ESSAYS, ARTICLES, & REVIEWS
I am presently reading John Gregory Dunne’s book “Monster: Living Off the Big Screen,”
which is about the eight-year saga of writing the film “Up Close & Personal.” There’s 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 it’s 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 Pfeiffer’s character does not say, “I am Mrs. Norman Maine” (or Warren Justice, in this case) feels like a big rip-off.
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 and quiet.
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 don’t 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 he’d forwarded the script to the director and that the director was particularly interested in airplane scenes.
“You mean, like, dogfights?” I asked.
“There aren’t any.”
“None?” he asked, alarmed.
“But there could be, right?”
“Well, yeah, except that it’s a true story and there weren’t any.”
“But they could be put in?”
“Not by me.”
“But by someone?”
“You wouldn’t mind?”
“Well . . . Not if they pay me a lot of money.”
“If they want it they’ll pay a lot of money.”
“Then they can wipe their asses with it as far as I’m concerned.”
“Great!” he said, completely reassured, and hung up.
I wanted to say, “You know, I’d be happy to write a dogfight movie,” but I never got the chance, nor would it have been appropriate. It’s completely asinine to add dogfights to a true story that didn’t have them, but that’s how the monsterization process works. Let’s immediately do the worst thing that can be done to this story; something so idiotic that the story can never recover.
That’s why most movies suck. They all started off as a good idea to somebody, then got changed into someone else’s concept of what a good idea is, and the integrity of the original was lost forever.
Leaving a “Xena” writer’s 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, it’s 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 I’m 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 wouldn’t 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 wouldn’t 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 they’re 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 “Hit List.”
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 don’t actually need a fucking hit list, that’s just what it’s 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 son’s lives.
I asked, “Why do these top-end hit men hit the wrong house?”
“’Cause that’s the story.”
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 he’d know how to fight, and perhaps also making him a Vietnam veteran.
Bill went nuts. “I’m completely sick to death of Vietnam veterans! Besides, I just used it in ‘Vigilante’. Come up with something else.”
“What if he’s a boxer?” I suggested, being a boxing fan.
Bill hated that, too.
“How about a carpenter? At least he’ll know how to use his hands.”
Bill snorted, “Let’s 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 it’s a black Taurus?”
“Isn’t that better than ‘a car’?”
“Stay the fuck out of it! I’ll 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 . . .
“Hey! Let’s watch a movie on laser disc,” and put on “Ben-Hur.”
I said, “But that’s a three-hour movie.”
Bill asked, “Who’s hungry?”
We had just eaten breakfast, but now Bill began cooking steaks. I must say he’s 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 skyscraper’s rooftop that was half a page long. Bill got furious.
“You think I’m 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 that’s less than a page long? Fuck you!”
And he’s right. If you can’t get at least a whole page out of a scene you probably don’t need it to start with, particularly if it’s 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 he’s 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 film’s poster and video box. And, of course, the classic 6 swinging around and becoming a 9. There’s other stuff, too, but it’s 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 I’m 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 didn’t create a monster; we created a good-natured simpleton that’s 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 that’s 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. I’ve 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 it’s never been made is a drag, but it’s 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. I’ve been through it a few more times with “Xena” stories, but that didn’t seem as meaningful -- TV is kind of like Monster Island.
When Rob Tapert asked me to work on a “Xena” story with him, I said, “Sure, as long as I don’t have to be put through your meat-grinder writing system.”
“No, I won’t 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 didn’t 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 prison’s 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, I’m 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 was.
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, “Haven’t you got a pen?”
I plucked my pen from my shirt pocket and displayed it. The head writer said, “I don’t see you writing anything down.”
“As soon as I hear something important, I’ll 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 that’s 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). Dunne’s 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? “It’s about two movie stars,” Rudin replied. And, in fact, that’s what it’s 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 don’t want to make any.
Reading Mr. Dunne’s book reminded me very clearly of what it was I have turned away from -- knowingly creating crap -- which is indeed a monstrous activity.