Sunday, January 17, 2016

Some thoughts on re-writing

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

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.

This is a re-post from four years ago.


Joseph Scarbrough said...

When H.R. PUFNSTUF was in production in 1969, there were only two writers that wrote all seventeen scripts for the show: Lennie Weinrib (who also supplied voices, including Pufnstuf) and Paul Harrison. However, the Krofft brothers had never produced a show before, and one of the problems they were facing was the scripts so were huge each one was like a movie screenplay as opposed to a halfhour teleplay. Marty Krofft brought in veteran sitcom producer/writer Si Rose to help them out, and the scripts were one of the first things he noticed was given them problem, and he re-wrote each script to condense them down to a managable format, though he wasn't credited for such on the show (though he did eventually get an executive producer credit since he ended up managing their finances since they were always overbudget). I have noticed in almost all of their ensuing shows, he was almost always credited as a writer on the pilot.

MikeK.Pa. said...

There are hookers in Hollywood? Re: Flinstones, maybe it just needed that 61st writer to get it just right. Someone closer to the subject matter like Chris Rock or Oliver Stone.

Green Luthor said...

It's been said that the most successful person from Star Wars wasn't Harrison Ford, but rather Carrie Fisher, because she spent years as one of the most sought-after (but uncredited) script doctors in Hollywood. (Though she got out of that part of the business about 10 years ago, because: "Now in order to get a rewrite job, you have to submit your notes for your ideas on how to fix the script. So they can get all the notes from all the different writers, keep the notes and not hire you. That's free work and that's what I always call life-wasting events." Somehow, I don't think Mr. Levine will either disagree or be surprised by that...)

Joseph Scarbrough said...

Much like THE FLINTSTONES, another movie script that suffered from being the hands of so many writers doing silent rewrites and script doctoring was LABYRINTH. It supposedly went through about twenty-five different treatments, outlines, screenplays, etc. All the people who hand their hands on the writing had different ideas of what the tone of the movie should be, and in the end result kind of shows . . . but perhaps the most telling thing about the movie is that it was clear the character of Sarah was an afterthought: most of those who worked on the script were more interested in the goblins or other creatures in the story, or the late David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King that Sarah ends up being a flat and bland character who really receives no development or growth - she's pretty much the same character at the end of the movie that she is at the beginning of the movie.

Mike said...

Scheduling comedy is all about risk. I shall repost this later in a better slot when it's proven its worthiness.

Unknown said...

I know you've mentioned The Jewel in the Nile in another post that you and David basically rewrote the Nile script over one weekend so I think it's safe to say that neither of you probably considers it to be one of your major efforts. I mention this at the beginning because you might be amused to learn that Thomas Pope devotes a whole chapter to the Nile script in his book on screenwriting Good Script, Bad Scripts. He basically deconstructs the Nile script, using it as an example of what we burgeoning screenwriters can all learn from a bad script.

By Ken Levine said...

Yes he does, Rob. But two things: We were heavily rewritten by the original writers once we were unavailable to be on hand during location shooting. And two, you'll notice in Pope's chapter he singles out one scene that he thought was great. That's our one scene that wasn't changed. And by the way, I agree with most of the points Thomas Pope had in the script. They were a lot of the issues we had with it too.

Andy Rose said...

Writers aren't the only folks whose spec proposals tend to get used as free consulting work. Billy West, one of the most talented voice actors in Hollywood, stopped auditioning for main characters in animated films years ago because they always end up casting "name" actors. He discovered directors were using the auditions of voice specialists like him to hone the characterization, then they'd play that audition tape for Liam Neeson or whomever and say, "This is what we want the character to sound like."

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Andy Rose Does that explain why it seems like nearly animated movie or series these days has SNL castmembers doing voices instead of actual voice actors? Something's gotta explain why almost all animated movies have Bill Hader voicing the male lead and Kristen Wiig voicing the female lead (not to mention Kristen and Fred Armesin are voicing Looney Tunes characters now).