Thursday, October 29, 2009

Working with the director of VOLUNTEERS

It’s Friday question day. Only one today but it required a long answer. What's your question???

From Brian Doan:

I was reading Nicholas Meyer's new memoir on a plane this weekend, and he has very kind things to say about the script you and David Isaacs wrote for VOLUNTEERS, how much he loved working on the film, and how he remains proud of the movie, even if it wasn't the big hit everyone wanted it to be.

Just wondering if you have memories of working with Meyer on the film, or stories you might want to share?

We had a lovely experience working with Nick. Best of all, he really did respect the script and only changed it minimally.

Once a film director comes on board the only input and involvement the writer has is what the director graciously allows. All too often the writer will turn in his last draft and the next thing he sees is the finished product a year later – often with horrifying results.

Nick welcomed our involvement from day one. We got to weigh-in on screen tests. We were encouraged to spend time with Tom Hanks to share our vision of the character.

We were invited to Mexico to watch some of the filming but had to decline because we were busy rewriting JEWEL OF THE NILE at the time. Still, we were permitted to watch the dailies that were sent back to LA.

Once the film went into post production we were invited to editing sessions.

Nick always heard us out. He didn’t always follow our suggestions but that’s more than fair.

Our only real disagreement, and I’ve talked about this elsewhere in the blog, was the moment where he had characters break the fourth wall to read a subtitle. We felt it destroyed the reality of the picture and sapped it of any suspense. He argued that it got one of the biggest laughs in the film. How could we take out one of the biggest laughs? He won that battle.

We won another. There’s a scene where the Peace Corps advisor gives volunteer Beth a gift – a Burmese prince (you can watch it below). The joke is that the little statuette had a huge penis. These actually exist, by the way. I have a collection... no, just kidding.

We’re watching the scene on the moviola (a very small screen) and notice that he cuts to a close-up of the statue. We said, that’s not going to play well on the big screen. The penis will be too big. He argued that if we stayed in the master the joke might not be apparent. We said, fine, we’ll see how it works in the test screening. I'm happy to be wrong if it means a moment works.

So we have the big test screening for several hundred people and that close-up of the penis fills the giant screen. And every woman in the audience gasped and shrieked. David and I bolted for the lobby where we laughed so hard we missed the next ten minutes of the film. Needless to say, it came out.

But how’s this for graciousness? That test screening cut was well over two-hours. The goal was to get it down to 90 or 95 minutes. Nick felt he was too close to it and actually let us take a pass and offer cuts. Many of our suggestions he took. Trust me, that's almost unheard of.

Are there things about VOLUNTEERS I wish were different? Sure. Performances, moments, certain scenes and choices. But there are also things that Nick added to the film that were big improvements over what we had intended.

So all in all, a hugely positive experience. Nicholas Meyer is one of the brightest people I ever met and it was a joy just to be in his company, much less collaborate with him.

I’m also envious that he got his memoir published.

Here’s a ten minute segment of VOLUNTEERS that features the Burmese prince scene. It’s about 5 minutes in. This segment also features the famous “Time” joke.


Larry said...

I saw Volunteers in the theatre. I thought Tom Hanks was great. In fact, I'd rather see him doing a good comedy role than a lot of his later "serious" parts.

gottacook said...

Nick Meyer is also possibly the person most responsible for turning the Star Trek movie series into a going concern after a very false start (as the director of The Wrath of Khan in 1982) and keeping it that way (as a co-writer of The Voyage Home, 1986, and director of The Undiscovered Country, 1991). Ricardo Montalban said that Meyer's direction of Time After Time turned him into a fan, which no doubt helped him give such a vivid performance as Khan.

Ger Apeldoorn said...

My question may be more for your visitors than for you, Ken. But I may throw you a bone. Recently, here in Holland all of Emily's Reason's Why Not was shown on tv. All of ERWN? Wasn't that that sitcom that was cancelled after the first episode tanked? Yes, but as is usual in those cases, a minimum of six episodes were filmed. This is because series are written and shot in advance of production, but also because many series re sold abroad and obligations have to be fullfilled. Which is why we saw not one, but six episodes.

Now I was in hospital, so I haven't seen them yet. I did have them tivo'd so I can still sit down for them. I also noticed that Robin Schiff was credited as a producer. You worked with her on one of my favorite comedies ever, Ken. Did she come in for punch-up night? Could we do something together, me reviewing the series and Robin writing her own memoir? And finally, if there is anyone out there who wants to see the series, I could burn all of them on a cd and offer them for 'sale' and send them fom Holland back to the US.

The Bitter Script Reader said...

Just want to throw in a general endorsement of Meyer's new memoir A View From the Bridge. It's a great look at his career, including his work on those three Trek films and The Day After, among others. Aspiring writers and directors could probably learn a lot from it.

Jim said...

Rewriting "Jewel of the Nile"? Now I know that there are all sorts of complicated rules over who gets their name up on screen as the official writer and who gets bumped off to the assorted "production" zone to rub shoulders with the star's relatives, dog walkers and dope dealers, but is there some sort of rule or unofficial etiquette about what you are allowed to say in public at the time? Or even an official "I really did walk his dog" window before you are allowed to spill the beans?

Anonymous said...

You guys probably got lucky because Meyer is also a writer and would naturally be sympathetic to your plight. (There's nothing like watching a director mangle your own work to create empathy.)
Also, if you've never seen "Time after Time", you must. McDowell is wonderful as H.G. Wells. And David Warner as Jack the Ripper puts the button on the 20th century with the line, "Ninety years ago, I was a freak. Today I'm an Amateur."
Just typing that line gives me the chills...

A. Buck Short said...

Since you seem to be short on Friday questions this week (or maybe just short on Friday answers?), here's one that may be slightly OT. As a sportscaster, do you have any advance knowledge as to whether or not South Waziristan will be playing North Waziristan on Thanksgiving? I understand it's a traditional rivalry.

What? OK, confining inquiries to the entertainment industry -- and with the understanding this is not necessarily a value judgment, here's a question that's been bugging me for quite awhile. What's the difference between Poppy Montgomery and Emily Proctor, which is on what, and why do we need both of them?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ken! I had no idea that Nicholas Meyer had a memoir out. I've always admired his movies and books, especially "Time After Time" and "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan". I don't buy many hardcovers anymore (Audible versions I can listen to on my iPod take up less room, and I have more time for them...or paperback, since I rarely get to a hardcover before the paperback comes out) but I'll probably make an exception and buy this hardcover.

Graham Powell said...

Looking over Meyer's films, he had several really good ones. Wonder why he didn't direct more?

Stephen said...

Here's my Friday Question:

With studios releasing what seems like every short-lived or classic television to series, and fans practically badgering these studios for more bonus features, i.e. Audio commentaries, are there any shows you have worked on that you would have liked to have done an audio commentary for? I imagine you would have had fun discussing one of the many "Bar Wars" episodes on Cheers.

Brigadude said...

On the "Jewel of the Nile" comment. I'm an arbitrator for the guild, and it seems a tad churlish. These things get plenty contentious, and nothing, and I mean nothing is as simple as it may seem to outsiders--or even to the writers contesting a credit for that matter. I sincerely hope you were not cheated out of anything, and if you've got a story to tell, then tell it and clear the air. But to just throw that line out there without an explanation is unfair to those that did get the credit.

Richard Cooper said...

Back in the 80s, I met Nick at several events at the University of Iowa, and even attended the world premiere of Time After Time there, a fantastic film. He always took the time to speak to students whenever they approached him. We saw him as a novelist/director, so it's no surprise that he treated the writers of Volunteers with such huge respect. I'd love to talk with him again, twenty years later, a fascinating talent, but will have to settle for the memoir.

Greig said...

Good to hear that Meyer is a decent, collaborative sort of guy. He's not as prolific as I'd like, but if he was, he'd probably not have produced such enjoyable films.

Maybe I'm misunderstanding some cast-iron rule of Hollywood etiquette, but I can't see anything remotely churlish about the reference to Jewel of the Nile.

Enjoying the blog, as always.

Kirk said...

Meyer also wrote a couple of Sherlock Holmes novels in the '70s, including one where Holmes meets Sigmund Freud.

I'm a little surprised he's the one that came up with the reading-the-subtitle gag. You'd think having written several science-fiction films, especially one that featured two people who actually lived (H. G. Wells and Jack the Ripper), he'd be especially sensitive to the audience's suspension of disbelief. Maybe he saw the switch to comedy as liberating. Too liberating.

Ben in Melbourne said...

I'm sorry Ken, but I could only read the first few lines of your post before rushing here, incensed, to knock this off.

The general demeanour of the Hollywood screenwriter as exemplified by you here really really pisses me off. The director "graciously" chose to stick to your script? Really? How about, he does it because he is supposed to, out of respect for a fellow professional? When was the last time you ever heard a director commenting on how the editor "graciously" chose to cut the film? Why is it that you only hear of outrage and court cases when the film is not cut the way the director liked?

The way you Hollywood screenwriters have chosen to let the industry push you around is one of my biggest pet peeves. Why can't writers grow a pair of balls, for Heaven's sake?! You guys are all so quick to stab each other in the back it's not even funny. What are you guys trying to prove? That you're that much better than the shafted writer whose script you're re-writing?

It would only take the kind of integrity we see in blue collar workers to make Hollywood sit up and take notice of the writer. Why can't a writer REFUSE to work on a project after the original writer has been fired? Why can't Hollywood screenwriters support each other? Why can't you guys let the industry know - especially directors - that they would have a hard time finding another writer for their project if they treat one writer badly? It doesn't need WGA negotiations with the industry, it just takes balls, support, and a lot of integrity. Why don't writers have that?

I'm sorry, but you touched a nerve. Otherwise, love your blog.

By Ken Levine said...

Allow me to respond to some comments here.

Brigadude: Excuse me but I was just stating a fact. I was one of the writers who rewrote JEWEL OF THE NILE. Nothing in my contract forbid me from saying that. Did I in my post comment on whether I deserved credit, how much of my draft remained, or whether I even challenged the proposed credits? Did I brag about it? No. I rewrote JEWEL OF THE NILE. Period. Statement of fact.

I've been a member of the Guild for 35 years and have been a staunch supporter of it. I've also been on arbitration committees myself and those I have kept confidential because that is part of the obligation. So I feel qualified to say I did nothing inappropriate in this case.

Ben in Melbourne: I wish the world worked that way. But it doesn't. Directors seize control of writers' work and do what they will. If other writers won't take the money to rewrite the original writer's draft the director will do it himself. Or have his wife do it.

If it's not that way in Australia consider yourself very lucky and enjoy it. Because with all due respect, what you're suggesting is fantasyland.

Ben in Melbourne said...

Ken, thanks for the response. If it hasn't come across that way, I am a very big fan.

But, with all due respect, I have to disagree. You see, I think the Hollywood screenwriter gets treated that way because the director thinks he, his wife, or his niece and nephew can do as good a job. The point is, the writer has to walk away and let them prove it. Walk away, en masse. In the hey day of the movie making business, I've read somewhere about a mogul commenting how the writer was the most important person in the business but that he or she shouldn't be told about this. I'm not living in fantasy land. Hollywood has gone through several "revolutions". The actors had to throw tantrums on set and disrupt filming schedules (childish as that might seem) to be taken seriously by the industry - at least as far as the movie-making process went. The directors, maybe didn't have to do the same: they had the Paris West bank writers and their "auteur" theory to do this for them. I'm suggesting the Hollywood screenwriters need to do something to assert themselves. Rushing to re-write each other is not the answer. It just makes you guys seem dispensable. Walk away from a re-write. Insist you'll only work on a script with the original writer. Do something. All this talk of "graciously" being treated by the director, "graciously" being allowed on a film set is just bad. Terrible. Imagine. "Graciously" been treated like a fellow professional.

Tom K Mason said...

Nicholas Meyer has made some of my favorite movies - not just the Star Trek ones that cater to my inner nerd, but also The Seven Percent Solution, Time After Time, and three made-for-TV movies, Judge Dee and the Monastery Murders, The Night That Panicked America (based on Orson Welles' War of the Worlds Halloween broadcast) and The Day After. He's been steadily making movies, but their success is sporadic. He wrote the screenplay to next year's Eddy Deco, which is based on a detective novel by cartoonist Gahan Wilson.

wv: "trinidsp," the internet provider in Tobago

Joe said...

I keep banging on about it, but Volunteers remains one of my very favorite comedies. I agree with you on the subtitle scene and, were it to have been tested, you would have been vindicated.

Another gripe was having Tom Hanks trying to speak with an uppah-crust New England Wasp accent, accents being something he only manages intermittently in any given film.

Ah, would that this film might be available with a commentary track...

jbryant said...

Ben: How do you propose to get every writer in Hollywood to refuse rewrite work? As Ken said, that's Fantasyland. It's an incredibly hard business to break into; therefore, even if every successful writer did as you suggest, there'd be thousands of wannabes and strugglers champing at the bit to get those paydays.

Brigadude said...

Ken, had we been in conversation and you had said "Because we were rewriting JEWEL OF THE NILE at the time..." I would certainly have asked you to elaborate, knowing that you had not received screen credit on that movie. And I expect you would have explained what had happened and we would have gone on. Probably would have been an interesting story. I think a lot of us would still enjoy hearing it. But in this format, and in context of the posting (i.e. a couple of writers who not only received credit, but were well-treated on a project), sorry, but the implication to me was that you were credited on the other film.

Per your response, did you deserve credit? Did you challenge etc.?

Gary Farber said...

"We were invited to Mexico to watch some of the filming but had to decline because we were busy rewriting JEWEL OF THE NILE at the time."

Did you get to meet the Flying Karamazov Brothers?

Mike Bell said...

I wrote Nick Meyer once. Looking for advice, I sent him a few pages from a spec script I was working on. He actually replied.

"Dear Mike, write more. Nick Meyer."

gottacook said...

Per Brigadude's questions above: Ken, since you've been on an arbitration committee, could you perhaps write a little about the process when a credit is contested? Just in a general sense, without mention of any specific movie or TV script?

(Of course, if you are free to discuss a particular past negotiation not involving yourself, so much the better.)

Brian Doan said...

Mr. Levine, thanks for answering my question! I apologize for not responding earlier, but it's been a very busy week, and I just now have had the time to mosey over and read your blog again. What a pleasant surprise to see my question featured! Thanks for the lengthy and thoughtful response-- I've been a fan of Meyer for many years, so I am glad to hear he is the good guy he always seemed to be.

In response to the question about why Meyer hasn't directed more-- the memoir is mainly about his working experiences, and not as much about his personal life (and it's really great, full of wonderful anecdotes), but he does briefly explain the pause in his career. His wife died of cancer in the early '90s, and he was understandably shattered. He also realized he was now the sole parental figure for his two young children, and writes that directing a movie anytime soon was simply out of the question-- his role as a father took priority. He's continued to write (if I'm not mistaken, his most recent project was adapting Phillip Roth's "The Human Animal" into the film ELEGY), but I think directing just took a backburner to real life.