Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Big Rewrite Project

A couple of days ago I finished an old spec script.

Well, finished it for the second time.

I’ve mentioned this before, but one of my ongoing projects is to do page one rewrites on a bunch of old specs I have sitting around. I’ve probably written close to a hundred scripts - and many of them suck. Or, at least, don’t work. When I was working the day job, I wrote one good page every day, and that translates to 3 screenplays a year... and over ten years that’s 30 scripts. Now add in all of the scripts I’ve written since moving to Los Angeles almost 20 years ago, and subtract the ones that sold, and I have a huge stack of scripts. Some of them are great, some of them are not great. But all of them are *mine*, and just like I do a clean-up rewrite on the ones that work every few years (to add cell phones or Blackberrys and subtract PanAm Airlines and companies and devices that are no longer with us), I want to see if I can figure out how to make the bad scripts good.

Some just need a fresh coat of paint. Some need a remodel. Some need an addition. Many need to be bulldozed and rebuilt from the foundation up.

There are different reasons why these screenplays don’t work. Often there’s some story issue that I couldn’t crack, and I hope as time passes I’ll figure it out. This month I was supposed to be doing a page one rewrite on my DEAD RUN script, which has a weird history. I pitched the story to a producer who was about to do a slate of 5 theatricals for a respected mini-major. He loved it, and it was part of the slate... there was a thing in the trades about it (under a different title). I did a treatment... then the mini-major had a string of flops in a row... and went out of business. The producer still liked the idea, and wanted to set it up somewhere else at a fraction of the budget. I didn’t think this was the type of story that could be made on a limited budget - it travels all over the place - and voiced my opinion. The producer had me write up a new treatment - reflecting the budget. Um, this time the story didn’t really work. He wanted me to go to script, and the result wasn’t pretty. And wasn’t made. So I bought it back. Now I owned the worst version of this story possible. But it was a completed script. So I did a rewrite it years ago, with input from my wheeler-dealer lawyer who thought he knew what studios wanted. So, there was a helicopter chase, and lots of dumb explosions. That version of the script also did not sell - and was basically the low budget version with big expensive scenes glued on. So now I’m going to throw everything away and start from scratch - sure, some of the scenes will make their way back in, but probably half of the rewrite will be new material. The helicopter chase? Out!

But I’m not working on that rewrite this month - I’m doing the Hawaii script rewrite (since it shoots in September) and probably writing a family script that I have some people interested in.

The other scripts on the rewrite pile have problems ranging from story problems to bland ideas - many of these scripts have okay characters and scenes, but they don’t have a high concept or any real hook. They’re just average genre scripts - and no one wants an average script. So I’m looking to infuse them with some sort of fantastic hook or raise the stakes or graft on a high concept. I think I mentioned the dirty cop rewrite, THE DIVISION, which is an ancient script about police corruption. Before it was just about some bad cops and one good one... I saw SERPICO at a tender age. Well, two things are being added to that script - one is a real unsolved murder of a policeman I know about that is *really* strange, and the other is this weird idea that the bad cops form their own gang that takes on another gang... and anyone else who gets in their way. What if Al Capone in UNTOUCHABLES had been a high ranking cop - and all of his gang were cops? What do you do when the gangsters are cops? Who do you call? That’s not exactly a high concept, but it’s a hook. I’m really focusing on the idea of cops as gang members this time around - and trying to come up with some scenes you’ve never seen before in any previous cop movie. I’m puttering around on that one.

Another one I’m puttering around on was a typical urban crime film... Great characters and lots of cool plot twists and a couple of the best scenes I’ve ever written (oddly enough, a friend of mine who read this about 15 years ago mentioned one of the scenes a couple of days ago - he didn’t know I was rewriting it). The problem is - we’ve seen this one before. So I tried to find some way to make it unique... and thought about “recasting it in another genre” - what if it was sci-fi? What if it was a musical? What if.... Hell, what if they’re cowboys? I often joke about that - it was the worst note I ever got on a script: What if they’re cowboys? But I started to wonder what this urban crime film would be like if it took place in the modern west - maybe in New Mexico, which has great film incentives (so producers are looking for scripts that take place there). There was a Lee Marvin movie called PRIME CUT directed by the late, great Michael Ritchie, about the Kansas City Mob - they worked out of a slaughterhouse and when they killed a guy, they sent his family and friends hot dogs made from him. Yikes! Not a great movie, but hard to forget due to the hot dog thing.... and Sissy Spacek nekkid for most of the film’s running time. What if my urban crime story took place on ranches and cattle towns? You know, they did train robberies in westerns - what if I used trains in my crime story? Every scene changed - and that script is becoming something very different than any crime film you’ve seen in the past twenty years. Not a high concept, but really unusual. It has more personality than it ever had before.

Most often it’s a page one due to a high concept injection - I take the basic plotting and characters and overlay a new high concept. Easiest way to do this is to play with the stakes or the device used in the story, or just add a weird element... So one of the projects is called DEMON HUNTER (for now - I hate that title) and it used to be about a bodyguard and a woman pregnant with the President’s kid - and the President's people want her dead so that he can be re-elected. SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME meets what’s in Bill Clinton’s pants. This was pre-Clinton, and was kind of a JFK-like Prez and a non-movie-star type Marilyn Monroe. But there have to be a dozen movies like this now - from 1600 with Wesley Snipes (or, Prisoner #5462864 as he’s known now) to that Clint Eastwood movie where he witnesses the Prez kill a babe. I wrote this back when I didn’t understand that high concept isn’t just doing search and replace to make it The President or make the bad guys into Vampires or have the story take place In Outer Space. Though some of these rewrites are basically doing that - the best thing to do is to find a new high concept for the story... and the DEMON HUNTER story is *now* about the Vatican’s version of Indiana Jones who unearths the key to cracking a code in the Bible... and discovers that the second coming is about to take place - the Second Son will be born in a certain hospital on January 6th... So the archeologist jets to the hospital to find and protect the pregnant woman from Satan’s minions - who want to kill her before she gives birth. Various forms of demons attack (instead of The President’s handler's secret hit squad) and each form of demon is some cool kind of monster. I tried to make the demons all kind of high concept. Coming up with them was fun. And the new end twist - she gives birth, and it’s *Satan’s* son! Okay - kinda OMEN meets CONSTANTINE meets THE BODYGUARD... but much better than the stale script it began life as.

But that wasn’t the one I finished either - but I wrote FADE OUT on a new old script a few days ago, or maybe it’s an old new script. Whatever - it’s something else I can sell. Something to add to the inventory.

So now I’m back rewriting the script I’m *supposed* to be working on....

- Bill

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Opening Scenes.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Fish Tacos at Islands in Burbank.

Movies: WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS - yes, I should have seen SPEED RACER, but the reviews were bad and it had a huge line... so I saw the chick flick. Which was an okay idea, but done so by the numbers that it was old before they made it. And, did they give Kutcher the haircut from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN for a reason? Here’s the strange thing - I like Cameron Diaz... and she can only play one character, and she’s getting too old to play that character. When you see her in this film, she looks... well, her age... but she’s still playing Mary - the sweet ditz who *must* be shown in her underwear at least once in the film. The whole movie seems cobbled together from other films - including a whole segment lifted from MR. MOM of all films. The story idea - couple gets married while drunk then are forced to live together and eventually fall in love - was done much better back in 1928 by Buster Keaton in SPITE MARRIAGE. And I wonder why they didn’t just buy the rights to that film and remake it... with the Vegas thing instead of the rebound Broadway actress in the Keaton version. (The Keaton version is about a poor dry cleaner who gets accidentally married to a hot Broadway actress after she gets dumped by her star boyfriend... the Kutcher version is about a poor furniture maker who gets accidentally married to a hot businesswoman after she gets dumped by her CEO boyfriend.) (And in both versions, they are stuck married to each other.) The Keaton version is filled with all kinds of comedy that doesn’t seem like you’ve seen it ten times in the past year in other films.

Here’s a clip:

Okay, that's one scene (with new music added) and it's funnier than anything in WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS. Maybe I'll see SPEED tomorrow....

Pages: 6 pages to finish that rewrite (that I was plugging along on for a few days) - and nothing really for the past couple of days except notes on the Hawaii script.

Bicycle: Didn't ride Friday, but today (Sat) I did some riding and feel pretty good. About 20 blocks or so. My legs have grown to accept this torture... and I feel better. You know, the blood is, like, circulating!

- Bill


Anonymous said...

always interesting to see what is behind the curtain of Bill's Mind -- good tips on rewriting old projects with genre changes -- now on my walk today I'll be thinking how I can turn my horror fest into a rom-com

ObiDonWan said...

What a great clip from the Keaton movie! How many actors & actresses today could do that kind of physical humor!
And you started me thinking about rewrites, which I've never really done. I always prefer starting something brand new, but you make a good point: why waste something you've done?
When you consider revising something, how do you think about it? Just while you're reading and tickling it, or while showering/bicycling/eating?
In other words, how do you organize your thoughts?

Oasis said...

*Bicycle: Didn't ride Friday, but today (Sat) I did some riding and feel pretty good. About 20 blocks or so. My legs have grown to accept this torture... and I feel better. You know, the blood is, like, circulating!*

After 21 consecutive days, it (biking) will become a I've been told.

And I must say (after 21 consecutive days) I can't stay away from your site. It's a habit now.

bike it!

Hugo Fuchs said...

Save your money on Speed Racer. The race scenes are great, but the exposition in between will make you want to snooze. That movie should have and could have been edited down to 90 minutes.

Team Brindle said...

100 scripts?... OOF. That's a lot of typing.

Love it when you write about your various pprojects. Muy interesante.

I read about 20pgs of the VEGAS script and put it aside. Didn't hold my interest. Read another script (WEDDING DATE) by the same writer, Dana Fox, & that wasn't so great either. Stale, paint by numbers Rom Com stuff.

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