I love storytelling. I love film.
During my journey to actively chronicle the history of my ancestors, some of their stories have seemed very cinematic to me, their stories have dramatic weight, visual consequence.
Instead of simply couching my observations, I have made an effort to realize them. The following is a small treatment for a historical drama that I would like to make. I am in the early stages of writing the screenplay and want to make sure the story is dramatically compelling for those who are seeing this story for the first time. To that end, I would love your feedback. Does the story speak to you? Are the characters approachable? Are they intriguing? What is missing for you?
The story is set in 19th century Switzerland and South America. It is essentially a story about perception, loss, handicap, and the redemptive nature of love.
"The Silent Fire” © Jean-François de Buren
In the distance a large white riverboat makes its way down a wide dark river, its smokestacks belching and sputtering. There is a din of bird calls and primate hooting that punctuates the thick night air. The steamer Marajon slows and drops anchor along the rivers edge. Henri de Büren, a Swiss nobleman, botanist and explorer in his late 20s is on deck. He is ruggedly handsome. He wears a cream colored careworn suit that is lit ever so gently by the moonlight. His hat shades his piercing blue eyes that have seen much these past two years.
The first mate picks up his gun along with his leather shoulder bag and makes his way down the gangplank. Henri looks into the vast verdant expanse teeming with unknown peril. Henri is weary, he hesitates, then grabs his revolver. He checks the chamber, picks up his bag and disembarks. They both look at the river boat one last time and disappear into the jungle.
Flash forward 18 years later.
Vaumarcus, Switzerland 1871.
On a warm Autumn afternoon Children of various ages are seen playing at a Castle overlooking a lake. There is much running and giggling in between pear and apple trees. The smiles of happy children. Only when the oldest girl signs to her brother Gustave (10) do you realize that he and his sister Jeanne (12) are deaf.
Dinner that night at the castle provides a glimpse into the lives of Gustave and his siblings. A sumptuous Sunday meal adorns a long table that is surrounded by well-heeled family and invited guests. The same frivolity that prevailed outside hours earlier is absent here, children are meant to behave themselves and are meant to be seen and not heard. This is doubly ironic for Gustave.
Gustave’s life is privileged but at times very insular. He and his sister are taught by a very kind governess at the castle, but he pines to see more of the world outside the castle walls. He can often be seen at the window while his other siblings leave for a local school. One of his consistent joys is exploring the local woods with his dog, father, and grandfather. In nature and with animals is when Gustave is at his happiest.
One Fall evening after a long walk in the woods, Gustave is unable to sleep. He carefully leaves the room his shares with his two younger brothers and walks down the dark hallway in the direction of his father’s study. Dappled moonlight dances on the hallway walls, highlighting ancestral portraits and moving eyes. He arrives at his father’s study which is lit by warm lamplight and glances through the crack in the door frame. Gustave’s eyes are drawn to a mass of brightly colored feathers and what looks like a human head in the room’s armoire. His father looks up from his desk and sees Gustave’s face lit by lamp light in the door jam. Gustave frightened hurries back to bed. Henri realizes what his son has just seen, he turns to look at the head, makes a pained expression and slowly closes the armoire door.
The next day Henri (now 45) and his father Albert (a young 69) head off to a natural science conference in Neuchâtel. They are expected to be gone for a couple of days. As the carriage makes its way along the lakeside, Albert is engrossed in a book and Henri casts a long gaze on the lake’s surface. The sun glinting off the water transports him back to the Amazon some 20 years hence.
Flashback: Santarém, Brazil, 1853
The sun is rising on a bustling marketplace in the trading hub of Santarém. There are all manner of items sold in the markets, fruits, dried fish, and live jungle animals. It seems a cross between zoo and mining town. Henri takes off his hat, and wipes his forehead with his handkerchief. He places his hat back on and reaches into his breast pocket for a letter.
While the Marajon’s first mate goes to get provisions, Henri goes to visit the local French Vice-Consul in Santarém, Monsieur Gouzenne. Gouzenne has been a business man in Brazil for some 10 years. He had the pleasure of showing the great French naturalists Castlenau and Mauraval around Para some years earlier.
Henri and Gouzenne walk around Santarém. Henri’s voyage of two years through the Americas is almost at an end. During his voyage he has collected plant species along his journey but he desires something truly unique to take back with him to the castle. Having heard about the about the local headhunting tribes on the river steamer, Henri inquires about bartering for local ceremonial objects. At Henri’s inquiry his host becomes visibly nervous and changes the subject.
Henri and Gouzenne dine together and their conversation touches upon a wide range of subjects, politics, art, but eventually returns to Henri’s desire. Gouzenne becomes very agitated and stresses his unwillingness to help. Henri starts to believe 10 years of hot Brazilian sun has affected his host. Gouzenne cuts the meal short and says he must return to work. Henri feels slighted by the abrupt change in tone and leaves.
As Henri walks down the street towards the marketplace, Gouzenne’s domestic servant Eduardo catches up with Henri. He says that he overheard the conversation and says he can procure what Henri desires, “for a price”.
Vaumarcus, Switzerland 1871.
Gustave is playing with his siblings in the castle courtyard. His aunt Sophie, a local healer is going to give comfort to a local family and as asks Gustave if he would like to join her. She is well versed in the healing properties of medicinal plants, many of which she finds in the vast botanical gardens of the castle.
They walk for a while until they come to a small farm house. Sophie and Gustave are ushered in to a small room where a boy Gustave’s age is bed ridden and gravely ill. She deftly makes a herbal remedy for him and provides comfort both to the boy and his grief stricken parents. Gustave is moved by his aunt’s compassion.
On the way back to the castle Gustave is deep in thought. He asks his aunt if the boy will recover and why he suffers? “It is God’s will” she responds. Processing the answer he asks another question, “Was it God’s will that I was born deaf?” Words fail his aunt, she pulls him close and hugs him tightly as hot stinging tears roll down her cheeks.
The next day Gustave goes out in the woods with his dog as they often do. While bending down to inspect a colorful leaf, he notices movement out of the corner of his eye, but so does his dog. There is a great stag standing amongst a thicket of trees and heavy mist. The dog instinctively takes off after the stag, Gustave cannot call the dog back and gives chase. They run through the woods at breakneck speed, the stag, the dog and Gustave. Close by, a local hunter sees the flash of the running stag, he whirls around and takes aim. A shot rings out that Gustave cannot hear. The hunter has missed the stag but has killed Gustave’s closest companion. The hunter finds Gustave bloodied, disconsolate and softly weeping by his dog’s side.
Henri gets word of his accident the next day in Neuchâtel and he and Albert return at once to the castle. On the way home Henri feels panicked. It’s happening again, he thought he had escaped fate’s cruel hand, a cover of darkness envelops him. He has flashbacks of death. A local boy who died in a farming accident, his sister Charlotte, the death of an immigrant on the roadside in Peru and most tragically his first wife dying in his arms only weeks after their wedding. Henri is shaken.
Henri returns to the castle and comforts Gustave but there is an odd distance. Henri seems detached.
Later that evening Sophie approaches her brother. She is more than a healer she is connected to the unseen. She feels very strongly that the objects in his armoire are cursed and need to be removed from the castle. Is she feeling true malevolence or Henri’s consuming fears. Outwardly Henri seems dismissive of the dark omens, but inwardly he believes dark forces may be at work.
After some time, life at the castle returns to normal and Gustave gets a new dog, but he is now forbidden from leaving the castle alone. He stays close to home.
One stormy evening Gustave has a vivid dream about the Amazon. It is lush and magical and seems to call to him. The dream reminds him of the stolen look at the contents of his father’s armoire. The next afternoon while his father is in the garden, Gustave secretly enters his study, his curiosity is propelling him to find out what is there. He knows he shouldn’t be in the room, his anticipation pregnant, his senses heightened. He opens the armoire door very slowly and... nothing. Could he have seen things? Was it all in his imagination?
The following week Gustave is exploring the castle with his new dog. Gustave and his dog explore a seldom visited part of one of the medieval towers. It is filed with disused furniture, ancient weapons and a very old strongbox. Gustave’s dog becomes very interested by the box. The dog begins scratching, and barking trying to get inside. Gustave opens it. He is greeted by vibrant feathers of red, blue, yellow and green. He reaches into the strongbox and removes the feathers only to discover they are a headdress. He places it on his head, and his dog barks approvingly. He returns to the box to see what other secrets are to be found inside. Gustave jumps back, a shiver shoots down his spine. He is frightened and intrigued in equal measure. There in the box is a human head, with sewn mouth and gauze for eyes staring blankly back at him.
After a moment or two, Gustave overcomes his fear and ventures back to the box. Leaning against the head is a journal. He fishes it out and opens it. The first page reads “The voyage of Henri de Büren”. Gustave skims the many yellowing pages, the city names of Boston, New York, Havana, Mexico City, and Lima jump out to him. Gustave removes the headdress and starts to read.
Gustave no longer cares about leaving the grounds of the castle, all he wants to do is read the journal. Everyday he returns to the box and is transported to far away lands.
Gustave reads with great relish of his father’s many encounters and exploits while in the Americas. He starts to see his father very differently. He sees him as a young adventurer and not the distant parent. How could this be the same man? What happened?
As a result, Gustave feels more adventurous himself and soon asks his grandfather if he can go on a hike with him. Along the way Gustave asks his grandfather about the Alpine plants. They spend many days together. Gustave’s grandfather is impressed by his uncanny eyesight, inquisitive nature, and stamina. Gustave starts to see himself beyond his handicap. He only wishes his father could see him as his grandfather does.
Gustave is again reading from the journal when he comes across the most heroic of moments. While is Peru, Henri helps prevent the massacre of Peruvian soldiers by members of his expedition. Gustave’s admiration for his father surges and he wants to share his knowledge of the journal with him.
Gustave finds his father outside in the courtyard. When he shows his father the journal, Henri becomes unhinged. Henri knows that if Gustave has found the journal, he has found the head. Enraged, Henri grabs the journal and forbids him from finding it again. Deeply hurt, Gustave runs away crying and accidently spooks a horse that runs down his aunt Marie and his baby brother. His aunt Marie breaks her leg and his baby brother is almost killed. Gustave feels culpable.
Later that night Gustave sees his father tenderly comforting his baby brother and speaking with him tenderly, he feels guilt, jealousy and rage. He wishes he could have that sort of relationship with his father. He decides to run away.
Gustave packs a couple of things and leaves the castle with his dog. He decides to head for the mountain cabin. He makes the rustic dwelling by nightfall.
The next morning, Gustave can’t be found and Henri and his wife are sick with worry. He has never taken off before. Henri feels more and more the world closing in on him. He should have left the Amazon spirits in their jungle.
Flashback: Amazon River, 1853
The Marajon is ready to shove off. Henri waits on the shore for Gouzenne’s servant Eduardo. “He said he would come. He said he would get me what I wanted.”
There is a rustling of leaves and branches as a figure emerges out of the dark forest. It is Eduardo but he looks different, his face pale, his gaze dull. “It’s going to cost you double. I risked my life for this.” His voice tremulous. Henri hesitates and then gives him the money. The servant hands him a jute sac, his hand trembling. Eduardo tells Henri that the head will now make him a great hunter. Henri turns and boards the steamer for his final leg to the Atlantic. On deck he turns to wave to Eduardo, but he has vanished.
That night Henri dreams of a great consuming fire and a jungle hunt, a jungle hunt where he is the prey.
Vaumarcus, Switzerland 1871.
Henri’s father Albert and sister Sophie realize they need to help find Gustave and bring Henri back to reality. Sophie makes Henri a local herb tonic and secretly summons mystical spirits to help. Henri's father goes to look for Gustave.
After sleeping in the mountain cabin for the night, Gustave looking for something to eat realizes he brought the journal with him. He pauses for a moment and sets it down. After the initial hesitation he picks up the journal again and reads, it’s pull is simply too strong. As Gustave is engrossed in the narrative, his grandfather opens the door, “I thought I might find you here”, he says with a smile.
Gustave and his grandfather “talk” for hours. Gustave shares with his grandfather how his father’s journey inspired him, but now after the accident at the castle he feels helpless and unwanted. Albert says there is nothing father from the truth. Gustave’s grandfather talks about Henri and his growing belief in a curse that has afflicted those that he loves. Gustave’s grandfather is dismissive of the entire notion. He says “If the curse were real, then you would be the result of something ungodly, and how could that be true. You are the sweetest and kindest soul I have ever known.”
Gustave and his grandfather after some time resolve to go home but not before Gustave proves something to himself. Like his father and grandfather before him, he wants to climb the local mountain. His grandfather reluctantly agrees and they make the ascent together.
Back at the castle, Henri is slipping away. His sister is trying to help him but to no avail. His visions are getting more vivid, he is being pursued, the jungle is out to get him.
Gustave and his grandfather climb the mountain. Albert becomes weary halfway to the top, he asks Gustave to return with him to the cabin. Gustave refuses, he feels he must finish, even if it’s alone. Gustave perseveres and makes it to the summit despite his physical pain and doubting inner voice. Gustave returns the cabin and he, his dog and his grandfather return home.
Henri is distraught, and semi-lucid. For some unknown reason he feels compelled to go to the barn. While in the barn he sees a vision of a Mundurucú headhunting warrior about to strike. He screams. His horse is spooked and kicks Henri at the temple, his lamp is thrown clear. Henri crumples unconsciously. The hay on the barn floor starts to smolder.
At that moment, Gustave and Albert approach the castle. They see the barn on fire. Albert signs Gustave to stay where he is while he goes to get help. Gustave wants to listen to his grandfather but he needs to rescue the animals.
Gustave runs into the burning barn and starts to rescue the animals. He looks down and to his surprise he finds his father unconscious on the ground. The Barn is engulfed now. Gustave’s deafness is an asset here. The animal noises and people screaming for him do not distract him. He sees a clear way through the fire and drags his father to safety.
The barn fire is eventually extinguished and Henri and the castle are saved.
Both Henri and Gustave feel as if a weight were lifted and both look at each other differently from that point. Gustave no longer feels inadequate, and Henri sees his son for his incredible strengths and not his limitations. Henri would come to realize that he was never cursed and looks upon his past and his future with fresh eyes. Both have found peace.