Monthly Archives: July 2014


July 21st, 2014 6 Comments

The Jews who invented Hollywood were smart.


They knew that if the actors in their movies were to become popular, they might start to make unreasonable demands upon their employers.


Their initial solution was to withhold the names of their performers from the public.


When that troublesome public fell in love with some of the key players and demanded to know their names, the founding fathers of the film industry came up responded with a quick fix:  they put their actors under contract.


Long-term contract.


If a star attained super-nova status with a multitude of fans and, like Oliver, dared to ask, “Please, sir, I want some more,” their response was “MORE?  You want MORE?!”


In other words, FUGGEDABOUDIT!


If that same star refused to appear in substandard fare that would disappoint the public and degrade his or her image, the architects of the studio system responded with the threat of permanent suspension.


Thus, the familiar phrase….




It was an almost perfect system.


And it worked, almost perfectly, until the late forties and early fifties when stars like James Cagney and Jimmy Stewart succeeded in breaking away from the contract system and going independent.


It was the beginning of the end.


The realization of the founding fathers’ worst fears.


The stars began to demand…and get millions of dollars for their work.  This, at the same time, that the studios had to deal with the loss of ownership of their distribution systems (the Paramount Consent Decrees) and the threat of television!


They got luckier with writers.


Oh, boy, did they!


The old gang knew that writers, like actors, could become problems.


Writers, after all, own the copyright of their work.  What if they started to demand control over their pathetic scribblings?


The pioneers scotched that snake long before it could coil and strike.




By insisting that their writers assign their rights to the studios…


“…throughout the universe unto all eternity.”


I swear that phrase or some variant of it is in every contract I ever signed!


Novelists own the copyright to their novels.


Playwrights own the copyright to their plays.


Screenwriters, in America at least, have no rights at all.


And so it is that we suffer the slings and arrows of that wonderful process called…wash my mouth out with soap…development.


Under this totalitarian system…


…we become pregnant with an idea.  We suffer wretched morning sickness as that notion grows inside us.  We bear the unbearable pain of birth, delivering a beautiful child…


…which the studio midwives take from us and raise as their own.


And unless we get very, very lucky, our child grows up unrecognizable, dysfunctional, abused by studio executives, audiences and critics alike.


Some writers handle this better than others.


They laugh…all the way to the bank.


Adam Kennedy, whose real name was Jack and who wrote a highly successful novel called The Domino Principle—a novel that became a Gene Hackman film, was also a screenwriter.  His wife told me that she had accompanied him to the premier of a film for which he had received co-credit.  They sat in the darkened theatre, watching the movie unreel, for about ten minutes.  Finally, she leaned over to her husband and asked, “Jack, did you write any of this?”  His response?  “God, I hope not.”


Then, of course, there is the immensely talented Chris Columbus, whose work on Young Sherlock Holmes I chronicled in my last blog.


His first produced screenplay was Reckless.


I read it at Paramount years before it reached the screen and was quite frankly blown away by it.  It told the story of a good girl from a well-to-do family falling in love with a bad boy from the wrong side of the tracks.


Romeo and Juliet set in an Appalachian high school.




But it was told with the same intensity and passion that Shakespeare brought to his seminal play, and the boy was an amazing character.


Remember James Dean shouting to his parents in Rebel without a Cause, “You’re…tearing…me…to…pieces!”?


Well, this kid was being torn to pieces by his love/hate relationship with his father, and his plight tore this reader to pieces as well.


The movie made from this extraordinary script?


It was…how shall I put it?…a disappointment.


Badly cast, badly directed, heavily rewritten.


Though I never met him, the word around town was that Chris Columbus attended a private screening of the film and cried.


Not, of course, because it was so moving but because it was so bad.


Possibly an apocryphal story but clearly an instructive one.


The next Columbus script to make it to the silver screen was Gremlins.


Conceived and written as a terrifying horror film, director Joe Dante—a huge fan of Chuck Jones and Bugs Bunny—transformed it into a live-action cartoon, trading most of the chills for laughs.


It was anything but the movie Columbus had seen in his mind’s eye and captured on the printed page.


But it was a huge success at the box-office and launched Columbus on one of the most remarkable careers in Hollywood history.


Then, of course, there was Young Sherlock Holmes, the film that followed Gremlins by a few months.


I know that in the case of Holmes, Columbus dutifully executed every misinformed studio and production company note without complaint, and I’m guessing he conducted himself in the same gracious way in the development of both Reckless and Gremlins.


It was the smart thing to do, and it has paid huge dividends over the years.


It was the course of action my friend Lorenzo Semple, Jr.—who, after an amazing career, passed away recently at the ripe age of 91—counseled all Hollywood writers to follow.


Lorenzo—who created the unforgettable Batman series back in the sixties and went on from all those POW’s and BAM’s and ZOWIE’s to earn credit on The Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Papillon, ultimately becoming Dino DeLaurentis’ go-to writer—almost never saw his work get to the screen intact.  He was, invariably, rewritten on virtually everything he ever did.


But he never complained.


He had a wonderful life, and he made a lot of money, and what else, he asked, could anyone want?  He had little patience with whiners like me who constantly ask, “What have they done to my song?”


He was right, of course.


But I can’t help remembering that his favorite of all his work was Batman, the series where he called the shots, and that his finest film was Pretty Poison, the little masterpiece that, to the best of my knowledge, was not reworked by other writers.










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July 14th, 2014 No Comments

Mid-Nineteenth Century London. 

It is dusk as plump, privileged Bentley Bobster leaves his offices, unaware of the cloaked figure stalking him. 


Bobster pauses in front of a restaurant, and the mysterious stranger shoots something at him with a blowgun.  Bobster winces—a twinge of pain—and then enters the restaurant where he is served a huge barbecued pheasant.


Outside, the cloaked figure’s eyes begin to glow a burning, fiery red.  And inside, the succulent bird comes to life with a loud screech, its eyes vicious, its beak snapping like a dragon, its claws razor sharp.


Bobster jumps back in horror and the bird attacks him, ripping at his face.  Then the stranger’s eyes stop glowing, and though Bobster continues to scream hysterically, everything returns to normal—the cooked pheasant resting on its plate, the blood gone from Bobster’s hands and face.


Shaken, he leaves the restaurant and continues home, dogged by the mysterious figure and by horrible hallucinations until at last, he throws himself out of his own third floor window to escape a nightmare conflagration inside.  But as he lies dead on the icy cobblestoned street, everything in his home is normal—intact, untouched by the flames he saw in his final hallucination.


You have just witnessed a murder…and a miracle of a first-draft screenplay.


It is December of 1983.  I am working as an analyst in Paramount’s Story Department, and it is my privilege to be the first to read a d*********** project penned by Chris Columbus, soon to be famous as the author of Gremlins.


The project is Young Sherlock Holmes, and its brilliance takes my breath away.


The amazing opening I’ve just summarized is followed by a charming, character-rich narrative that reveals how Sherlock Holmes became Sherlock Holmes as the budding detective, only seventeen, works to solve the bizarre string of murders that began with Bentley Bobster’s death.


You want the story behind his friendship with Watson?


His love of the violin?


His use of cocaine?


The absence of women in his life?


It is a remarkable achievement, richer and more imaginative than anything Arthur Conan Doyle ever gave us with the possible exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles.  It is, in fact, Dickensian in its colorful characters, its humor, its picturesque settings, its engaging mystery.


I can’t wait to tell Dawn Steel about it at the Story Department Christmas Party that evening.


Dawn—tough, ballsy, glamorous, famous both for her mane and for her temper—is the executive in charge of the project.  It is she who sent it to me for coverage, largely as a result of my enthusiasm for Columbus’ extraordinary screenplay Reckless, which I read and recommended when I first arrived at Paramount some years before.


Dawn singles me out at the party and asks with uncharacteristic eagerness, “How’s Young Sherlock Holmes?”  Brilliant, I tell her.  The best first-draft I’ve ever read.  Practically a shooting script.


The following Monday she summons me to her office.  Holmes, she tells me, is good.  But…


…it needs work.


She wants me to find solutions to the “problems” she’s isolated and to write the studio notes to Columbus.


The only major note I myself have is that it’s too easy to guess the identity of the villains.  Columbus needs to introduce a few alternative candidates.  In other words, keep ‘em guessing.


But Dawn’s the boss, and Dawn knows best.


So it begins.


The d********** process.


In the course of a second draft and a revision, the characters lose some of their color, the scenes become more expository, the plot more complicated.


Worse yet, in the attempt to disguise the identity of the villains, Columbus has made their public personas bland and boring—in effect, eliminating the major conflict from the first act.


All this in response to the notes I myself wrote!


It gets even worse.


Satisfied that the script is now ready, Dawn decides it’s time to shop it to directors.  I urge her to go after Steven Spielberg, who’s recently proved his mastery of the child’s world in E.T.


Spielberg takes it on…not as director but as producer, and that’s when things really start to go awry.


Columbus’ original story was built around a death cult that originated in the British colony of India, and the key action sequences took place in a warehouse basement converted into a temple for the cult’s followers.


Once Spielberg and his Amblin team entered the picture, the plot turned on an Egyptian cult of Osiris, and the underground temple became an underground pyramid!


It was easy to believe that an Indian cult had built up in nineteenth-century London, but an Egyptian sect?  And an underground pyramid in the heart of the city?




The script has become bloated and a bit silly.


Even the wonderful character names have been dulled down:  Bentley Bobster has become Clifford Appleby; Andrew Fidget has become Duncan Nesbit; Chester Cragwitch is now Chester Poole.


And the first act, which moved like lightning in the first draft, is slow as a slug.


Dawn wants me to cut twenty pages from it.


I do, and I phone the cuts in to producer Mark Gordon in pre-production in London.


But it makes no difference.


The best first-draft script I’ve ever read has—with help from me, Dawn, and the Amblin’ team—become a highly flawed, eminently forgettable film.


And that, my friends, is just one example of why d********** is the dirtiest word in the English language.

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July 8th, 2014 2 Comments

Rocky headlands reaching out into a restless, heaving sea.


Gray-green water swelling shoreward, filling the flume between these stone promontories, crashing on the bluffs above, exploding in iridescent mist.


The mist clears and the water recedes, rumbling, rattling over the pebbled sand floor, withdrawing and gathering strength before beginning its onslaught anew.


Montana de Oro.


One of the wonders of the California coast.


The view from the bluffs overlooking the sea is a glimpse at the beating heart of the world.


And its soul?


Right behind you.


Foothills and peaks awash in spring poppies—the mountain of gold that gives the park its name.


It simply doesn’t get any better than this.


There are, however, those individuals who believe that anything, no matter how good, can be improved.  One of them, a visitor from the East, toured the park and exclaimed, “What a waste!”


A waste?


The individual in question pointed to the slopes above the sea, waxing eloquent about the upscale condos that, in a better, unregulated world, could replace the poppies on those golden foothills.


He was, of course, a…


Are the children tucked in bed, sound asleep?


Is the volume turned down low?


I ask because I’m about to say it.


The dirtiest word of all.


The individual in question was a…




He believed in development.


He believed that there was no piece of land so perfect that he could not develop it, improve it for the benefit of all mankind and, of course, the enrichment of his own pocketbook.


I repeat the word in all its forms—develop, developer, development—in order to desensitize my reader to its horrors.




I know I run the risk of an obscenity indictment.  But I’m prepared to take that chance.  There’s simply no way I can explore the offensiveness of the word without using it repeatedly, especially here in Hollywood where the word has as much currency as the F-bomb, where we believe that no script, no matter how good, can fail to benefit from development.


I myself have been the beneficiary of this commitment on the part of studio executives and producers to improve the work of their writers.


Take, for example, The Last Innocent Man.


My adaptation of Phil Margolin’s novel, it is the story of David Nash, a brilliant criminal attorney coming off his greatest success—an innocent verdict in the trial of a charismatic novelist accused of the bludgeon slaying of his wife, a man he’s almost certain is guilty.


Though he’s receiving the accolades of the press and the congratulations of his colleagues, he himself is in despair.  He started out wanting to be Clarence Darrow, and now he’s putting monsters back on the street.  He just can’t do it anymore, and so he quits.


Then he meets a beautiful woman who disapproves of him as much as he disapproves of himself, and she brings him that rarest of all creatures, an innocent man.  Seeking redemption, he goes back to work.


And that’s when the twists and turns begin, threatening to tangle him in the very guilt he is fleeing.


It’s the story of a good man attempting to come to terms with the dark side of himself.


Or at least, it was…


…until HBO began to d******* it, guiding me and several subsequent writers through revision after revision, and it became the story of a man thinking with his little head instead of his big one—the cable network’s sleazy attempt to rip off Body Heat.


Sour grapes?


An isolated incident?


I have a friend who returned from a d********** meeting at Tri-Star where he’d received notes so destructive that he went directly to bed, curling into a fetal position for days.


Eric Roth, Academy Award winning writer of Forest Gump, Munich and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, said it best:  “I love the writing.  I hate the rewriting.  Rewriting, I want to kill myself.”


I’m sure some of you are thinking, “Disgruntled writers!  How can we trust their obviously biased judgments?  Every one of these guys thinks his or her work is brilliant, that every word they write is purest gold, that no one could possibly improve upon what they’ve done.  I’d like to hear the studio side of this question.”


All right.


By a curious twist of fate, I can do that, for I’ve sat on both sides of the table, working for the studios as story analyst and story editor before my stint as writer and producer.


In my next blog, I’ll share the story of my involvement in Young Sherlock Holmes, revealing how we at Paramount and the folks at Amblin’ managed to turn a screenplay of dazzling brilliance into a mediocre and even rather silly film.  I call it “GOODBYE, COLUMBUS” in tribute to its creator, one of the most successful writer/directors in Hollywood.


In the meantime…






Intrigued by Bronson’s charges?  Want the details

of what happened to The Last Innocent Man?  Read

about this and other horrors of d********** in the Dan’s




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