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Poker Night, by Nick Locke Beake
I am using the word inspiration in a slightly different way. When creating any work, I am asking you to be inspired. Draw from your experiences. Draw from other works. Imagine a tried and true story from a new perspective or setting.
“All art is quite useless”, quoth Oscar Wilde. And while I am a fan of his work, his opinions on art’s usefulness is where we fervently disagree. I believe art’s utility is tangible and the need to make use of that utility paramount. It is wholly because of art’s ability to inform, comfort, challenge, recreate, heal, harm, and most importantly, entertain, that I find myself among the broad ranks of its practitioners. Creativity, alongside the stalwart pillars of logic and empathy, should be encouraged and fostered. It is for this reason that I, above all other things, do.
Regarding my work, It should be noted that Poker Night, with all its flaws, marks the first time I have supplied my writing for anything resembling a professional work. And, despite my paltry attempts at eloquence here, I am an actor by profession, not a writer. So, it is with some surprise that it has come to this, especially considering the quotidian inspirations for the screenplay. A competition for one’s soul is by no means a new story, and mortals engaged in contests with divine figures date back to the ancient Greeks. A large inspiration for the Devil’s manner was taken from Paradise Lost, though my Louie is far more coy about his banishment. The Play The Seafarer was a secondary inspiration, namely its modern setting and initially hidden antagonist. Other minor influences include the works of Stephen King and Rod Serling, 1940’s Hollywood movies, the video game BioShock, as well as various Irish legends.
Inspiration is a key aspect to all of this, yet not in that cliché manner of a bolt of lightning striking a struggling artist at their lowest point and spurring them on to craft a work for the ages. Writing (or any creative work, for that matter) is almost never like that. I am using the word inspiration in a slightly different way. When creating any work, I am asking you to be inspired. Draw from your experiences. Draw from other works. Imagine a tried and true story from a new perspective or setting. Have a character go against tropes for comedic or dramatic effect. Imagine your fellow humans complexly; they live a life just as nuanced as yours. Create a rich tapestry of ideas, philosophies, references, pastiches, and meanings. When you recontextualize old ideas and story forms, seeing how they react to a mode of operation completely unknown to those who originally crafted them, you create something more than the sum of its parts. They say that there’s nothing new under the sun.
And I suppose all art must be useless, too.
Poker Night began as a five-page assignment for a scriptwriting class. This early version was crude, unfocused, and too short. The overall story was the same as the final version. Jack, everyman college student, arrives at a dormitory (which was, through words, a recreation of Taylor Hall here on campus) for a game of poker with his friends: Louie, Peter, Cain, and Able. As the night went on, it became apparent that Jack was playing for his soul. I soon realized that I could not make a story with the amount of detail I required work in five pages. So, I shelved the story, returning to it later and expanding it into a seven-page script, pitching it to the UWO Film Society. It was chosen alongside another script with a similar premise (a college student chatting with Death on top of a parking garage) to be adapted into a short film. The director asked for several changes. First, the setting was changed from a dorm to the back room of a pub. The characters, who were college students in the original, were changed to be of indeterminate age, though the director originally wanted fully adult actors. The character Karen (who was a Res- Life desk worker in the original, named for Charon, the ferryman of the underworld) evolved into the Barfly, a silent character who merely cameos in the opening scene (He was sadly cut the day of filming. The actor who was to play him did not show up). Peter, who was merely observing in the original, was made to be more unambiguously good. The character Abel was removed entirely, and his brother Cain became a secondary antagonist. This first revision was used going into auditions, with a separate bonus scene (which was never filmed) written for the Barfly, as he does not speak. After auditions, the director asked that Louie be given fewer lines, as he felt Louie’s presence was overpowering. At the same time, he felt Peter needed a stronger presence to enhance the conflict. Finally, the Devil’s gender was changed, as Andrea Ewald completely aced her audition. I was originally hesitant, but changed my mind completely after reading lines with her for her audition. The director, producers, and I all agreed that if no one else as good as her came along, she'd get the part. No one did. So, Louie became Lucy, and a few lines were changed to better suit how Miss Ewald read for the character.
At this time, the director and I had a large disagreement over the ending. He thought it was too dark, suggesting that Jack should be saved, or that Jack’s end should at least be more ambiguous. However, I was steadfastly opposed. That night, an emergency meeting was convened by our producer, who revealed that the director was deciding to leave the project over several creative disagreements, mine only one of them. Our producer eventually convinced him to return. The agreement was that I would change anything about the script to his tastes if the ending remained off limits. The largest of these new changes was the solidification of the script’s central conflict, which the director thought had been unfocused. And while I was bitter to these changes at the time, now I cannot deny that his input made the script and my writing better overall. In the final version of the script, it is Peter who greets Jack, not Louie. As opposed to being a formality for a doomed man, the poker game became a contest that Jack didn’t even know he was playing. It became a game around another game. If Jack could remember what he did, he could repent and be saved. If he could not remember by game’s end, the Devil got his soul. Various dialog changes were made to support this change, with several lines now suggesting that Jack is there due to the unusual circumstances of his life and death, and that the game is similar to chess matches played during the Cold War; harmless, yet signifying a struggle so much larger. With the script finished, we began filming in an actual bar. We had scheduled two days for filming, yet only ended up using about two thirds of the first day. I helped on set as production designer, as well as assisting the script supervisor.
I am proud of my work to say the least. I am unsure what more could be said, so I leave you with a nifty tidbit; a humbling, yet nevertheless absurd crowning jewel. The film, which was (and, as of writing this, remains) unfinished, was submitted to the yearly UWO Radio, TV, & Film Awards. Despite being incomplete and competing against fully finished and polished works, Poker Night won Best Picture.