When a round table of screenwriters assembled at the swanky Viceroy hotel in Santa Monica back in May to look over the "Transformers" screenplay, it may not have had the solemn purpose of King Arthur's knightly conferences nor the savage wit of Dorothy Parker's vicious circle, but it did portend something significant.
While bringing in a group of writers to brainstorm on a project is relatively common in television and feature comedies and animated films, especially early in the development process, big studio action movies like this one -- born of the original mid-'80s television cartoon series -- rarely get this kind of treatment. More often than not, these are precisely the projects that end up pitting screenwriters against one another for credit in Writers Guild arbitrations after they've been cycled through by producers intent on having them rewrite each other.
In this context, the "Transformers" round table's most remarkable aspect is that the gathering was organized not by DreamWorks but by the film's hired screenwriters: Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci ("The Legend of Zorro," "Mission: Impossible III"). A few weeks before production started on the Michael Bay-directed sci-fi blockbuster about a war between dueling machine races on Earth (due in theaters next Independence Day), Kurtzman and Orci compiled a wish list of writers they admire who also happen to be fans of the Transformers brand. Their mission was to look over Kurtzman and Orci's latest draft -- the last before shooting would begin -- and punch it up one final time.
Kurtzman and Orci's dream team included David Ayer ("Training Day," "Harsh Times"), Rawson Marshall Thurber ("Dodgeball"), stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt ("MADtv"), Jon Hurwitz ("Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle"), Lona Williams ("Drop Dead Gorgeous"), Jeff Nathanson ("Catch Me If You Can") and Don D. Scott ("Barbershop"). While all of the screenplay's major elements -- structure, plot, characters -- were locked down, these writers were asked to double check its logic and help squeeze whatever additional humor they could from potentially comedic moments.
Since the movie is meant to be a huge, supercool, PG-13, CGI-gasm of a movie, "fun" was the operating principle. With that in mind, at the start of the four-hour session Bay himself introduced the visiting writers to the material with some preliminary computer mock-ups of scenes that apparently got everyone fired up before going through the script from Page 1.
The filmmakers had already consulted in depth with the Army and Air Force, but Ayer, who was a sonar technician on a nuclear submarine in the Navy, brought some ground-level detail to the military aspects of the story. Nathanson, known for his deadpan straight shooting, was apparently on hand to be the in-house critic. And the rest were asked to enhance the setups and dialogue between the human characters and the giant talking machines.
Kurtzman and Orci have worked with Bay before, on "The Island," and as writers on "Alias" and "Xena: Warrior Princess," they also cut their teeth in TV's more communal writing atmosphere. This is something directors often do -- show each other developing work for comment -- but it requires a truly egoless approach to filmmaking. Which may be exactly why it's so rare in a business that hinges on credit (both the opening-title and capital-C, industry-clout varieties).
In this case, all invited writers signed a waiver that established they would get a standard $2,500 consulting fee and give up any claim to ownership of any ideas that make it into the film. Oh, and they'd get a catered lunch.
When I asked one longtime studio development expert with no connection to the film about the round table's import, he reacted with genuine surprise, saying of Kurtzman and Orci that it was a "good sign of their mental health." He described it as a smart and innovative approach to this kind of material -- a franchise film with a lot of money riding on it -- that he hopes other writers and studios will embrace.
But beyond that, in an environment where writer hirings and firings can happen more capriciously than Chloe Sevigny's wardrobe choices, it also gives the original writers something much desired but extremely elusive: a little bit of control over their own fate.
More on Faulkner screenplay
Big fangs to readers Steve Finkelstein and Marc Smirnoff, editor of "The Oxford American," for filling in more of the back story on the William Faulkner vampire screenplay that I discussed in last week's column.
Faulkner's script is actually an adaptation of a gothic horror novel published in 1942 called "Dreadful Hollow," written by Irina Karlova. A production entity that Howard Hawks co-founded in 1943 purchased the film rights, and Hawks asked his friend Faulkner to adapt it (which he did free) sometime around 1945. The story centers on a 19-year-old woman who takes a job at an English house and gets driven batty by its twisted family.