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Writers Find Big Trouble On Road To 'Little China'

June 29, 1986|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

"I said in my arbitration statement that what these writers had submitted was a story, not a screenplay. The film now just isn't the script they wrote at all. By all rights, they should hate it, because I changed everything about it that they liked."

Richter would not reveal how much he was paid for his work on the film. But, he said, "my contract specified that my assignment was not a rewrite but a full screenplay. And I was paid my standard price for a full script."

Even after Writers Guild ruling, Goldman and Weinstein say Fox continued to send out publicity material that gave sole screenplay credit to Richter. "The fact is that Fox, to this day, believes their position," Goldman said. "They've convinced themselves that W. D. Richter wrote the film."

(John DeSimio, a Fox publicity exec, disagreed: "The minute we were informed of the arbitration ruling, we changed the credits and accommodated the writers in a timely fashion.")

In 1982, whenever Goldman and Weinstein had free time, they'd drive down to Chinatown and watch martial-arts films at the Kim Sing Theatre.

"We were sitting in David's backyard one day, wondering what was a fascinating American story that had never been told," said Goldman, 32, who had directed several documentaries and worked as Louis Malle's assistant on "Pretty Baby."

"The martial-arts films had really brought out the little 10-year-old boys in us and we thought, 'What if we could make them accessible to American audiences? They'd eat them up.' We'd both been kicking around in show business and we needed to make some money. We thought this was a script we could write that the studios would have to buy."

The initial studio response was lukewarm, though in March, 1983, producer Paul Monash and Keith Barish Productions optioned the script. After "relatively minor" rewrites, the script went out to several name directors, all of whom passed.

"It was essentially on the shelf until 'Romancing the Stone' became a hit," Goldman said. "Then Barish renewed their option, Fox got interested and they arranged for some sort of co-production deal."

(According to Weinstein, the writers ultimately received a "low six-figure price," which included a $55,000 initial option and rewrite payment and another sum as the final purchase price).

In late 1984, the writers heard "through the rumor mill" that Fox was talking to other writers about a rewrite. "We thought it was just scuttlebutt, since Fox didn't say anything to us," Goldman said.

The writers met with Fox production executive Larry Mark who, Goldman said, told them that the studio had approached Richter. "They said he'd come up with the idea of moving the film to the present day, which we felt, at the time, was a completely wrong idea," Goldman said. "We weren't really ever offered the opportunity to do the rewrite. They were essentially proposing to us what was his idea, so it would be hard to imagine them letting us do it after they'd already brought him in."

(Mark did not respond to several phone calls from Calendar.)

Goldman insisted that he wasn't upset. "I figured that was standard operating procedure," he said, measuring his words. "By having a well-known writer involved with the project, it was probably a good way for the studio to attract a name director."

Then, however, they discovered that when Richter's name was added, their names had been relegated to a far less prominent "story credit" category. In Hollywood, appearance is reality, and the young writers became increasingly distressed to find their names barely mentioned, if at all, in each new account of the film's production.

In November, 1985, Daily Variety columnist Army Archerd visited the set, quoting director John Carpenter in his column as saying the film's "W. D. Richter script was originally a turn-of-the-century Western."

In the June issue of Starlog magazine, Richter was quoted as saying, "When I first started reading (the script), I realized what it needed wasn't a rewrite, but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay."

The writers complained to Fox, but without any results. "It really hurt our ability to work, because a lot of people felt we'd gotten the project started but hadn't really written the film," Goldman explained.

Even after the writers won the arbitration decision, they still seemed somewhat peeved by Richter's role in the film's production. Asked what they thought of Carpenter's direction of the film, Weinstein said: "He did a tremendous job. I mean, they could have had W. D. Richter direct the movie."

Richter said he found the writers attitude toward his role in the film "very bizarre."

"It's one thing to be bruised and angry, but they've been aggressively agitating over this credit problem all along," he said. "Two weeks after I'd begun rewriting the script, one of the writers called me and complained that I had no business rewriting another writer's script and that I should consider giving back the money and not having anything to do with it.

"It was an extremely weird conversation. I told them that wasn't the way this business worked. There's nothing unusual about rewrites. It happens all the time."

Oddly enough, the biggest casualty of the battle may have been the two writers' own partnership. They've been writing separately for the past year. "The whole experience was like boot camp without real bullets," Weinstein said. "It put a huge strain on our partnership, not so much creatively as business-wise."

And what about their relationship with Fox? "It's funny, but I think they respect us more now that we've got our credits," Goldman said. "That's the cold reality of Hollywood."

Weinstein grinned. "After all, our contracts have a clause that says the studio has to come to us first if they want to do a sequel."

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