I am presently reading John
Gregory Dunnes book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen,
which is about the eight-year saga of writing the film Up Close
& Personal. Theres nothing terribly special about
the writing of this picture, nor is there anything particularly special
about the film that was ultimately made. However, Dunne is a very
good writer and old enough and experienced enough to be able to tell
the story using the real names of Hollywood producers, agents and actors
and it gives you a solid sense of what Hollywood is like and the process
of writing for Hollywood companies.
Which brings us to the title,
Monster. What I believe Mr. Dunne is referring to
is how a story begins as one thing, then through the Hollywood process
the story transforms into a hideous, ugly, horrible creature.
Of course, this is always done in the name of improvement, but it almost
never works. The script simply gets worse and worse until its
eventually shot as a horrible movie, put into turnaround, or abandoned.
Up Close & Personal
began its life as a biography of Jessica Savitch, based on a biography
of Ms. Savitch. By the first draft of the script it was no longer
about Jessica Savitch, and by the
time it was produced, eight years later, it is simply the fourth or
fifth remake of A Star is Born (John Gregory Dunne and his
wife, Joan Didion, wrote the third version of Star with
Barbra Streisand, which is really the fourth version if you count the
1932 film, What Price Hollywood? as the first) this time
set in the world of TV news. The fact that at the end of the film
Michelle Pfeiffers character does not say, I am Mrs.
Norman Maine (or Warren Justice, in this case) feels like a big
I believe that there once
was a time when script conferences may have made scripts better, but
not anymore. Not for a long time. Now it is the monsterization
of the story in every case.
I intentionally stepped out
of the Hollywood pitching and development process in about 1990 and
have never regretted it. Now I just write my spec scripts in peace
Nevertheless, I just had the
entire monster thing happen to me again in one short conversation with
an agent this week. He had been my agent a few years ago, but
we parted ways. He is friends with a fairly big-shot director
that I dont think he represents. Anyway, the director mentioned
that he was interested in a World War One script. The agent remembered
that I had a World War One script and called me and I emailed him the
script. He called back the next day to say that hed forwarded
the script to the director and that the director was particularly interested
in airplane scenes.
You mean, like, dogfights?
There arent any.
None? he asked,
But there could be,
Well, yeah, except that
its a true story and there werent any.
But they could be put
Not by me.
But by someone?
You wouldnt mind?
Well . . . Not if they
pay me a lot of money.
If they want it theyll
pay a lot of money.
Then they can wipe their
asses with it as far as Im concerned.
Great! he said,
completely reassured, and hung up.
I wanted to say, You
know, Id be happy to write a dogfight movie, but I never
got the chance, nor would it have been appropriate. Its
completely asinine to add dogfights to a true story that didnt
have them, but thats how the monsterization process works.
Lets immediately do the worst thing that can be done to this story;
something so idiotic that the story can never recover.
Thats why most movies
suck. They all started off as a good idea to somebody, then got
changed into someone elses concept of what a good idea is, and
the integrity of the original was lost forever.
Leaving a Xena
writers conference, Rob Tapert, the executive producer, offhandedly
remarked, Writing is the process of killing that which you love.
I was honestly taken aback
and said, No, its got to be about guarding that which you
love against all attacks.
Rob shook his head indicating
that I was both silly and naïve.
Well, I may be silly and naïve,
but Im also right.
A good story has to
have some sense of integrity. Every little bit of this integrity
that is chipped away makes the story worse. Really.
A couple of years ago my script,
The Biological Clock, the story of a woman nearing 40 facing
up to her ticking biological clock, got into the hands of two bright,
pretty, blonde, 25 year old girls, both assistants to big-shots, that
eagerly wanted to be producers. We met at a trendy restaurant
here in Santa Monica. They said that they liked my script and
my writing very much. I had it they repeated several
times, as though it were an ailment. There was just one change
they wanted to make -- could the characters all be 25 years old?
You see, they had a lead on Wynona Ryder, and wouldnt she be perfect
for the starring role?
Cut to me in a freeze-frame
with my eyes and mouth wide open. And no matter how hard I tried
to explain that the lead character of this story simply could not be
25 years old, they just wouldnt get it. Of course she can
be 25, they said, we have a lead on Wynona Ryder.
Mr. Dunne explains that every
executive in Hollywood thinks that theyre really a writer, if
they only had the time. Sadly, the fact that the writer has the
time to be a writer makes them an asshole.
In 1988 Scott Spiegel
and I rewrote the script for the 1989 film Hit List, with
Jan Michael Vincent, Rip Torn and Lance Henrickson, three times.
When we got the script it was called Hell To Pay.
Scott asked the director, Bill Lustig, if it was the story of a haunted
hairpiece? Bill, who was about 350 pounds at that time, and a
sort of goofy, grumpy New Yorker, who had already made the films Maniac
and Vigilante, really and truly loves old movies, but, as
a friend of mine explained, Bill really cares about all the movies
in the world except his own. Anyway, Bill had no idea what
Scott was talking about.
The Hell Toupee
said Scott. It's about a haunted hairpiece.
I recall that I laughed.
Anyway, the next time we got the script the title had been changed to
At our first creative
meeting at Cinetel Films, located in a big building at the end
of the Sunset Strip, I asked how they would like the concept of the
hit list worked in?
Bill looked at me across the
conference table like I was insane. We dont actually
need a fucking hit list, thats just what its called.
Moving on, next point.
Hit List is the
story of hit men that are supposed to kill a Mafia Don hidden in a witness
relocation program in a suburb, but mistakenly hit the house next door,
causing an average guy to fight for his and his sons lives.
I asked, Why do these
top-end hit men hit the wrong house?
Scott and I suggested the
old Three Stooges gag of the 9 in the address swinging down and
becoming a 6 and that stuck all the way into the final film.
Since this average guy
had no character at all, I suggested giving him a profession where hed
know how to fight, and perhaps also making him a Vietnam veteran.
Bill went nuts. Im
completely sick to death of Vietnam veterans! Besides, I just
used it in Vigilante. Come up with something else.
What if hes a
boxer? I suggested, being a boxing fan.
Bill hated that, too.
How about a carpenter?
At least hell know how to use his hands.
Bill snorted, Lets
get to the action.
Since everything in the script
was written as generically as humanly possible, I went back through
and added details everywhere. Instead of a car, I
made it a black Taurus, and instead of a coffin,
I made it a shiny black coffin with gold trim. When
Bill read this he nearly had a heart attack.
How the fuck do you
know its a black Taurus?
Isnt that better
than a car?
Stay the fuck out of
it! Ill get whatever kind of car I want, not you!
He made me go back and remove
every descriptive adjective in the script.
After Scott and I delivered
our first draft, the head of Cinetel, Paul Hertzberg, had the next script
meeting beside his swimming pool at his house in Sherman Oaks.
It was your standard sunny, hot L.A. day, about 90 degrees in the Valley,
and Scott and I had both brought our bathing suits. Bill not only
wore long blue jeans and a shirt, he also wore a windbreaker, just in
case a gale kicked up. I was completely amused the entire long
meeting watching 350-pound Bill stretched out on a lounge, clutching
a big bottle of water to his chest, and endlessly squirming and panting
from the heat. He gave in on every plot point because he just
wanted to get the fuck out of there.
The next thing we knew, Bill
had decided that Scott and I should write the script in his presence
at his house in Topanga Canyon, which is a pretty long way from Hollywood.
We trouped over there schlepping my Apple-2C, set up on the kitchen
table, fired up the computer and Bill said . . .
watch a movie on laser disc, and put on Ben-Hur.
I said, But thats
a three-hour movie.
Bill asked, Whos
We had just eaten breakfast,
but now Bill began cooking steaks. I must say hes a hell
of a good cook and the food was terrific. After Ben-Hur
he put on The Right Stuff, another three-hour movie, then
began cooking pasta. We left later that afternoon, bloated and
having gotten very little work done. After a few days of this
I put my foot down and we went back to writing at home.
Bill did teach me one thing
that I felt was important. Scott and I wrote a scene on a skyscrapers
rooftop that was half a page long. Bill got furious.
You think Im gonna
go all the fucking way up to a rooftop with a whole fucking film crew
and the lights and cameras and shit for a scene thats less than
a page long? Fuck you!
And hes right.
If you cant get at least a whole page out of a scene you probably
dont need it to start with, particularly if its in a difficult
place to shoot.
We delivered the second draft,
got a whole new round of notes from Bill and the Cinetel people, rewrote
the script, delivered the third draft and never got paid for it.
Considering that Scott and
I did not receive credit, everything we put in the script stayed there
and is in the finished film. When we meet Jan Michael Vincent
he is doing carpentry on his house
and hes a Vietnam vet. Scott and I also added the
main gag of the picture -- Lance Henrickson being dragged by a car toward
the Severe Tire Damage spikes in a parking lot -- which became both
the films poster and video box. And, of course, the classic
6 swinging around and becoming a 9. Theres other stuff,
too, but its such a generically dull film that I forget now.
About a year later I sold
my buddies Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert on the idea of Lunatics: A
Love Story and they gave me a development deal. They were
developing Darkman for Universal at the time, as well as
developing Hard Target with John Woo, and we were all working
out of Renaissance Pictures offices.
I then wrote fourteen drafts
of Lunatics over the next fourteen months, and Im
proud to say the story was never turned into a monster. But I
feel the fourteen-draft rewrite process managed to seriously defocus
the intentions and soften the integrity. After the fifth or sixth
draft it was definitely not getting any better, just changing.
We didnt create a monster; we created a good-natured simpleton
thats trying a bit too hard to get along with everybody.
Next I wrote Cycles
because I thought it was a good idea, on spec. When
I was done with the first draft I felt that I had written a perfectly
logical story with three solid acts, good guys and bad guys, and a logical
resolution, and somehow it now all bored me a little bit.
I began to dream up plot complications,
and thats when it hit me that what was really good about good
stories was not their complications, but their depth. And depth
has absolutely nothing to do with plot. Depth in a story is entirely
based on character, motivation, and theme. Your plot can twist
like a corkscrew and it will never get any deeper.
So I then rewrote the script
two more times. I made the good guys not-so-good and I made the
bad guys not-so-bad and sort of moved the entire story out of the realm
of black and white and into the vast gray area. I was now quite
pleased with the script. I very promptly had the script optioned,
and then not nearly so promptly, the script was sold. The company
that purchased the script then put it through the monsterization process
and that is where it has remained for the past six years. Ive
heard a variety of rumors about who was attached to the script, like
Phillip Kaufman, and the title was changed to Griffin.
I had nothing to do with the monsterization this time, but I have no
doubt that the script is now so hideous and horrible that no one thinks
about it anymore.
I made more money on Cycles
than I had earned in total from all my other previous writing gigs combined,
and I had written exactly the script I wanted to write, and also did
not have to be involved in monsterizing of it. All in all, it
was a pretty good experience. The fact that its never been
made is a drag, but its a period piece and can be made anytime.
This is when I decided to
no longer be part of the monsterization process under any circumstances
ever again, at least regarding movies, which are my first love.
Ive been through it a few more times with Xena stories,
but that didnt seem as meaningful -- TV is kind of like Monster
When Rob Tapert asked me to
work on a Xena story with him, I said, Sure, as long
as I dont have to be put through your meat-grinder writing system.
No, I wont put
you through that, Rob said reassuringly.
So we wrote this Xena
story together and had quite a good time, too. After we had faxed
it back and forth about ten times, it all seemed like it made sense
and worked pretty well. The next thing I knew Rob called me and
said that I had to meet with the writers and the producers at 11:00
A.M. on a Saturday.
But you said I didnt
have to go through this.
Rob replied, I lied.
This episode, finally entitled
Locked Up & Tied Down, is about Xena being accused of
having killed a woman many years earlier, she admits her guilt and is
sent to prison. She then finds out that the prisons masked
warden is in fact the woman she thought she had killed, and now Xena
must get out of prison before her victim takes revenge.
So, Im seated in an
office with the head writer, the co-head writer, the co-co-head writer,
the co-producer, an associate producer, and Rob, the executive producer.
For hour after hour everyone in the room, except Rob and I, ripped our
story to pieces trying to turn it into something other than what it
Since I am known as something
of a hot-headed loud-mouth, I sat completely quiet, my hands folded
in my lap, a pleasant, phony, smile plastered on my face. Finally,
after five hours the head writer turned to me and asked, Havent
you got a pen?
I plucked my pen from my shirt
pocket and displayed it. The head writer said, I dont
see you writing anything down.
As soon as I hear something
important, Ill write it down.
Rob and I left the meeting
an hour later and went back to his house where I promptly pitched a
fit. I said that we had a perfectly good story and we both knew it.
If it was going to get changed into anything that had been suggested
at the meeting, I would no longer be involved.
Rob pulled rank on the writers,
the story remained the same, and thats the episode, which very
narrowly avoided being made into a monster.
I both admire and pity John
Gregory Dunne for having the mindset and fortitude to stick it out in
Hollywood for 30 years doing little else except creating monsters (luckily,
he has another life as a writer of books and articles). Dunnes
monsters may be big, smooth, expensive creatures starring Robert Redford
and Michelle Pfeiffer, but they are monsters nevertheless, and the entire
process is demeaning to everybody. At one point Dunne asked producer
Scott Rudin what he thought Up Close & Personal was
about? Its about two movie stars, Rudin replied.
And, in fact, thats what its about.
Whereas, my last two movies,
Running Time and If I Had a Hammer, were made
from scripts that were exactly what I wanted to write. And if
you get to make the films you want to make, then you have no excuses
and dont want to make any.
Reading Mr. Dunnes book
reminded me very clearly of what it was I have turned away from -- knowingly
creating crap -- which is indeed a monstrous activity.