Scripts can take a few days or a decade to write. As you’ll hear again and again… “writing is rewriting”. Whether you’re flying solo or co-writing a screenplay, the beast can become unruly, get away from us and sometimes get stuck in limbo.
Even finished screenplays can find themselves in development hell, destined to remain an exercise in wishful thinking. The Little Things is a classic example, a screenplay written by John Lee Hancock in 1993 around the time of A Perfect World. Now often compared with David Fincher’s serial killer thriller, Seven, it’s funny to learn that the screenplay was crafted two years before Seven released.
Set in the ’90s, a golden age with serial killer flicks with Hannibal Lecter licking his lips, it’s retained much of the era’s feel. Coming at a time when True Detective’s popularity has shown just how strong this kind of storytelling can be, it’s possibly the spark that ignited having another swing at The Little Things.
Having high profile actors and directors attached at various intervals, The Little Things must have gone through a great many changes. Perhaps it was just bad luck in terms of timing or maybe the screenplay just wasn’t up to scratch.
Whatever the reason, it attracted Denzel Washington who was originally set to star in the earliest iterations. Coming full circle, the idea must have stuck with the actor who decided that this would be the film to bring him back into the fray after a break. Being Washington, the high profile actor brings a great deal of credibility to a project and this was the very reason Jared Leto signed on to play another ‘dark character’.
Then, as if Washington and Leto’s presence wasn’t enough, The Little Things also has the star power of No Time to Die and Bohemian Rhapsody’s Rami Malek. No less than three Oscar winners. The crime drama thriller takes inspiration from Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks painting, which is given a nod in their creation of the Buns ‘n Burgers diner.
It seethes, a moody foray into Fincher’s glum world of endless nights and stoic detectives where everything seems to be operating in the key of bleak. It’s a perfect atmosphere for serial killers to play mind games with detectives and The Little Things takes a few pages from Seven, Zodiac and True Detective.
Unfortunately, the characters rely on the strength of the performances. The actors deliver the goods, embroidering what’s on the page with considerable heft. The unfortunate part is that the story could have been so much more. As a mystery, there back stories linger… never quite offering enough substance until the third act.
Going through the detective motions there are hints of character but just not quite enough to really rope us into an emotional investment. This reluctance makes it seem safe, trying to harness what little enigma they have but failing to compel audiences or serve up contact points. Watching from an arm’s length and with John Lee Hancock leaning quite heavily on the subgenre’s standards, it fails to catch fire.
Being stuck in development for so long, it can count against a film as entertainment journalists lament about it being problematic, allowing this bias to dictate the film’s trajectory. It’s wonderful that it finally came to fruition, shows that patience can be crucial in the film game and that your screenplay may need to wait until the right tipping point comes along.
It took The Little Things over 25 years for the right point in time. John Lee Hancock must have had the project on ice, keeping himself busy with other more ready-to-go productions but it’s reassuring to know that some scripts do eventually find the light of day – even if a waiting game is involved.