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.