining and smart. I like smart; you should like smart; we should all like smart. It’s not even the “elitist” kind of smart that the Tea Party allegedly hates – it’s just plain smart! Camp speaking to us with a fresh voice and we should listen.
And as if smart dialogue, fresh characters and a great premise weren’t enough, it wouldn’t be that expensive to produce because of the limited (very limited) number of series regular characters necessary. Certainly there would be stunts and CGI, but this would be guest-actor fabulous. As always, the hope is that this will still see the light of day, or at least in some way produce that other-worldly glow we’ve come to know as a TV picture. In the meantime, appreciate the creativity that Camp brings to the page.
Life Lessons for Writers: Spirituality is more than just the ability to perform a perfect downward-facing dog.
Neely: I loved the script.
Brandon: Thank you so much. It’s really nice of you to say. I appreciate that.
Neely: Well who doesn’t like to hear somebody say, “I loved your script.”
Brandon: Of course.
Neely: And quite honestly it’s why, a lot of times, I run out of scripts because I’m very particular about what I like.
Brandon: Well good. Then it actually means something. Most people like what everyone else likes. (laughing)
Neely: Ahhh, yes. Well that may be why I do not have a paying job right now. (both laugh heartily).
Brandon: Oh, Neely.
Neely: Well, what are you going to do? I mean I’m having the time of my life because I’ve found so many things I love doing.
I am so happy Elisa Roth brought you to my attention.
Brandon: She’s amazing, by the way. A lot has come out of this script and one of the great things is a relationship with her. She’s very good at what she does and really understands the writer’s process which is often really weird and effed up. She’s really great and I love her to death.
Neely: I’m very proud to say that I helped her along the way. And one of the things I said when she left us at Kelley was, “Someday I’d like to work for you.”
Brandon: I think we might all be working for her if we’re lucky.
Neely: I loved the script, obviously, but the clever entree in that you found to discover god (my choice to eliminate the capital letters). What inspired you to write this script?
Brandon: I have always been fascinated with what is, or isn't on the “other side.” I don't pretend to have the answers, but I certainly have lots of questions. I have experienced my share of loss in life. I lost my mother at a relatively young age, so the subject of life and what comes after is one that I have faced on a number of occasions. Honestly, I guess I really want to believe in something on the other side. I really do. But I also find myself rather conflicted about it all. So where do I focus that energy? Where do I attempt to answer those questions or where do I question out loud? That’s what the blank page is for. Everything I do, I tend to find something that’s personal that I can really dig into with a level of passion that is truly individual in nature. So wondering what happens when you pass away, if anything happens at all, is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last couple of years. The seeds came out of that.
Neely: I noticed so many parallels between this story and “The Professional,” the Luc Besson film starring Jean Reno and a very young Natalie Portman. Was that any kind of a jumping off point for you?
Brandon: There were projects that have always stuck with me. One of them was “The Professional” and another was “Witness” and you could throw “Wings of Desire” into the mix as well.
Those are three projects that I’ve always loved and wanted to pay homage to in some way. So I tried to put them in my own blender, if you will, and come out with something fresh and different and unique and spiritual without being religious but that also had a bit of edge to it at the same time.
Neely: It’s also a lot of what Bill Cain does on stage and tried to do with a short-lived series he created with David Manson called “Nothing Sacred.”
But once I thought of “The Professional,” I thought of Jean Reno, the lead, who’s a great model for your character. He was a complete hard ass with a hear of gold in “The Professional,” as one would expect of an assassin protecting an innocent child, but Reno, the actor, also showed an unexpected hilarious side in a French film from the same era called “Les Visiteurs” (which was abysmally remade as “Just Visiting.”). Ben is a combination of both of those characters, the tough guy and the sardonic comedian, and thoroughly enjoyable. If you haven’t seen “Les Visiteurs” in its original language, then you really should.
Brandon: I haven’t seen it but it’s now at the top of my Netflix queue.
Neely: By combining the two, it shows you how a hard ass can be goofy.
Brandon: I was trying to find a way into him that would make you smile at times, as well as a window to empathy.
Neely: So I guess I’m actually asking, did you channel anyone when you wrote the role of Ben?
Brandon:I was definitely thinking about Harrison Ford from “Witness.” I come back to the Harrison Ford from that stage of his career quite often with my characters. Maybe it’s just because I grew up on Han Solo and I loved “Witness” so much. But I’ve found myself writing words for him quite often.
Neely: Who else were you going to have Ben rescue?
Brandon: Anyone in dire straits. But my intent was to blur the lines a little bit more than you might expect, particularly when you think about network television. I wanted there to be instances when Ben might not always understand exactly why it is that he's helping a seemingly 'bad egg'. And conversely, there might have been instances in which a seemingly good egg was rotten to the core.
He, and now I will put the capital H in He, does work in Mysterious Ways, after all, or at least in the world of this script. So you might think it seems to be very black and white on the surface – here’s an innocent person who needs to be protected from bad guys, but by the end of the episode it could all flip on its head and the bad guys are actually good or the good guys are bad or maybe they’re all gray at the end of the day.
I really wanted to play with the questions of morality and what is good and what is evil because I think that leads naturally into questions of afterlife. What lands us upstairs rather than downstairs or what lands you in an elevator that’s caught in between the two?
Neely: As politically incorrect as this may be, and I can ask it because I’m not trying to employ you, but were you raised Catholic?
Brandon: Funny. No, I wasn't. Presbyterian.
Neely: You seem so Catholically scarred.
Brandon: Oh, I'm scarred alright -- but probably not because of any wooden pews. And that's another interview entirely.
Neely: The whole “limbo/purgatory” thing really resonated with me because I am scarred. I can still hear the nuns shaking their heads (and rattling their rosaries) over the poor innocent babies in limbo – put there by their unthinking and unfeeling parents who didn’t get them baptized in time. That whole confusing concept of “original sin.”
It so traumatized me that even though I was (and still am) way beyond lapsed, I worried about not baptizing my own son (we won’t talk about how many years ago that was). Luckily my mother took care of everything on a visit when my son was still an infant. Sitting around and drinking champagne to celebrate his birth (and my ability to drink again), she asked if we had taken him to be baptized (she should have known better), at which point my husband more than rolled his eyes. She took some of the bubbly, muttered the necessary words and wet his forehead with the sign of the cross. Whew. A future crisis averted. It was funny enough that even my husband was amused, and his anti-Catholicism was even more well-earned than mine because he still has scars on his fingers from those previously mentioned heavy wooden rosaries. (Brandon laughs)
So, this limbo thing…
Brandon: I wonder if we all aren't in limbo, to a degree? What I mean by that is, aren't we all questioning our place in the world? Are we doing what we're supposed to be doing in life? Are we offering something worthwhile to the world, to our family, to our friends? I think that we’re always wondering, “If I do this, what will that net me at the end of the day?” And I’m not just talking about career or finances, but it could be about anything. It could be about relationships. It’s just about the forks in life’s road. I think many of us become handicapped. We’re unable to make decisions. I have so many friends that are in their own purgatory.
And don't even get me started on the notion of self-punishment. So many of us blindly handcuff ourselves to some tragic present situation that's a lot like purgatory, unable to ever move on or find future freedom. The character I was trying to create with Ben wasn’t one that I was hoping that you would relate to purely on a religious or spiritual level, but on a day-to-day level as well because many of us are feeling trapped in jobs, relationships, in whatever it might be. That to me is a theme that’s universal.
Neely: Pitched or written on spec?
Neely: Fill in some of the details about Ben. What did he do that got him into this situation?
Brandon: He experienced a tragic loss in his life. And rather than accept it, he stewed over it. The loss ravaged him and he wasted his remaining days. Time is the greatest gift we have and in the world of “Limbo,” the man Upstairs doesn't take kindly to such disrespect.
Neely: Since this was already whole cloth, what was the development process on this?
Brandon: Well, I pitched it to Myself. (laughing) Myself gave Me a ton of notes, really bad notes like "Make it more funny!" I called Myself an asshole behind My back all the time and vowed never to work with Myself again. (Neely continues cackling) Honestly, it was a pleasure.
For me, there’s such purity in a spec. No other cooks in the kitchen. It’s just you implementing the idea. Look, that can be risky, because sometimes the sage advice of a Top Chef might keep you from burning the roast -- but often a spec is the only freedom you will find in Hollywood. Typing “Fade In,” digging in and doing it for the love of it, not knowing what will or won’t happen. No meetings, no conference rooms, no notes based on other people’s notions; just owning it completely. So the development process was a joy. I didn’t question myself, I just did it.
Neely: That’s a wonderful answer that explains so much of the process, but I think what I intended to ask was about what took place after you had written it and had sent it out into the world. What kinds of things did people want to change? What did they say? What were the “this is good but…” comments?
Brandon: Interestingly, that wasn’t the case with this process. I went out with it very late in the season and sent it to a very select few producers that either I knew or wanted to know. They responded and said one of two things – “Yeah, I love it.” Or “No, I don’t.” And then with the select few who got it, we then went to a very select few studios. Like with the producers, it came down to studios I’d either been in business with before or wanted to be in business with. Then it was their turn to say, “Yes, I love it” or “No, I don’t.” And out of that process, I sat down with a number of producers and studios and decided on a producer and a studio to move forward with in order to take it in to networks.
There was no more work on the script. Everyone just liked it the way it was and really believed in it. And, frankly, everyone thought it would sell. (laughs) That should have been a light bulb moment for me. (Neely laughs loudly) When everybody in the room is saying, “Oh this will definitely sell” you know it won’t. Everybody thought it was ready to go, so we then just sent it to networks immediately.
Neely: Any clue why it didn’t?
Brandon: Oh, I have no idea. I mean…
Neely: …well no one ever does but…
Brandon: …fear of religion, fear of a protagonist that's not a cop, fear of there not being a standing location, fear that it's not “CSI” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”...? Who knows? I don’t know; I didn’t ask. I’m not one of those writers who wants a blow-by-blow account of the Monday morning phone call. “Well we liked it but…” I’m not interested.
Neely: Well nobody’s really gonna tell you anyway, certainly not anything that’s really helpful because, and I know this will come as a shock… there is a lack of honesty in this business. I can’t figure that out.
Brandon: Yeah. I know. Look, the irony is that nobody knows anything. A very famous studio president once said, “If I had greenlit all the movies I’d passed on and passed on all the movies I’d greenlit, I’d still have had the exact same track record.” (both laugh loudly) I thought that was very funny and probably true at the end of the day.
Neely: Sadly, it probably is.
I understand you are still in limbo (my effort at some lame humor) and are developing a series for Fox about a dead police officer who works against living criminals based on the comic book “The Spectre.” Similarities? Differences?
Brandon: There are a number of similarities in that it's set in the world of the afterlife; and to be sure there are elements of spirituality and edge that I’ve incorporated into “The Spectre” that were also prevalent in “Limbo.” But you’d probably see those in most of my work.
It's a completely different character, completely different engine, a completely different backstory. I don’t think you’d read it and think it’s the same character, or the same circumstance but I think you’d know it’s the same writer.
Neely: I definitely hope that it is as infused with smart dialogue as this script was.
Brandon: Me too. I’ll tell my assistant.
Neely: This new project actually leads to an interesting possibility. Have you considered turning “Limbo” into a graphic novel or an ongoing series like “The Spectre?” There’s room enough in Limbo for everyone.
Brandon: I have. I love the format to be sure… love comic books, love graphic novels. I’ve been having talks with some folks about it, so, let's put it this way – “Limbo” might still be in limbo, but “Limbo” is definitely not dead. (Neely cackles loudly) Hopefully, you'll hear of it again.
Neely: I already live in a perpetual state of Limbo.
Brandon: (chuckling) Don’t we all.
Neely: You’ve had an interesting trajectory in both film and television. Do you find it easy to go back and forth?
Brandon: Nothing in this industry is easy!
Neely: (laughing) Touché!
Brandon: As much as they are the same, they are completely different, each with very unique demands. Honestly, I love and hate both equally! It’s no different than a transition from writing to directing or writing to producing. It’s just a different hat that you might wear, but it’s still in the same stadium.
I find that television has different structural demands. You have to think about more acts and move at a much quicker pace. And, one television executive once said to me, “People just don’t watch TV the way that they watch movies. They are on their phones, they’re texting, they’re checking email, they’re eating a bowl of ice cream, they’re making out with their gal. So you have to write your script in a completely different way.” I think the executive was really speaking in code and was actually saying “dumb it down.”
I don’t want to dumb it down; I refuse to dumb it down. But I understand the thought behind it. You don’t have someone trapped in a theater focused on a very large screen; and you also don’t necessarily have an hour and a half or two hours uninterrupted without commercials. You just have to be cognizant about that because of the structural challenges created. There are more math problems to solve in that TV format. But I also enjoy it because of that. It forces you to be succinct.
Neely: Well, to be sure, going back and forth makes you tap into different skill areas.
Brandon: No doubt about it.
Neely: Your television career is basically as a creator (“John Doe”). Have you ever worked on anyone else’s series?
Brandon: I haven't. It’s not that I’m against such a thing. There are a few that I probably would. Look, I'd write a cover page for Vince Gilligan if he asked me to. I love “Breaking Bad.” I think he’s done an incredible job. So, I would, but it would have to be the right thing.
Neely: Have you ever pitched a freelance for “Breaking Bad?
Brandon: I haven’t, no.
Neely: It’s a great way of working for someone else and still working for yourself.
Brandon: That’s true.
Neely: I also notice that you have started to direct some of your feature projects. Was this always something that you wanted to do?
Brandon: Yes. Without a doubt. I mean, what better way to control the very words you write.
Neely: Certainly that was the rationale for Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder.
Brandon: Very true.
Neely: One of the things I’ve noticed in your feature career, and it goes back to something we were talking about earlier, but it’s either about love or horror. What’s that about?
Neely: (laughing) How scarred are you?
Brandon: I guess that both keep you on the edge of your seat, don't they? Both can keep you up at night, both can make you nauseous, and certainly both can certainly give you nightmares. I don’t know. There’s just a lot of good drama and comedy in both genres. Honestly, I’m all about the high-low; finding the emotional highs and lows of situations. I hadn’t really thought of it this way, but I guess it’s because there’s a lot of meat and potato comedy and drama to come out of both genres.
Neely: What about Brandon Camp? Is he more about love or more about horror?
Brandon: I’m more about love.
Neely: Alright (both laughing). That’s a lame People magazine question. (both laughing) Let’s stop here and perhaps I’ll be able to go deeper when we continue.