Saturday, May 06, 2017

Some thoughts on rewriting

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.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Carrie Fisher and Joss Whedon both worked as script doctors, and I assume were very well compensated.

A Friday question for Ken: I don't know if you watch SUPERSTORE (but you should), but it just had an awesome second-season finale that featured special effects one has not historically seen in sitcoms. I was wondering if you could cast your experienced directorial eye over it and speculate about the budget, the mechanics, and the availability to such shows of special effects that used to be only the province of movies because they were priced way out of reach. I assume that CGI and digital production have a lot to do with bringing such things into the range of an average sitcom. Or feel free to tell me I'm all wrong and back when the DICK VAN DYKE show did something similar. :)


Andrew said...

Mannequins - now that was a classic! Kudos.

VP81955 said...

Rewrite your blog? It'd be like pinch-hitting for Bryce Harper.

But rewriting is part of what you pay for success in the industry. If I ever achieve screenwriting renown, I'll understand nearly all my scripts will be considerably rewritten, because I've done likewise with mine (and perhaps will have the chance to do with others). I only hope the finished product after others revise it is at least a reasonable facsimile of what I first gave the producer.

brian t said...

I just watched A Few Good Men, where Aaron Sorkin's screenplay (based on his stage play) was given a rewrite by William Goldman. Sorkin reportedly went back and updated the stage play with Goldman's changes, so there were clearly no hard feelings there. This was before the Sorkin style was fully developed; if IMDB is any guide, his famous "walk & talk" scenes started here as one of Rob Reiner's set directions, and the film's most famous line - "You can't handle the truth!" - was coined by Steven Spielberg ...

Nithya said...

You're kidding, right??

Phil said...


""You can't handle the truth!" - was coined by Steven Spielberg ..." was it????

Or is it just another credit given to Spielberg where he deserves none? Like in every Oscar speech or interview they mention him, even though he would have contributed zilch.

Just mention him / give credit to him, in typical Hollywood kiss-ass manner.

Sandra said...

Hi Ken,

Longtime reader Sandra. Love all your posts.... actually I read Hollywood related posts mostly :)

Wondering as a Friday question or just as a separate post, if you can make a list of movies that portrays Hollywood best as per you.

Some lists do exist on net, but by outsiders and journos. Which movie do you think portrays Hollywood screw-ups/odd-balls/wackos best ;)


MikeN said...

What's the shortest amount of time you've had to rewrite your material?
South Park writers say they had to rewrite their episode starting Tuesday 8PM for an episode that would air Wednesday. Major rewrite as the first version was centered around laughing at Hillary cheerleaders that Bill would now be first gentleman.

VP81955 said...

Sandra: "The Player" has to be included. (Goldie Hawn -- who finally got her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame yesterday -- treated as a goddess by the pygmies!)

Wally said...


Swingers written by Jon Favreau

more truth about breaking in without it (the fiction) being a breaking in story
but in reality it's one of the best breaking in stories for Jon, Vince and Doug Liman
it was meta before meta existed

Johnny Walker said...

Sandra, I'm not sure Ken would agree that a portrayal of "screw-ups/odd-balls/wackos" would sum up his experience in Hollywood. Although there is obviously insanity in Hollywood, and plenty of stories about it, Ken's always stressing how most people are nice, normal and professional. So a "typical" representation might not be as interesting as you might hope :)

I was watching "Saving Mr Banks" the other day, and I thought the portrayal of the Sherman Brothers was probably very close to how they would have behaved. Professional, talented and trying to do a good job.

There's always going to be monsters, though. I think the first time the darker side of Hollywood was shown was in Sunset Blvd. I'm interested in what Ken thinks best shows off the worst of Hollywood, too, and the first place he might point you to is his satirical novel, Must Kill TV :) (Available from the links on the right --->)

Paul Gottlieb said...

I understand that there are a few writers who make a very good living doing uncredited rewrites and script doctoring. I know that Elaine May has contributed to a number of scripts, and I believe you once wrote that Carrie Fischer was also in demand. Could you name some of the other great, uncredited script doctors?

Sandra said...

Thanks VP81955 .... yes have seen "The player". It was not so great.... Isn't Altman overrated?

Anyway, Goldie Hawn ..pygmies... sorry didn't get it.....

Sandra said...

Thanks Wally.

By Ken Levine said...


I will be answering your question and devoting an entire post to it later in the week. :)

Sandra said...

Johnny Walker,

Yes I know professionals like Ken are normal people like us :)

It's actually the stars and their screwed up lives that Ken has observed, I was interested in.

Ken once spoke of how Kate Beckinsale (Pearl Harbor star) was very rude when Ken went to say Hi at Gym. Likewise whatever Ken has seen, interacted and heard from sources, I was wondering which movie depicted that the best.......

Anyway Thanks.

Sandra said...

Wow.... Superb ...... Thanks Ken :)

Anonymous said...

Simon Kinberg & Michael Arndt make up to $350,000 / week
I believe John August is als up there - not nec that %% but maybe $100,000 - in terms of 'go to' for certain kinds of features

McTom said...

ehh... re: Kate Beckinsale being rude to Ken at the gym - "Celebrity being rude" is subjective. I thought Ken was pretty brusque with me when I told him in the Falcon Theater lobby after "A or B" that I was a fan of the blog, and enjoyed the play. But maybe he just had other people he knew that he'd rather talk to. So - perspective...

Anonymous said...

Ken's responses raises a another Friday question - does the credited writer's attitude towards rewriters change based upon their background (tv versus film versus theater)?

MikeN said...

Friday Question, there is a clip from Cheers that gets used at professional sports events. I'll let readers try and guess which one.
My question is, does the studio get paid for use of these clips, and if so do you get a share?

Myles said...

Since they write it, do the voices, and are basically 100% in charge with no interference from networks or 3rd parties they are able to pull off last minute rewrites. They hold the record by far. It's happened a few times and I believe one time they didn't get it done. When you're writing a show for actors or a live audience you have to go with whatever you have no matter what when it's time to shoot.