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Anatomy of a Murder

The Unmaking of Suspect Zero, or, How to Kill a Movie in a Hollywood Minute.

12:00 AM, Sep 10, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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HAVE YOU ever wondered how Hollywood makes so many bad movies? If the movie-making process was random, then some small percentage of films every year would be good just by chance. Yet the product put out is so relentlessly bad that it defies probability: The people who make movies must be doing something to make movies bad. Trying to put your finger on this something is difficult, but not impossible. Every once in awhile the producers of a bad movie leave behind some clues.

Suspect Zero is one of those rare cases. Zak Penn wrote the script for Suspect Zero in 1995. It made the rounds in the development world in Los Angeles for a couple years, attracting attention and getting Penn famous. For good reason: Suspect Zero was one of the great scripts of the '90s, and it developed an almost legendary following on the killing floor of the Hollywood sausage factory.

Suspect Zero didn't get made--not right away--but it raised Penn's profile and got him other jobs doing work on good movies such as X-Men 2 and Behind Enemy Lines. It also got him a deal at DreamWorks. Good for Penn.

But eventually Hollywood did get around to making Suspect Zero. You may have missed it. It debuted in theaters on August 27, 2004--nearly 10 years after the script's first draft was finished--and grossed a piddling $3.4 million during its opening weekend. Bad movies get made from incompetent source material all the time (see Charlie's Angels, et al), but it isn't every day that Hollywood finds a way to turn a great script into a disastrous movie.

(Before we proceed, you are put on warning that there are spoilers ahead. If you haven't seen Suspect Zero and don't want to know what happens because you plan on seeing it in theaters, or renting it, or whatnot, stop reading and say five Our Fathers and five Hail Marys as penance.)

PENN'S first draft of Suspect Zero is a model of precision, economy, and vigor. The story begins in a diner on a lonely stretch of Texas interstate where a small, ordinary man named Harold Speck is having a cup of coffee. A nondescript fellow named Benjamin O'Ryan slides into the booth across from Speck and starts interrogating him. O'Ryan begins tossing Polaroids at Speck, and while the audience can't see what the pictures are, Speck is horrified. Then, O'Ryan grabs Speck's wrist and forces his hand out into the open, where it is revealed that Speck's middle finger is elongated an inch-and-a-half farther than the rest of his hand.

Harold Speck's dead body is found in his car, which has been pushed so that it straddles the Texas-Oklahoma state line. This makes it a federal case, which lands in the lap of Tom Mackelway, a newly minted FBI agent, recently assigned to the Dallas field office. Mackelway and his new partner, Fran Kulok, go to investigate the crime scene, and in the trunk of Speck's car find the dismembered corpses of two women. Good policework leads them to Speck's home, where they find more than a dozen other bodies buried. Harold Speck, it turns out, was a serial killer.

As the investigation of Speck's death proceeds, the coroner determines that he had Episodic Violent Behavior Disorder, of which one marker is an elongated middle finger. Mackelway and Kulok begin to suspect that they are chasing someone who is hunting serial killers, a modern-day Van Helsing. All of this action transpires before page 30. (For a better summary of the original script--and a takedown of the shooting script--see this excellent article by Drew McWeeny.)

Mackelway consults a behavioral sciences scholar named Daitz. Daitz asks him whether or not he's ever seen a 50-foot shark. Mackelway is confused. Daitz responds:

I assume the answer is no. The largest predatory shark ever caught was 24 feet. But does that mean a 50-foot shark does not exist? A group of biologists tried to answer this question. You see, sharks only come near humans if they run out of food. For a 50-foot shark, the ocean would be a never-ending buffet table. He could feed off whales, octopus; he'd never have any need to surface or come to shore. So these biologists decided that if there was a 50-foot shark, we would never know about it. And as a result of this conclusion, these scientists decided that there are 50-foot sharks. We just never see them.

[beat]

Suspect Zero is a similar theory. It posits that if a serial killer were smart enough and had the means at his disposal, he could conceivably kill for an indefinite period of time without being caught. Swimming under our radar, so to speak.