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Dumbed Down by Committee

In “Pat Hobby’s Preview,” one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s fictional tales about a down-on-his-luck Hollywood screenwriter, Hobby tries to impress a star-struck young woman by taking her to the premiere of a picture he co-wrote. But Hobby’s tickets are no good, and the hard-boiled doorman won’t let Hobby or his date inside.

“You don’t understand,” Hobby says. “I wrote this picture.” The doorman replies, “Sure. In a pipe dream.” Just before Hobby gets the heave-ho, his co-writer emerges from the theater. “Go and look,” he roars. “I think the prop boy directed it!” Before storming off, he tells the doorman, “It’s all right. He wrote it. I wouldn’t have my name on an inch of it.”

Why do good scripts go bad? It’s an age-old complaint in Hollywood, from downtrodden screenwriters as well as beleaguered executives trying to explain how the stinker you just saw began life as a sparkling gem. John Scott Shepherd hasn’t read the “Hobby” stories, which Fitzgerald wrote in 1939 and 1940 when the novelist was a downtrodden hack himself, working at Universal Pictures, then a B-movie factory. But maybe now would be a good time to start.

If you didn’t know Shepherd’s original work, you’d think he was a hack too. His two produced scripts have resulted in crashingly bad and unsuccessful movies: “Joe Somebody,” released last Christmas, featuring Tim Allen as a put-upon office worker (remember those awful ads with Allen wearing a boxing glove and carrying a briefcase?), and the recently released “Life or Something Like It,” which stars Angelina Jolie (in a blond fright wig) as an ambitious TV anchorwoman who reexamines her life after being told by a street prophet that she only has a week to live.

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“Life,” which cost $40 million, has only taken in less than $11 million at the box office and was greeted with derisive reviews, many putting the blame on Shepherd’s screenplays (he shared notoriety on “Life” with Dana Stevens, who did the rewrite).

I would never have given Shepherd a second glance except for the fact that the 38-year-old former advertising executive is actually a gifted writer. His original “Life” script had shades of “American Beauty’s” dark satiric edge, while his debut novel, “Henry’s List of Wrongs,” is a witty, Nick Hornsby-esque gem about a coldblooded corporate raider’s struggle with spiritual rebirth. He has a distinctive voice and writes sparkling dialogue for brash, contemporary characters.

Talk about having a Hollywood writer’s highs and lows. Shepherd’s novel sold for $1.1 million, and he’s made pots of money from selling TV pilots and scripts, including one that’s intended as a vehicle for Julia Roberts. Yet his screenplays have been dumbed down, rejected by the public and trashed by the critics. Is it any wonder that when I took him to lunch recently to discuss his experiences in Hollywood, he went through three Bloody Marys in barely more time than it would take Shaquille O’Neal to polish off a couple of steaks?

Shepherd is careful to avoid casting himself as an innocent among philistines. But his cold-eyed account of his scripts’ bumpy passage makes it clear that for the writer in Hollywood, little has changed since Fitzgerald’s days. Shepherd’s is a cautionary tale about any writer’s bruising encounter with the deadly trap of studio script development.

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“I got a tough lesson in what happens when everyone is trying to make the characters more palatable, but to the point where you lose the real voice of the movie,” Shepherd said. “We had a lot of people in the room during script meetings, and it often felt like they were giving notes because they felt they should have something to say to justify their presence, even though they really didn’t have any clear point of view. I must admit I was baffled a lot of the time.”

Shepherd doesn’t disguise his feelings about “Joe Somebody,” saying, “God, do I hate that movie!” His original script was an edgy comedy, but when Allen was cast in the role and the movie was packaged as a holiday-season family movie, Shepherd was taken off the job and the dark comic elements were written out of the script.

The problems with “Life or Something Like It” are more complicated, according to several people involved in making the film. Shepherd sold the script to New Regency in late 1998. Working with producer John Davis and New Regency, who was bankrolling the film, Shepherd did six script rewrites, largely geared to making his TV anchorwoman more likable.

“The likability issue came up a lot,” he recalls. “People kept saying, ‘I don’t think this woman is sympathetic enough.’ But it really confused what the movie was about. I kept arguing, if we make her more self-aware, then where’s the arc for her character? There’s no epiphany when she realizes how empty her life has become.”

In Shepherd’s script, the TV anchorwoman ends up falling in a love with a wisecracking TV cameraman, played by Ed Burns. Shepherd wrote him as a bachelor. In the movie, he is suddenly revealed to be the father of a boy who spends a day with Burns and Jolie, then disappears, never to be seen again.

“There was a constant debate over whether we could cheer for a guy who was just a cameraman,” Shepherd says. “In my world, living in Kansas City, to work as a news cameraman at a network affiliate would be a perfectly good job. There was just a gulf between my perception of him and what people in Hollywood thought was a good job.”

Many other things changed. In Shepherd’s original script, the Jolie character investigates a corrupt TV minister. In the film, she lands an interview with a Barbara Walters-type TV queen, played by Stockard Channing. In Shepherd’s script, the Jolie character nearly dies at movie’s end after being hit by a newspaper truck. In the movie, she is shot accidentally by an armed robber. As something of a novice screenwriter, Shepherd had trouble absorbing a blizzard of script notes and incorporating the good ideas while ignoring the bad ones.

“My first rewrite was terrible, because I tried to please everybody,” he admits. He thought his last draft was his best, but no one else agreed. He was fired from the film shortly afterward. With the project stalled, producer John Davis brought in Stevens, who’d written “For Love of the Game” and “City of Angels.” She wrote a draft that got director Joel Schumacher on board; he wanted to make the film with Renee Zellweger. New Regency balked, thinking Zellweger didn’t have enough star power.

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Schumacher left after getting an offer to do another picture. But days later, Jolie read the script and signed on. Though the critics later carped that she was horribly wrong for the role, Regency saw her as one of the few bankable actresses who could open the movie here and overseas. With a writers’ strike fast approaching, Regency quickly signed director Stephen Herek, known for making broad comedies and dramas, including such hits as “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and such flops as “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.”

Jolie was responsible for another ill-fated choice: She decided her character should be a garish platinum blond. Most people involved with the film thought it was a horrible idea, but Herek supported her and no one seriously tried talking her out of it. The filmmakers were so concerned about Jolie’s look that they inserted several jokes allowing characters to make fun of her hair color. It was a feeble solution: Women were so turned off by her appearance in the TV spots that they stayed away in droves.

Jolie’s outlandish appearance was emblematic of a series of alterations that robbed the movie of any semblance of believability. Like all too many of today’s Hollywood movies, “Life or Something Like It” is a fantasy with utterly no connection to actual life. Jolie’s interview with Channing is preposterously tearful, and we are asked to believe that she would get a network tryout after making a fool out of herself on the air drunkenly singing “Satisfaction” with a crowd of striking transit workers.

In the 1930s, during the height of Hollywood screwball comedy, films like “My Man Godfrey” and “It Happened One Night” were rooted in reality--their madcap humor didn’t ignore the squalor of the Depression. Today’s studio movies are scrubbed clean of any resemblance to real events. As reviewer Mike Clark of USA Today succinctly put it: “The movie’s portrayal of local TV news makes ‘Death to Smoochy’ look like a PBS documentary.”

In their quest for commercial success, studio executives often dilute or destroy what they liked about a script to start with--its verve and originality--and they lack the courage to confront creative types, be they wrongheaded movie stars or directors. What “Life” lacked was one strong voice in the script meeting, be it a powerful producer or executive, who would arbitrate debates and keep the movie going in one consistent direction.

Like so many writers who’ve seen their scripts ground up into sausage, Shepherd is eager to work outside the studio system. “Too often, making a studio movie is like stitching together a shirt with all the different colors and fabrics,” he says. “When you’re finished, they make you hold it up and spray-paint the word ‘SHIRT’ on it in big, bold letters so that everyone knows you’re holding up a shirt. So the next time I’m writing a movie, I’m going to try to please myself, not everyone else in the room.”

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“The Big Picture” runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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