It was just two weeks before the start of principal photography for “Bad Boys 2,” the sequel to the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence cop comedy, and its director, Michael Bay, was already in Miami prepping for the car chases and explosions he planned to unleash across the causeways of America’s southern hot spot. As the August start date loomed, there was one small hitch in this fast-hatching big-budget extravaganza: Smith hadn’t signed on to do the movie yet. He had a little issue with the script.
So the studio, Columbia, and the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, did what they do at times like these: They called in the specialists, the high-priced script doctors meant to breathe life into dying scripts. Studios and producers are willing to pay -- $200,000 to $300,000 a week for Oscar winners or nominees and others considered to be in the top echelon of the business -- for those who can furiously tap out pages in as short a time as possible.
It was John Lee Hancock, a charming Texan who’d just made his directorial debut with the critical and commercial hit “The Rookie,” who got the call from Columbia studio chief Amy Pascal. Hancock, who’d worked on a King Arthur project for Bruckheimer, had a few weeks to kill while he waited to see if Disney was going to greenlight his next directorial effort, “The Alamo.” Within days, he was meeting with the various executives, talking to Bay and Bruckheimer and, ultimately, selling Smith on the script, which had already gone through the typewriters of a bevy of writers, among them writer-director Ron Shelton and “Permanent Midnight” author-screenwriter Jerry Stahl.
Hancock, who’s best known for an earnest but unsentimental Americana, isn’t the first writer one would think of to pen a sarcastic urban comedy. “I’m not known as funny,” he admits with a chuckle, but his task here was to make the script less simplistic. Feverishly sending in pages as soon as they popped out of his printer, he added subplots and gave each protagonist a secret.
“We added more conflict. Will and Martin are terrifically funny, but you can’t just count on sticking them in a car and they’ll be funny. You need to set them up,” he says.
“It’s a really different kind of writing because time is so of the essence,” he adds. “You have to have a little of a gunslinger attitude. ‘I’m coming to town and I’m killing the bad guys and then I’ll leave and I won’t take any of your women.’ You can’t upset the apple cart of production.”
A practice almost as old as Hollywood itself, script doctoring remains a controversial craft, one that seems to grow more common by the minute, as Hollywood more and more cedes original filmmaking to the indies and concentrates on its true metier: the creation of blockbusters for which the single vision is a corporate one.
Writers often are disinclined to admit publicly what they have worked on, either out of the honor of letting the credited writer keep the credit or out of the shame of having slummed on some misbegotten juggernaut. There also is still widespread sentiment that the best scripts spring from the head of a single writer and that writer pile-on is often evidence of a movie’s being in an increasingly desperate search for characters, plot and dialogue. It’s moviemaking at its most relentlessly commercial, offering a seductive payday to writers who put aside original work to help realize flashy concepts that have been jammed into production to meet summer release dates.
Indeed, script doctoring touches on one of the longest-running arguments in Hollywood: Is development a force for good, refining scripts into shiny masterpieces, or the worst thing that ever happened to movies, a process by which any hint of originality is carefully leeched away, leaving bland, homogenized films already forgotten by the time the audience reaches the parking lot?
The Hollywood writers’ union is in the midst of a rapidly evolving public quarrel over the issue of screenwriting credits, and nothing illustrates the perennial tension between the profession’s haves and have-nots as starkly as script doctoring. Although the practice can easily slide into wholesale rewriting, the term generally refers to the chosen few who are engaged in production polishes and who are mostly paid on a weekly retainer while a film is either shooting or about to shoot. Sometimes they’re hired to salvage an unworkable mess or aid a director’s vision, but they’re also enlisted to pacify stars who want to put their imprint on the material, to mediate between warring parties or simply to settle queasy studio executives nervous about the latest $100-million opus.
Laments a top literary agent, “It’s almost become more of a psychological crutch for the studio executive than anything else. In order to justify the enormous cost of production, you have to hire a seasoned, professional rewrite god to make you feel comfortable about the [expenditure]. It’s maybe the worst money spent in Hollywood. It has everything to do with insecurity and nothing to do with product.”
Bruckheimer is different from most producers because he’s so cheerfully upfront about his industrial approach to script construction. He often hires his own equivalent of the New York Yankees to work on each script, at a total cost of “a couple of million bucks or more.”
Hancock left after three weeks to start working on “The Alamo,” to be replaced first by comedy writer Judd Apatow (“Freaks and Geeks”) and finally by the team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Rounders”). As Lawrence and Smith rehearsed over a weekend, the writers would take down their ad-libs and reconfigure them into scripted dialogue by Monday. “Each writer has a very specific thing to do,” Bruckheimer says. “It’s specific work, not reinventing the plot.”
The list of A-list writers who have happily and lucratively toiled in the Bruckheimer camp is long and illustrious and includes “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin, as well as such Oscar winners as Robert Towne (“Chinatown”), Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Pulp Fiction”), the final three of whom graced the submarine movie “Crimson Tide.”
The process happens to varying degrees on most studio “tent pole” films, from the 32 writers who contributed to “The Flintstones,” perhaps the most notorious writer pile-up of the last decade, to the 17 on “Charlie’s Angels” to this summer’s spectacle “Spider-Man.” That film featured a rare solo writing credit for David Koepp, and uncredited writing primarily by Oscar winner Alvin Sargent (“Ordinary People”) and a smidgen by “Con Air’s” Scott Rosenberg, who cheerfully admits that most of his work, “a kind of ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ approach,” was left out of the movie.
Rosenberg was also the ninth of nine writers on “Armageddon.” “When the budget so big, why not? If you just get four to five good jokes or good scenes, that can be worth it. I don’t think you’d do it on ‘The English Patient.’ ”
Although most script doctors sharply distinguish between their original work and their gun-for-hire fare, many admit that a doctoring stint can be not only lucrative but also ego-gratifying.
“I really enjoy doing them,” says Paul Attanasio, the writer of such brainy fare as the Oscar-nominated “Quiz Show,” who has moonlighted on dozens of popcorn movies, which he declines to name (although it’s well known that “Air Force One” and “Patch Adams” are among them). “I basically analogize it to being the closer in baseball. There’s something about the nature of that kind of pressure, where you’re coming in at the ninth inning and throwing your fastball to three batters and leaving, that’s exhilarating.
“The beauty of being a script doctor,” Rosenberg says, “is: If the movie’s a success, you feel like you were part of it. If it fails, you feel relatively unscathed.
“My rule of thumb is when it’s that kind of movie, I understand my place. I never get my feelings hurt. They’re giving me a nice paycheck, and while you have to find what’s resonant with you in the story, it’s not like it’s the story of my ancestors coming over from the old country.”
“I guess people could take this the wrong way,” says Lowell Ganz, who with partner Babaloo Mandel is among the most sought-after comedy doctors in town. “We try very hard [at script-doctoring jobs], but there’s a lower level of stress than when we’re doing a script that’s our baby.” Ganz and Mandel’s credited work includes “A League of Their Own”; according to sources, their uncredited doctoring jobs include “Liar Liar.”
Top writers can cash in
For a writer, script doctoring can be one of the perks of stardom, similar to top athletes’ cashing in on endorsements. And almost every top screenwriter dabbles in it. Sometimes they even rewrite one another. These days, at the top of the list are such notables as Zaillian, Ganz and Mandel, Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”), John August (“Charlie’s Angels”), Richard LaGravenese (“The Fisher King”) and Scott Frank (“Minority Report”). It’s a mostly male cadre, with the notable exceptions of Oscar nominee Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) and Oscar winner Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”).
Script doctoring gives some writers in town a kind of double life. While indie director John Sayles is celebrated for the integrity of such films as “Lone Star” and “Matewan,” he also is a prolific script doctor, having polished everything from “Apollo 13" to “The Quick and the Dead.” Although few Oscar-nominated projects bear the fingerprints of script doctors, there are exceptions. Frank, a favorite of DreamWorks, polished “Saving Private Ryan,” and Tom Stoppard shared the Oscar with original writer Marc Norman for the work he did (technically more of a rewrite than a doctor gig) on “Shakespeare in Love.”
One of this year’s prestige films, “Road to Perdition,” boasts a sole writing credit by David Self and uncredited writing by at least three others, two of whom worked simultaneously. The upcoming “Gangs of New York” credits the screenplay to Jay Cocks (the original writer), Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count on Me”), who spent months on the set in Italy toiling on lines with director Martin Scorsese and the actors. Prestige projects tend to generate the most vicious credit battles, the process by which three anonymous arbiters at the Writers Guild decide whose name goes on the movie. (A second writer must contribute more than 50% of the work on an original, or 33% of the work on an adaptation, to receive credit.) According to the guild, about 30% of films wind up in credit arbitration, and a writer must earn official screen credit to merit either a production bonus (which can run into the millions) or residuals, which can provide lifetime annuities, if you happened to write “Jurassic Park.”
Because bonuses are tied to credit, many argue that there’s incentive for rewriters to cannibalize one another’s work. Yet in arbitration, the guild has historically favored the first writer, particularly for original screenplays.
Rewriting is the guild’s thorniest issue, touching on the most salient reason writers have so little power in Hollywood: They’re eminently fire-able, replaced as easily as a box of tissues. One Oscar winner refused to talk about his doctoring, saying the practice just underscored the weakness of all writers.
Still some writers complain that the Writers Guild is the only union in the country that has institutionalized a form of scabbing. To one guild faction, script doctors exemplify the worst perversion of the system, in which fat cats in Mercedes-Benzes steal money and prestige from starving writers who have labored for years on their scripts.
Of course, the most working writers have done rewrites, and even A-listers know the sting of being replaced, though big paychecks do seem to soften the humiliation. “It all depends how thick your skin is,” Rosenberg says. “There’s always a horrible feeling when they announce, ‘We’re going to bring somebody else in.’ But I always remind myself how blessed I am to be getting paid to do something I love.”
It’s a dog-eat-dog system, so why shouldn’t rewriters just ask for credit, asks writer-director Henry Bean, who has penned originals and doctored such projects as “Enemy of the State.” “The Writers Guild will not protect writers in terms of getting rewritten, so as a sop to them, in compensation, they give them full credit when they don’t deserve it. It’s a form of legalized plagiarism, as far as I’m concerned.”
One A-list script surgeon adds, “We make a lot of money and a lot of people hate us, but a lot of movies wouldn’t get made without script doctors.” Feelings on the issue are running high because the Writers Guild is reviewing its process for awarding credits. , Recently, it distributed four proposed changes to the credit manual that writers will vote on in November. One proposal would make it easier for later writers of adaptations to get credit, and another would make it easier for directors or producers who write to get credit.
“The stature of writers would be enhanced if we had one writer per film,” says Steven Schiff, the co-chairman of the Writers Guild’s credit review committee. “It would be nice if everyone who was asked to do rewrites just refused, but it’s a pipe dream. You’re never going to get people across the board to turn down work, comfort, money, glory and fun.”
In the annals of script doctoring, the most famous example of exquisite laser surgery is the key scene that Oscar winner and screenwriting legend Towne contributed to “The Godfather.” Towne wrote the moment when Don Corleone passes the torch of power to his son Michael, played by Al Pacino. In what is a tacit declaration of love, Corleone confesses, “I never wanted this for you, Michael.”
According to Peter Biskind’s chronicle of filmmaking in the ‘70s, “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls,” Francis Ford Coppola paid Towne only $3,000 for his effort. When the director asked if he wanted credit, Towne joked, “Don’t be ridiculous. I only wrote a couple of ... scenes. If you win an Oscar, thank me.” Coppola did.
Throughout the ‘70s, Towne was profligate with his talent, helping on such projects as “Bonnie and Clyde” and, according to legend, “The Parallax View.” It’s perhaps a sign of the times that today he is better known for being Tom Cruise’s rewriter of choice, having contributed (and received credit) on such films as “The Firm” and “Mission: Impossible.”
Though today’s script doctors certainly seem to be willing to pick up their pens to help out their friends (or luminaries such as Steven Spielberg), a certain mercenary spirit pervades the air. “Now it’s much more about money,” says Buck Henry, best known for writing “The Graduate,” although more recently he script-doctored “Town and Country.” “There are many, many ways to make money if you’re a credited writer, with all the ancillary stuff.” Indeed, the explosion of video, DVD and the foreign markets has significantly increased residuals received by credited writers.
“When I come in and rewrite, I do it for one reason only: the money,” says one top screenwriter, who chooses to remain anonymous. “It buys me time on projects I care about.” Of course, there are always accusations floating around town that certain high-priced doctors phone in their gun-for-hire pages. “I’ve had movies where they have brought in other writers who are big, pimpy writers whose names would blow you away,” Rosenberg says. “Then you read their drafts and they’re just ghastly. It’s about $250,000 a week, and they don’t [care]. It can be like beer money to them.”
Some writers pointedly don’t ask for credit on scripts they’ve polished.
Grant has never asked for credit on the handful of films she’s doctored (which sources say include this past summer’s “Unfaithful”). “If you’re just coming in to work with the director or star, and you’re just trying to help them realize their interpretation of a preexisting script, then to me that doesn’t feel like authorship.”
“The whole point of being a script doctor is not to talk about it,” Attanasio says. “I don’t pursue credit because I don’t think it’s right. Some other guy has worked on the script for two or three years of heavy lifting. You’re coming in to help out but not to steal somebody’s credit.”
Of course, many writers ask for credit whenever they can. The line between script doctoring and script overhaul can be extremely fuzzy, and many writers feel justified in asking to be paid fully for their effort.
“By and large, the scripts I see that are proposed for rewriting are pretty pathetic. You don’t feel that there’s much to be saved,” Bean says. “Sometimes there’s an intriguing concept and that’s it. I don’t have much loyalty to the original writer. My whole job here is to make movies good. We’re putting out the basic narrative form that is consumed by most people in this culture. We have to be responsible to that, not to some writer with a commercial concept but without the patience to develop it.”
Yet the sheer lucrative nature of script doctoring can be corrosive, drawing the best minds away from generating exciting, original material. For the top writers, the road to hackdom can be paved with action-adventure blockbusters.
John Lee Hancock will script-doctor only occasionally. “You have to be careful of the velvet rut,” he says. “You can make more money doing weekly production rewrites than writing or directing movies. But at some point, all you’re doing is taking others’ original ideas and bending them and shaping them. You have to be careful because you can lose your own original voice.”