A Little Game With Consequence
LA Times writer Jay A. Fernandez, who I recent accused of ejaculating all over Charlie Kaufman's new script, redeems himself today by writing an insightful little piece about how an edgy, interesting film script called "A Little Game Without Consequence” -- which attracted Jim Carrey and Cameron Diaz -- recently fell apart after numerous new writers were brought on to do drafts.
The series of writers, no doubt urged on by studio executives, ended up reportedly whittling away everything that made the script attractive to the actors in the first place, and when the latest draft was turned in, the actors bailed. Now, Fernandez does point out that citing the script differences between the one they first read and the latest draft could just be a convenient excuse to get out of a project they were never actually committed to in the first place, but that doesn't take away the fact (okay, wide-spread opinion) that studio movies have never felt more stale, while scripted television has never felt more fresh. And a central reason for that is the “development” process.
Movies are fucking expensive and getting only more so, and so when a studio likes a script, let’s say a script by a first-time writer (ignore the fact that first-time writers have a terrible time ever getting their scripts bought for a minute), they will usually hedge their bets and bring on someone to rewrite it. Someone proven in “the marketplace.” The problem is that process by which the Writer’s Guild determines final screen credit is one that pits writers against each other; whoever does “more work” on the final shooting version of the script is favored to get credit over someone else. And with hundreds and thousands of dollars on the line if you get screen credit, not to mention the future benefits in terms of raising ones quote and resume building, it’s an understandably bloody fight.
So let’s take the case of the first script I ever wrote. We’ll call it, “The Traditional Final Dance of High School Which Usually Takes Place On A Weekend Night And Which People Ride To In Limos And Afterwards Often Give Up Their Virginity”. I wrote the script and my agents “took it out” and Studio X (we’ll call them “Tiger’s Cage”) bought it. They loved it. They flipped for it. It remains one of the best things I’ve ever written (which is sad considering I wrote it in 10 days and other scripts since have taken me 6 months and, well, often kind of suck.) The script has gotten me more meetings and jobs than I can count. It’s a really good script.
So they hired me to do rewrites, depressing rewrites essentially rounding off some of the rough edges. The producer – who is now gone from the project, thank God – was a fucking dimwit. His job, as he saw it, (and this is one of the big problems with the development process) was to try to get the studio to greenlight it. Agreed. The problem is that he thought that could only be achieved by removing the quirkiness and originality of the script (my “voice”), which is exactly WHY people liked the fucking thing in the first place. And he didn’t use his own taste as a barometer, which would be acceptable. No, he used market research and his own limited intelligence. One fight we got into was over a big scene (a “set piece” as it's mysteriously called) that took place at a party held by the high school’s SCA, or Society For Creative Anachronism. This is an, “Organization dedicated to researching and recreating pre-17th century European history.” Ren Faire dorks, essentially. The scene was always cited as people’s favorite. Many meetings and jobs happened because of that one scene alone. This fight was ongoing and really the only thing I held firm on. Well, one day Mr. Producer came to me in a notes meeting with a surprise. He had secretly hired MTV’s marketing department to prove that he was right. He read the research, crowing that only “8% of high school kids MTV polled had ever heard of SCA!” Thus, he said, in a leap of logic worthy of, well, SCA dorks, that the scene would make no sense to the kids the movie was targeted towards! Now, I could launch into all the reasons his argument is completely idiotic, even, especially with research, but if you don’t already see that… well, I’ll call him to offer you a job. Anyway, he eventually was off the film, the scene stayed, and the last time I saw him he was standing around the pool at the Standard alone on a Friday night trolling for chicks. Maybe he’s still there.
The studio looked at my script and thought they needed more jokes; more obvious jokes they could point to as "jokes." So they brought on another writer with whom they already had paid in a blind script deal, so he had to do whatever they told him to do. Problem: there was little at stake for him to do a good job. He had already been paid, and had moved on to bigger jobs, so this was just fulfilling a promise to an old boss. Indeed, the studio didn’t like his draft and reverted to mine, (rewritten and dumbed down for the producer). The studio then hired a writing team they’d worked with before. I never read their draft, but it attracted a director, then actors, then a greenlight. Fantastic. Great. Awesome. Location scouting was underway. I’m picking out my tux for the premiere. Perfect.
That was a year ago. The young actor – his name rhymes with Fyah LaPoof – eventually fell out due to contract things which I could go into and which were avoidable, and the studio put the script into turn-around, which means, “Well, we tried. We fucked up. So naturally we don’t want it anymore.” The producers then put it back on the market and another studio picked it up, with some sort of penalty saying they had to greenlight it within 6 months. Or something.
And then they brought on yet another writer. An expensive writer. A guy I’ve heard of.
So this is now the fourth writer or team hired to rewrite my original script. All these developments, by the way, are rumors I hear from random sources, and not directly from anyone involved in the project. No. That would be impossible. For though the entire script came from my head, typed on my old Gateway laptop mostly on my dad’s old desk during Christmas break 2001, I am old news. Ancient news. Because somewhere along the line, though the story is essentially, I’m told, still the same. The characters have different names. Yeah. “Doug” and “Cleo” (or “Chloe” as my old producer would call her repeatedly during script meetings) are now “Bob” and “Mary” or some shit.
But why would anyone change the names?
For credit. Because, as I said, the WGA pits writers against each other. So if the movie ever gets made, the fun begins. Me and all the other writers will, one day, receive at our doorsteps, a big box containing all the other incarnations of the script, plus, the shooting script. And then we will each go through it and write detailed reports of what ideas, lines, concepts, scenes, words from our drafts made it into the final movie. And then the WGA will take all those reports (which, I’ve been told, take longer to write up than the script probably did in the first place) and determine who gets screen credit.
And what better way to change a whole lot of words at once than to change names of characters that appear on every page! Thus, Doug and Cleo become Bob and Mary.
You see, writers-for-hire aren’t always interested in making the movie better. They’re often interested -- because they have to be, because they’re compensated to be -- in soaking the project with as much of their own scent as possible. So much of writing for film is, therefore, just putting your fingerprints all over shit that didn’t need tinkering with.
I have no idea what my script is going to look like at the end of this process. I might not even recognize it anymore, after 3 other writers and teams got finished with it. And so what started out as my sincere attempt to offer an alternative to teenage pie-fucking movies – to take teen romance seriously, because at that age it is more serious than ever and is almost never treated as such in movies – may indeed now be just a piece of glass from a 1940’s Coke bottle found on the beach, rounded and edged to a dull, smooth formless lump. But with wacky record-scratching sound effects!
This is not the only time I’ve been rewritten. No. I’m currently being rewritten on two different scripts by Nora and Delia Ephron and by Brian Posehn! I wouldn’t hold your breath about any of these movies being made any time soon, but hey, at least I’m providing employment for over-50 women and lumpy alt-comics. So I've got that going for me.
All of this is why I’ve been spending at least part of my time writing for television, creating, pitching, and selling pilots to the networks for the last four years. Even though I’ve yet to have a show land on the fall schedule, never once have I turned in a draft and been told, “We love it. Your voice is so original. The story is amazing. I love the characters. So singular and unique and funny and weird! We’re giving it to someone else to rewrite.” Writers are treated with respect in television. I know that sounds funny to some, (and not so funny to reality writers struggling right now to get basic pension and health care), but at least compared to the film world, it’s true.
And of course some of this is sour grapes. Sure. I hate the fact that Brian fucking Posehn rewrote my time travel comedy and emailed me to say, “Funny idea, man.” But I pose this final question: Is it a coincidence that we’re seeing a oft-reported “Golden Age” for a medium that honors writers and the writers’ vision and voice, and we’re in terrible creative and financial doldrums for the medium that sees writers as disposable and interchangeable?