WRITERS FIND BIG TROUBLE ON ROAD TO 'LITTLE CHINA'

If Hollywood is a dream factory, then it is every screenwriter's fantasy to sell a script--and actually get it made.

But screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Weinstein never dreamed they'd have such problems getting screen credit for "Big Trouble in Little China," a mystical, kung-fu adventure film that stars Kurt Russell and arrives Wednesday from 20th Century Fox.

After Fox optioned their script two summers ago, they figured their struggle was over. But. . . .

The studio hired someone else, veteran screenwriter W. D. Richter, to completely re-do the script.

When the film went into production last summer, the studio credited Richter with the screenplay, information that showed up in Variety's weekly Film Production Chart and later in Calendar's list of upcoming releases.

Weinstein met several people who had worked on the set who told him they had no idea he'd done the film. The screenwriters were never invited to the set and never met director John Carpenter.

When Richter gave an interview to a fantasy magazine, he described the original screenplay as "dreadful."

The preliminary studio production notes given to the press at early screenings listed Goldman and Weinstein as authors of the screenplay, with Richter as the "adaptor." Richter had a half-page biography; Goldman and Weinstein--none.

Last year, Weinstein was having lunch with an old friend who had become a successful film director. "He asked me what I'd been doing lately," he related, "and I told him that my partner and I had written a film called 'Big Trouble in Little China,' which had already been in production for a month.

"He had a very startled look on his face. 'You wrote that?' he said. 'I don't remember seeing your name on that movie.' "

According to the two young screenwriters, it was hard to find many people who did know they wrote "Big Trouble." Though the reviews aren't in yet, advance word-of-mouth from industry screenings hasn't been good for the film, which some viewers have described as a retread of a "Raiders of the Lost Ark"-style adventure.

"We still think our script was more commercial and of better quality," said Weinstein, 31. "But after seeing it, we're basically happy. The basic concept of the movie we envisioned--a Chinese magic movie--still comes across well."

It's no secret that screenwriters, especially virtual unknowns, rarely get any respect in Hollywood. Samuel Goldwyn once termed writers "(idiots) with Underwoods."

"The problem in movies today is that everyone believes their contribution is the essential one," Goldman said in a careful, diplomatic tone. "And because we were virtual unknowns, our opinions weren't valued at all."

At Fox, the feeling is different. As one studio source put it: "Their inexperience is showing. At most places, these guys would've been told to spit up a rope."

According to Goldman and Weinstein, studios are more comfortable dealing with "name" writers with long lists of credits. When Fox bought their script, it brought in Richter (who wrote the remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "Brubaker" and directed "Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai").

He updated and rewrote the script, which originally was set at the turn of the century. In the original script, the Kurt Russell character is a cowboy (Wiley Prescott) who joins forces with the local Chinese to battle Lo Pan, an evil sorcerer. He also falls for a woman who runs a safe house for Chinese women who've escaped forced prostitution.

In Richter's version, the Russell character was changed to a truck driver (Jack Burton), his love interest to a dizzy lawyer. Many of the other characters remain from the original script, though their names are different and Richter added all-new dialogue.

"I was asked to do a rewrite by (producers) Keith Barish and Paul Monash," Richter said. "I liked the premise of the original script, but I didn't like very much else about it. And I felt it would be more accessible if I could change it to the present day.

"I kept the central conceit, of the subterranean world, and a lot of the original characters, but my version has none of the original dialogue. You can't take a story set in the gaslight era and put it in the modern era without totally revamping it. Everything looks different and everyone certainly speaks differently."

After that rewrite, Goldman and Weinstein's credit disappeared from the script. "To be honest, we really felt like we were parents and they'd taken our baby away," said Weinstein, who has written episodes of the TV series "Fame" and "Hart to Hart" as well as several other unproduced scripts with Goldman.

Upset, they went to Writers Guild arbitration last spring, a common practice in Hollywood credit disputes. They were awarded full story and screenplay credit, with Richter getting an "adapted by" credit.

Richter said he was "surprised" by the arbitration decision but not irate. "The deck is really stacked in favor of the writer of an original script. So you take your chances and you live by what they say.

"I said in my arbitration statement that what these writers had submitted was a story, not a screenplay. The film now just isn't the script they wrote at all. By all rights, they should hate it, because I changed everything about it that they liked."

Richter would not reveal how much he was paid for his work on the film. But, he said, "my contract specified that my assignment was not a rewrite but a full screenplay. And I was paid my standard price for a full script."

Even after Writers Guild ruling, Goldman and Weinstein say Fox continued to send out publicity material that gave sole screenplay credit to Richter. "The fact is that Fox, to this day, believes their position," Goldman said. "They've convinced themselves that W. D. Richter wrote the film."

(John DeSimio, a Fox publicity exec, disagreed: "The minute we were informed of the arbitration ruling, we changed the credits and accommodated the writers in a timely fashion.")

In 1982, whenever Goldman and Weinstein had free time, they'd drive down to Chinatown and watch martial-arts films at the Kim Sing Theatre.

"We were sitting in David's backyard one day, wondering what was a fascinating American story that had never been told," said Goldman, 32, who had directed several documentaries and worked as Louis Malle's assistant on "Pretty Baby."

"The martial-arts films had really brought out the little 10-year-old boys in us and we thought, 'What if we could make them accessible to American audiences? They'd eat them up.' We'd both been kicking around in show business and we needed to make some money. We thought this was a script we could write that the studios would have to buy."

The initial studio response was lukewarm, though in March, 1983, producer Paul Monash and Keith Barish Productions optioned the script. After "relatively minor" rewrites, the script went out to several name directors, all of whom passed.

"It was essentially on the shelf until 'Romancing the Stone' became a hit," Goldman said. "Then Barish renewed their option, Fox got interested and they arranged for some sort of co-production deal."

(According to Weinstein, the writers ultimately received a "low six-figure price," which included a $55,000 initial option and rewrite payment and another sum as the final purchase price).

In late 1984, the writers heard "through the rumor mill" that Fox was talking to other writers about a rewrite. "We thought it was just scuttlebutt, since Fox didn't say anything to us," Goldman said.

The writers met with Fox production executive Larry Mark who, Goldman said, told them that the studio had approached Richter. "They said he'd come up with the idea of moving the film to the present day, which we felt, at the time, was a completely wrong idea," Goldman said. "We weren't really ever offered the opportunity to do the rewrite. They were essentially proposing to us what was his idea, so it would be hard to imagine them letting us do it after they'd already brought him in."

(Mark did not respond to several phone calls from Calendar.)

Goldman insisted that he wasn't upset. "I figured that was standard operating procedure," he said, measuring his words. "By having a well-known writer involved with the project, it was probably a good way for the studio to attract a name director."

Then, however, they discovered that when Richter's name was added, their names had been relegated to a far less prominent "story credit" category. In Hollywood, appearance is reality, and the young writers became increasingly distressed to find their names barely mentioned, if at all, in each new account of the film's production.

In November, 1985, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd visited the set, quoting director John Carpenter in his column as saying the film's "W. D. Richter script was originally a turn-of-the-century Western."

In the June issue of Starlog magazine, Richter was quoted as saying, "When I first started reading (the script), I realized what it needed wasn't a rewrite, but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay."

The writers complained to Fox, but without any results. "It really hurt our ability to work, because a lot of people felt we'd gotten the project started but hadn't really written the film," Goldman explained.

Even after the writers won the arbitration decision, they still seemed somewhat peeved by Richter's role in the film's production. Asked what they thought of Carpenter's direction of the film, Weinstein said: "He did a tremendous job. I mean, they could have had W. D. Richter direct the movie."

Richter said he found the writers attitude toward his role in the film "very bizarre."

"It's one thing to be bruised and angry, but they've been aggressively agitating over this credit problem all along," he said. "Two weeks after I'd begun rewriting the script, one of the writers called me and complained that I had no business rewriting another writer's script and that I should consider giving back the money and not having anything to do with it.

"It was an extremely weird conversation. I told them that wasn't the way this business worked. There's nothing unusual about rewrites. It happens all the time."

Oddly enough, the biggest casualty of the battle may have been the two writers' own partnership. They've been writing separately for the past year. "The whole experience was like boot camp without real bullets," Weinstein said. "It put a huge strain on our partnership, not so much creatively as business-wise."

And what about their relationship with Fox? "It's funny, but I think they respect us more now that we've got our credits," Goldman said. "That's the cold reality of Hollywood."

Weinstein grinned. "After all, our contracts have a clause that says the studio has to come to us first if they want to do a sequel."

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