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MOVIES | THE PERKS OF THE A-LIST

Calling Cyrano to the film set

Who puts words into the mouths of stars? For those with clout, it's often their personal screenwriters.

July 03, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Top moviemaking talent enjoy a variety of hands-on helpers: personal assistants, drivers, chefs, hairstylists, costumers and even yoga coaches. Now there's an increasingly popular benefit for A-list actors and even some leading directors -- the personal screenwriter.

When Will Ferrell was cast in "Bewitched," he brought along Adam McKay, who has been writing funny bits with the actor since their "Saturday Night Live" days. Some of the dialogue in Adam Sandler's "The Longest Yard" was rewritten by his longtime go-to scribe, Tim Herlihy, who also collaborated with Sandler on TV's "SNL" and the comedies "Billy Madison," "Happy Gilmore" and "The Wedding Singer." And filmmaker Sydney Pollack, as has been his custom for four decades, turned to "Three Days of the Condor" screenwriter David Rayfiel to polish the script for his new drama "The Interpreter."

While these kind of personal writers may be well-known inside Hollywood, they often toil in public obscurity -- neither McKay nor Herlihy nor Rayfiel received a screenwriting credit on these recent movies. Don't shed any tears, though. Even without screen credit, top rewrite artists can bank more than $250,000 a week for script revisions and frequently can stay on a movie for months at a time.

But what may be great for the star may not be great for the movie. The personal screenwriter perk has the potential to gum up production with compulsory revisions, alienate the film's original writer and leave audiences feeling as if they've heard the same dialogue again and again.

If the line "You think not getting caught in a lie is the same thing as telling the truth" sounds at all familiar, it's because Pollack has used that bit of dialogue written by Rayfiel in no fewer than four movies: "The Slender Thread," "This Property Is Condemned," "Three Days of the Condor" and this spring in "The Interpreter."

Producers and studio executives complain that the personal writer for a director or actor can not only bloat a film's budget but also slow production to a crawl, with screenplay tinkering yielding new pages throughout production, as has happened on the upcoming "Fun With Dick and Jane." And screenwriters whose scripts are being massaged often petition the Writers Guild of America to have the new writer left off the film's final credits.

But no matter how much tsoris these artist-screenwriter relationships may generate, they are tolerated -- and even encouraged -- because the results are usually profitable, even if "Bewitched" opened to just modest business last weekend, grossing $20.1 million. What's more, the practice keeps the talent happy and is a boon for writers who worry about scrounging up new work.

"It's a great arrangement for any screenwriter to be associated with an actor who trusts you," says screenwriter Jim Herzfeld, whose "Meet the Parents" script was fine-tuned during production by Ben Stiller's preferred screenwriter, John Hamburg. "Every screenwriter wishes he had an A-list actor who considers him 'his guy' and kept him steadily employed on the actor's projects."

Writer-director collaborations are nearly as old as the talkies. Robert Riskin penned many of Frank Capra's most famous films, including "It Happened One Night," "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "You Can't Take It With You." Jules Furthman wrote several Howard Hawks movies, among them the classics "The Big Sleep," "Rio Bravo" and "To Have and Have Not," while Samson Raphaelson wrote Ernst Lubitsch's "The Shop Around the Corner" and "Trouble in Paradise."

The contemporary twist isn't that it's an actor, not a director, who comes with a writer attached. The real difference is that these screenwriters are summoned to recast someone else's script rather than fashioning a story from scratch.

McKay came in to rework Nora and Delia Ephron's "Bewitched" screenplay, while Akiva Goldsman, who frequently joins forces with actor Russell Crowe and director Ron Howard, tinkered with scripts for Crowe's "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" and Howard's "The Missing." Robert Towne has been called upon for several Tom Cruise movies, including his "Mission: Impossible" films. Steve Oedekerk has revamped, without credit, scripts for director Tom Shadyac, including "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective" and "Liar Liar."

"He is for me the best comedy mind in the business," Shadyac says of Oedekerk, with whom he has spent many recent days writing a sequel to Shadyac's hit comedy "Bruce Almighty," on which Oedekerk shared screenplay credit. "I know I'll be OK without Steve, but I feel so much better when Steve is at least looking over my shoulder on a movie. He has an ability to spot stuff you just miss."

Treading carefully

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