Robbing From The Poor (Writer)
(This is not a piece of investigative journalism, it’s an opinion piece, so my facts come from other sources (mostly newspapers and entertainment websites) and I didn’t authenticate any of them. If I get something wrong, feel free to correct me...)
Probably close to 3 years ago, a hot script by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris called NOTTINGHAM went out to buyers. The script was the Robin Hood story told from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point of view - as he used period “forensics”, like tracking and arrow trajectory, to find a terrorist who was robbing respectable members of society. Shelock Holmes in Sherwood Forest.
One of the things a screenwriter needs is an idea that is both unique and universal. There have been over a hundred movies and TV series about Robin Hood - we all know the story. We’ve seen it all before... But making the “villain” into the protagonist is something we have never seen before - the unique part of the idea. We know this can work, because of that long running musical WICKED and a bunch of other stories that flipped the POV and shown the story from an angle we have never seen before. So we have a story that is universal - Robin Hood - and add the unique element of telling it from the Sheriff of Nottingham’s point of view.
I am all about finding the unique idea, my friends Terry & Ted have their theory of “mental real estate” - the “pre-sold” universal idea that we all know about, and twisting it to make it unique. Hey, we’ve probably all taken the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride at Disneyland, or at least know about it. That is prime mental real estate. Add the magical curse to make it unique and come up with one heck of a great story and great characters and clever dialogue and make sure it’s exciting, and you have a hit. (And if it were that easy, we’d all be the hottest writers in town!) But taking a story we all know and telling it in a way we have never heard before is genius - and NOTTINGHAM didn’t stop with the great idea, it was written well, had a great star role, and an exciting read.
There was a bidding war. Everybody loved this screenplay, everybody wanted to buy it. This is what screenwriters dream about.
We all want to see our stories on screen. But most of the time, your script ends up just a sample so that you can get an assignment writing BEETHOVEN 7 or something. And that’s if you are lucky and get a gig! Sometimes it feels like we are just shoving screenplays into a black void... they just disappear, so we write a new script, and that disappears. Even if you land assignments, it’s not unusual to write for a decade - paid to write - and have nothing ever go to screen.
Okay, there is a bidding war, and Imagine Entertainment wins - that's Opie’s company - and they love the script so much they “fast track” it - they get Russell Crowe onboard to star as the Sheriff of Nottingham and set a release date. The film is going to be made and in cinemas - no protracted development process because they can’t figure out how to make the script work - everybody loves this script!
It’s ready to roll!
They needed a director that Russell Crowe likes - he’s the star, gotta make him happy - so they hired Ridley Scott. That sounds great, doesn’t it? You write a script, everybody loves it, you sell it for a bunch of money in a bidding war, and now Russell Crowe is going to star and Ridley Scott is going to direct. I’ll tell you - I would be dancing on clouds if that happened to me. So excited I could not sleep for months.
Except if everyone loves the script, the director is ranked #2... and that can not be! Film is a director’s medium, right? The director must be the most important person on the film! Hey, I’m just guessing about Ridley Scott’s motivations, I don’t really know. What I do know is that he wanted massive rewrites done to the screenplay that everybody loved.
And the script began to evolve...
Brian Helgeland was brought in to do rewrites, and he’s an Oscar winning writer. If he were brought in to rewrite one of my screenplays, I would be dancing on clouds...
Except the rewrites are kind of weird. Ridley becomes *obsessed* with archery, has always wanted to do a movie about archery, and has NOTTINGHAM rewritten to focus on archery and archers. Huh?
Two years ago, when the film was supposed to be going into production, Ridley Scott had them postpone production because “we don’t have a script, yet”. You hear directors say that in interviews fairly often - “We started making the film before there was even a screenplay!” - but you know it’s bunk. What they mean is, “There was this brilliant screenplay that everybody loved and all of the stars signed to... but I thought it needed some work so I brought in some new writers and they tore it apart and we began filming before they actually had a new draft that worked... and everything we shot was *not* that polished draft that came out of development that everybody loved... it was a sloppy first draft where some pages were written on the set as we were filming.” Though CASABLANCA was being written as they shot it, that’s kind of the exception to the rule. Usually the more time you have to work out the problems in the script, the better the script will be... and the easier it will be to shoot. You tend to spend a lot of money when you are making it up as you go along.
Two years ago, when Scott postponed production, Patrick Goldstein at the Los Angeles Times wrote a blog entry about the problems this caused: Nottingham Stalls.
(I actually began this blog entry two years ago... but only that link remains from the original piece.)
The big problem was that the film would not make its release date, and this was supposed to be the big film for the season. The tentpole. Remove the studio’s big tentpole and the whole thing collapses! On top of that, there was a potential SAG strike, plus escalating costs to stop that runaway train of filming and then restart it later. All of this because Ridley Scott wanted a new draft that focused on archery, and he is the director, and the director is always right.
Except here is the problem - what if the director is wrong?
We currently have a system where that isn’t even considered. The fear is that once a director is “let go” (fired) from a project, they will not be able to find another director and the project will fall apart. And that has happened enough times to be a legitimate fear. If you fire Ridley Scott, you need to replace him with a director that Russell Crowe approves of - that’s some other big name director who may be booked for the next 2 years. But how is that any different than waiting on Ridley Scott for 2 years? And we have seen some new, young (cheap) directors who have done amazing work and everyone wants to work with them... maybe you could convince Russell Crowe that this new guy is worth sticking around to work with?
Look at Christopher Nolan - before MEMENTO he was nobody, and afterwards he was directing an Al Pacino movie... and then the new BATMAN movie. Doug Liman makes GO and gets THE BOURNE IDENTITY... and after he’s “let go” they hire Paul Greengrass, who made a couple of low budget shaky-cam art house films before that. There are always these hot new directors that everybody loves because they are creative and interesting - if Imagine had fired Ridley Scott when he removed their tentpole movie and replaced him with whoever was the hot new director 2 years ago, could they have kept Crowe? Maybe.
Problem is - producers and studios are of the mindset that the director is the power when *they* are the power.
If a director becomes a problem - no matter how big they are, even Spielberg - get the ef rid of them. Fire their butts. Send them to the unemployment line. There are new directors with new ideas every month - and they cost less and may be easier to reason with (because they don’t think they are the 300 pound gorilla). You know what? If enough people fire Ridley Scott because he took away their tentpole or ruined their script or spent twice what was budgeted, I’ll bet Mr. Scott would consider becoming more cooperative.
Brain Helgeland is stuck doing press for this film and cheerleading for it. But he was also in that tough spot of being the writer trying to make the 300 pound gorilla's strange ideas into a screenplay that could be made into a movie. I've had those crazy notes where what you want to do is say, "Are you out of your effing mind?" but instead, your job is to make the note work. Okay, there may be some discussion first, but the director is always right, and if you refuse to execute the crazy note you will be "let go" and they bring in some other writer who will. This is not an easy job and I'm sure Hegeland did the best he could with what he was given.
So, Ridley Scott wanted to change the NOTTINGHAM script which featured period forensics to a script about archers and archery...
Then he came up with a brilliant idea! What if the Sheriff Of Nottingham and Robin Hood were the *same person*! Kind of like FIGHT CLUB. He’d be chasing himself for the whole damned movie! And there were some drafts of the screenplay written like that, until someone (maybe Helgeland) must have hinted that it might be a little silly.
And draft after draft, they script changed - evolved - twisted - becoming something completely different. The way the most expensive meal you have ever eaten turns into something else when it goes through the digestive process.
Eventually, they ended up with a script about Robin Hood - the same story we have seen a hundred times before (according to imdb there are 111 movies about Robin Hood, first one made in 1912). Nothing unique about it. Just a rehash of someone else’s hash. Oh, they say it’s gritty. But the Costner version was gritty for its time - remember? He wore leather instead of tights and there was more realistic violence and Sherwood Forest was muddy and... well, it was gritty. We’ve had that version. And all of the versions feature archery - even the Disney cartoon. So what Ridley Scott did was take a script that was both unique and universal and remove the unique aspect so that it’s bland. They keep trying to find some hook to the story in the trailers and adverts, and can’t find anything. It’s Robin Hood... again. They’ve settled on star and director and GLADIATOR... but I think the bad reviews are making the GLADIATOR comparisons a tough sell.
Oh, and about those bad reviews - several that I have read single out the big problem with the film as the script, and then name the writers - including Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris and in some reviews giving Oscar winning screenwriter Helgeland a break and *focusing* on them (because they do not have Oscars, so it must be their fault). I have yet to read a review that mentions the original screenplay... but have read a couple that said Scott and Crowe get bogged down by this terrible script.
You know that dream come true of having your script sell and get fast tracked and star Russell Crowe and be directed by Ridley Scott?
I’ve had many films that do not resemble my screenplays at all - and some like CROOKED where they changed the concept. The stupid idea in that film was not mine. The stupid story was not mine. The stupid characters were not mine. Nothing in that film was mine. Yet, I get sole credit for the screenplay! None of the changes were written material, just stuff the director and star came up with on the set. So, I was the only actual writer on the film... that is nothing at all like my screenplay. What am I gonna do? Run around town and tell them that wasn't my script?
The worst part of this is that the NOTTINGHAM screenplay that everybody loved and caused that big bidding war? We will never get a chance to see that movie. Never. You see, that script became ROBIN HOOD. That script has been “made” - just made into something else and then filmed. The writers have lost the chance to see their work on screen... forever!
On TREACHEROUS, I was invited to the screening by the producers (ITC) who apologized to me in advance, and I laughed outloud once when a line I actually wrote came out of a character’s mouth. The whole film was completely different (again - not even my idea survived) and it was funny to watch this story that I had nothing to do with and then suddenly have a character say something I actually wrote. It’s surreal. And I’m sure Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris were sitting in the cheap seats at the premiere - no red carpet for them I’ll bet - and when something they actually wrote happened, they got a good laugh out of it. You have to laugh to keep your sanity sometimes. And when your script, your baby, gets mangled like this, if you can’t laugh you are in trouble. The only other thing left to do is cry.
I am not anti-director, nor am I against a director’s input. I have had some great input from directors that improved the screenplay. I have also had the other kind of input... um, more of that. But film is a collaborative medium, a team sport, and I just want to be a team player. But when one of the players on the team is doing things wrong, I expect the coach to step in and tell him or her to knock it off. And if that player keeps screwing up, it might be a good idea to bench them and bring in another player. Right now we have a system where the director is always right, even when he’s wrong. That’s not a good system!
How many directors did THE WIZARD OF OZ have? How many directors did GONE WITH THE WIND have?
My theory is that the screenplay and screenwriters are part of that team. We do not tell the DP what lens to use, we do not tell the gaffer what light to use, we do not tell the actor how to read their line - we just write the script. That is our job. We are in charge of the script part of the movie, and other people on the team are in charge of other parts of the film. We work together.
For better or worse, a screenplay goes through development and is supposed to come out of that process the absolute best that screenplay could ever be. And if the producer decides that it is ready to be filmed, and attaches the stars and director to it, and the studio (or whoever is financing it) puts up the money - that is the screenplay that should be filmed. It should be locked. Once that screenplay is the best it can be - the whole thing is locked and the star can’t just decide he wants to wear his lucky leather jacket in the film (happened to me), so the character has to be changed to someone who would wear a leather jacket... and the director can’t just throw in a bunch of BS to put his stamp on it. I think part of the “director’s stamp” thing is that many directors have no idea what they are doing and can not use their visual style / directorial style to “put their stamp on it” so they mess with the story (the writer’s job). Fridays are usually about Hitchcock films - even with the experiments, you can tell a Hitchcock film from directing style from a handful of shots. No need to know what the story is. Same thing with Nick Roeg. Same thing with Don Siegel. Same with Orson Welles. Same with Kubrick. Same with Kurosawa (check them out at the Egyptian Theater NOW!). Same with Bergman - even though his stories are often very different, his directing style is his own. It’s when you have a director who doesn’t know how to do his job that he starts messing with yours.
So, we have this screenplay that everyone thinks is the very best it can be, and we lock it. What happens if the director comes up with a great idea? Or the star? Well, like anything that is locked, someone has the key - the producer. The *default mode* for the screenplay is *LOCKED* (which is the opposite of how it is now). So when the director comes up with an awful idea, the producer just says, “I’m sorry the screenplay is locked. We are only going to unlock it for an exceptional change.” And if the director gets snooty about that, fire his butt. Bring in the kid. But, I think if locked is the default mode for a screenplay it stops being personal - because all scripts are locked. The producer makes the decision to unlock it. If the director comes back with another idea that is brilliant, the producer pulls out that key and we make it a better screenplay. I think that is what we all want - as a writer that is what I want. The best screenplay possible.
But how do we know that Ridley’s idea that the Sheriff of Nottingham and Robin Hood being the same person chasing himself like a dog chasing his tail wouldn’t have ended up a brilliant movie? Well, maybe it would be... but I think an important part of my job as a screenwriter and a producer’s job as a producer is to be able to see down that road to see if it works. When I look down the road, the best case scenario I can see is some wacky bow & arrow version of FIGHT CLUB, and FIGHT CLUB was a movie that flopped so hard it almost took down a studio. That’s a hard sell when you’re looking for the studio to put up the money to make the movie. Also, though FIGHT CLUB did it right and is a great movie, having the hero and villain be the same person is one of those new screenwriter ideas that just doesn’t work 98% of the time. The odds say it would have been much worse that the script that everybody loved.
Though none of us is Miss Cleo, we can usually look at past performance and get a good idea whether something will work or not. Sure, there are flukes - and maybe this idea of Ridley’s is one that would work. In that case, I’d say you write that up as a new and different screenplay, and then return the rights of NOTTINGHAM back to the writers and let them keep the money you paid them - as your penalty for switching horses in the middle of the stream. The producer is responsible. And you know what? Probably wouldn’t cost them a penny more than they way it transpired, because once you hire Brian Helgeland to start from scratch with a brand new idea, you have to pay him - the credits for ROBIN HOOD give Helgeland a "Story By" along with the original writers. In fact, it might actually *save* you money - because part of giving back the script means the original writers do not get a piece of that production bonus, and if you make your deal with Helgeland right...
The downside is that that script that everybody loved will be picked up by somebody else, and the Nottingham-chases-his-own-tail version will be in direct competition with the screenplay that everyone loved. See how that would make a producer actually consider the changes?
(The original writers might also consider sticking around - because maybe the changes did make it better.)
And even though we are not Miss Cleo, we can look at the results: NOTTINGHAM - both unique and universal vs. ROBIN HOOD - not unique at all. So there is some objective criteria that would make the changes to the screenplay everybody loved look like a bad bet in the first place.
Hey, what happens if a producer does unlock the script for a bunch of stupid ideas? Well, he probably isn’t a producer for long, right? There are several producers who probably need to be escorted to the Los Angeles city limits and told not to come back any time soon. (I mentioned in a messageboard post a couple of weeks ago that lawsuit that Sean Connery had against a “producer” who didn’t produce anything - he had a development deal with a studio and *only* developed scripts... no intention of ever making them into films. That way, he could never make a flop, and keep getting his development deals. Only problem was, one script had Connery attached to star... and it just never seemed to be getting any closer to getting made. I think we could stand to lose guys like that.)
At the end of the day it’s all about being responsible for the product you create. Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris had to be responsible for the product they created, or no one would have loved it and no one would have bought it. Writing a spec script is a big gamble where the odds are against you - such a small percentage of spec scripts sell that it seems crazy to write one. Except unlike buying a lotto ticket, the reason a spec script becomes one of those one in a million winners is something *we control* - the writing. Sure, there’s a timing factor, too - but if you have written a great script it’s going to stand so far above all of those crappy ones that your odds are suddenly much better. We control the odds. We are responsible for writing the best possible screenplay... or it doesn’t sell to anyone in the first place.
Once it has sold, it is the producer’s responsibility to make sure the best possible movie from that screenplay ends up on screen. And if that means firing Ridley Scott, that’s what you have to do. By the way, the producer on ROBIN HOOD is Brian Grazer, who is a smart guy and a good producer - but like every other producer, stuck in a business where directors are right even if they are wrong. That’s the thing that has to change. It’s not Grazer’s fault, nor his odd hair’s fault - he’s just trying to get films made. And Ridley Scott is not the villain, either - he's just doing what directors have become used to doing - being always right. It's not Helgeland's fault - he's the guy caught in the middle trying to make bad notes work. And it's not Opie's fault - though I know that sucker is up to something. The *system* is broken, and ROBIN HOOD is a perfect example of that. If producers used this as a call to arms, they might be able to get the business back on course and not turn that screenplay that everybody loves into a film with a 44% Tomatometer rating.
Tonight I’m staying home and watching the Errol Flynn version.
Blog Sampler - some other cool entries.
Fridays With Hitchcock entries.
Today's Blog Entry.
TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Okay, Who Started It? - the guy who throws the first punch is the villain... even if he's a priest.
Dinner: Tortas - a burrito bigger than my head.
Bicycle: Short, due to laundry.
Pages: Instead of doing something productive, I wrote these 16 pages.