Screenwriters are a pathetic lot.
They are, in the minds of their Hollywood colleagues, little better than idiot savants: dim-witted souls who occasionally get lucky and come up with a good idea badly executed, something anyone with an ounce of sense can improve.
Everyone in town has more talent than these hapless souls.
The studio executive who has learned everything he or she needs to know about story in a weekend seminar with Robert McKee.
The director who’s looking to put the stamp of his genius on the material.
And of course, the actors who love to improvise.
The talentless writer who often spends months or even years agonizing over his material has to be in awe of these colleagues and their ability to turn his sow’s ear of a screenplay into a cinematic silk purse, often with only a few minutes or hours of effort.
I have to confess that I am one of those unfortunate wretches, one who has been the beneficiary of my collaborators’ heroic efforts to improve my work.
Michael Biehn, in particular, comes to mind.
The hero of The Terminator—in fact, one of Jim Cameron’s favorite actors, Biehn starred, with Henry Thomas and Jason Bateman, in a film I called Bloodbrothers, one which USA Cable, in its infinite collective wisdom, saw fit to rechristen A Taste for Killing.
It’s the story of couple of young men from the Garden District of New Orleans.
Recent graduates of Tulane, they decide to spend their summer working one of the off-shore oil rigs to prove how big their balls are before heading off to law school in the fall. There, isolated on a platform, cut off from friends and family, they fall in with a charming psychopath who draws them into a web of violence and murder.
It was my attempt to reinvent Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
Thank god for my collaborators.
The studio executives who, after declaring it the best screenplay they’d ever gotten their hands on, gave it to a director who had the good sense to loathe it.
The director who saved the piece by moving it from the dull, colorless confines of New Orleans to the fascinating arena of Houston.
And, of course, Michael, who rewrote the dialogue as he spoke it.
Here, for example, is my version of an early encounter between the boys and Michael’s character, a welder named Bo Landry.
One of the boys asks him if he makes things for the platform.
Bo replies, “Mostly I repair things.” Suddenly intense, he continues: “You know, they say the sea’s a creator. The mother of all life. She’s not. The sea’s a bitch. A destroyer. Sometimes she tries to smash things up all at once. But mostly, she just licks away at them. Rusting, wearing, ‘til there’s nothing left.”
Here’s Michael’s improved version: “Well, mostly I just repair things. Sometimes, the sea’ll tear things up all at once. Usually, she just licks away at them until there’s nothing left.”
Thank god for Michael.
I had tried to use the dialogue to give the audience a subtle glimpse of his madness, his vision of life, but Michael, in his wisdom, went for the more mundane, so that his homicidal tendencies come as a surprise when they finally surface.
I know some cynics might dismiss his changes as his inability to remember his lines.
Those with little sense and less taste might prefer my lines to his.
But as for me, I’m grateful that he saved me from myself.
Just think…the vast majority of the audience gives me credit for his brilliance!
I don’t know how I’ll ever repay him, but I keep myself awake at night trying to devise ways.
There you have it, folks.
An absolutely irrefutable demonstration of the reason the screenwriter’s rank on the set is just above that of the craft services person who serves the coffee and donuts.
WANT THE FULL STORY OF THE MAKING OF A TASTE FOR KILLING? CONTRIBUTE TO MY RETIREMENT BY BUYING A COPY OF CONFESSIONS OF A HOLLYWOOD NOBODY!