Sunday, February 28, 2010

The time I rewrote Neil Simon

First off, let me just say that Neil Simon is one of my comedy Gods. I’ve devoured all of his plays, used them as a study guide. There was a period in the 80s and 90s that his new plays and musicals would open first here in Los Angeles before going on to Broadway (we were New Haven with palm trees). I would see them three or four times, watching to see how he revised and polished them… and often times marveling at the craft and ingenuity of the fixes. (And amazingly, he did it without the invaluable help of network notes.)

He has two autobiographies. I strongly recommend them both; especially the first one. The process of turning around THE ODD COUPLE is classic.

For awhile, several years ago, Neil used to workout at my gym. He was approachable and very gracious. Like I said, one of my comedy titans.

But I rewrote him.

Here’s the story. Probably close to ten years ago my daughter Annie was trying to get into the drama club at her high school. She was expected to deliver a comedy monologue. The one she chose was a long speech from a character in Neil Simon’s PLAZA SUITE. It might have been the mother trying to coax her daughter out of the bathroom on her wedding day; I don’t recall exactly.

The audition could be no longer than 3 minutes. Annie rehearsed it with me and I timed it. She was long by about 40 seconds. Speeding up the pace wouldn’t have helped. So I took a deep breath, said “give me the script”, and thinned out the monologue.

Even as I was doing it I was thinking, “Oh, I am surely going to hell for this!” You don’t take Moses’ tablets and say, “I think there’s a better way to phrase commandment six.” But I did. I found trims. I found some repetitions. I did not spontaneously combust.

Annie rehearsed the revised monologue and bingo! It was right on time. She used it for her audition, was accepted into the club, and no one knew the speech had been doctored with.

Why am I telling you this? Do I like looking over my shoulder for fear of being struck dead by lightening. No. I’m telling you this to make a point.

There are ALWAYS trims in big speeches. Whenever my partner and I finish a draft we always go back, re-examine any long speech and invariably find some cuts.

Long speeches are a bitch to write. You’re often including multiple thoughts. Usually the best way to attack them is let it flow. Just get it all on paper. Don’t go on to sentence two only after sentence one is absolutely perfect. Once you’ve said everything you want to say, even if you’ve said it five times, then go back and trim and eliminate and shape. At some point you will be satisfied that the speech is just where you want it and every word is absolutely necessary.

Then go back in a few days and take out another 10%.

I bet if he doesn’t sue me, Neil Simon would agree.

27 comments:

Mr. said...

I just cut three paragraphs from your post.... hey, put down that gun.

YEKIMI said...

"I’ve devoured all of his play"

I thought he had more than one? Or was it just one that he re-wrote in different ways?

SharoneRosen said...

even true in the shortest of short forms. Back when they used to pay me to write radio spots, first I would put all the essential info on the page in as entertaining a form as I could (or was allowed). Then, had to whittle my genius down to :30 seconds... :60 if it was an epic spot.

wait, I'm sure I can tighten this up...

Michael said...

I once got to rewrite the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Harrison Salisbury. Now I always say between us, Salisbury and I won one Pulitzer.

Lee Goldberg said...

I once rewrote Ernest Kinoy, one of the greatest drama writers in TV history. He'd written an episode of a show I was running and, while his words were great, they just didn't sound like our characters. Even so, I felt like I was committing a crime.

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Long speeches are a bitch to write. You’re often including multiple thoughts. Usually the best way to attack them is let it flow. Just get it all on paper. Don’t go on to sentence two only after sentence one is absolutely perfect. Once you’ve said everything you want to say, even if you’ve said it five times, then go back and trim and eliminate and shape. At some point you will be satisfied that the speech is just where you want it and every word is absolutely necessary.

Exactly what I'm doing for a book of essays I'm co-writing. The publisher's manuscript deadline is April 1 and I feel a lot less pressured about it because nearly all the essays are written, except one, which I saved for last because it'll be the most fun for me. I like doing this now. The sentences are there, I get to play around with the sentences, re-sculpt some of them, delete what doesn't work, and all fearlessly this time compared to when I first wrote them. In fact, early this morning, I looked at one of them, read the beginning and thought, "Did I really write this crap?" What a difference from two months ago when I wrote it.

DAVID BISHOP said...

Sometimes long speeches can be a relief for the other actors on stage. I played Jake in a production of Jake's Women by Neil Simon. The character's on stage the whole play, bar one sequence where he leaves for a slash - during which none of the other characters can speak, as they're projections of Jake's psyche. Whoever plays Jake has to learn the entire script, word for word. The only time you get to relax is when one of the woman has a speech that takes most of a page. It's a glorious oasis in the midst of a massive effort of concentration.

Very funny and poignant play, BTW.

unnoray: Retracting negative instructions to people called Ray.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I had to cut my first novel from 125,000 words to 75,000 words. It was the greatest learning experience of my writing life.

itstartedwithawindmill said...

Ken, This is totally off the subject of your post. You had mentioned your writing partner and obviously you have been successful. As an aspiring screenwriter, your I am extremely interested in your opinion of why your partnership was successful and your opinion of why partners are and are not successful.

In the short time I've been writing, I've seen incidents of writing partners bringing the same talents and tastes together.

itstartedwithawindmill said...

(cont'd)And often the similarities in tastes and talent don't work for the partnership.

YEKIMI said...

Taken from your MASH post and a response you gave: Otherwise,I love teachers!

I guess this could be a Friday question: What teacher did you "love" the most...someone in grade school? high school? college? or someone in the industry who may have "taught" you some things you would have never learned anywhere else? And what did they do to make you "love" them so much?

D. McEwan said...

The first draft of my second book was 80,000 words. The published version is 40,000 words.

The only thing is, I hate it, and it doesn't say much of what I was trying to say. When I look at it, it is a pale, butchered reflection of what I was trying to write. I haven't spoken to that editor since it came out. A bitter experience.

"DAVID BISHOP said...
I played Jake in a production of
Jake's Women by Neil Simon. Very funny and poignant play, BTW."

I just saw a production of Jake's Women less than a month ago, and I really disliked it. Now maybe it was just a poor production of it (Certainly much of the cast was - let's say - inadaquate, though a couple of the women were good) but I found the psychology of it way off, the premise muddy, and by act two I disliked Jake so much, I no longer gave a rat's ass if any of his relationships ever worked out or not. I might add that the audience sat and watched it in stoney silence. Only I laughed at a few of the lines. No one else laughed at any of them. But you're right that Jake is an enormous role.

A song writer I am working with now once wrote a parody song to a Sondheim number from FOLLIES, which he called "The God I Don't Believe That I Am Here Rewriting Sondheim Blues." He sent it to Sondheim, who found it funny, and ended up taking him under his tutilage. Now my friend has had several musicals he's written produced here and there (One will be staged here in Los Angeles in January), and we're writing a show for London. (With me quaking, knowing Sondheim is seeing my work-in-progress. Yikes!) All because he had the balls to rewrite Sondheim and let him see it.

Now if you'll exuse me, I'm going to go show Charles Dickens how to get A TALE OF TWO CITIES down to one city. ("Do you really NEED London?")

A. Buck Short said...

Now you tell me.

jbryant said...

Great.

vw: wogent: Sadly unable to be cogent.

Paul Duca said...

Doug, I'm glad you brought something up--there's a bit of news I need you to get to Ms. Morehead. I was talking with a friend of mine who loves in New York, and he informed me that there is a new one-woman show opening up on Broadway in the near future, starring Valerie Harper. She will be portraying the woman who most blatantly copied Ms. Morehead's style and attitude....Tallulah Bankhead.

Paul Duca said...

My friend lives in New York, as well.

WV: "diked"--how I almost feel about making that silly typo previously.

gih said...

I love this man guys. He left memories before his time will come. Keep it up.

Brian Siano said...

That makes two of us. In a high school theater class, a friend and I did a scene from _The Odd Couple_. Same story: time limits, a desire to keep the scene "complete," etc. So I knitted a line or two. Lord knows how good the editing was, because we flubbed the lines anyway.

Anonymous said...

SharoneRosen, the late Don Howard of San Diego radio fame became a radio sales weasel in the early 80's.

His method for getting the copy down to ;60 (after he'd written a :90) was to make the production guy read it really fast...

And it was lovely copy with phrases such as "easy credit? If you're breathing, you qualify!"

Famous! said...

On the other foot: if either "Citizen Kane" or "Network"... two films which were 90% speeches... had been edited for Drake-like brevity, actors like Beatrice Straight never would have won the Gold Statuette With The Trademarked Name, and Mr. Bernstein's little story about the young woman he glimpsed briefly at the ferry back in his earlier days, would not be haunting me for the rest of my days (as she haunted his).

Sometimes you just gotta let the people talk, you know?

rita said...

even your capcha is going with the general theme of this entry and has begun abreviating. :D

WV "compi": short for "compilation".

Dr. Leo Marvin said...

"I bet if he doesn’t sue me, Neil Simon would agree."

Those aren't mutually exclusive.

D. McEwan said...

"Paul Duca said...
Doug, I'm glad you brought something up--there's a bit of news I need you to get to Ms. Morehead. I was talking with a friend of mine who loves in New York, and he informed me that there is a new one-woman show opening up on Broadway in the near future, starring Valerie Harper. She will be portraying the woman who most blatantly copied Ms. Morehead's style and attitude....Tallulah Bankhead.


I was aware of this, thanks Paul, as she did it at the Pasadena Playhouse first.

Pasadena, the new New Haven.

Jonathan said...

Dear Ken,

Here's a question not really fit for the comments section, but I don't know any other way to contact you: Would you ever be willing to entertain the the thought of visiting a small liberal arts college with a lot of students interested in television and film (and radio!), giving a talk and working with students who crave information on writing and directing? You can contact me directly (jnichols@depauw.edu) if you have any (even passing) interest -- or even if you don't.
Jonathan

Chalmers said...

Reminds me of the credit from the 1929 Fairbanks/Pickford "Taming of the Shrew, by William Shakespeare, additional dialogue by Sam Taylor."

WV: Unger--need I say more?

Baylink said...

FWIW: Twitter is good for this: since it lets you write long, and then edit down to 140. :-)

normadesmond said...

#1-i have read "neil simon rewrites". it's a terrific read.

#2-on a trip to NYC, i'd just walked out the side door of st.patrick's cathedral (just having been at TV museum) and ran right into neil on the sidewalk. normally, i'm always mr. cool blase when spotting someone famous, but because he's not a celebrity in the usual sense, i gave him a huge HI! HOW ARE YOU! and scared the shit out of him. i still feel bad about it.

#3-as a young kid, i was a part of a very small town theatre group. we had nothing. no money. no stage, nothing. we staged "barefoot in the park". it was performed on risers in a large room. no curtain! our wonderful director elaine changed the name of the show & advertised it as "six flights up" ....her way of avoiding the royalty/$$ problem. neil lost nothing that night, maybe we had a audience of a parent each.