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Multiple-Screenwriter Syndrome: Any Cure?

Movies: The day of the one-author production fades as budgets balloon.

May 27, 1996|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Even armed with Tom Cruise as star, Brian De Palma as director and the familiarity of a TV series known to millions, the people behind "Mission: Impossible" left nothing to chance.

Like the makers of many expensive Hollywood franchise films, they turned to multiple writers--in this case, a veritable dream team: David Koepp ("Jurassic Park"), Robert Towne ("Chinatown") and Steven Zaillian ("Schindler's List").

As film costs skyrocket routinely past $60 million, the days of a lone writer seeing a script through from beginning to end have given way to a more cautious strategy, industry observers say. To risk-conscious studio executives, multiple writers represent a form of insurance.

"I don't think studios want a lot of writers working on scripts," Koepp said. "I think they find themselves in the position of being forced to have a lot of writers."

Certain films are so important to a studio, he added, that they become "corporate destinies instead of simple stories."

Shane Black, who wrote "Lethal Weapon," said that, in an era when A-list actors make $20 million a picture and studios are green-lighting $100-million productions, "all of a sudden there is a lot more terror," and studio executives hire numerous writers as a way of saying, "There was no step we didn't take."

It is a patchwork process that can turn out brilliantly, as with the critical and box-office hits "Toy Story" and "The Fugitive," or spin out of control and drag down a film. The hard part for studios and filmmakers, of course, is knowing when to stop fiddling.

Often, rewriting occurs long after a script is green-lighted, going on day and night while the movie is being shot, and sometimes continuing even after principal photography is completed.

Screenwriters hold a decidedly mixed view of this trend. While wanting to see their own work on the screen as much as possible, they can also reap enormous paychecks--sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars for spending just a few weeks rewriting somebody else's work.

"I'm not cynical about the situation because sometimes it works," Black said. "I think a studio has every right to rewrite a script if they don't feel that person is making the movie they set out to make."

But another screenwriter said: "I've seen movies in such a mess nobody knew what they were doing. It is rare that more rewrites add to a movie."

"The Devil's Own," an Irish-themed thriller starring Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt, has been subject to almost daily rewrites as the film neared a wrap this week.

In "Eraser," the soon-to-be-released action film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the entire midsection of the film was changed two or three times, according to crew people on the set. Sources said that a CIA sequence that was supposed to be shot in Washington was scrapped altogether after the filmmakers heard that "Mission: Impossible" had a CIA sequence.

At least four heavy-hitting writers, including Frank Darabont ("The Shawshank Redemption") and William Wisher ("Terminator"), were brought in midstream to revise the screenplay.

Two of last year's most anticipated films--Kevin Costner's "Waterworld" and Dustin Hoffman's "Outbreak"--were rewritten virtually as the directors were blocking out scenes.

Robert Roy Pool and Lawrence Dworet, who wrote the original screenplay on which "Outbreak" was based, saw three other writers tossed into the mix to do rewrites, and Hoffman himself was coming up with dialogue between scenes.

Pool said that a studio executive was scribbling lines on note cards and passing them to director Wolfgang Petersen, who put them in his pocket and ignored them.

Pool half joked that Petersen seemed to be the only one not doing any rewrites. "Wolfgang is German, so he doesn't feel secure in writing," Pool said, "but perhaps that's the only reason he didn't."

Ed Solomon, who with Chris Matheson wrote "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure," said that it doesn't matter how many writers are on a project, what counts is the strength of the one person holding the vision. In most cases, that's the director.

"If that doesn't happen, you end up with a script that is trying to serve too many masters," Solomon said. "The more money that is put into a film, the more nervous people become and the more they look to 'miracle workers' to try and save them."

Solomon said that these last-minute rewriters are the equivalent of people on psychic hotlines who make money off desperate callers who have nowhere else to turn.

Scott Frank, who adapted the Elmore Leonard novel "Get Shorty" for the big screen, said that the green light has become such a "precious commodity" in Hollywood, producers who have labored long and hard with a writer pursuing a certain vision will abandon it once a director is brought on board. The directors, in turn, have their own favorite writers and, if there is a major star attached, the star often brings in his or her own writer to shape the character.

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