Sunday, July 13, 2014
"Return of the King: A Movie Treatment"
On July 10, 2014, about the time I began working on the previous essay, I read a long piece in the Los Angeles Times by reporter Jason Song titled “Looking for greener pastures after tragedy.” I found the report so moving that I thought to myself, “This could almost be a movie.” And I determined to write up a summary on what I’d read, given its appropriateness to the subjects of the current My Year volume.
A dry summary of something so well written, however, represented what I quickly perceived to be an irritating task, forcing me, for a few hours at least, to abandon my plans. “Why not just refer the reader to the original newspaper article,” I asked myself.
The next day, however, I realized that perhaps I could make the writing more interesting if I actually did try to reconstitute the reported facts into something closer to what I had imagined possible, and, accordingly, I decided to write up my comments in the form of “A Movie Treatment.”
Anyone who has read my writing knows how much I love movies and am devoted to filmmaking history. But not only have I never written a movie treatment, I have never even seen one! I imagine that such a genre summarizes the structure of the film without revealing its actual dialogue; but when I began writing, dialogue naturally intruded, particularly given the statements quoted in the newspaper article.
The end result, published below, was a lot of fun to write. But I certainly realize that my efforts hardly resulted in enough narrative to create an effective movie, and that any such movie—at least the way I conceived it—would be a highly sentimental one, the kind of film I absolutely detest—proving once again that competent critics do not necessarily make for competent artists of the same arena.
Although I tried to retain the actual details of the news report, using real names when I knew them, and researching a little into the Ortega family tragedy, I also—like most scriptwriters—had no qualms in making up information that I didn’t have at hand, even going so far to completely alter reality (at least up to the time of the published piece) by ending my proposed little “filmlet” with a fictional encounter between Megan Gaynes and James Ortega, Jr., whom I cavalierly dubbed Jamey to distinguish him from James, his father.
Although I have never set foot in Mira Loma nor laid eyes on Mike’s Livestock Auction House, internet photos gave me some sense of the layout. The generous Mr. Keogh, as far as I know, may have never uttered a swear word in his life, and, in fact, may have no daughter whom might mythically have “spoiled” their horse. Finally, as far as I know, Megan Gaynes may be a teetotaler, but as someone who clearly cared for and worried over the lives of animals, she seemed worthy of being provided with several gin and tonics—which I have now permanently absented from!
In short, unlike the standard declaration of many movies, my amateur work is based on real figures whose words, in several instances, are quoted; nonetheless this work might still be perceived as a kind of fiction.*
Terrifyingly, a murder eerily similar to the slaughter of the Ortega family, occurred the same day as this report in Huston, where, once again, a disgruntled ex-husband, Ronald Haskell showed up to a family home dressed as a Fed-Ex delivery man, killing four children and their parents. His primary target, his ex-wife, was not at the home. As with Ortega killing one child was shot, but survived the ordeal.
return of the king: a movie treatment
The camera begins high, panning down into a dry valley basin with a few trees and brush surrounding. We spot a small, foot worn, circular horse track, a “show” circle, at one end of which sits a labyrinth of pens constructed of steel tube connectors. A lone man walks across the track to where a small group of women and men are standing in the sun, several chatting in quiet waiting
A small truck with a horse trailer attached pulls into the enclosure, the camera catching a sign as it crosses the entry, MIKE’S LIVESTOCK AUCTION, beneath which is an attached banner: HORSE AUCTION TODAY.
The truck pulls into a side area where several cars and trucks, similarly attached to horse trailers have already parked. The driver pulls up next to another truck and trailer, quickly exiting the vehicle, our camera revealing a blond-haired, sweet looking, slightly plump woman (Megan Gaynes). On the side of the truck, as she walks toward the camera, we see the words: AUCTION HORSES RESCUE.
Gaynes heads straight to the pens, walking down the center row of horse stalls to either side, most of them filled with horses, some tied, others lying down, several clearly having seen better days. Gaynes marches through the maze, pausing to look over the animals carefully, eyeing their condition and, occasionally, stopping to pat nuzzles as she passes.
Outside, the auction gets underway. A horse is led out of the area, ridden around the small circle of observers, as the auctioneer begins the bidding.
Meanwhile, Gaynes makes her way down the narrow passageway, suddenly stopping to look over an elderly chestnut gelding. The horse, obviously in great pain, hardly lifts his magnificent head, topped by a white triangle. We see that its right hind leg is terribly swollen, an inexpert bandage wrapped halfway round.
Gaynes, sighs, slightly gasps, moves back the way from which she has come to encounter the foreman.
“Hey,” she cries out, “you, Mr. Gonzalez?”
He looks in her direction, quizzically.
“That gelding, the one with the white triangle, no. 31,” he’s hurting.
“Yep. What about him?”
“He’s in bad shape. That swollen ankle. Looks to me he’s a rodeo horse. Been tripped.”
“Where’d you get him?”
“Don’t precisely recall. A man brought him in. Just wants to sell.”
“You gonna ride him?”
Gonzalez does not get her meaning.
“You gonna ride him? Out there?” She points to the small circle where another horse is now being ridden.
“In a while.”
“You’re gonna to hurt him. Hurt him more. He can’t hold a rider, you know that!”
“Gotta show him, sell him.”
“He’s not gonna get much in that condition.”
“He gets what he gets.” Gonzalez turns to leave.
We hear the patter of the auctioneer once more.
“I’ll give you $300. $300 cash, right now “We don’t sell horses, we auction them. Can’t sell you a horse before the others get a chance to bid.”
“It’s more than you’ll get out there. More than he’s worth.”
Gonzalez seems to be considering it.
“You could break his leg if you ride him. Kill him. My money’s good. You know that.”
Gonzalez ponders. Pause. “Take him.”
Gaynes moves toward the horse.
“Three hundred first.”
She turns back, pulls out a wallet.
Another horse is taken from the pens to be ridden around the small show circle.
She hands Gonzalez the money.
Close up as Gaynes gently strokes the horse, pats its still-bent head. She pulls him toward her, and the horse, clearly suffering, moves with her as she carefully takes him down the small cement walkway, handing him over to an auction worker while she returns to her truck, pulling up closer to the pens.
Gaynes gently leads the horse into the trailer, pleading, stroking, lovingly placing him into the trailer. The car drives off through the desert landscape.
Gaynes’ truck and horse trailer pull up to small building, a veterinary clinic. She parks in the driveway and goes in. Shift to inside the clinic. A man, Zack, is in the midst of vaccinating a small pig positioned upon his metal table.
“Zack, I got a visitor,” says Gaynes. “A sick horse. Needs help bad.”
Zack shoots the now squealing piglet, a nurse taking it away to room at the side.
“Where you got him.”
“In the trailer.”
Slightly garrulously: “Well bring him out.”
The two leave the clinic, slamming the screen door behind them.
She brings the horse out, and Zack looks it over.
“A real beauty! But he’s bad. Bad off.”
“My guess he was a rodeo horse, bred to get tripped up.”
Zack bends to closer inspect the swollen leg. The horse shies away at his touch.
“He’s in real pain, I can tell you that.”
“I can see that. That’s why he’s here.”
Zack reenters the clinic.
In the interim Gaynes strokes his head once more. “You’re gonna be okay. You’re gonna be okay.”
Zack returns, bringing with him a woman assistant holding a large horse needle.
“He’s gonna need shots. Several shots. Gotta give him some painkillers before we try to touch that leg.”
The pair prepare to inject the horse, the camera pulling away at the very moment that the horse shivers and whinnies in the surprise of the unseen needle.
It is dark. With the clinic stable where Gaynes sits with her horse we can hardly see anything for a few seconds. As if our eyes have suddenly adjusted we spot the horse lying peacefully, with Gaynes sitting beside him a few feet away.
She gently strokes the beast.
“You all right, boy? You all right?”
As if in recognition of her gentle ministrations, the horse snorts, lifting his head slightly up.
A few second pass before the horse, repeating the gesture, lifts his head once again and returns it to her lap.
Gaynes, laughing in delight, “You want some company, is that it? You got it. I’ll stay here for a while if you want.”
The horse briefly lifts his head again as if in response, returning it to the soft bed of her lap.
Gaynes stands near the dinner table of Zack’s clinic, where he and his wife are seated along with several of his assistants.
Zack (again a bit garrulously): “Sit down, for god’s sake. There’s always enough for another
Gaynes: “Can’t eat.”
Zack: “Then just sit. You’re making me nervous.”
She sits for a few seconds, then stands.
Zack: “You’re making me nervous.”
The group continues to eat. Pause.
Zack: “So what are you going to do with him? You got more than a dozen out there now.
They’ll eat you out of business yet.
Gaynes sits, stands, paces, turns back to Zack.
Gaynes: “He’s almost more like a dog than a horse. (Pause) You can tall he’s been loved.”
Zack: “By whom I’d like to know. He’s got arthritis for one thing. He’s a gelding for another.
No good for breeding. Whoever loved him so much certainly wanted him out of their lives….
Couldn’t even keep him in good shape. So much for your theories about love.”
Gaynes: “He’s got a tattoo. On his upper lip. Here (she pulls out a photo from her pocket), I took a picture. Somebody wanted to let people know who he was.”
Michael (an assistant): “After I get off work, I’ll check him out.”
Gaynes: “Would you, Michael. I gotta know. Who puts a horse out to auction so sweet?
No money to got out of him. Who does that?”
Michael: “I’ll see if I can find out.”
Gaynes sits alone in her own small bungalow in the dark. She is drinking, brooding.
The telephone rings. Rings again.
She looks at it, takes another sip. It rings once more.
She turns on a light, answers the phone.
“Yeah? Yeah? What? You gotta be kidding? Say that again. You mean he’s a racer? You gotta be kidding? Return of the King. Thanks.”
She puts the phone down.
“Return of the King. I’ll be. I just bought me royalty.”
The estate of James Keogh, Kentucky horse breeder. A pickup truck enters through a gate, flanked by a wooden sign: Keogh Estate.” The truck drives up a long, curved road through acres of green pasture land. Horse barns along either side, in the distance. A handsome white two-story house stands at the end of the drive, where the pickup stops. A blue-jeaned horse handler exits the truck, knocks at the back door of the house.
A maid meets him at the door.
“I gotta see the boss.”
“Just a moment.” The maid disappears, the camera sweeping out to the grounds of the estate until she returns.
The maid cautiously invites him in, he, just as cautiously entering into the kitchen.
A man suddenly appears, obviously a worker in the estate. “Come on up.
The handler uncomfortably follows the worker.
Within a well-appointed room, half office, half showroom, sits James Keogh behind a desk. The chairs and couches are green and red leather, studded with golden brads. Behind the couch is a display cabinet in which sits several gold cups, one huge silver cup—awards for past horse races.
“Come on in.”
The handler enters, head down.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s King again. It’s King.”
“Return of the King.”
“He’s had a fit. Tossed all his food around his paddock. Made a mess.”
“So? Clean it up!”
“It’s the third time this week. Total mess. I was just five minutes late. Just five minutes!”
“I told you. I told you last time, you have to be on time.”
“It was the truck. Wouldn’t start.”
“You have to be on time.”
“None of the others behave that way! So impatient.”
“He loves you, that’s all. He wants you to groom him. On time! He wants to be groomed on
“I know sir, but….”
“No excuses. You be there tomorrow on time.” The handler starts to leave. “And clean it up.”
“I already did sir!”
“Check in on him.”
The handler exits, while the worker enters.
“You hear that?”
“What kind of horse do we have?”
“He likes people.”
“I know that. And like him. I like the look of him. God knows, his momma and daddy were
two of the most beautiful specimens of horseflesh I’ve ever seen.”
“Just beautiful. And he’s not bad.”
“He likes to be around humans. And he likes them to be around him.”
“Yeh. Too bad he doesn’t care as much for his own kind. You get a man out there, he’d chase
him faster than lightning. Run him down. Lick him all over like he was made of sugar. But
another horse. He could care less. Gads about the final stretch as if he were checking out the
audience instead of the filly just out in front. No good. No damn good. It’s my daughter’s
fault. My damn daughter’s fault. Doted on him too much. Too much love can kill the instincts
of any good racer. He’s no good, that’s for certain. Not a win for months.
“He’s a good horse.”
“Eating me out of house and home, that’s for sure. Then throwing a temper tantrum just
because Willie’s a few minutes late. Tossing his food all over the place. Eating me out of
house and home.”
“He’s a good horse.”
“Good looking. Hell, he ought to be.” [Pause] “You know what we gotta do?”
“While he’s looking good. While other fools like you can still describe him as ‘a good horse.’”
“I want you to arrange it. Before word’s out. Before some fools begin looking through Daily
“I’ll arrange it.”
“It’s my damn daughter’s fault.”
Belmont Park Racetrack
In the stands the audience cheers on the horses in a race that has just gotten underway. An announcer’s voice can be heard as he declares the field: “It’s Bloody Knight, first in the inside, with Lucky Lady in no. 2,” etc. etc.
“Now coming round the bend, it’s………..”
“And in the final stretch, Lucky Lady takes the lead, with Winsome Willie in second,” etc. etc. and it’s “The Return of the King” at the end of the pack.
Tony Sirico, sitting with several friends, stands, tosses his betting cards to the ground. “Fuck!
Fuck! He let me down again! Fuck!”
Friend: “I told you, no use betting on that nag. I told you.”
Sirico mocks a choke hold on his friend.
Friend: All right. All right. Don’t knock the sphinx. It’s no use.”
Sirico: “He’s a good horse.”
Friend: “He never wins.
Sirico: “Sometimes he does. He’s good looking.”
Friend: “It’s no use.”
As the horses are led in, we catch a glimpse of The Return of the King, who does very much look like a good horse, head butting his trainer as he led off.
It is the late 1990s. A middle-aged man sits alone at his computer, seeming entranced, the glow of the computer lighting up his face in the surrounding darkness of the room.
James Ortega: “Could be. Just might do. Just might.”
The room door opens. His wife enters with iced tea.
Mrs. Ortega: “I brought you a drink.”
James Ortega: “Thanks.”
When the lights gradually come up we see a comfortable den, obviously a basement room,
humbly decorated, in the manner of the day, with comfortable tables and chairs, a couch.
Ortega sits at a desk shoved up against a side wall.
Mrs. Ortega: “You’ve been down here so long, I thought you might have taken a nap.”
James Ortega: “No sleep for this old man.”
Mrs. Ortega: “Or maybe even, God forbid, passed out, had another heart attack.”
James Ortega: “Wouldn’t you like?”
Mrs. Ortega: “No, I wouldn’t like. I wouldn’t like it one little bit. I remember the last.”
James Ortega: (Looking up at her, giving her a broad grin) “No, I’m all right now. I’m better.
Our luck has changed. The company’s on a boom.”
Mrs. Ortega. “Everybody’s buying now. They gotta decorate. They gotta paint.”
James Ortega. “That’s what I said. We’re in a boom. Our luck has changed.”
Mrs. Ortega: (Standing back, a bit afraid) “What luck?”
James Ortega: (Pause) Our luck.
Mrs. Ortega: (Suspiciously) “What are you looking at.”
James Ortega: (Trying somewhat to cover it up) “Porn. Women’s breasts.”
Mrs. Ortega: “You mean I’m not enough.”
James Ortega: “No woman’s enough.”
Mrs. Ortega: (Snorting) “No man either.”
James Ortega: “Just you try!”
Mrs. Ortega: (Sneaking a look around his head) “Don’t look like breasts to me. Looks like
words, names, numbers. I can see. You are planning to cheat on me!”
James Ortega: “I’ve never cheated. Never!”
Mrs. Ortega: “Not with women maybe. But you did, for a long while, if you remember.”
James Ortega: “What are talking about?”
Mrs. Ortega: “With those horses. All those horses.”
James Ortega: “You’re crazy.”
Mrs. Ortega: “No, you were crazy! Horse after horse. No money coming it. They nearly ate us
out of house and home.”
James Ortega: “No luck. As Jamey says, ‘You need a little luck to stay in the game.’ I—we had
no luck. Back then. But now we got it. Now we got it again”
Mrs. Ortega: “I told you. Horses. You’re planning to stay away again. Weekend after
James Ortega: “Teresa, I’m getting old. Don’t hold it against me. I deserve a second chance.”
Mrs. Ortega: “No, I can’t give you that. You don’t deserve that much. Just when everything had
gotten so nice again. You can’t win. Horses don’t care one way or another. You’ll lose it
all—not just money, but us. Me.”
James Ortega: “No, Terri, I won’t. Not this time. Now we’ve got our luck back. Our luck has
returned again. Just like when we were young. And you, no you’ll stay. And I’ll love you for
it. This time I think I found one. I told Jamey about it just today. I know I found one. He’s
the real thing. Perfect pedigree, a real beauty. A real horse. His name’s Return of the King.
You see, it’s like us. It’s like me. Return of the King. I’ll be King again. (Pause) And you’ll
be my Queen.
Mrs. Ortega: “No James, I’ll be here. I’ll stay with you. But I want to your wife, not a queen.”
Santa Anita Racetrack
Much like Scene 7, but this with James Ortega and his son James, his father Joseph, and his brother Charles in the stands. We hear the announcer’s countdown, just as previously. But this time the camera pans down to the racetrack to watch the horses make the pass close up.
The race is a tight won, a real knuckle-biter. As they make the turn, Return of the King is in the middle of the pack, but he soon moves up, winning the race by a full length.
The Ortegas jump up in screams. “14-1, 14-1”
Jaimy Oretega: “I can’t believe it. 14-1.”
They hug one another joyously.
James Ortega: “We’ve found our diamond in the rough.”
Montage of other races, as in films of another age. In each of them Return of the King pulls out of the pack in the last few moments to win. The Ortegas hug and dance with an overlay of The Racing Form announcing the horses’ winnings.
Megan Gaynes’ living room, the same as before we began the flashbacks. It is dark, but the light gradually increases. Megan is sitting, again with a drink in her hand, with Jamey Ortega on the couch.
Jamey Ortega: “In 2008 Return of the King earned more than $80,000 ! It wasn’t a
fortune, but it meant everything to us. Our luck had changed. Even Mom had to admit that.
Everything was going so great. Business was booming, and the horse, our beloved horse, was
winning in race after race. It meant something awful to my Dad, my Uncle, by Granddad.
It meant that we had put our money the right thing, that we had earned a place, however
small, in the racing game. We had a winner. We had won!
That Christmas, everyone came home to celebrate…. We sang songs. We drank. My Mom,
as always cooked up something special for each of us. It was so much fun, I was sad that I
had leave earlier than all the rest. I had an interview the next morning, and a ways to drive
We see the Oretga house at 1129 Knollcrest Drive from the front lawn. Christmas lights. Warm glow coming from within, just like a Christmas card. The sound of voices, laughter. Gifts are being exchanged.
With the jingle of Christmas bells a Santa Claus with a Christmas-wrapped package walks up the sidewalk to the front door, the viewer watching his progress from behind. He rings the front door.
Laughter from within.
The door opens, a young girl, standing behind it. The Santa steps forward, the camera following at his back, witnessing the surprised yet smiling faces of nine family members: Joseph, his wife Alicia, Charles, his wife Cheri, James, Teresa, James’ sister Sylvia, her sister Alicia Ortiz, and Michael, Alicia Ortiz’s son.
Within seconds the Santa pulls out a semi-automatic gun and shoots them to death before unwrapping the gift package, a homemade flamethrower, to set the house on fire.
The Santa’s suit suddenly catches fire, he escaping, with small flames leaping from his body, through the front door, leaving it open, the camera, like a voyeur, lingering upon the carnage left behind: the bodies, the spattered blood, the burning walls behind them. The lone survivor, the young girl who answered the door, having been also shot, screams even after the blackout.
Back into the dark space of Megan Gaynes’ living room. We can now hardly see Megan or Jamey, only hear voices out of the darkness. For a few seconds there is only silence.
Megan: “I knew when your names came up, Ortega. I remembered the event. ‘Oh, my God,’ I
cried out, ‘It’s that horse that belonged to that poor family.’”
Jamey: “Poor family is right. How could we ever get over it, me and my sisters?” [Pause] “We
promised each other we’d always stay together. We continue to get together every Christmas
at my Aunt Eve’s house. We try to laugh and to smile. But something died within each
We’ll never know what made my Aunt Sylvia’s former husband Bruce snap. Their divorce had just come through a few days before.
I took over my father’s business, nearly working myself to death in order to forget.
When I finally opened the company books I saw that our wonderful horse was costing us more than he had taken in. Sometimes that’s the way with horses. They cost a lot.
What with the pain we were all feeling and the changes that had taken place…well, we didn’t feel we had a choice. None of us really wanted it. We had to sell.
We all loved him so much. I couldn’t just say goodbye like that. He was a piece of my Dad.
I ran Return the King one last time at Santa Anita. But I couldn’t go to the race. It just got me all worked up, and I began to cry….”
Can can hear him quietly weeping.
The office of the Ortega Paint Supply Store. Jamey Ortega sits in the office at his desk, several of his employees, also sitting at desks, nearby.
In repetition of Megan’s earlier pacing, Jamey stands, walks to wall and returns, repeating the trip, sitting for a few seconds before rising and pacing again.
Martin, one the employees, asks him to stop.
“For God’s sake Jamey!”
Jamey stops for a few seconds and begins his trek again.
Another employee laughs. A second laughs.
Martin: “Come on Jamey.” (He grabs Jamey by the arm and leads him off).
Jamey: Where we going? I can’t leave the office now.
Martin: Yes you can. We’re going to Pomona, the Fairplex to watch the race!
The Pomona Fairplex. In front of a huge screen several people are gathered, including Jamey and his staff members. The race has just begun.
The camera traces the race as it had earlier on, but this time the race suddenly turns into slow-
motion, as the horses round the bend and move into the last stretch. We hear the announcer’s voice, but, in slow-motion it is so broken up we can hardly make out the names of the horses.
At the very end, we see a horse push ahead, as the slow-motion action turns into a freeze. Everything goes silent for a beat or two. And then Jamey and his friends suddenly leap into the air with joy. Return to the King has won!
Back to the dark room of Gaynes’ house. We can only hear Jamey’s voice, both figures having faded into the dark of the sundown. We do hear also the occasional clinking of ice cubes in Megan’s glass.
Jamey: “It was like he knew, like he was doing it for my family. We didn’t really want to sell
that horse. As I said, he was a piece of our Dad.”
Jamey: “I always wondered what had become of him. I searched the internet, but nothing came
up on him in the races. When my Uncle called saying that you had bought the horse, my
heart just dropped a little bit.”
Megan: “He can’t ever me ridden again. He’s got arthritis and a fracture from before.”
Jamey: “Good, he deserves to rest.”
Megan: “Fortunately, his original owner, Keogh, has offered to take him back, to let roam
the pasture in which he was originally conceived in the hopes of winning The Triple Crown.
We’re raising the money to send him back. About $3,000 I estimate.”
Jamey: If can help…I can’t pay much.
Jamey: “Can I see him? One last time.”
Megan: “Of course.”
We hear the sound of feet across the floor, the screen door open, the sound of their steps across
the gravel. A barn door is heard to open.
When, as if our eyes have adjusted to the dark, we can again see the scene, Jamey stands at door, Return the King lying on the hay in his stall.
A few seconds later, the horse neighs, raises itself a little, lays back down. He raises himself up a bit more as if to recognize the beings who are looking in his direction. He finally stands. Slowly he comes forward, nuzzling his head against Jamey’s chest.
Music and credits.