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J.B White remembers adapting Peter Benchley’s The Beast

Adapting the work of Peter Benchley is no mean feat. This was the task set for new screenwriter J.B White in the mid-1990s; as The Beast, a tale of a small coastal town terrorised by a giant squid was to become a TV mini-series.

26 years later, outside of Jaws, The Beast remains one of the best Benchley adaptations. Bloody Flicks caught up with J.B to discuss bringing the story to life and how it could work as a modern-day, big-budget project.

Can you tell us how you got involved with adapting The Beast?

It was an extraordinary stroke of luck. I was very new to the business (though not young by Hollywood standards; I was 43). I was so green, in fact, that when I sold my first project (a story that became the TV movie GRAMPS, starring Andy Griffith), the buying network didn’t want me to write it. But my agent, the redoubtable Alan Gasmer, insisted I do or the network couldn’t have it. A bold, but shrewd act of faith on his part. The network agreed, thinking (no doubt) “we’ll have this newbie write a script, then we’ll bring in an experienced writer to fix it.” As it happened, my first draft was strong enough the network greenlit the movie from it. That network was NBC, and my ability to deliver a makeable first draft as a rookie put me on the radar of Lindy DeKoven, its head of movies and miniseries. She had been in discussions with Universal Television, who had the rights to the underlying novel, to make THE BEAST for televiaion. For reasons I will never understand (but for which I am eternally grateful to Alan for getting me in that position and to Lindy for taking a chance on me), she pitched me to Universal, and my meeting with the team there (several of whom remain treasured friends) went well enough, they took a chance on me as well. THE BEAST put me on the map, and I have been writing long-form television ever since. My 32nd project just completed production.

When you signed onto the project, was this a TV mini-series or a feature film?

When I came on board it was to be a TV miniseries (which in that era meant a two-night, four-hour format).

Did you work with Peter Benchley or the script, or was it a case of just adapting his text?

I didn’t work with Peter, although I met him during production. He was a true gentleman. The book had been optioned by Universal Studios years before and developed as a feature. Both Peter and John Carpenter had written scripts that never made it into production. Although I read their drafts, I started fresh, relying on the book itself and new ideas I developed with the studio.

There are some moments of real suspense in the script, was it your plan to keep the squid in the shadows for a time?

When wags at the time said of the miniseries, “It’s JAWS with a giant squid,” they meant it as a dig, but it’s absolutely true (Peter himself readily admitted as much). JAWS is one of the best suspense movies ever made, and we would have been fools not to follow its lead. I believe in any really effective creature feature, it’s the threat of attack that is most terrifying not the creature itself (e.g., in ALIEN, we don’t see the creature until the climax). JAWS followed that pattern (although part of the reason was the filmmakers’ continued inability to get the mechanical shark to work). So, yes, we held off as long as possibly showing the squid.

Having said that, the action sequences are excellent, tell us about writing them?

I drew as many sequences from the book as possible (e.g., the opening, with the couple on the boat: the first attack). Others I developed in collaboration with the studio. It was their brilliant idea to have there be two squids, a mother and a child. This gave us a great punctuation point for night one of the miniseries when it looks like the creature has been tracked down and destroyed, but … oops … no, the bigger, more deadly monster is still out there and bent on revenge. In the U.S., we have traditionally written television to accommodate commercial breaks. This is a fabulous restriction that encourages creative thinking. Every ten or twelve minutes (which we call “an act”) you’re going to cut to an ad, and you want the audience to keep watching. So each act becomes its own story with its own arc. You want to keep raising the stakes, and in a project like this, action is the best tool for doing that.

We haven’t seen many decent killer squid movies or tv series, is it fair to say The Beast is one of the best?

Well, I don’t know of any others, so I guess it is!

I can recall this being a big deal when it premiered on my local TV station, did the studio put much into the promotion of the series?

It was a huge deal in the States. It’s what is called a “sweeps miniseries,” one that airs in the window when networks are trying to attract as many advertising dollars for the upcoming season by drawing in as many viewers as possible. So NBC heavily promoted it for months before its air dates. There were billboards, TV spots — even vehicle-length placards on buses in L.A.! It paid off. It was the number one show (both nights) on U.S. television the week it aired. Around 25 million people watched it.

Did any of your ideas hit the cutting room floor because of budget?

Not that I recall. In general, I write scripts with production very much in mind. Every moment counts. Also, for the time, this had a huge budget. The license fee from NBC, as I recall, was $13 million. So little expense was spared.

Did you get the chance to spend any time on set in Australia with Jeff Bleckner?

I did indeed, and also during preproduction. He is one of the best, and it was another stroke of luck that I was able to work with and learn from him. He brought stellar ideas and experience to the project and helped elevate the material. It was a joy to work with him.

This was one of your first writing assignments, how exciting was this to work on?

Unbelievably exciting.

What were your thoughts when you saw the final product?

I was thrilled. We screened it in a theater (I believe at Universal Studios) in front of an audience of hundreds. Bear in mind a four-hour network miniseries is actually three hours of screen time (all those commercials …). So it was shown uninterrupted. The audience response was enthusiastic, and I walked on air.

Do you think The Beast is ripe for a modern day, big-budget remake?

Certainly. Particularly in the age of streaming, when there are new creative opportunities for grittier content. And we made THE BEAST in the era before affordable CGI for television. All the effects in the movie are wonderfully old school (miniatures, props, sound stage water tanks). What would be possible now fires the imagination. The ball’s in Universal’s court. It still owns the rights to the book.

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