“Serenade of the Vulture ”
Joe Dionisio’s new feature-length script aims to be another entry in Hollywood’s hottest genre: Class Warfare
From left, “Joker,” “Knives Out,” “Us,” “Parasite” and “Uncut Gems” all explore themes of social inequality.
WHEN THE PREMISE for “Serenade of the Vulture” was conceived years back, journalist-turned-screenwriter Joe Dionisio presumed that his tale about social inequality might not be the sexiest pitch to producers.
But suddenly, with box-office smashes like “Us,” “Knives Out,” “Joker,” “Uncut Gems,” “Snowpiercer” and “Parasite,” clashes between the 1% and the 99% may be Hollywood’s hottest genre. Even Buzzfeed sees the trend, with its recent headline, “Class War Came to Hollywood.”
“Serenade of the Vulture,” Joltin’ Joe’s latest full-length feature screenplay, spins an electrifying web of characters and tempests, including homelessness, rich-versus-poor hostilities, psychedelic mental trips, and noirish wit. Call it “Parasite” meets “Barton Fink” meets “Robin Hood.”
“Even if I had a crystal ball years ago that predicted class warfare would one day be in vogue, it wouldn’t motivate me,” said Dionisio. “Screenwriting is my passion, so my only goal is kick-ass content. If I wasn’t such a purist, I’d write scripts about zombies.”
As a writer, locations scout, script consultant and production assistant, The Media Maven earned his film/TV resume at AMC, PBS, ESPN, and with Oscar-winner Peter Watkins.
Based on a story by Dionisio and friend/fellow New Yorker Bill Ward, “Serenade of the Vulture” puts a human face on America’s homelessness crisis. But make no mistake, the script is first and foremost a harrowing rollercoaster of suspense, mayhem and revenge.
Will a stroke of fate —
and her Mensa IQ — help
a homeless woman conquer
and the 11th richest
man in America?
The Spoiler-Free Plot of “Serenade of the Vulture”
LACIE KIMURA, the young Japanese-American protagonist of “Serenade of the Vulture,” is whip-smart and poised, yet homeless in Florida. She’s a cerebral Wonder Woman... if Wonder Woman swapped her invisible plane for an invisible house.
When a stroke of fate pits Lacie against wealthy tech giant MARTIN O’NETTE — whose headquarters casts a shadow over her homeless encampment — the battle line is drawn. Their feud reflects the harshest paragons of yin and yang. Rich vs. poor. A famed CEO vs. a jobless nobody. Privileged vs. disempowered. The haves of Palm Beach vs. the have-nots of West Palm Beach. Housed vs. unhoused.
Pouring gas on the Lacie/ Martin tinderbox is TINA MERRIWELL, a dogged Palm Beach Post reporter who discovers that local cops have two sets of rules for the powerful and the powerless. Raised in East Los Angeles, Tina knows a bit about uneven law enforcement… so she has zero interest in letting this mystery slip between the cracks.
The destinies of Lacie and Martin teeter upon the pillars of compassion, cruelty and simple luck. Their epic saga poses a question that’s a microcosm of America’s socio-political/ economic strife: can integrity (and a 160 IQ) defeat a $50 billion piggy bank?
“Serenade of the Vulture” screenplay
by Joseph Dionisio
WGA® June 2020
“Hopping on a soapbox won’t ever cure homelessness,” Dionisio says. “Although I adore documentaries, I’m convinced that only a fictional movie will sway public opinion on this issue. Sure, if we had a homeless celebrity or two to serve as its poster child, then docs and journalists could spotlight the crisis as they did
Palm Beach, where Dionisio lived several years, was an ideal setting for his story about the haves and have-nots.
with the ‘Me Too’ actresses… but until Tom Hanks begins sleeping beneath the freeway, we’re gonna need narrative cinema to induce a sea change. That’s why my story aims to humanize the unhoused.”
“Serenade of the Vulture” — which is entered in screenplay competitions nationally and internationally — offers plotlines that dive deep into surreal, macabre rabbit holes. Seeking a muse for such phantasmagorical scenes, Joe immersed himself in the Pandora station “Unlikely Psychedelic.”
Ever hear Radiohead’s “Go To Sleep”? Then you have a sense of the script’s trippy vibe.
for the big screen by
story-song is adapted
Paul Simon’s iconic
Joe Dionisio, whose bittersweet script explores the Canadian teenager
with “Holes in my confidence, Holes in the knees of my jeans”
Photograph by Katie Falkenberg
After a Nova Scotia
lobsterman’s obsession with
an urban legend turns perilous, will his teenage son
retaliate with a mutiny
of his own?
Simon’s coming-of-age tale depicts a Canadian boy forced to confront life’s elementals: Love. Sex. Religion. Family. Its wistful themes — a joyless marriage (“my mama was a fisherman’s friend”), emotional vs. fiscal poverty, the tenuous sanctuary he finds via sex and religion — are tailor-made for a visceral, dark-humored, bittersweet adventure. Think “The Graduate” meets “National Treasure.”
“ ‘Duncan’ is a hauntingly visual musical gem, so I imagined the cinematic version as an Edward Hopper seascape come to life,” says Dionisio. “My aim was to capture the melancholic beauty of the Maritimes, and how we extract joy and salvation from our frenetic world.”
As a music/film journalist at Newsday, he couldn’t resist asking singer Edie Brickell whether her husband might approve of Dionisio’s vision. The next day in her kitchen, she relayed the details to the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer. “When I told Paul about your ‘Duncan’ story in the morning,” Brickell told Dionisio, “he thought it was a good idea.”
Brickell, a stellar musician with New Bohemians, the Heavy Circles, and Steve Martin’s Steep Canyon Rangers, also admired the premise. Thanks to her encouragement, Simon was generous enough to confer with Dionisio.
In the unlikely setting of the Montauk Ferry, Rhymin’ Simon and Joltin’ Joe — both en route to Block Island on a glorious August morning — discussed the film adaptation.
“It does come across as a very visual song,” Simon told Dionisio, “so I do think it could work as a movie.” Inspired by Paul’s humbly positive words, Joe’s passion project became a full-fledged screenplay.
The Media Maven’s exhaustive research led to a funny exchange with his music hero. Joe discovered that the long-forgotten demo of “Duncan” offers vastly different lyrics and characters, namely Benson McGuire, who “returned to a store from the Indochina War, and his heart is the heart of a soldier.” If your challenge is to convert a brief song into a two-hour film, you’d NEVER omit a soldier with such an intriguing backstory. Adamant that he belongs on screen, Dionisio inquired, “What’s his genesis? How’d you create Benson?”
“Geez, I totally forgot about him,” replied Paul. “You probably know the song better than I do!”
Lately, Hollywood is shoplifting Simon’s genius via movie titles. “Baby Driver” (Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx), “Only Living Boy in New York” (Kate Beckinsale and Jeff Bridges), and “Obvious Child” (Jenny Slate) may share the name of Paul’s compositions, but not one is an actual adaptation.
“As bands explore new outlets, aren’t we overdue for a fresh embrace of Paul Simon’s music?” Dionisio asks. “Movies like ‘Yesterday’ and ‘Blinded By the Light’ showcased McCartney and Springsteen. Sting, U2, Billy Joel and Edie Brickell hit Broadway. The Beatles’ ‘Love’ is a Vegas smash... so the timing for a ‘Duncan’ film seems ripe.”
Couple in the next room are bound to win a prize, They’ve been going at it all night long,
Well, I’m tryin’ to get some sleep,
But these motel walls are cheap,
Lincoln Duncan is my name and here's my song
a 103-minute script? Very carefully… and with astute encouragement from the legend himself, Mr. Paul Simon.
“Duncan,” a cut from his self-titled 1972 album, offers one of the most memorable opening lyrics of all-time:
4-minute, 34-second tune into
So how did Joe transform a
GREAT POP MUSIC relies on contagious rhythms, clever wordplay, a compelling theme, and/or a catchy melody. But in the rarest cases, an aural song seems so visually cinematic, it ought to be a movie.
Screenwriter Joe Dionisio, pondering that notion, asked himself the question: If you could adapt any story-song into a film, which would you select? Without hesitation, he chose Paul Simon’s “Duncan.”
The Spoiler-Free Plot of “Duncan”
AT 9 YEARS OLD, LINCOLN DUNCAN
begins to grasp why his father, Nova Scotia lobsterman NILE DUNCAN, nicknamed their boat Nautorious.
He favors whiskey over his wife and kids. Nile’s dad was a bootlegger in the 1940s. His family is near broke.
Yet that ain’t why Lincoln yearns to escape daddy’s notorious shadow on Sober Island, a sleepy seaside town. As Nile’s debt worsens, he obsesses with an urban legend he considers his last-ditch hope to feed his family.
Lincoln mocks Nile’s infatuation with The Fantome, a U.K. ship that sank in the “Bermuda Triangle of Canada.” [The real-life shipwreck — and its resting place and artifacts — remains shrouded in mystery.] Before setting the White House afire during the War of 1812, British soldiers looted the mansion, then loaded The Fantome with gold coins, art, and jewels.
Nile insists the shipwreck is worth millions and is hell-bent on the Quixotic adventure. His son doubts it exists, and refuses to succumb to dad's brainwashing.
Linc, now 19, craves his own path, one where he doesn’t toil on an old lobster trawler for pauper’s wages, or reek daily of fish guts. But with no friends, no hope, and no funds for college, escaping the Canadian Maritimes remains a fever dream.
Until his momma’s bombastic brother — the king of a Rhode Island aviation museum and airport — offers him a job. Linc says yes. Nile says no. To break the stalemate, will either commit mutiny against his own blood?
Lincoln heads down the turnpike to New England, dreaming he’ll soar 30,000 feet high with aviation, instead of drowning in nautical tedium. But at a Pentecostal revival in Providence, a blonde chapel guitarist, IZABELLE, gives him a new high to embrace.
Izabelle’s flock — Reverend OSCAR and Vietnam vet BENSON McGUIRE — welcome him warmly. Yet some in the congregation may be hiding secrets unfit for a house of worship.
Can Lincoln find salvation in love, sex and religion… or will his newfound sanctuary prove tenuous?
“Duncan” screenplay by Joseph Dionisio,
based upon the song “Duncan,”
composed by Paul Simon
WGA® July 19, 2018
Story-Songs Just Begging for Their Movie Close-up
SUPERB STORY-SONGS are a scarce commodity, perhaps because narrative storytelling is perceived as the sole domain of books, theater or movies.
Only a handful of songwriters are so visual, they can weave movie-caliber protagonists, enemies, character arcs and plot points onto sheet music.
(In rare cases, visual songs were adapted to the silver screen or TV, like Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe,” Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler,” and “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles).
Besides “Duncan,” which cinematic melodies beg to be on the silver screen? Here are our suggestions. What are yours??
“Living For The City”
“Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”
“Up The Junction”
“Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts”
“Green Lantern ”
Prior to Ryan Reynolds’ 2011 film, the Emerald Gladiator endured a long, strange intergalactic Hollywood journey that entangled everyone from Joe Dionisio to Bradley Cooper to Quentin Tarantino
OF ALL THE UPPER-TIER SUPERHEROES in the DC and Marvel universes, nobody’s leap to the silver screen seemed slower than Green Lantern’s.
Joe Dionisio joined a logjam of screenwriters, directors and actors who were unsuccessfully linked to the Emerald Gladiator during its 20-year development hell:
Kevin Smith (of “Superman Lives”) rejected the project. Comic genius Robert Smigel sent the Interwebs into a rage with an irreverent script for Jack Black. Bradley Cooper, Jared Leto and Justin Timberlake vied for the lead. “Batman Begins” writer David S. Goyer declined. Even Quentin Tarantino was reportedly asked to write/direct, but famously craved autonomy from any hero’s canon.
So when Dionisio’s script was bypassed for “Green Lantern” in 2011, why was his defeat so different from Hollywood’s A-listers? Because only Joltin’ Joe had the blessing — and creative input — of the superhero’s creator, Martin Nodell.
Serendipity united the New Yorkers. As a boy, Joe’s intro to literature came via comics, and no hero intrigued him like the Lantern. Later, as a Palm Beach Post reporter, he overheard that an artist lived in walking distance. To his astonishment, it was the man who conceived Green Lantern in 1940.
In a nanosecond, The Media Maven from Long Island asked the Golden Age artist from Brooklyn to do an interview. Nodell agreed and a friendship was born. The gentleman who inspired Joe’s love of reading and writing, was now the subject of his writing. Life had come full circle.
Joe was treated like family, not only by Marty and wife Carrie (who wed on December 1, 1941, days before Pearl Harbor), but by sons Spencer and Mitch, and the grandkids. Sweet folk all. (Granddaughter Jacque Nodell took up the family mantle, with her superb comic-book blog).
At one of Joe’s visits to the Nodells’ home in West Palm Beach, Carrie and Marty off-handedly mentioned how the new CGI technology would be ideal for his creation. That’s when a light bulb went off. Or more accurately, a lantern.
“What do you think of me writing a Green Lantern movie?” he asked Marty in the mid-1990s. Joe’s fervor for the hero — and his insistence that Alan Scott have a role alongside Hal Jordan — led to a resounding “excellent idea!”
After months picking Nodell’s brain and exchanging ideas, the result was a script (and an influence team) that coveted originality. “At the risk of enraging fanboys,” says Dionisio, “my goal was to write a great film, not a great comic-book film. If you’re a slave to a genre, you stifle your creativity.”
With DC’s upcoming “Green Lanterns Corps” set to depict “buddy cops in space,” a leery Dionisio asks, “Is a buddy-cop flick Hollywood’s idea of originality? For better or worse, I wrote a superhero movie unlike any ever seen.”
His indie-style plot embraces family tensions, as well as a passing-the-torch theme. If “X-Men” was a metaphor for intolerance, Joe’s reflects society’s disrespect for its elders … so when young Hal Jordan meets a lethal foe, he must heed the advice of an older Lantern he never knew existed.
“Hal’s fearlessness leads to lots of impetuous stupidity,” says Dionisio. “I countered that by painting Alan Scott like the deaf, old man in Hemingway’s ‘A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.’ Namely a sage yet tragic gentleman whose greatness has been forgotten by our disposable culture.”
Beyond the many uncommon aspects of his script, there is one uniquely poignant asset that Joe had — and still has — to offer to future Green Lantern film projects. (The hero’s next incarnation is an HBO Max series).
Before Nodell’s death in 2006, he shared a confidential message with Dionisio. Nearing age 90, realizing his dream to see his creation on a movie screen was fading, he passed along a personal sentiment he wanted Joe to convey to whichever actor would one day don the green costume.
So when Joe’s script was rejected for Warner Brothers’ 2011 film, he honored his friend’s request. With Hal Jordan-style willpower, he hunted down a job working on the set… solely to whisper Nodell’s secret to Ryan Reynolds.
On Prytania Street in New Orleans, casting director Jason Landry stared at Joe and said, “You know, you look like a professor. We’re shooting a scene on a college campus, so we can use you.” Dionisio explained that he actually was a writing professor. Thus he was hired.
The night before his shoot, Joe requested to speak to Reynolds and relay the secret message that was the final wish of the Golden Age icon. Alas, producers denied his plea. (Disrespecting Nodell was such bad karma, might that explain the film’s less-than-stellar reception?)
A fearless fighter pilot
inherits alien technology —
a ring of untold power — then
enlists an aging superhero
to help battle the undead
pawn of a psionic
The Spoiler-Free Plot of Joltin’ Joe’s
peacekeeper Abin Sur, whose alien craft crashes in the Sierra Madre mountains, instructs his power ring to find a worthy successor “without fear.”
Five candidates emerge: a black U.S. Marine, a quarterback with a bowl haircut, a pacifist Honduran woman, a Kansas farmboy, and Coast City pilot Hal Jordan, who is knighted Sector 2814’s next Green Lantern.
Brash Hal reveals his ring — the most powerful tool in the universe — to his brothers, and pal Tom Kalmaku. Brother James, bitter at Hal’s absenteeism after their father died in a plane crash, can't be trusted. Will he betray Hal and risk older brother Jack's life?
Also new to Hal’s life: Boss Carl quits Ferris Aircraft after a heart attack. Will he hand the reigns to daughter Mia Ferris? Or to her wheelchair-bound sister Carol, who is Hal’s ex-flame?
While fleeing Mounties in Canada, car thief Hector Hammond finds a meteorite in Quebec City’s foothills. It grants him chilling psychic skills, but renders him paralyzed, mute, and trapped in a tiny flat above a French bistro.
Hector seeks a pawn to carry out his plot to hijack the cyber superhighway and reek anarchy on the 7 continents. Via his psionic powers, he recruits Solomon Grundy — a half-dead hobo once murdered in a swamp in 1873 — which puts the duo on a collision course with the rookie Lantern.
Although the headstrong pilot’s ring can construct anything he envisions, he's ill-prepared for a supernatural, mind-controlled beast like Grundy.
To fight fire with fire (or, magic with magic), an elderly stranger offers to aid Hal… a stranger whose ring offers very different powers. It’s Earth’s first Lantern, engineer Alan Scott. Hal’s ring can move mountains, but only Alan’s can read minds or hypnotize.
Hal rejects his help. But when Hammond devastates Coast City via Interweb terrorism, will Hal bury his ego and defer to the wisdom of the old man?
As the Taoist philosophy says, “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”
“Green Lantern” screenplay by Joseph Dionisio
® October 2007
Based on characters owned and copyrighted
by Warner Bros. Entertainment
Joe Dionisio on the New Orleans set of the 2011 Warner Brothers film “Green Lantern,” directed by Martin Campbell
One Screenwriter’s Obsession: Engineering a Unique Celluloid Hero
THE BLESSING that Martin Nodell once bestowed upon Joe Dionisio’s Green Lantern script gave it a gravitas that remains unmatched.
“It was a phenomenal privilege then,” said Dionisio, “and I still cherish it to this day.”
The divine sanction from GL’s founder is far from the only unique asset that set The Media Maven apart from other Hollywooders vying to turn the comic-book hero into a
celluloid hero. You want proof?
• If penning a script wherein family is integral, not incidental, who better to ask than Francis Ford Coppola? So Dionisio was elated to consult with “The Godfather” director about Green Lantern’s cinematic possibilities.
• Inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s obsessive research for “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Joe refused to invoke the oath, “Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!” without infusing it with scientific authenticity. So he extensively studied light spectra, astrophysics, the Aurora Borealis, and optic phenomena.
• Quick, name a great song from a comic-book movie (excluding John Williams’ “Superman” theme). You drew a blank, right? That’s because the genre has a terrible track record
of treating music as incidental or an afterthought. With his roots in music journalism, Joe could never tolerate such negligence. So he enlisted a composer adept at “space music”: Johan de Meij, who later composed a symphony for “Lord of the Rings.”
• Joe’s funniest failure? Sending a Nodell-autographed GL statue to Jerry Seinfeld, who didn’t reply. No soup for you, Jerry!
to Green Lantern; and
Jimmy Page) paid homage
Superman” (with Led Zeppelin’s
whose 1966 hit “Sunshine
Harlan Ellison; singer Donovan,
Lantern fans like: sci-fi novelist
• Joe picked the brains of high-profile
“Spawn” creator Todd
WORDS TO THE WISE
“So, where is the Cannes Film Festival being held this year?”