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Sparks of Life:
A Screenplay About Wilhelm Reich
Presentation at a Fundraiser for
The Wilhelm Reich Infant Trust Endowment Fund
October 20, 2006
In July of 1983--several years after graduating from NYU's
Graduate Film School--I moved from New York City to
Los Angeles. Among my belongings was a box filled with
several original screenplays that I'd written, as well as
numerous sample scripts that I'd written for existing network
television shows. And with these materials, I set about to
break into Hollywood as a writer.
A little less than two years later, in early 1985, I got my first
studio deal over at Paramount Pictures. It was an option on
an original screenplay, a romantic comedy that I had co-written
with my girlfriend who was also an aspiring writer. Shortly
after that, another producer optioned another screenplay we
had co-written. And so, for the next several years, we were
working writers in Hollywood, on original screenplays, re-write
assignments, and TV scripts.
None of which ultimately ever got made, by the way, which is
the fate of probably 90% of people writing for film and TV.
But because we were working, because we were getting deals
with studios and producers, we started gaining more credibility
as writers, which meant we were expanding our circle of contacts
in the industry.
So I thought this might be opportune time for me to try to interest
someone in a film project that I was very passionate about, but
which I had not yet written: a feature film about Wilhelm Reich,
a film that would make Reich's life and work accessible to a wide,
mainstream audience. So the story of Sparks of Life--my recently
completed screenplay-- begins at least 21 years ago in Los Angeles.
Although it actually begins even further back than that.
I had begun reading Reich's books when I was 18 years old, up in
Rangeley, Maine during the summer before my sophomore year
in college. And after college when I went on to graduate film school
at NYU, I had decided that a film about Reich would be one of the
projects I'd pursue once I made some inroads into the film business.
And now here I was, in 1985 and 1986 in Los Angeles, finally
working as a writer. But the more I thought about it, the more I
decided that trying to interest someone in a film about Reich was
probably not a good use of my time. Because, as far as I knew,
there was already a Hollywood film project about Reich being
developed. It was called Fury on Earth, a film adaptation of
Myron Sharaf's biography of Reich that was published in early
1983 while I was still living in New York.
At the time, the book drew significant attention to Reich's life and
work among people who had never heard of him. And in June
of 1983-- according to an item that I read in Publisher's Weekly
--someone had optioned the film rights to the book. Now once
the film rights for any book are optioned or purchased outright,
the next step is hiring a screenwriter to write a script. Obviously,
without a screenplay there can be no film. And in 1985 I logically
assumed that at some point in the past two years, someone must've
been hired to write a screenplay of Fury on Earth. Which meant
it was pointless for me to compete with a project that was already
well into development.
But here's the odd thing: in all the time that I'd been in Los Angeles,
I had never seen any mention in the trade papers--in either Variety or the Hollywood Reporter--about a Fury on Earth film project. So I decided to investigate for myself.
I contacted the literary agent who handled the deal and he put me
in touch with the people who had optioned the book. And what
they all told me was: the project was basically dead, that several
screenwriters had been approached to adapt the book, but that no
screenplay had ever been written. And so the producers had let the
option expire, and had gone on to other projects. All of which is
business-as usual in Hollywood, and should not be misconstrued
as any bias or any sinister conspiracy against Reich in the
What I think happened, quite simply, is that the screenwriters who
were approached either didn't feel sufficiently interested or capable
of turning the book into a screenplay. Any good screenwriter knows
you can't simply read one biography of a person, and write a
screenplay; that writing any biographical film requires significant
additional research beyond what may be provided in a single book.
But the disturbing part of this story is the phone conversation that
I had with the producer, a man named Gene Kirkwood. Now
Kirkwood was never one of Hollywood's more prolific producers.
And, in fact, he seems to have faded from the scene altogether.
But for a while he was involved in a handful of decent films,
including his first one in 1976: it was a low-budget boxing picture
And during our phone conversation about Fury on Earth, Kirkwood
started laughing and in his very distinct New York accent he said that
he had envisioned the film as a sex comedy starring Robin Williams
as Wilhelm Reich, with scenes of Reich putting people into orgone
boxes to increase their sexual prowess. And Kirkwood wasn't
kidding when he said this.
Now maybe we can all laugh about this 20 years later, but think about
it for a moment: what if Gene Kirkwood had found a screenwriter,
and his vision of a sex comedy about Reich had actually been made
into a major motion picture? Think of the distortion of Reich's life
and legacy that would have been disseminated to millions of
moviegoers. And how, for generations to come, that distorted image
of Reich would've supplanted the historic, medical, and scientific facts
that are found in Reich's own books and other writings. But this is
precisely the major concern we should all have when we discuss
a possible movie about Reich.
Unless such a film is responsibly researched, written, and produced,
the damage to Reich's legacy could be significant. And unfortunately
it's business-as-usual--even among the best screenwriters, producers,
and directors--to play fast and loose with the facts of true-life stories
if they believe it will make for a better film. Under the twin banners
of "artistic license" and "creative freedom" together with the frequent
Hollywood disclaimer that "This film is suggested or inspired by
real-life events" someone could legally produce a film in which Reich:
- claims he can cure cancer...
- promotes the orgone accumulator as a sexual device...
- conducts secret work for the C.I.A...
- uses the cloudbuster for mind-control experiments...
- and has clandestine meetings with President Eisenhower
None of which are true, but all of which are stated as fact somewhere
in numerous irresponsible articles, books, websites, and chat rooms.
Last month, ABC television ran a two-part miniseries called
"The Path to 9-11" in which the filmmakers willfully altered the facts,
thereby distorting the historic truth about specific individuals and their
involvement in specifics events. Now if Hollywood filmmakers are
capable of showing little allegiance to the facts about one of the most
critical events of our lifetime, what possible allegiance to the facts
could a typical Hollywood filmmaker have about an obscure man
named Wilhelm Reich who died half a century ago?
Now back to 1985: once I had confirmed that there was no film
about Reich being developed, I decided that in my spare time, I
would continue to read Reich, to research Reich, to put together
a screenplay outline for myself. And, at some point, when I had
the time, to take a few months off and complete a feature-length
screenplay about Reich. And in 1991, I completed that screenplay.
I'm not talking about Sparks of Life, I'm talking about an earlier
screenplay that I wrote and spent years trying to sell. In fact,
I brought this project to the attention of four Academy Award-
winning directors: Richard Attenborough, Milos Forman, the
English director Tony Richardson, and Oliver Stone. As well
as to producers in America and Europe.
And later on, during questions and answers, I'd be happy to talk
more about those experiences, but right now I'd to move on
specifically to Sparks of Life. To make a long story short,
when I failed to get a deal on that earlier screenplay year after
year after year, I gradually became very disenchanted and
disappointed with the screenplay itself.
When I wrote it, it absolutely represented the best I could do at
the time. But as the years passed, I realized quite simply that the
script wasn't good enough. In retrospect, I think it had a lot of the
right notes, but that it lacked a certain melody. I felt that the script
badly needed a major rewrite, perhaps even what's known in the
business as a "Page One Rewrite" which is a complete overhaul.
But I had neither the creative energy nor the stomach to re-think
and rewrite the entire screenplay.
Until 1999, when two important things happened. First, I had begun
working with Mary Higgins on what would become the Museum's
biographical video about Reich entitled Man's Right to Know.
Which forced me once again to immerse myself into all kinds of
primary materials and resources about Reich's life and work. And
second --and probably more important--was the publication of
American Odyssey, Reich's letters and journals from 1940 to 1947.
American Odyssey was really the single most significant factor in
drawing me back into this project, because it provided new information
and new insights that allowed me to completely re-imagine my film
story about Reich. The first time I read the book, I quickly started to
imagine not only brand new film scenes, but entire film sequences:
multiple scenes strung together chronologically, with both historic
accuracy and cinematic drama. The book also deepened my
appreciation of Reich's relationships with his colleagues and with
his daughter Eva. And I began to imagine new scenes to dramatize
those relationships, based on material from the book.
And while American Odyssey covers only 8 years of Reich's life,
the material in the book inspired me to re-imagine the middle of
the film--literally the center of the film--from which I could then
expand out in both directions to re-think the rest of the film story.
And so, with the exception of maybe 12 pages from that first script,
Sparks of Life is essentially a "page one rewrite," a complete overhaul.
Ultimately, then, this screenplay is a culmination of over three decades
of reading and research, with a focus on studying primary materials
and resources. These include:
The real challenge, of course, was how to distill all of this research
into a coherent and accessible screenplay. And to address that point,
I need to talk a little bit about the screenplay format itself.
What I call the "modern screenplay" is a relatively recent literary form.
Poetry, for example, goes back thousands of years, with its roots in
an even more ancient tradition of "oral storytelling." We can trace
playwriting back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, hundreds of
years before Christ. And the novel is several hundred years old,
with its beginnings in the 17th or 18th century, depending on what
country you're talking about.
But what I call "the modern screenplay" has its beginnings around
1927 when sound, when talking pictures, first came to a motion picture
industry that itself was barely 30 years old. So what we have here
is a form of writing that is approximately 80 years old. But in this
brief period of time, the craft of screenwriting and the craft of feature
filmmaking have revealed a series of patterns and consistencies that
allow us to make the following assertions:
- A film story, like many other forms of storytelling, has a beginning, a middle, and an end
- In a film the beginning, the middle, and the end actually translate into a definable 3-Act Structure...a structure that is largely invisible to moviegoers even as they are responding to it
- In terms of screen time, this 3-Act Structure corresponds closely to specific page numbers in the screenplay
- In general, when you average it out, one page of a screenplay translates into one minute of screen time. And I emphasize the words "In general."
- In general, the approximate length of a film can be estimated by the length of the screenplay.
In other words, a screenplay for a 100 to 120 minute film--which is
the average length of most feature films--will generally be anywhere
from 100 to 125 pages. So a writer working on a film of this length
does not write a 200 page screenplay, or a 60 page screenplay. That
would indicate a writer who doesn't know the basics of screenwriting.
What's significant about these observations is that they allow us to
identify a specific paradigm, a specific model, in terms of screenplay
structure and length. So while a poem can be two lines, 200 lines,
or 2000 lines; and a novel can be a hundred pages or a thousand pages;
a screenplay is bound by a more rigorous set of parameters.
This, then, is the standard paradigm for a traditional 100 to 120 minute
(The following chart was projected onto a large screen)
STANDARD SCREENPLAY PARADIGM
ACT ONE - SET UP
Approximate page numbers: pages 1- 30
Approximate screen time : 20 – 30 minutes
With a climactic or "inciting incident" toward the end of Act I which propels the story into Act II
ACT TWO – RISING ACTION
Approximate page numbers: pages 31 - 90
Approximate screen time: 60 minutes
With a climactic or "inciting incident" toward the end of Act II which propels the story into Act III
ACT THREE – RESOLUTION
Approximate page numbers: pages 90 - 120
Approximate screen time: 20 – 30 minutes
Now these pages can vary a bit, depending on the film story itself.
But not significantly, for the most part. This is, in fact, a valuable
paradigm that works. And to anyone here who might be thinking,
"What a mechanistic way to approach storytelling," I would strongly
disagree by emphasizing this point: This paradigm is not a series
of rules and regulations and constraints that are imposed arbitrarily
on the craft of screenwriting and the craft of feature filmmaking.
Rather it is a paradigm that revealed itself, that became self-evident
from observations over long periods of time about what film
audiences actually respond to.
For example, if characters and plot are not set up in a timely fashion
in Act I, the audience is bored and the film suffers. If conflict and
plot and character development are not effectively worked out in a
timely fashion in Act II, the same thing.
So I would argue--to borrow Reich's terminology--that this
paradigm reflects a functional approach and not a mechanistic one.
Because, as I said, it is based on observations over long periods
of time, and consequently can be a very valuable tool. And within
this paradigm, there are endless opportunities for creative flexibility,
variation, and innovation in terms of plot, characters, dialogue,
and visuals. Just as in music we see an infinite number of
possibilities from a relatively small collection of musical notes.
So my challenge, obviously, was "How to outline and structure a
film story about Reich within this paradigm." Which brought me
to my first creative dilemma:
- Did I feel I could tell a good film story about Reich in just two hours?
- Was two hours sufficient time to do justice to Reich's life and work?
And my answer almost immediately was "No." For me, two hours
was not long enough to tell the film story that I wanted to tell. And
there were several reasons for this:
First, ever since I started reading Reich's books, certain episodes in
his life would leap off the pages as movie scenes...as potentially
great cinema. For example:
- Reich in one of his hygiene clinics in Europe, attending to the emotional and practical needs of working-class people is a unique movie scene
- Reich speaking in front of hundreds of people in his Sex-Pol organization in Europe is a movie scene
- Reich at the Berlin train station--dressed as a tourist on a ski holiday to escape from the Nazis after Hitler takes power--is a movie scene...
- The bio-electrical experiments in Oslo...
- The discovery of orgone energy radiation in bion cultures...
- Reich meeting with Albert Einstein--one of the most famous personalities of the 20th century--these are all movie scenes
And we're only up to January 1941. We still have 16 years left to go
in this man's life.
- Reich treating terminal cancer patients with the orgone energy accumulator...
- The FBI arresting Reich as an enemy alien at 2:00 a.m. and taking him out to Ellis Island...
- Discovering a motor force in orgone energy...
- The Oranur Experiment...
- Reich's weather experiments with the cloudbuster...
- A U.S. Marshall arriving at Orgonon to serve Reich with a Complaint for Injunction...
- The government-ordered burning of Reich's literature at Orgonon and in New York City...
These are all movie scenes. So instinctively two hours didn't seem
Secondly, my practical experience as a writer only reinforced this.
For years, the screenplays that I was writing were all traditional
two hour scripts, that were anywhere from 100 to 125 pages long.
And with that experience came a sense of what was possible
and not possible within the traditional two-hour format. So, again:
two hours just didn't seem long enough.
And my final reason for wanting to write a longer film was this:
there have been literally dozens of excellent historical and biographical
feature films that exceed two hours in length. So why couldn't this be
one of them?
- Amadeus, directed by Milos Forman, 158 minutes
- The Insider, the true story of a tobacco company whistleblower,
directed by Michael Mann, 157 minutes
- Cinderella Man, about the boxer James Braddock, 144 minutes
- A Beautiful Mind, about mathematician John Nash, 135 minutes
- Ray, about singer Ray Charles, 152 minutes
- Bird, about jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, 161 minutes
- Catch Me If You Can, about a real-life con man, directed by
Steven Spielberg, 141 minutes
- The Aviator, Martin Scorsese's film about Howard Hughes,
- Henry and June, Philip Kaufman's film about the writer Henry Miller,
- Out of Africa, about author Isak Dinesen--who was not exactly a
household name in the 1980s--150 minutes
- The Last Emperor, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, 160 minutes
The list goes on and on.
So why not a two-and-half hour film about Wilhelm Reich, which
would mean a screenplay that was approximately 150 pages long,
instead of 120. Writing a three-hour film was completely out of
the question, since Hollywood seldom produces 3-hour films.
Meaning a 3-hour screenplay from an unproduced writer would
not go over very well.
So, having settled on the length--with the luxury now of 150 pages--
I began to outline the film story, using the 3-Act paradigm as a
(Two charts showing a detailed script breakdown were
projected onto the screen as Mr. Hinchey discussed them.)
Now I'd like to say just a few words about "Artistic License" and
"Distortion." As I said earlier, anyone could legally produce a film
about Reich and significantly distort the facts of his life and work.
A disclaimer at the beginning of the film would absolve the filmmakers
of most legal issues...while, on a professional level, the filmmakers
would probably cite "artistic license" and "creative freedom" to justify
the altering or distorting of facts.
But because Reich's life and work were subjected to such destructive
distortion and slander during his lifetime, and because we continue
to hear these same distortions and slanders 50 years after his death,
what good could possibly come from a film that does not rigorously
and honestly aspire to the facts about Reich? What good could
possibly come from a film that plays fast and loose with the facts,
purely in the interest of entertainment?
Obviously no screenplay, based on true events, can adhere completely to
the facts. The constraints and demands of any screenplay require constant
creative choices, and--in the case of true-life stories--constant ethical and
moral choices as well. But there's a huge difference between honest,
justifiable, and necessary creative choices, and what is simply outright
distortion that unfairly and unnecessarily ignores documented facts.
That's not to say that there are--or could ever be--some standardized
guidelines to decide what is or is not distortion in film and TV. These
are decisions left to individuals...to individual writers, directors and
producers who we can only hope will make their decisions honestly
and in good faith.
Now I have no idea exactly how long it took me to actually write
Sparks of Life once I finished my outline. Working off and on,
maybe three or four years. But I do know that the reason it took so long
was because I had to justify to myself--in the interest of accuracy and truth--
every choice that I was making in terms of characterization, dialogue, action,
visuals, and the portrayal of Reich's work. And during this process,
I informally came up with my own set of guidelines about the creative
decisions I was making. Which admittedly are somewhat vague and
general and subjective. But they provided me with at least some basic
- Based on my extensive research, I would not knowingly write anything that would misrepresent or distort the facts of Reich's life and work.
- Based on my extensive research, I would not knowingly write anything that would misrepresent or distort the facts about certain real-life individuals.
- Wherever possible and dramatically appropriate--in dialogue and in descriptions--I would use Reich's own words from his books, research journals, bulletins, diaries, audiotapes, legal papers, and other publicly accessible documents.
- In situations where I honestly felt I had no choice but to exercise artistic license with certain facts, I would do so in a manner that would not result in the distortion of the basic truths of Reich's life and work.
And just a final note here. I've always felt that the basic facts of Reich's life
and work are so dramatic, unique, compelling, and cinematic, that there's
absolutely no reason to significantly alter them in the interest of telling a
good film story.
And now I'd like to conclude by reading a few excerpts from Sparks of Life.
I'll begin with the first three pages--the first three minutes--of the film,
which are a description of the title sequence, followed by the opening scene.
In the title sequence, what I attempt to do is immediately introduce some of
the ideas, themes and visuals that will be played out during the film. And
the opening scene itself is the audience's introduction to Wilhelm Reich.
(Pages 1, 2, 3 of the screenplay were
projected onscreen and read aloud.)
So Reich met Einstein in January 1941. Einstein initially showed some interest in
Reich's scientific work, but shortly afterwards he essentially gave Reich the brush-
off. Reich continued to mail Einstein materials pertaining to his scientific and medical
And as Reich anxiously waited to hear back from Einstein, he began one of the most
important and dramatic phases of his research: he began using large orgone energy
accumulators to treat terminal cancer patients.
These case histories are documented in The Cancer Biopathy, while Reich's
contemporaneous accounts of some of them can be found in American Odyssey.
I used the facts of his first case history to write this next scene.
I also decided to use digital special effects--which are commonplace today in film, TV
and even pharmaceutical commercials--to visualize the physical aspects and movement
of orgone energy.
This excerpt begins with Reich's first terminal cancer patient using an orgone energy
accumulator in Reich's second-floor treatment room in Forest Hills, and segues into
Reich's presentation of this case study at a seminar.
(Pages 51, 52, 53 of the screenplay were
projected onscreen and read aloud.)
This next scene takes place in late summer of 1945, outside of Reich's lakeside cabin at
Orgonon in Rangeley, Maine. And is based on material from American Odyssey.
Reich is playing with his infant son Peter, as his daughter Eva--now in her 20s--looks
on. World War II has just ended. And Eva has begun to confide in her father about all
of the things that her mother and her mother’s friends had told her for years about Reich.
(Pages 67 and 68 of the screenplay
were projected onscreen and read aloud.)
The last scene that I’ll read is what can only be described as Reich's big "Courtroom
Scene." The problem is, Reich never really had a big courtroom moment during his trial
for contempt of court in 1956.
The trial itself was a rather mundane affair that did not allow Reich to articulate his
position that courts of law cannot have jurisdiction over matters of natural science and
research. So for me, Reich's trial for contempt-of-court fails as cinematic drama.
And yet the film story cries out for a courtroom confrontation.
But it would've been unconscionable for me, or for anyone, to write a trial sequence that
distorts the facts. It would've been unconscionable, for example, to show Reich in court
trying to prove the existence of orgone energy to a judge and jury--which is exactly what
he refused to do when he was first served with the Complaint for Injunction in 1954.
And yet any filmmaker could produce a sequence like that, and justify it as "artistic
license." But as I say, the film cries out for a big courtroom moment.
So I kept reading the legal documents to see if I could find one. And as I looked over
the transcripts of several preliminary hearings to Reich's trial, I saw that, in fact, Reich
did have several very eloquent moments in the courtroom in which he confronted Joseph
Maguire (the FDA lawyer) and Peter Mills, Reich's former attorney who was now the
prosecutor for the case.
I took what I felt were Reich's most powerful statements from two or three preliminary
hearings and melded them together with just a little of my own writing so that the scene
largely comprises Reich's own words. Consequently, in the screenplay Reich's big
courtroom moment takes place at a preliminary hearing and I dispensed completely with
the trial itself.
(Pages 146 and 147 of the screenplay
were projected onscreen and read aloud.)
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