THE WORD IS OUT: GOOD WRITING STILL PAYS OFF : Summer Box-Office Hits Sparkled on Paper Before They Sparkled on the Screen

Times Staff Writer

To be an optimist in Hollywood is to risk being labeled the village idiot. But let’s have courage. There is evidence on the summer’s box-office chart linking performance to quality writing.

Whether it’s a coincidence or a true sign that script readers, producers and studio execs have shifted their focus from concepts and special effects to plot and character, many of the summer’s hits have been singled out by film critics for the strength of the writing apparent in them.

That is encouraging. But screenplays are not like novels, solo flights navigated by insightful Manhattan book editors. Scripts, as everyone knows, are written by committees generally composed of writer, director, producer, actors, banker, studio execs and studio execs’ wives.


At least, most of the bad scripts are written that way. To see how true that is of some of the good ones, we asked three screenwriters whose names are on current well-reviewed movies to recall their nightmares for us. Surprise! No nightmares.

“Stakeout"-- Writer: Jim Kouf.

“Stakeout,” which has been the best performing movie in the United States for the last month, is Jim Kouf’s fourth produced screenplay and far and away his most successful. He said it was also the least-complicated in terms of getting from the page to the screen.

“I have been working with (Michael) Eisner and (Jeffrey) Katzenberg for quite a while,” said Kouf, who co-wrote his first two scripts (“Class” and “American Dreamer”) with partner David Greenwalt. “I came to them with the story and said, ‘This is the next one I’d like to do.’ They said, ‘Go ahead.’ I wrote it and we came together very quickly. There were really no problems.”

Kouf, 36, said he did one rewrite of “Stakeout” before director John Badham and actor Richard Dreyfuss were hired. He said he made many changes afterward to accommodate Badham and Dreyfuss, and he credits Dreyfuss and co-star Emilio Estevez with much of the buddy banter that helps fuse the film with humor.

But he said the structure of the story never changed and that’s more than most writers can hope for.

Kouf, who is on contract as both writer and producer with Disney, wants to direct eventually, he said. After “Secret Admirer,” a comedy released by Orion Pictures, he got to direct “Miracles.” That Tom Conti/Teri Garr comedy received a spotty regional release by Orion and is now on the pay-cable circuit.

“The studio didn’t believe in it,” Kouf said, adding that the studio made numerous requests for changes in that script. “I really don’t know why. Every time I talked to them, they gave me a release date, but it never happened.”

For Kouf, the success of “Stakeout” is earning goodwill points in his own home. He said he based the character of Maria Guadalupe Maquire, Dreyfuss’s Mexican-Irish love interest, on his wife, whose maiden name is Maria Guadalupe Butler.

“I use everything from my own life that I can,” Kouf said. “I’m shameless.”

“The Big Easy"--Writer: Daniel Petrie Jr.

It’s a small world. Daniel Petrie Jr. helped launch his friend Jim Kouf’s writing career when Petrie was working in the mail room at International Creative Management.

“I started representing him,” Petrie said. “We used to sneak into ICM on weekends. I’d Xerox his scripts and send them out on ICM stationery . . . and try to get him jobs.”

Petrie said he helped put Kouf together with his writing partner and got them their first major film, “American Dreamer.” Petrie said he eventually decided he wanted to write scripts himself. His first produced screenplay was for one of the most successful box office films ever--"Beverly Hills Cop.”

But it was a script that he had written on speculation that got him the “Beverly Hills Cop” assignment.

Petrie, one of two screenwriting sons of director Daniel Petrie, said he wrote two scripts on speculation after leaving ICM. The first was a science- fiction story. The second was about a corrupt cop who falls in love with the morally outraged assistant district attorney who attempts to prosecute him.

The second script, which changed titles from “Windy City” to “Nothing But the Truth” to “The Big Easy,” was written in 1982 and it sold in three days to producer Stephen Friedman. Petrie said the quick sale drew attention to the script and led producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to ask him to rewrite “Beverly Hills Cop.”

“The idea was I would do a quick rewrite on that before going back to (‘The Big Easy’),” he said. “I asked for six weeks off. A year later, I was still working on ‘Beverly Hills Cop.’ ”

“The Big Easy” was a hard sale for producer Friedman. It was difficult finding a quality director willing to take on a story with a corrupt hero. When it was finished, it was difficult finding a distributor willing to release it.

Petrie said the script, however, was a reasonably smooth experience. He made no major rewrites on it until director Jim McBride took it on and asked that it be reset in New Orleans. The new setting obviously required a radical shift in moods, he said, but the basic structure and storyline remained the same.

“The Big Easy” was finished and ready for release a year ago, according to Petrie. He said Friedman was unable to make a distribution deal with one of the majors and it was in the hands of the fledgling New Century/Vista when Columbia Pictures’ new Chairman David Puttnam saw it at the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah, last winter.

Puttnam reportedly turned to the film makers immediately after the screening and announced that he wanted it for Columbia. “The Big Easy,” widely praised by the critics, took in $3 million during its first weekend in national release.

Petrie, like Kouf, is now on contract to Disney, where he said he is about to co-produce a Mikhail Baryshnikov film titled “Run.” Also like Kouf, he wants to direct films eventually, which is the only way, he says, that writers can ever hope to tell stories the way they want them told.

“No matter how hideous the fights you might have with the director, or how warm a personal relationship you might have with them, even though you might be pleased with what they’ve done, you’re never completely in sync with what they do.”

“RoboCop"--Writers: Edward Neumeier and Michael Miner.

Edward Neumeier said that he and writing partner Michael Miner were both making “substantial livings” before they decided to team up as moonlighting screenwriters three years ago. Neumeier had been a story analyst at several studios; Miner had directed several rock videos.

Their first script was “RoboCop.”

“We talked about it for 2 1/2 months and wrote it in about two months,” Neumeier said.

When they were finished, the partners gave the script to everyone they knew, then took a month and went in separate directions on vacation. When they got back, there were two offers to weigh. Neumeier said one offer was from Atlantic Releasing, the other from producer Jon Davison.

There wasn’t much money to begin with, Neumeier said. Just a few thousand dollars for an option, plus a $25,000 fee--which they split--for their first rewrite. Neither writer quit his day job.

“I don’t think I could have survived if I just stopped working,” said the 30-year-old Neumeier. “It took 18 months before there was any more money.”

Orion Pictures courted about five different directors before getting Paul Verhoeven, Neumeier said. The movie was made for about $13 million and has grossed more than $42 million. Enough to warrant a sequel?

“Right now, we’re jumping into a project in Central America for Orion,” Neumeier said. “As soon as we can spit out a draft on that, we’ll go do ‘RoboCop 2.’ That’s the way it goes. You spend three years on something, then they come to you and say, ‘Congratulations, now do it again, fast.’ It’s wonderful.”