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Budget shrinks, script blamed

The writer usually hears about it when a movie (inevitably) looks to cost more than filmmakers think they can spend.

June 13, 2004|David Freeman | Special to The Times

Budgets and the endless shenanigans that go into them have been on my mind lately because the budget for "An Honest Man," our much delayed Mexican picture, is being redrawn -- downward, of course. The present hope is that money can be raised if less of it is required. In a studio picture this would be bad news for the screenwriter because the problem would very likely be blamed on the script. In an independent movie, which means one that the studios might distribute but won't finance, cutting the budget is a practical response to ever-changing circumstances. The script stays blameless for at least a few more budget reductions.

Things aren't yet at the "Can't the writer defer his payment?" stage, though that is always a possibility. A studio would likely fire the writer and hire another. Independent movies don't have that ghastly flexibility. In situations like the one I'm in, it's usually said in a collegial spirit -- something like, "Hey, you want to get the movie made, don't you?" What's implied is no different than what the studios say, which is something to the effect of "If the script hadn't been so profligate with lavish big money scenes there wouldn't be a budget problem." Then they thank you for your good work and tell you a fresh voice is needed. Once production starts, studio or independent, a budget is adjusted frequently. By then it's possible to blame the weather or the lab or the Teamsters along with the irresponsible script. If stars are involved, they usually get blamed. Seems only right.

A few years ago I wrote the script for a four-hour miniseries. It was an assignment. The idea came from the network. At each step, I reminded the executives that it was going to be an expensive proposition. "Keep going," they said. "Let us worry about that." When I delivered the mammoth script, they said, all shock and dismay, it would cost a fortune to make this thing. Then they said they'd send me a check, which meant pay me off, which meant I was fired.

I remember once in the 1970s being involved in memorable budget talks of a sort. I had written a TV movie that was also a pilot, which wasn't unusual then. It was shooting in a city that I hesitate to identify. The producer invited me to join him for a discussion of what city services we would require should our movie become a series (which didn't happen). We were to meet with an assistant commissioner of police in the steam room of an apparently police-friendly hotel. The producer identified me as his associate. Mr. Commissioner laid out his terms.

The production company would make weekly payments to several police officials -- a few hundred dollars a week for each one, as I remember it. We weren't told their names. Our steam room friend would be the bagman. We could then expect cooperation along the lines of closing streets and using public buildings as locations. In other words, make these payoffs or forget about shooting in their town. No one else was allowed in the steam room while our talk was conducted. We wore towels that we put on under the eye of the assistant commissioner. That caution worked both ways. He obviously didn't want any secret record of the discussion. I came to see that the producer and I felt the same way.

Trial by interview

I was in New York recently, working to promote my book. There was a radio interview on WBAI, an influential New York station. It was a trial. The interviewer had an anti-Hollywood bias that was surprising. It was a reminder that people still believe that stuff about the movies ruining art and artists. That was her view, one she no doubt had held for years, and any argument would just prove her point. She liked novels set in Hollywood only if they treated Los Angeles as a version of hell. I like L.A. I don't think I'm a booster -- I'm always griping about something. But this city and the movie business are endlessly fascinating to me. The interview reminded me of lines from F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Last Tycoon": "You can take Hollywood for granted like I did, or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don't understand."

A favorite in common

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