Monday, January 30, 2012

Some thoughts on rewriting

Got one of those Friday Questions that is worthy of an entire post. It’s from SeanK.

Ken,
You’ve mentioned a couple of times doing an un-credited re-write for Jewel of the Nile. I’m curious about that, mainly as it pertains to the ability to add it to your resume. Assuming only known writers would be asked to do a re-write, I suspect there’s enough Kevin Bacon-esque connections that it would be easily verified should it come up. But, well, does it come up? Why was it un-credited (your call or theirs)?

Larry Gelbart once stood up at a WGA membership rally just before a strike and said, “At some point everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room.”

He was right.

Rewriting is as much a part of Hollywood as rumors and hookers. It is such a common practice in the feature world that the rare exception is the screenplay that makes it to the screen not having been rewritten by six other writers.

Screen credit is determined by a Credits Manual sanctioned by the Writers Guild. An arbitration is ordered any time a new writer is put on a project, whether the new writer requests it or not. In general this Credits Manual is there to protect the original writer. In the old days directors would routinely futz with scripts and slap their names on them. No more unless they deserve it.

Those arbitrations can get very hairy. The 1994 FLINTSTONES movie had no less than sixty writers involved at one time or another. (I know what you're thinking -- sixty writers for that?!)

Many A-List writers make a handsome living doing uncredited rewrites and polishes. What they sacrifice in credit they make up for in compensation. Some of these scribes command $100,000 a week to provide their genius. (I’ll pause a moment while you pick yourself up off the floor.)

When a studio brings a new writer on a project they are contractually obligated to let the other writers know. Of course they don’t but they’re supposed to.

There are no gag orders on rewriters. The Hollywood trade publications often print who is now rewriting what. There are websites that list project status reports complete with the latest writers assigned to scripts.

So I’m not breaking any confidentiality agreement by revealing that my partner and I did a rewrite on JEWEL OF THE NILE. A paper trail does exist. Plus, I have our draft (in English and French. Our script had to be translated into French for the Moroccan government to approve before allowing us to shoot in their country.). So if you want proof of our involvement you’re welcome to check with 20th Century Fox, the WGA, or call the King of Morocco.

For a couple of years we did a lot of rewrites. Both MANNEQUINS and several movies that ultimately never got made. We rewrote some big names. One in particular is a prominent comedy writer I truly admire and even though the script needed work and he wasn’t available I still felt weird about it (but not weird enough to turn down the assignment).

And just as Larry Gelbart said, a number of big names rewrote us. Often there’s animosity between the original writer and the new guy brought on to fuck up your brilliant screenplay. But not always. David Isaacs and I had an original script rewritten by Cameron Crowe and we became friends with him. (It also helped that we thought he improved our script considerably.)

In television it’s the showrunner and staff that rewrite practically every script. There’s the old adage – “Writing is Rewriting.” What it should really be is – “Writing is Rewriting Someone Else”.

At least no one else rewrites this blog. Although, if that prominent comedy writer did it would be a whole lot funnier, damn him.

Meanwhile, I continue to trample through Australia/New Zealand.  A full travelogue will appear once I return home, but I've been posting observations along the way on Twitter.  You're welcome to follow me.

10 comments:

RCP said...

The labor of 60 writers resulted in The Flintstones? This doesn't make sense.

King of Morocco said...

Ken Levine est un scénariste extraordinaire.

Anonymous said...

Here's a Friday question: When you watch the DVD extras of any current movie, they often show multiple takes of the same scene, with many different punchlines being tried.

How long as this been the accepted way that comedies are filmed? Does this mean that nobody liked the original punch line in the script, or that improvising is more accepted these days?

It's hard to imagine a comedy of the 1960's being done this way. As a classic example, I'll bet the script to "The Apartment" was completely finalized before filming, and it was shot exactly as written, with no alternate line readings or ad-libbing.

Does the approach depend on the director, or are the multiple punchlines just a symptom of sloppy writing?

gottacook said...

With respect to the topic at hand, possibly the best-known case of a TV writer being outraged over his script being rewritten by the producer and story editor was that of Harlan Ellison and his original "City on the Edge of Forever" script for the first season of Star Trek. He went so far as to write a whole book thirty years later (1996) about what happened to his script, which is included in the book and (in its original form) won a WGA award for best dramatic script of the year.

Ellison was no TV novice when he wrote his precious Trek script, and he's known for being more or less permanently outraged - heck, by this point he might be better known for that than for his stories - but I've read the original script and in my opinion it really could not have fit well into the series format as written.

Frank said...

After picking myself off the floor I realized my carpet needs a real good vacuum.

Kirk said...

I thought JEWEL OF THE NILE had a lot of good jokes, but it was filmed in this impressionistic manner that muted the humor quite a bit. Same thing was true with another movie made around the same time, Neil Simon's THE SLUGGER'S WIFE. I think where comedy is concerned, they should worry less about re-writing and more about getting the right director.

Phillip B said...

There is actually a wacky and unfinished Wikipedia entry for "script doctor"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Script_doctor

It tries to log many scripts doctored and and whom. (Carrie Fisher notes that she is actually a "script nurse")

Ben Hecht should have a statue if he really did doctor all the scripts claimed for him here - Monkey Business, A Star is Born, Guys and Dolls, Mutiny on the Bounty and Cleopatra among many others.

But it clearly doesn't always work - the site claims that Quentin Tarantino was called in to help with the script for It's Pat...

Anonymous said...

There's a "best sitcom episode" tournament over at split slider: http://splitsider.com/2012/01/the-best-sitcom-episode-ever-tournament

Of course it's missing "Arcade" and "Racial Sensitivity", so it can't be definitive...

Greg Ehrbar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Greg Ehrbar said...

"The Wizard of Oz" had quite a few more writers than appeared on screen (as well as several directors). Irving Brecher was hired to write gags so the movie would be funnier.

One gag that well may be Brecher's is one of my favorite lines, when the Lion asks the Tin Man, "How long can you stay fresh in that can?"

When "The Flintstones" was released, I thought the rumored number of writers was ONLY 32. Maybe it just takes more labor to chisle scripts into stone tablets [rim shot].