Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, by John Gregory Dunne, New York: Random House, 203 pages, $21.00
Forget everything you know about Hollywood and think of it as a black box. In one end goes the talent, out the other come hundreds of movies that add up to one of America's most successful products, dominating competition worldwide. Hollywood must have a phenomenal system to do this--and to do it so well for so long.
Or does it? John Gregory Dunne's Monster rips open the black box, recounting in detail the eight years he and his wife, Joan Didion, worked on Up Close & Personal, a 1996 drama starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.
After reading of the production's tortuous history, and the 27 drafts of the script they completed, one might be excused for wondering how any films get made at all. The business seems to be full of pitfalls where a potential production can fall apart at any second (as most eventually do), where demands on writers are hopelessly vague and even contradictory, where petty recriminations abound, and where you never get fired, you just stop getting calls.
Dunne has written an entertaining and insightful book, though perhaps not up to the 1983 classic of the genre, the wider-ranging Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman. Monster is a quick, fun read--at 203 pages, 33 lines of text a page, it moves. But it isn't simply another recasting of the long-standing conceit of the Lowly Writer being treated cruelly by Hollywood philistines. The scales fell from Dunne's eyes a long time ago, and he narrates with equanimity, even a sense of detached amusement.
Dunne can well afford such an attitude. The pecking order of screenwriters runs something like this: There's a charmed circle of a few hundred people who are in demand and are handsomely rewarded for their efforts (some making six figures a week for important rewrites). The next group--about five to 10 times larger--consists of writers who may be struggling, but are making a living. Finally come the vast horde of scribes having little or no success, fighting to break in (or in some cases return) to showbiz.
Dunne and Didion are members of the charmed circle. What's more, they are successful writers of fiction and nonfiction and celebrated members of the New York intelligentsia. They don't need Hollywood. Throughout the book (when not jetting off to Tuscany or St. Tropez), they're working on or turning down other projects, both in print and film. Indeed, Dunne apparently had no more commitment to the project, at first, than the desire to protect his Writer's Guild medical insurance. More than once they walk away from Up Close & Personal, only to have Disney beg them to return. Such leverage allows them to give as good as they get: Monster is spotted with faxes they sent when they felt pushed too far, running from peevish to nasty.
Still, why all the drafts? Why so much wasted time? Why does Hollywood allow--indeed, even demand--such seeming inefficiency?
First, it should be noted that this is nothing new. In the days of the studio system, producers thought nothing of ordering multiple drafts from different writers. It might be a little worse today for reasons discussed below, but numerous rewrites, revisions on the fly, and cut-and-paste final versions are an old story. (Many seemingly well-crafted and thought-out movie classics--Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz, for example--were the result of this system.)
Second, today's major studio films are tremendously expensive. Just 10 years ago, a $30 million budget was huge--today, an average film costs more. In fact, if you include promotional expenses, the average budget for a major-studio film comes in at almost $60 million, and big productions can easily go over $100 million. It's true that, with a bigger global market and video revenues rivaling theatrical grosses, hits can make more money than ever. But the flops are ruinous. Therefore, it's worth investing hundreds of thousands, even millions, in the development process, even if the film never gets made; once production starts, you've got a multi-million-dollar juggernaut on your hands.
Third, uncertainty is central to life at the studios. One flop and heads will roll. There's probably no industry of comparable size with such a high turnover rate. And as the maxim goes, "There's no limit to the number of people who will stay away from a bad movie." As long as nothing gets made, no one gets blamed. Remember, most films never show a profit--better to keep developing until you're happy, which could be never. Hence, development executives are always looking to please the audience. The revisions they wanted from Dunne tended to make the script more conventional--Up Close & Personal, they said, should be different, but not too different: less ambiguity, happier ending, more sympathetic and accessible lead characters. The producers also wanted to attract brand names--top directors and especially stars--to cover themselves. All this finickiness can lead to many drafts.
Fourth, in the old studio system, everyone was under contract. Ultimately, the front office was in control, and that was that. Now, the top people act as independent contractors, with their cooperation coming at the cost of allowing them a say.
Up Close & Personal started as a movie based on Golden Girl, a biography of the late newscaster Jessica Savitch. But the true story (cocaine addiction, abortions, lesbian episodes, untimely death) wasn't considered audience-friendly, especially in the tightly run, Jeffrey Katzenberg Disney of the late 1980s. So it took several drafts to find a suitable replacement for the Savitch story. Eventually, a producer, Scott Rudin, signed on and demanded many rewrites, more than Dunne ever expected--and he got them, since he's a guy who gets movies made. (In perhaps the book's most telling moment, Rudin explains that the plot is really about "two movie stars.") Then a director came aboard, Jon Avnet (best known for Fried Green Tomatoes). He had his own take, including a new angle dealing with his animus toward tabloid journalism. This required a number of new drafts.
Next, the stars, Redford and Pfeiffer, were attracted. Both wanted to protect themselves and their characters, and demanded more rewrites. Finally, production was set, it was crunch time, and the obligatory numerous last-minute changes were needed, even after filming had started.
So that's how you get 27 drafts from Didion and Dunne, and a few more from two other writers who were on the project for a while.