Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Flashback: On Set Rewrites... Overnight!

Those screenwriting Gurus like McKee hate flashbacks, but I think they are part of the language of cinema... and a good way to fill up a blog. So here's another thing that happened long long ago in a far off galaxy...

One of the things the WGA fought for a couple of contracts ago was the ability for writers to visit the sets of the films they have written. Some of you may find it shocking that they weren't automatically allowed on the set. Didn't we create the story? The scenes? The dialogue? That great car chase? No one would be there if it weren't for our script. That Teamster eating doughnuts and sitting on the apple box in the shade behind the star's trailer? He wouldn't be there without that script! Shouldn't we be allowed to watch our fantasies become reality?

But Hollywood thinks of writers on the set as a hooker the morning after - her job is done, why is she hanging around? We've got a movie to make - can we get this useless person out of the way? Usually by the time they are actually shooting the film, the writer is long gone. We have slaved over the script for years, sold it to a producer, that producer has taken years to set up the film, then it finally starts production... and we've written and sold a half dozen scripts by then. It's not uncommon for it to take ten years for a script to reach the screen, by then we may not eve remember our own story!

Plus all of those other writers the studio brings in to "re-energize" a stalled project. This may not make any sense, but it's a fact of the biz. Let's say you've written a really hot script called SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE and it sells for big money to Universal Studios and the hottest actress in the world, Julia Roberts, signs to play the lead. But they have trouble casting the male lead and the film gets pushed back a couple of times... then completely loses momentum. How do you resurrect this project? You have to get the trades talking about it again - make it an exciting project again - so you hire a big name writer to rewrite the script (that sold for big money and signed the top star in the world). Maybe this writer improves an already good script, maybe they just change a few things but "re-energize" the project. Make it hot again. Take the deadest project in Hollywood and hire Diablo Cody to rewrite it and it's suddenly hot again. A script with a new writer is GOING SOMEPLACE... a great script that is just sitting on a studio shelf is dead. It's like Woody Allen's shark analogy in ANNIE HALL.

Add to that every director has his own "pet writer" that he brings in to implement all of those notes that might get shot down in the normal development process - stuff like having the Sheriff of Nottingham *also* be Robin Hood because it's a "cool idea"... and when that doesn't work, just make it a typical Robin Hood movie instead of the hot script about the Sheriff of Nottingham that sold for big bucks and everyone loved. What you end up with is a reality where the writer who worked so hard to create that script in the first place may be estranged from the project by the time the film gets made. I had a film that I was the original writer on, but by the time the thing got made so many other writers had worked on it that even the producer seemed to forget that I was involved in the project. They would need a Greyhound Bus to transport all of the writers involved to the set and clean out a dozen Cost Plus Stores to provide us all with a director's chair.

On most of my films I've been the only writer (except for director's girlfriends) so I've been allowed on set. In some cases I have been at war with the directors by the time we started filming, creating a very tense set visit... But I'm a nice guy and directors usually don't mind having me around. Some directors even LIKE me.

FREE LUNCH


I usually time my set visits to coincide with the dinner break. Once a day (sometimes twice) a truck rolls up with tables and chairs and sometimes even a tent and another truck follows with a catered meal. These meals usually offer a choice of main courses (fish, chicken/meat, vegetarian), are usually all-you-can-eat, and are often prepared on the spot (some of the companies have portable barbecues). Anyone on a film crew will tell you that the most important thing on any shoot is the food - it's the thing the crew looks forward to - and Producers know this. The food is usually really good, and if you're involved in the production (the writer) it's also free. I try to get in as many free meals as possible during the filming. This not only gives you a chance to meet the crew (the people actually making your dream come true), because you're "above the line" you get to sit at the adult table - with the movie stars and the director and the producer. This helps your career - plus you get to pal around with movie stars.

You want to make friends with the star for many reasons, at least one of which is you'll get to see the "dailies" - the footage shot the previous day. Dailies aren't shown in a theater any more, they're usually shown on video in the star or director's trailer. I was sitting in a star's trailer watching dailies where I first realized how important it is to have writers on the set.

THEY FORGOT TO SHOOT...


Many of my scripts have big plot twists, and this one had a doosey! A character with key evidence was assassinated by the villain's henchman in an earlier scene... but survived! Now the hero has to protect the witness as he tracks the villain - a conflict because the closer he gets to the villain the more likely the villain will discover the witness is still alive. I had a great scene where the hero and henchman fight - and the whole time the hero is trying to keep the henchman from seeing the witness in the next room. Except the dailies for that scene have the witness IN THE SAME ROOM as the henchman! The henchman actually puts a gun to the witness' head in a director-improvised bit of business. Later scenes where the henchman reports to the villain (and fails to mention the witness he shot in an earlier scene has been miraculously resurrected) have already been shot!

I attempt to tactfully mention the continuity problem to the director who tells me not to worry about it. Yesterday's location is gone - no chance to reshoot anything - maybe they can fix it in editing. The director never admitted he either forgot what the scene was about, or never understood what the scene was about in the first place. But even if the reason for the witness character to be in the room was a location change (from a 2 room office to a 1 room office) there were things I could have done as a writer to make that scene work. I could have fixed the continuity error with WORDS instead of making the editor try to reconstruct the footage they shot into a scene that made sense.

To tell you the truth - I don't think the director ever understood what the script was about, so even if I had been on set I might not have been able to do anything except lose an argument with the director on his "brilliant improvised action gag" of the henchman taking the witness hostage. I later found out he had never read the script... he had only read the coverage.

On another film I didn't get to see the dailies... I had to witness a huge script screw-up on the big screen at the premiere (which I was invited to... probably by accident). I am a meticulous researcher and had read a stack of books and hung around with cops in order to make my script realistic. One thing I discovered was a public misconception about a particular aspect of a police investigation... so I used that as a plot twist. The audience would naturally assume one thing, then I would have the detectives reveal the truth. I even had actual national crime statistics in the dialogue - shocking facts that most American's didn't know. I always hope to start a post-theater (or post-video) conversation in my audience about the theme of the film or one of these weird facts I uncover.

Except this film had gone through an on-set rewrite. The actors playing the detectives thought weird fact was just plain wrong and that my FBI crime statistics were made up off the top of my head. They talked to the director, who had no idea how much research I had done (they usually don't) and the three of them rewrote the whole scene... based on that common misconception that was about 180 degrees wrong. That meant the big plot twist was gone... so they had to make up a clue that lead to the killer on the spot. A clue that had never been planted in the previous 80 pages. A clue that just popped up from out of the blue in a scene about a completely different subject. Anyone want to guess how convincing this clue was? It only I had been on set to explain how much research I had done and point out how the whole darned solution to the mystery was based on that common misconception.

IS THERE A WRITER IN THE HOUSE?


But you have to be careful what you wish for. While my HBO World Pemiere movie GRID RUNNERS (ala VIRTUAL COMBAT) was filming I dropped by the set for dinner one night and the director said the words I've come to dread: "Boy am I glad to see you! We've been calling you all day!" Whenever the director WANTS the writer to come down to the set, it can only be trouble. They were shooting at this huge glass and chrome skyscraper that was a victim of LA's real estate boom-and-bust. The place was empty, not a single business on any of the floors. The perfect location to shoot our evil corporate villain's lair. They had shot a bunch of scenes and were preparing to shoot the big end action scene where the villain tries to escape by helicopter from the helipad on the roof of his building and the hero and heroine try to stop him. The hero only has a handful of bullets left and has to use them to keep the helicopter from landing on the helipad... which means he has no bullets to take down the villain. But they ARE on a roof, so you can guess what happens.

Except they won't be on a roof.

The location was perfect except for two things: no rooftop helipad and no access to the rooftop. Could I completely rewrite the scene to take place in the courtyard in front of the building? By 5am tomorrow (so they can make copies of the new pages and have them on the set in time to film first thing in the morning)?

1) Why would the helicopter try to land in the courtyard?
2) What could replace the excitement of the rooftop fight scene, where our hero keeps getting knocked to the edge (and once OVER the edge) of the roof.
3) How can the villain fall to his death if the scene is at ground level?

Plus two dozen other problems I would have to deal with. It's not just hanging the slug lines, it's rethinking the entire scene. It was about 7pm when I showed up for dinner... and they had set up in the courtyard. So I couldn't even get a good look at my location until AFTER they had broken down the tables and got rid of the catering trucks. Swell!

I was distracted through dinner - probably making the cast think I was aloof and remote and "artistic" - then I had to wait around until the caterers left. The whole time the clock is ticking. Every minute the crew spent folding chairs was a minute I couldn't spend working on the rewrite. Finally I had the courtyard the way it would be tomorrow morning when they would start filming... and realized I had nothing to work with! You couldn't land a helicopter there if your life depended on it! So the part of the scene where the helicopter lands and the villain is racing towards it and the hero has to shoot at it? Not gonna work. Unfortunately they had already shot the scene where the villain calls for the helicopter... I was stuck with having a helicopter in the scene.

Driving home I remembered something I planted earlier in the script that I could use in this scene... and by the time I got home I was ready to write. I worked all night and got the new pages faxed to the production office by 5am. I missed my daily dinner visit that day - I was asleep. I never got to see them film the scene I had slaved all night to rewrite. Some parts of the new scene got scrambled because I wasn't there to explain them and the director and cast didn't have time to analyze the pages... but I'm sure the result (including a great villain's death) were better than anything that might have resulted from the director and actors improvising a scene for the new location off the top of their heads.

Do I think writers should be allowed on sets? I think if producers were smart they would insist on it. Who else knows the script as well as we do? Who else could have remembered that thing they planted in act one that is EXACTLY what is needed to make that act three rewrite work? Hey, I can sleep some other time... I've got rewrites!

- Bill

4 comments:

Christian H. said...

And people wonder I'm not that concerned about what they think. I had to study things that should have gotten me a degree, FOR NAUGHT.

Yeah, right.

The Moviequill said...

I was pissed about Nottingham too. What started out as a unique take on the tale dealing with the Sherriff has morphed into yet another generic Robin Hood movie

DS said...

And the guys who wrote NOTTINGHAM only get a STORY credit. That's how much the script changed!

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