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Polone: Four Star Screenwriters Talk About Rewrite Hell

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Why does anyone want to be a screenwriter? It is the most difficult job in the business. Facing a blinking cursor and a blank screen is much tougher than interpreting that screenplay. And for this arduous work, the screenwriter is compensated less than the producers, director, and stars: It is pretty rare for even an A-list writer to get any kind of big-money profit participation on a film, while it is de rigueur for those in the aforementioned categories. And, unlike the other artists who work on films — and in most other art forms — it is common and even pro forma to replace a screenwriter on a studio project. While book editors probably have given notes to e.e. cummings and Norman Mailer, I doubt anyone ever rewrote them. I can’t imagine that after Bruce Springsteen sent Columbia Records the songs for Born to Run, an executive said to him, “That’s great Boss, or, eh, The Boss, but we think it best to hand these over to John Fogerty and let him do a pass on them.” Dalí, Rodin, and Chopin would probably be aghast to learn of how motion picture scripts are developed. On a big-budget film, it is not uncommon for six or more writers to have worked on the screenplay, including the director and a friend of the star who is brought in just to work on his character’s dialogue. After 27 years working in this industry, I’ve heard many writers complain about unjust situations or how a movie could have been better had their work made it to the screen, but not about the actual experience of being rewritten or rewriting someone else. So in search of illumination on the topic, I decided to ask a group of four top script writers — David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Spider-Man), Brian Koppelman (Rounders, Ocean's Thirteen), Jeff Nathanson (Catch Me If You Can, The Terminal), and Andy Walker (Se7en, Sleepy Hollow) — for their thoughts on the curiously standard procedure of swapping writers on movies.

How do you feel when you’ve been rewritten on a movie?
Koepp:
I try to avoid all contact with the thing afterwards — if it's worse than what I had I go nuts, and if it's better than what I had I go really nuts. It's not the other writer that I have feelings about, though, it's the people who decided to replace me.

However, there is also an undeniable feeling of righteous indignation and freedom that comes with being fired. It really is the most liberating experience you can have; not only are you justifiably enraged and terribly misunderstood, but suddenly your days are wide open. You don't usually get fired when you're on a roll, it's when you've been banging your head against something for a year and have grown to hate it. To be able to walk away from it at that point, and with a sense of righteousness, is sort of a gift.

I was fired off one big high-pressure type movie, but I heard about it in the worst way, in a form of gossip from my agent, who'd heard the studio had hired so-and-so to work on my movie. Nobody had told me I was fired, so the hiring took me a tad by surprise. I called the studio executive I'd been working with and said, "Did you just hire so-and-so to rewrite me?" And he sighed heavily and said, "You know, Dave, this is a tough phone call to make ... " And I screamed into the phone "YOU DIDN'T MAKE IT! I HEARD IT IN THE GUTTER!" That kinda sucked. What I didn't know at the time was that I would be re-hired and re-fired on that same movie two more times. 

Koppelman:
I can't sit here and grouse about being rewritten when the rest of the country is struggling to make ends meet each month; if I'm being rewritten, I’ve already been paid. That doesn't mean that I never grouse. I do. But I shouldn't.

Nathanson: My emotional response has been the same from day one, which is a mix of disgust and horror, no matter what side I'm on. It's always upsetting.

Walker: Almost every time I've left a job, it was because a director came in with notes I just couldn't bring myself to execute. If there are big notes I just don't "get," then the only thing that makes sense is for me to step aside and not do a halfhearted rewrite. Just that as much as I accept that getting rewritten comes with the territory, there are now two movies with my name on them that I haven't been able to bring myself to see. That's how high my hopes were when I wrote the first drafts of both, and how crushing it was to see what became of them (based on what little I could bring myself to read of the production draft and what I've been told about the final film). So as much as I like to profess shrugging off being rewritten, it can be heartbreaking.

What’s it like rewriting someone else?

Koepp: I'm fine with that.  

Koppelman: If you don't want to be rewritten, protect yourself from the beginning. Don't take assignments or rewrites. And don't pitch. Write specs. Get 'em made independently. Become a producer. A director. Or do what Leslie Dixon did on Limitless — make it a condition of the deal that you cannot be rewritten.

You have to separate out the question of rewriting from the question of credit grabbing. As far as the practice of rewriting itself goes, I feel no guilt when hired to do it. I think that distinction is important, though — going after credit you don't deserve is immoral. Rewriting is not. I can think of three instances where [my writing partner, David Levien] and I were specifically called in to [do a rewrite to get] a movie green-lit. The studio head or director told us: This thing is either getting made or going away on the pass you do. Each time, we turned our draft in and the movie got green-lit. We didn't get credit on any of the three films I'm thinking of. Didn't even arbitrate for credit. So if the writers we rewrote in those cases were angry or frustrated, they shouldn't be — they got all the residuals, even though we got them their green light.

Nathanson: I generally call [the prior writer] and ask how they feel about it. If they are okay with it, I’ll consider doing it.

Walker: I don't do many rewrites, because if I read something I think is horrible, I usually don't have the ability to step back and imagine fixing it, while if I read something good, I don't feel I have much to offer in improving it, and the studio should just use that same writer to do what little tweaking seems to be needed. There is such a thing, though, as a writer getting to a point where they're "written out" on a project. Especially since writers aren't working in a vacuum, with all the other voices in their head (real and imagined), and producer notes and studio notes that are part of the process. And I guess I'd like to think if I'm coming on to do a rewrite, that might have been where the previous writer ended up. Even if they don't think so. 

Objectivity doesn't exist when it comes to your own writing, or in any creative endeavor, really. But almost as a necessary delusion, lack of objectivity is a two-way street. So, any writer worth their salt is basically going to think that their rewriting is saving and vastly improving material, and yet say "How dare they?" the moment something of their own is being rewritten by others.

Even if a friend were to insist that it wouldn't bother them and I should go ahead and rewrite them, I know it'd be too painful. There's the expression "killing your babies," regarding cutting things in a script that you adore, and, no matter how well-intentioned, no one wants to see the blood of their own babies on the hands of a friend.

Why do you think it is so common to replace screenwriters as opposed to other artists on films?

Koepp: William Goldman said once that it's because everybody knows the alphabet, so everybody thinks they can write. And, by extension, everybody thinks they can change a writer because, basically, anybody can write. And it's the cheapest, easiest part of the production to change. You can even have more than one [writer] going at once, which isn't the case with a DP or an actor or anybody else. The majority of the other jobs involve a tremendous amount of upheaval because the majority of the other jobs on a movie don't start until production. But because the writer works in the netherworld of development, where time can expand infinitely, there is much less risk and turmoil in changing writers. And you can always go back to what you had. It's the hell of too many choices.

Koppelman: The job of the writer on a studio assignment is to deliver a shootable script as defined by other people — the director, actors, producers, and studio. Has the writer been devalued in town? For sure. And wrongly so. And the practice has no doubt made the overall quality of studio movies worse. But it is the current state of play, and there's no changing it.

Nathanson: I don't understand it. If the third lead on a TV pilot is replaced, it is a story in Deadline Hollywood, but nobody cares if a writer is replaced on a movie. Screenwriters are artists like any other artists, but screenplays do not exist as a form of public art. Screenplays are built to live and die in service of the film. We are all, in a sense, unpublished writers.

Follow Gavin Polone on Twitter: @gavinpolone

Photo: William Perugini