A keen eye, and a dead-on aim

Special to The Times

Some of the best adaptation scribes in the business had taken a crack at Stephen Hunter’s sprawling but intricately plotted book “Point of Impact,” about an ex-Marine sniper named Bob Lee Swagger, a.k.a. Bob the Nailer, who is recruited -- and then betrayed -- by the government.

But all failed to wrestle “Shooter” -- as the movie version is called -- into producible shape.

The project had been in development at Universal and then Paramount for 12 years -- with seven screenwriters tackling dozens of versions. Among them were A-listers like John Lee Hancock (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”), William Goldman (“All the President’s Men”) and Nick Kazan (“At Close Range”). Even directors Carl Franklin (“Devil in a Blue Dress”) and Lee Tamahori (“Along Came a Spider”) did polishes on variations of the screenplay, which had over the years attracted stars such as Robert Redford, Keanu Reeves and Tommy Lee Jones.

Like a precision marksman with only one shot to nail his target, Jonathan Lemkin crawled into this landscape littered with discarded screenplays and hit an unexpected bull’s-eye: Lemkin’s Page 1 rewrite gained the film a star (Mark Wahlberg), a director and a fast-tracked greenlight off a mere second draft.

“I had a great advantage of being able to look on the map and see where the quicksand was, because they had already gone down there,” Lemkin says of his ultimately successful approach to the film, which opens Friday. (His organizational approach to the 528-page book involved 1,200 color-coded notecards spread across an 8-by-24-foot bulletin board behind his desk.)

Lemkin (“The Devil’s Advocate,” “Red Planet”) read the novel and some previous drafts and made two quick assessments: Move up the plot’s (literal) trigger event to the end of the first act and trim the four or five plotlines from the novel to just the A story.

He also updated the sniper technology as well as the story’s political atmosphere, which in previous drafts had been stuck on the novel’s “Vietnam hangover,” as producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who revived the project three years ago, puts it.

Somehow, despite being the last of many writers, Lemkin retained sole credit after Writers Guild of America arbitration, relatively rare for an adaptation.

There was one other writer who tried to adapt “Point of Impact": Hunter himself.

But both the creative results and the political chicanery of the experience were traumatic enough to sour the former Army soldier and gun enthusiast on the business forever.

“It was a horrible experience,” the 60-year-old Hunter says with a hearty laugh about his one and only foray into the screenwriting medium.

Ultimately -- after some executive involved with the frequently stalled project called with the great news that changing Swagger’s nickname to “the Hawk” would be their big breakthrough -- Hunter divorced himself from the process and asked to be left, blessedly, out of the loop.

“At a certain point, you just have to disconnect from it,” says Hunter, who has written 14 novels and won a Pulitzer Prize for film criticism in 2003. “The novel is your child, it’s your flesh and blood, and the screenplay is a projection or variation on it. You end up fretting over treasured little strokes that they’ve abandoned that would have no meaning in the real world but which break your heart to see them on the floor.”

Changes amid a jittery atmosphere

With the announcement on Monday that former WGA president John Wells and a brigade of high-powered screenwriters has struck a novel profit-participation arrangement with Warner Bros., a rallying cry went up among screenwriters everywhere. In exchange for giving up much of their up-front fees, the participating writers will gain greater control over their own employment destinies and the final look of their films while obtaining their standard production fees plus first-dollar gross revenue participation if the film is produced.

It’s certainly true that any situation that gives the screenwriter both greater access to the creative development of his or her screenplay and provides the incentive of profit participation is a beneficial one for the writer. The risk is that the Writers Co-Op could become just like any other producer on the lot and get bogged down in the same development molasses and greenlight bottlenecks that they do now.

Only they won’t at least have the million dollars up front to show for it.

This movement has the benefit of Writers Guild heavyweights such as Wells, Nick Kazan, Tom Schulman and Callie Khouri, working A-list writers without much concern about maintaining their outside income. Committing to this type of risk would be a much bigger decision for any struggling screenwriter.

This isn’t the only movement of this type afoot. A parallel movement has been stirring among a dozen frequent Sundance Screenwriting Lab mentors. Under the organizational guidance of Christopher McQuarrie and Erik Jendresen, the group has a tentative membership that includes John Ridley, Ron Nyswaner and John Lee Hancock.

The group aims to make itself available to actors and producers who want talented writers to develop projects outside the studio grindmill. One writer would take on the spec, and the rest of the group would essentially create a mini-lab where the screenplay is discussed and developed without any agenda. The idea would be to pre-package a project as talent agencies often do. The group offers to write an actor’s personal project for free, develop it within the group, and then take the solid script to a studio with a star and possibly a director already attached.

The studio can say yay or nay on whether it’ll produce and distribute pretty much as is, or with targeted tweaks, before the group would sell the project.

“You’re taking time off your paid work to write for free, but it nourishes your soul,” Nyswaner says. “And it gives you a chance to develop a script for the first two or three drafts with the smallest number of voices expressing opinions.”

Though the McQuarrie group has yet to come to fruition, both movements speak to the inventive ways in which screenwriters are working to elevate their status.

All of this is occurring amid grumblings about a potential writers’ strike, an atmosphere that has sparked some studios to begin locking down individual writers in “pre-strike deals” that would keep them captive through the expiration of the current Guild contract in October.

But given this jittery atmosphere, it’s an encouraging sign that writers are unwilling to submit to an industry imbalance that has been slowly sliding toward, as McQuarrie once put it, “a day when scripts are relegated to the technical awards.”

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Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to fernandez_jay@hotmail.com.