The Rewrite Stuff


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.

But what of the writer, who bears the brunt of all this? Well, since the writers are getting paid, there are worse brunts to bear. But why doesn't the writer, who seems an indispensable part of the process, have more control? Some of this may be due to historical happenstance: Hollywood wasn't started by writers (who were of limited importance in the silent era). Mostly, however, it's because once production starts and the real money is being spent, writers recede into the background while the others take over in this strongly visual medium.

Directors control the look, the tempo, the feel of a film. Stars are perhaps even more significant, since, in the right parts, they're what the audience pays to see. Compare this to the power the writer has on the stage, where words live and the script is practically inviolable; or television, where more text is needed and less time can be taken in preparation, so writers with "producer" titles essentially run the medium.

So much for the business end of things.

How does the system affect the art? This is not easily answered. It's always dangerous to say how good or bad the art of any era is except in retrospect. Sometimes a Vast Wasteland turns into a Golden Age. (Otis Ferguson, a generally perceptive critic, wrote in The New Republic, "The film year has been about the leanest in seven"–in 1939, a year generally considered to be a high watermark for Hollywood.)

Film is a collaborative medium where the writer draws up the blueprint that a huge crew must then build. Or to overwork a different metaphor, the script may start out as the writer's baby, but it has to be adopted by the director, the actors, the cinematographer, the sound technicians, the composer, the editor, the costume designer, and many others for it to reach a successful maturity. Yet historically, the best Hollywood movies have often come about when someone had a vision and the control to see it through. This someone was frequently the director (Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, Ernst Lubitsch, Alfred Hitchcock), but could also be the producer (Irving Thalberg, Samuel Goldwyn, David O. Selznick), or the star (Buster Keaton, Fred Astaire, W.C. Fields).

There's no reason to doubt this still applies. Of course, everyone thinks they have "vision." Joan Didion herself has written ironically about stars and directors with "vision" who treat writers as the relatively minor people who merely put the words down on paper. So can development help? Sure. It can keep the story focused and prevent "visionaries" from bankrupting the studio with self-indulgence. And writers, as much as this hurts to admit, can fall in love with their words and may sometimes need a nudge to look at their script with more objectivity.

But the development process can also take the personality out of a film, turning it into formula. And Hollywood has a blockbuster mentality. There's a preference for the big, event movie: As Joe Roth, the current head of Disney films, has said, he'd rather make one $75 million picture than three $25 million films.

The urge to go for a home run is partly the result of economics (it costs roughly the same amount to promote and distribute any movie; big names and big stories, which are expensive, have bigger potential audiences here and overseas). Nevertheless, this has led to a bifurcation: Many of the more "serious" films come from independent sources, while the majors swing for the fence. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for the viewer, since there's still plenty of choice. (And thanks to technological advances, the average person–with a VCR–has a wider selection of movies at a cheaper cost than ever before.)

It's true such "serious" films might cut deeper than average Hollywood fare, but there's something to be said for major studio output. Taken as a whole, Hollywood still produces a fairly diverse amount of entertainment across any number of genres. And perhaps I'm the philistine, but many "art" films make me appreciate the zip and even vulgarity that Hollywood is able to provide.

Seventy years ago, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz sent a famous telegram from Hollywood to then-journalist Ben Hecht: "Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don't let this get around." Well, it got around, and nowadays more writers want to create the perfect three-act screenplay than the Great American Novel. Playwright John Guare has a blurb on the back of Monster–the book is a "perfect antidote for anyone delusional enough" to want a write a screenplay. I don't think it'll have that effect. As Dunne notes at the end of the book, through the eight years they worked on the film, he and Joan had a good time. And as maddening and absurd as the system seems, a lot of the excitement–and money–of working in the movies still comes through.

If Hollywood goes through some lean years, it's probably due for a shakeout in middle management, and the line may finally hold on the salaries of talent. But until then, though the system could use some reform, as long as it's not truly broken, and the people on top are making so much money and having so much fun, no one's going to fix it any time soon.

Steve Kurtz is a screenwriter living and occasionally working in Los Angeles.