Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Studio Stories XI – Train Wrecks & Horseshoe Nails

For the unfamiliar, a "reveal" in screenwriting parlance is the placement of key, revelatory information in a story. Most times, the last reveal is the most important revelation of all.

FADE IN:
There’s an old maxim in Hollywood that goes something like: great scripts can yield bad films, but the reverse is not true, bad scripts can never make for great films. Can anyone name a terrible screenplay, judged so by many, the film of which was even passably good?
Two stories from screenwriter Lem Dobbs of how films can “go off the rails”:
Dan Schneider - In 1991, two films of yours came out. The first was a Michael J. Fox and James Woods action comedy, The Hard Way. Never saw it, but in Googling about, this seems almost a step down from Romancing The Stone. Within the film, too, there seems to be a thread of a tv show that is Indiana Jones-like. What was your contribution to this film, and was it just a paycheck?  
Lem Dobbs - Sometimes everything is rewritten except that which ought to be. The Hard Way is, apparently, about a self-serious action-adventure movie star of the Indiana Jones/Die Hard type -- and yet the part is played by diminutive comic pipsqueak Michael J. Fox. The viewer’s immediate experience is completely at odds with what the script is describing. (Kevin Kline was originally cast in the role.) It was my first job after my Fox contract finally came to an end, and I was happy to get it. They’re all just paychecks if they’re not self-generated.  It was old-time Hollywood scriptwriting with a marvelous veteran writer-producer named William Sackheim. Just me and him -- pacing -- in his office. No other jerks or intermediaries; Bill kept me totally protected from whoever they might have been, just the way I like it. He had developed an initial comedy called Tech Advisor, about a real cop on the set of a cop movie -- I suppose in the hope of emulating prior Sackheim success The In-Laws. But he decided he wanted to take it in a different direction, so my contribution was to re-tool this “buddy” pairing as more of an action movie -- the actor in the cop’s world. My version got terribly convoluted and Bill very politely (usually they don’t even call) moved on to another writer, Dan Pyne. The movie was going to be made with Kline and Gene Hackman as the cop, with Arthur In-Laws Hiller directing. Then the studio decided they wanted it to be lighter, after all, and they thought they had two serious dramatic actors -- that Kevin Kline wasn’t funny.  So it fell apart and Kevin Kline promptly won an Oscar for being funny in A Fish Called Wanda. Sackheim was subsequently able to resurrect it with John Badham as director -- and a team of comedy writers were brought on to improve it even more.
Dan Schneider - The other film was Steven Soderbergh’s previously mentioned Kafka, your first film with Soderbergh. Again, I’ve not seen it, but in listening to some offhanded remarks on the DVD commentary on The Limey, the later Soderbergh film you worked on, you seemed to not have been pleased with the results on Kafka. What were that film’s flaws, and since, on The Limey, you often complained of Soderbergh’s editorial decisions- from the way a shot was framed to its editing, were the problems in Kafka mostly directorial decisions? Or were you simply not allowed as much elbow room with the script as you would have wanted?  
Lem Dobbs - They’re always directorial decisions, if the director is left alone to do whatever he wants. Kafka is quite beautifully “directed” if you mistake direction for mere photography or production design. Many films go off the rails from day one; everything is just wrong. They’re made for the wrong reasons; nobody really cares about the script, just the perceived “heat” of the director or cast, there’s no command or control -- a multiplicity of producers, none with any authority. There are crippling casting mistakes, dimwitted actors who sense weakness and turn destructive. The script was no masterpiece, but there was a script -- it just wasn’t followed or respected. So the main flaw of the movie is, to intents and purposes, the script. It doesn’t make any sense at all -- the story, the plot, so far as anyone can tell, or even individual lines of dialogue, many of which are just awful if not laughable. Conceptually the script was changed completely; it was originally a supernatural horror film. Steven dropped the supernatural aspects, preferring to make a more supposedly rational mystery in the manner of The Third Man -- which makes the horror elements that remain seem even sillier. I went along with this to a certain extent because I was still too young and eager and not quite ready to retire from the movie business. It’s what screenwriters do, they go along, hope for the best. You’re so often in the hands of luck and fate. What if Polanski or Cronenberg or Terry Gilliam on a good day … and Steven feels he’s so much more capable now of making it what it might have been. Timing. Just once I’d love to be fired immediately, paid off handsomely, and rewritten by Tom Stoppard. Y’know, the flip side is that there have always been bad writers with their names on good movies, but somehow they never complain about how their scripts were changed!
---Lem Dobbs, Interviewed by Dan Schneider 
In an earlier post we quoted Dobbs’s recounting of how, in Kafka, Ian Holm’s line delivery changed the meaning of just one word and that, in turn, altered the meaning of the entire film. “For the want of a nail...”



     For want of a nail the shoe was lost
            For want of a shoe the horse went unshod
            For want of a horse a rider walked
            For want of a rider the battle was lost
            For want of a victory the kingdom fell
            And all for the want of a horseshoe nail

FADE OUT
Lee A. Matthias
Quotes of the Post:
Sometimes everything is rewritten except that which ought to be.


Kafka is quite beautifully “directed” if you mistake direction for mere photography or production design.
Many films go off the rails from day one; everything is just wrong. They’re made for the wrong reasons; nobody really cares about the script, just the perceived “heat” of the director or cast, there’s no command or control -- a multiplicity of producers, none with any authority. There are crippling casting mistakes, dimwitted actors who sense weakness and turn destructive.
It’s what screenwriters do, they go along, hope for the best. You’re so often in the hands of luck and fate. What if Polanski or Cronenberg or Terry Gilliam on a good day … and Steven (Soderbergh)  feels he’s so much more capable now of making [Kafka] what it might have been. Timing. Just once I’d love to be fired immediately, paid off handsomely, and rewritten by Tom Stoppard. Y’know, the flip side is that there have always been bad writers with their names on good movies, but somehow they never complain about how their scripts were changed!
---Lem Dobbs

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