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To the rescue?

Summoned at the last minute, script doctors can come off as superheroes -- or, just as likely, supervillains. The Writers Guild is bitterly divided as it considers new rules.

October 27, 2002|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

It was just two weeks before the start of principal photography for "Bad Boys 2," the sequel to the Will Smith-Martin Lawrence cop comedy, and its director, Michael Bay, was already in Miami prepping for the car chases and explosions he planned to unleash across the causeways of America's southern hot spot. As the August start date loomed, there was one small hitch in this fast-hatching big-budget extravaganza: Smith hadn't signed on to do the movie yet. He had a little issue with the script.

So the studio, Columbia, and the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, did what they do at times like these: They called in the specialists, the high-priced script doctors meant to breathe life into dying scripts. Studios and producers are willing to pay -- $200,000 to $300,000 a week for Oscar winners or nominees and others considered to be in the top echelon of the business -- for those who can furiously tap out pages in as short a time as possible.

It was John Lee Hancock, a charming Texan who'd just made his directorial debut with the critical and commercial hit "The Rookie," who got the call from Columbia studio chief Amy Pascal. Hancock, who'd worked on a King Arthur project for Bruckheimer, had a few weeks to kill while he waited to see if Disney was going to greenlight his next directorial effort, "The Alamo." Within days, he was meeting with the various executives, talking to Bay and Bruckheimer and, ultimately, selling Smith on the script, which had already gone through the typewriters of a bevy of writers, among them writer-director Ron Shelton and "Permanent Midnight" author-screenwriter Jerry Stahl.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 02, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 6 inches; 244 words Type of Material: Correction
Writer's name -- A story in last Sunday's Calendar about script doctors misspelled the first name of screenwriter and Writers Guild official Stephen Schiff.

Hancock, who's best known for an earnest but unsentimental Americana, isn't the first writer one would think of to pen a sarcastic urban comedy. "I'm not known as funny," he admits with a chuckle, but his task here was to make the script less simplistic. Feverishly sending in pages as soon as they popped out of his printer, he added subplots and gave each protagonist a secret.

"We added more conflict. Will and Martin are terrifically funny, but you can't just count on sticking them in a car and they'll be funny. You need to set them up," he says.

"It's a really different kind of writing because time is so of the essence," he adds. "You have to have a little of a gunslinger attitude. 'I'm coming to town and I'm killing the bad guys and then I'll leave and I won't take any of your women.' You can't upset the apple cart of production."

A practice almost as old as Hollywood itself, script doctoring remains a controversial craft, one that seems to grow more common by the minute, as Hollywood more and more cedes original filmmaking to the indies and concentrates on its true metier: the creation of blockbusters for which the single vision is a corporate one.

Writers often are disinclined to admit publicly what they have worked on, either out of the honor of letting the credited writer keep the credit or out of the shame of having slummed on some misbegotten juggernaut. There also is still widespread sentiment that the best scripts spring from the head of a single writer and that writer pile-on is often evidence of a movie's being in an increasingly desperate search for characters, plot and dialogue. It's moviemaking at its most relentlessly commercial, offering a seductive payday to writers who put aside original work to help realize flashy concepts that have been jammed into production to meet summer release dates.

Indeed, script doctoring touches on one of the longest-running arguments in Hollywood: Is development a force for good, refining scripts into shiny masterpieces, or the worst thing that ever happened to movies, a process by which any hint of originality is carefully leeched away, leaving bland, homogenized films already forgotten by the time the audience reaches the parking lot?

The Hollywood writers' union is in the midst of a rapidly evolving public quarrel over the issue of screenwriting credits, and nothing illustrates the perennial tension between the profession's haves and have-nots as starkly as script doctoring. Although the practice can easily slide into wholesale rewriting, the term generally refers to the chosen few who are engaged in production polishes and who are mostly paid on a weekly retainer while a film is either shooting or about to shoot. Sometimes they're hired to salvage an unworkable mess or aid a director's vision, but they're also enlisted to pacify stars who want to put their imprint on the material, to mediate between warring parties or simply to settle queasy studio executives nervous about the latest $100-million opus.

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