Editors note: Deadline’s Read the Screenplay series debuts and celebrates the scripts of films that will be factors in this year’s movie awards race.
When adapting his Tony-winning 2016 play The Humans for the screen, writer-director Stephen Karam believed a cinematic interpretation had the potential to offer an even more potent and immersive experience than the stage production, particularly if he leaned even further into the horror film influences that originally fueled his approach.
“When I began writing the play, I was inspired by tropes from the horror and psychological thriller movie genres,” said Karam. “Later, I had a gut feeling I couldn’t shake that something I conceived originally for the stage could be rethought for a new medium and perhaps work better…I thought film could better get at the soul—the blood and guts—of the story. But I knew it would require a reinvention.”
Karam took his tale, in which a working-class Philadelphia family assembles in a delipidated, labyrinthine Manhattan apartment for the Thanksgiving holiday as each member grapples with issues of identity, aging, financial insecurity and fraying family bonds. Those play out in scenarios with the characters — played by Richard Jenkins, Amy Schumer, Beanie Feldstein, Steven Yeun and Jayne Houdyshell, the latter who won a Tony for the original play — that evoke psychological thriller traditions keenly defied by the likes of Edward Yang, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Krzysztof Kieślowski. Karam drew from those filmmakers when crafting the visual elements he’d incorporate into his screenplay.
Like any good horror story, a visceral terror was built into the core. “The story was born out of my fear and anxieties surrounding the financial crisis in 2007,” said Karam, who recalled how he and his friends and family struggled with the uncertainty that ensued. “I’m always trying to make art out of what is happening in my own life, questions I can’t answer, and at the time I had this real dread around what would happen if I lost my income.”
Karam found a pervasive unease in the ordinary, subtly making “all the familiar things from family dramas feel a bit strange, unfamiliar and sometimes a little unsettling or scary,” he said. “The story is so much about the unspoken anxieties of this group of people; visuals could communicate so much without dialogue.”
The resulting story has resonated across economic, class and generational boundaries, allowing “for shifting meanings in shifting times,” he said. “The story of a family and its fears stay relevant because they don’t have to be or mean one thing only. My own favorite stories hold conflicting ideas together at the same time without collapsing.”
Read the script below for the pic, which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this fall.
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