Saturday, April 25, 2015

Levine & Isaacs -- you're fired!

It’s not uncommon for writers to get fired off of film projects. You turn in a draft, the phone stops ringing, and then you learn that someone else has been hired to rewrite you. Larry Gelbart, at a WGA membership meeting debating one of our many contracts, spoke to the crowd of about a thousand and said, “At one time everyone in this room will rewrite everyone else in this room”.  He's right. 

But how many writers have been fired even before they wrote a single word? Not many. The only two I can think of are me and my partner, David Isaacs.  What a dubious distinction!

It’s 1980. Director Randal Kleiser is hot based on an unlikely hit movie he megged (I love that bullshit Hollywood term) called BLUE LAGOON. A young nubile Brooke Shields (before becoming the toast of Broadway) and pretty boy, Christopher Atkins are trapped on a tropical island together. They frolic for two hours and this audiences wanted to see.

So Kleiser gets a big development deal at Columbia. He has an idea for a coming-of-age movie set in an amusement park. David and I are hired to write it. We do. He loves it. The studio loves it. Everybody loves it. No one makes it but everyone loves it.

While we are writing the screenplay, Kleiser is busy writing and preparing the next movie he was going to direct, SUMMER LOVERS. This classic starring nubile Darryl Hannah and pretty boy, Peter Gallagher, is about a gorgeous young couple who fall in love one idyllic summer in picturesque Greece. BLUE LAGOON with Lachanodolmades.

We turn in our screenplay to much praise and get a call from Randal. He’s going off to Greece in a week to begin principal photography of SUMMER LOVERS. But he’s getting a little nervous about the script. Would we be interested in doing a fast rewrite? Nothing major. No story or structure changes. Just round out the characters and maybe add a little humor and dimension. A messenger drops off copies of the script. We read it overnight, meet in the morning to discuss what we’d like to do, and then drive over to Burbank to confab (another favorite bullshit Hollywood word) with him in his office on the WB/Columbia lot.

The meeting goes swimingly. He loves our suggestions. He laughs at the jokes we propose. He couldn’t be more effusive and enthusiastic. What we pitch is just what the script needs he says. So he sends us off to write it, complete with his blessing and thanks.

We drive back over the hill to my condo on the Westside. Takes about a half hour. We walk in my place and immediately the phone rings. It’s our agent. No pleasantries. She starts out with, “Just what happened in that meeting?” I was sort of thrown by the question. “It went great. Why?” I asked. “Well, it couldn’t have gone that great,” she said, “Columbia just called. They fired you.”


"You're no longer on the project."

"Even if we were never on the project."

"Yep.  Your services are no longer needed."

"What services?  We never started service."

"You're fired!"

So that was that.  We never found out why. My guess is Randal didn’t like our suggestions but was just too much of a wimp (an expression I shall use in place of the one I really want to use but am taking the high road – although you know the word I mean) to tell us face-to-face. Randal went off to the make the movie. I never saw it. It bombed. I don’t think our rewrite would have made a damn bit of difference.

By the time he had returned, our amusement park project was dead. We learned later that Columbia had no intention of ever making it. They wanted another BLUE LAGOON, not a teen comedy out of Randal Kleiser. They were just indulging him.  We didn’t know it at the time but we were always just spinning our wheels (back in the days when studios still paid for the spinning).

There’s no real moral to this story. The only advice I could give writers so that this never happens to you is, I guess, don’t ever come home taking Laurel Canyon.

This is a re-post from way back before Global Warming. 


Stoney said...

"The Blue Lagoon grossed a ton of money at the box office which goes to prove 20-million people CAN be wrong!" Roger Ebert from Siskel & Ebert present the WORST of 1980.

benson said...

Summer Lovers wasn't Streetcar named Desire, but it did have the lovely, late Valerie Quennessen, who was in another wonderful coming of age movie, French Postcards. And the soundtrack had decent music, with Prince and the Pointer Sisters and Chicago's Hard to Say I'm Sorry, which went to #1 in spite of it being on the closing credits.

Oat Willie said...

Reminds me of an episode of "Louie" from last season where he went through hell to get Letterman's job only to discover that he was only a bargaining chip in The Deal. Or the plot of "Money" by Martin Amis.

Tom Stopper said...

Every time I read a story about the inner workings of the movie and TV business, I get more dumbfounded at the fact that anything of any quality ever actually gets produced. Patchwork screenplays by multiple screenwriters, awkwardly melded together by accountant/producers, and finished with a veneer of vain stupidity ("I don't care what else is in this movie, but it better have a giant mechanical spider") seems to be a guarantee that the main product of the Magic Factory is going to be drek. It seems like a system specifically designed to winnow out every shred of originality in writing.

blinky said...

Top Definition in Urban Dictionary
(In football/soccer): to beat your opponent in a one-on-one contest by tapping the ball between his legs and running around him before he/she has realized what happened.

Lairbo said...

To paraphrase Pauline Kael's review of "Blue Lagoon", "You spend the first hour waiting for them to discover sex and the second hour wishing they hadn't."

Anonymous said...

>i< test

Eric J said...

Friday Question, sort of.
How about list of "Bullshit Hollywood Terms" writers should be familiar with?

Anonymous said...

Any chance of making the amusement park script available for reading?

Rus Wornom

Hamid said...

I guess there's some karma in this story. Looking at Kleiser's filmography, his last high profile film was Honey I Blew Up The Kid 23 years ago. What a load of shit that was. That's 90 minutes I'll never get back.

But on the subject of writing and rewriting, I had the pleasure of seeing the new Avengers movie the other night. For some reason, the UK always gets Marvel movies a week before the States. You're in for a treat. It's full of great dialogue and laugh out loud lines, and James Spader steals the movie as Ultron. It's a shame the acting Oscars don't include voice acting, because his performance is amazing. The way he manages to be sinister and witty at the same time without becoming one of those cliched goofy villains who spout dumb jokes is something to behold. And the whole thing is written and directed by Joss Whedon. That's the credit that appears at the end. No multiple writing credits. That must be rare, if not unheard of, for a big event movie.

Plus, it's got Scarlett Johansson in leather kicking ass. What's not to love?

michaleen said...

The soccer use of "Megging" is a truncated version of "Nutmegging." As Blinky said, it refers to making an opponent look stupid by kicking the through their legs.

The first part of the word refers to the body parts left hanging as the ball passes under them.

DBenson said...

I read it as "smeg", the all-purpose censor-proof obscenity from "Red Dwarf."

Dennis said...

M-G-M used to throw scripts back and forth between writers, or teams of writers, the theory being that as the script went back and forth each writer would spot the weaknesses in the other's work and correct them.

Sometimes this worked. THE WIZARD OF OZ benefitted from this treatment. One of the three writers primarily responsible for the screenplay had overloaded it with lots of extraneous material. There was a Princess of Oz. The Cowardly Lion was really a prince who had been turned into a lion and could only regain human form by performing a brave deed. The Wicked Witch of the West wanted the ruby slippers because their power would enable her to overthrow the Wizard and make her son the ruler of Oz.

At some point, M-G-M accepted this script and gave it to the other two credited writers, who were working as a team. They decided to stick closer to the original Frank Baum novel and rewrote the screenplay to eliminate all the extraneous material the first writer had added in. M-G-M accepted THAT version, and gave it back to the first writer, who at that point couldn't add back in his additions, but could rewrite this second script to eliminate and correct what he saw in weaknesses in THAT version.

Groucho Marx said once that M-G-M's system worked fine for dramas and musicals, but was disastrous for comedies. He said all that happened from comedy scripts being tossed back and forth like that was the writers took out each other's jokes.

Anonymous said...

As thus post is a rerun, see previous version's comment thread for the answer to megged. Or, since I'm sure most of you won't: "megged", to direct a film through a megaphone.

Paul Duca said...

I thought "helmed" was the b.s. term.

D. McEwan said...

I saw Summer Lovers. It played much better with the sound off, so you could look at the gorgeous scenery and the pretty stars in various states of undress (Peter Gallagher looked a LOT better then, and seldom wore a shirt) without having to listen to their inanities.

Pat Reeder said...

I recall "Summer Lovers" as being what I call a travelogue movie. With those movies, you ignore the lousy plot and script. People who can't afford a luxury vacation go to a theater to spend two hours looking at a big screen full of gorgeous scenery and attractive naked people, neither one of which they would be likely to see during the vacation they could actually afford at Six Flags. They're similar to food porn movies, where you just go to look at amazing gourmet meals being sensuously prepared while eating concession stand nachos.

Stephen Marks said...

Summer Lovers followed 30 years later by My Life in Ruins and My Big Fat Greek those back to back to back and only then are you allowed to say "Shit, I can do better then that"

Todd Everett said...

Those "bullshit Hollywood terms" sound like the language invented by and for Daily Variety ("megged" from megaphone, which silent movie directors were at least said to have used).

When someone "ankles" a project, they leave it for whatever reason. Generally that reason (with the person in question often pursuing "indie prod") was fired, which everybody knew but didn't want to say.

Except one time when I was working at Variety, a producer left a TV show, and after speaking to the guy, I had him "ankling," and also working on a new project.

Then the guy's boss called my boss, Tom Pryor, and let him know that the person didn't "ankle," he was fired. And much to my surprise the retraction ran.

The good news from all of this is that the guy who was fired went on to become one of the most successful producers in television, and the boss who fired him disappeared -- though no doubt with a sack of money.

Lemastre said...

"Megging" is probably a trade-paper leftover from the days when directors communicated via megaphones.

Dan Ball said...

The moral of the story is that Hollywood's done. It deserves to die over lame and irresponsible practices that have been going on for decades like this. It's gotten too big and it's collapsing under its own weight. Time for Middle America to pick up the reins for entertainment and start doing it better with smarter business practices.

Dan Sachs said...

Sounds like Adventureland (2009).

tavm said...

I'm guessing the word you wanted to call Mr. Kleiser started with a p...