The Real ‘Kalifornia’ Got Lost in the Filmmaking Journey
As the credited screenwriter for the film “Kalifornia,” I feel compelled to answer Kenneth Turan’s question in his review as to why the picture exists, “messing up (his) otherwise nice day” (“ ‘Kalifornia’: A Violent Journey in Bad Company,” Calendar, Sept. 3).
Maybe in the process a little light might be shed on how long it can take scripts to get made, how they get changed by various production executives and actors, and how then the Writers Guild valiantly tries to decide who’s ultimately responsible for what.
Contrary to Turan’s guess, the script wasn’t written because I didn’t want to be “pigeonholed as a co-author of ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ "--I made my peace with God over that one a decade ago. Rather, it was written (with Stephen Levy back in 1987 and called “ C alifornia”) for a few other simple reasons: to scare an audience, to comment on our national obsession with “true crime” stories, and to punish myself for my morbid preoccupation with the subject of murder and murderers. What better way than to create a character who thinks he’s an expert on killers, than to plant a homicidal ex-con in the back seat of his car on an extended road trip and see how inordinately long it takes him to figure it out? In other words, the picture as originally written was meant to be black comedy.
What a screenwriter intends, though, and what winds up on the screen are often two different things. In the case of “Kalifornia,” a simplistic, cliched voice-over narration was written by the director and a couple of his minions after the meaning of the film proved impenetrable to test audiences. It is this narration (and another scene added by the director) that Turan quotes as so offensive. I was offended, too, and never having been a good soldier when it comes to these things, would rather not take the blame.
The choice was also made to feature bizarre violence over more subtle expressions of character and suspense, perhaps because first-time directors often feel that such grotesqueries are the surest way that critics and audiences will sit up and take notice of them.
The fact is directors good or bad must take a screenplay and somehow make it their own, or else their egos go a little haywire. Experienced writers know that’s just the way it is: They can’t command their sets, make thousands of decisions a day and fight the executives at the studio (and look over their shoulders for that disgruntled screenwriter coming at them with a butcher knife) without having an outsized auteurist ego that can’t resist making changes in other people’s scripts. It’s the reason why most writers are all so anxious to become directors themselves--and then, as many of us fantasize, we’ll no longer have to write those pesky original screenplays.
Add into the mix the usual budgetary cuts that cost films those quirky little scenes of character and texture, and finally the improvisations actors need to do in order to find their characters (for instance, perhaps 30% of Juliette Lewis’ amazing performance was there in the script, the other 70% coming from her, and to his credit, from the director who gave her the necessary freedom to create) and you have a 1987 “ C alifornia” on paper becoming a 1993 “Kalifornia” on film.
And inevitably, at the end of the line, you have a Writers Guild arbitration over the final credit.
When a production executive on a picture files for a writing credit (in this case three of them did--the director, a producer and a co-producer, working as a tag-team), there is an automatic arbitration by the guild whether the original writer protests the executives’ claim or not.
The Guild Credits Manual states in so many words that it is not enough for the executives to cut and paste scenes, whimsically rewrite dialogue, add explanatory narrations for Nintendo-addled teen-agers and to tack on nonsensical tag endings in order to receive screen credit. Instead, they must contribute at least 60% original material to the script in the form of new characters, new plot points and new structure, which a panel of three anonymous guild members ruled these executives did not do. Such decisions come from three anonymous writers who were in all likelihood predisposed to frown upon producers and directors claiming writing credits in the first place. That, and the 60% figure, might not always be fair (the procedures for credit determination are currently under review by the guild), but it’s one area in the business where writers exert some real power. We’re not likely to be giving it up any time soon.
The execs did contribute more than enough, though, for me as the writer of the picture to feel estranged from the final product. It’s not the movie I wanted to make, but I didn’t produce or direct it, so I’ve had to let it go.
I will say this about “Kalifornia”: It’s an alternately awkward and brilliant movie that’s meant to and does disturb an audience. If you like being disturbed by movies (I do, some don’t), you should ignore Turan’s pan and go see it, give it a chance.
It’s already won several international festival awards and, even more significantly, been sanctified by the great gods Siskel and Ebert with their two upturned thumbs. At least to my folks back in Ohio, I’ve finally arrived. In C alifornia.
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