WORDS INTO PICTURES 1998
by William C. Martell
Screenwriter Tom Schulman ("Dead Poets Society") called it "A film festival, just without the films." Over a thousand screenwriters from every state in the union spent three days in Santa Monica attending the first annual Writers Guild Of America "Words Into Pictures" seminar. Seasoned pros and excited amateurs sat side by side for a series of panel discussions on the future of our craft. It was not uncommon to see Dan Petrie, jr. ("Beverly Hills Cop") sitting two rows in front of you, or novelist Elmore Leonard ("Get Shorty") in the back row. Every name writer in town attended the event.
The hallways at the Leows Santa Monica Hotel were so jammed with talent, one day while trying to get to the room where William Goldman was speaking, I was obstructed by a short red haired man who seemed to know everyone in the hallway (and slowed to chat with them). After finally squeezing past him, I realized it was NBC President Warren Littlefield.
Every day began with an informal coffee and bagel breakfast, where you could meet and chat with fellow writers before the 9:30 seminars began. Three seminars would run simultaneously, forcing attendees to make some difficult decisions. Do I want to see Frank ("Shawshank Redemption") Darabont and Ron ("Tin Cup") Shelton talk about writers who direct, or watch Saul ("English Patient") Zaentz debate the effect of event films on the business with Kathleen Kennedy (producer of "The Lost World")? Every two hours, three new seminars were competing for my attendance. Often, a seminar would reach capacity, and you'd be forced to sit in on your second choice. But even the second choices were amazing. Each seminar subject offered a controversial subject and a panel guaranteed to hold differing views.
"TWISTER IMPOSSIBLE: The Movie As E-Ticket Ride" moderated by Newsweek's David Ansen featured Touchstone Pictures President Don DeLine, United Artists President Lindsay Doran, "Reversal Of Fortune" writer Nick Kazan, "The Lost World" producer Kathleen Kennedy and writer David Koepp, Castle Rock founder Rob Reiner, "English Patent" Oscar Winner Saul Zaentz, and Phoenix Pictures witty Chairman Mike Medavoy.
This powerhouse panel debated the effect of Hollywood's current blockbuster mentality on the craft of screenwriting. Within a few minutes the battle began. Multiple Oscar winner Zaentz described the difficulty in getting mid-range pictures made today. "The thinking is that you have to make a picture for over $70 million. Below is no good."
Reiner concurred, describing his difficulties getting non- event films made, "A studio always feels more comfortable if they've spent $100 million on something. It's hard to get $35 million. The movie business changed (after "Jaws"), with films leading to theme park rides and merchandising. Which spawned a new way of creating a movie. From the outside in. You start with the idea of what's merchandisable, and the story and characters become insignificant. The star is the special effects."
"If a movie doesn't make $200-300 million they consider it a failure," Kennedy explained, "and that has an impact on what movies get made."
"The problem for the writer is that because the technology is still new and exciting, it is the star of the film," Koepp explained, "and it leaves the writer scrambling to justify their presence along side these great FX sequences."
Reiner and Kennedy engaged in a heated debate on the quality of blockbuster films. "I don't know anybody who saw "Twister" and cared about the characters." "I think the concept of people who chase tornados is very strong." "The dialogue consisted of "Hold on to something!" and two other lines." "It is tough to argue that the plot of this movie is anything wonderful," Kennedy finally admitted.
Then Zaenz asked if there was a sequel in the works for "Twister". "Yes, but we're struggling with the story," Kennedy answered. "I wonder why," Zaentz zinged.
"I find increasingly I'm dealing with a business mentality, not a creative mentality," Kennedy explained. "I'm no longer sitting in meetings talking about script and character and ideas."
David Ansen asked if the increased budgets required to make these blockbusters create a financial risk for the studios.
Kathleen Kennedy responded, "The companies are so large now, that even paying $200 million for an unsuccessful movie won't bring a studio down."
"Because a big disaster won't sink a studio, they don't have to operate with the financial responsibility they did in the old days," says Reiner. "Movies are the most visible part of the corporation. It's sexy, it's visible... Even if it loses money. As a stand alone business, the movie business is not a business (anymore)."
Lindsay Doran explained how the change in the marketplace effects the way even non-event films are written. "Now a movie is anything that makes you say "Holy cow!". When we were making "Sense And Sensibility" we talked about making it the Holy Cow version of a Merchant Ivory film. To us, the Holy Cow version had to make you laugh out loud, and cry real tears. It couldn't just make you smile."
When an audience member asked why you couldn't have good writing in an event film, Koepp defended "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World" by saying, "I wouldn't have written what I think are two of the best movies ever made if they weren't what I want to see. These are genuine, heartfelt movies. The story line and characters are labored over mightily."
"These are rides. They're not real stories," Reiner responded.
"You're trying to force one kind of movie into another kind of movie's model," Koepp replied. No one on the panel mentioned that "Jaws", which spawned the event movie, has a real story with real characters. Or that "Aliens" managed to tell both the personal story of Ripley and provide a jolt-a-minute thrill ride.
After a brief cookie and coffee break, we had our choice between a panel on million dollars script sales moderated by Variety's Peter Bart, a chance to meet William Goldman, and a panel on adapting novels for the screen.
Goldman proved to be outspoken about the evolution of Hollywood films. "The kind of movies that made Hollywood matter? Forget about them. They're gone because the people in charge have no interest in seeing them. Art and commerce have been battling for 100 years in Hollywood, but these days, commerce is just wiping the floor with the other guy."
The Adaptation seminar, moderated by LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan, James L. Brooks told of the difficulties in adapting "The War Of The Roses" and keeping the dark tone and unhappy ending intact. Producer Wendy Finerman related the steps involved in adapting "Forrest Gump" to the screen. John Gay, who cut his teeth adapting "Run Silent, Run Deep", explained how the facts always have to come first when adapting a true story like "Fatal Vision" into a Made For TV Movie. Aaron Sorkin admitted that he didn't fully understand the phrase "opening it up" when he adapted his play "A Few Good Men" to the screen, and how the first draft included only one exterior scene. Elmore Leonard called fellow panelist Scott Frank "his adaptor", praising his work in bringing the spirit and character of his work to the screen. Leonard had adapted several of his own scripts, with varying degrees of success. "I never know what to throw out and what to keep." Frank explained that the key to adaptation is to focus on the characters, find the central story, and don't be afraid to cut everything else. After writing his first draft, he always re-reads the novel again, looking for little things he left out of the script which might help the story.
Phil Alden Robinson ("Field Of Dreams") kicked off the seminar about the development process with, "It is not uncommon for a writer to turn in a draft to a producer, get notes from the producer, the producer's development person, other producers involved and their staffs; the script eventually works its way to the studio, and there are several levels at the studio that will give you notes, from the story department to production, if it's a high profile picture the head of the studio and head of production; and if you're lucky enough to be a "go picture" there's a director, and his producing partner, and his development person give you notes; and if you're REALLY lucky, there's a movie star, and his manager gives you notes... and if you've written a buddy picture you don't even want to know about all of the notes you'll get!"
Robinson had the audience laughing throughout the debate, as he moderated "George Of The Jungle" producer David Hooberman, "River Runs Through It" writer Richard Friedenberg, Columbia Pictures president Amy Pascal, MOW writer Len Hill, "Little Women" writer Robin Swicord, Lifetime Network's Dawn Tarnofsky, and "Nashville" screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury as they gave notes on the development process.
"The problem has a great deal to do with the increasing beaucractization of the studios," said Hill. "You get sets of notes as you go down the river of development."
"What I find interesting is that people don't read," Tewkesbury explained that producers are often working off of coverage from studio readers.
Swicord concurred, "You get 22 pages of notes, and you don't know who authored those notes." She mentioned a development meeting where the Executive read a detailed list of script problems, not letting the writer get a word in until the end of the meeting. When the writer told him, "That's not my script."
Robinson explains, "You're jumping through hoops for people who don't have the dog biscuits."
"After about twelve drafts, and three different writers, sometimes we read the first draft to see what we were excited about when we bought it," Hooberman admits. "Sometimes it's taken all these different directions. We often lose track of what the original idea was, what the story was. Sometimes we hire the original writer back."
"Sometimes the script the Producer wants is something completely different than the script you've just spent a year and a half writing," Swicord said. "Then you have to ask: Do I stay?"
"Ideally, the writer selects the producer, in an interesting kind of casting," says Hill. "You should be looking for a producer who is sympathetic with your style and will support you."
When dealing with notes she doesn't agree with Tewkesbury likes to ask "Can you be more specific about this particular note," and open up a discussion with the producer. Swicord admits to ignoring some notes, and seldom gets caught. Pascal says, "Writers have more power than they think. You have to speak up. We're not all horrible."
Political Correctness was discussed by "Ed Wood"s Alexander & Karaszewski, "Thirtysomething"s Richard Kramer, "NYPD Blue"s outspoken David Milch, Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, "CB4" writer Nelson George, and ABC's Program Standards VP Brett White.
Oscar winner Roger Avary and Oscar nominee Philip Haas were members of a lively panel on writers who find funding for their own Indie films. Other do-it-yourselfers included Dina Marie Chapman who wrote and produced "Rhinoskin" and George Huang who wrote and produced "Swimming With Sharks".
Friday night, the Santa Monica pier was the site of a party with free food and beverages. A chance to mingle with fellow writers. Roger Avary wandered over, remembering me from a conversation we'd had over a year ago. Aside from being one of the nicest and least ego-driven people I've ever met, Roger has made his own breaks. Later, the carousel used in the film "The Sting" was fired up, offering free rides for screenwriters.
A Saturday morning Meet The Writer featured Robert Towne, who seemed shy and nervous about speaking in public.
Jeff Greenfield of ABC News moderated a panel where writers and critics faced off. Phil Alden Robinson, Frank Pierson, and the always vocal Harlan Ellison took Time Magazine's Richard Schickel, as well as Ella Taylor and NY Times critic Stephen Holden to task for praising the directors for good films and blaming the screenwriters for bad ones.
A panel on breaking into the business featuring Callie Khouri, Katherine Reback, Lee David Zlotoff, and Billy Bob Thornton offered no shortcuts. Thornton did say, "Directors are the most overrated people in the business, and I include myself."
A spirited debate on Writer's Responsibility had playwright Wallace Shawn in a heated argument with John Millius, as Paul Attanasio, Leonard Schrader, and Lionel Chetwynd looked on.
Saturday night we were treated to a cocktail party, with entertainment provided by Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, performing I.A.L. Diamond's classic skit about screenwriters, "Quizzically". Though the skit is half a century old, the problems of screenwriters looking for just the right word haven't changed a bit. Watching these two talents from only a few feet away was a real treat, and being able to mingle afterwards with name screenwriters couldn't be beat.
One of the most interesting seminars of the weekend was "Whose Picture Is It Anyway?" where "Courage Under Fire" writer Patrick Duncan, "Ruthless People" scribe Dale Launer, "Schindler's List" writer Steve Zaillian, "Star Trek VI"s Larry Konner, "M*A*S*H"s Gene Reynolds and director Mark Rydell discussed the auteur theory and "A Film By" credit. The Director's Guild does NOT require that directors get the "possessory credit" (A Film By), though most directors negotiate for it in their contracts. Konner theorized that because "Every director gets it, it has no meaning."
"If the auteur theory is correct," Duncan states, "then there are certain PRODUCERS who are auteurs, certain WRITERS who are auteurs. The funny thing about the possessory credit is, the directors who deserve it don't need it. We know their names."
"We all take credits for what we do on movies," Zaillian offered. Directors already get a director's credit, why do they need a possessory credit as well?
"Often a screenplay is written, financing is set up, lists are made of directors who are available, but when the director is hired it suddenly becomes "A Film By" them," say Launer.
One solution offered was to negotiate for a writer's bonus if the director takes a possessory credit. Giving the director the credit will then cost the producer extra money.
"When ever you can, use the muscle of your negotiating power to get rid of it," is Duncan's solution.
The last seminar of the event was "The Grim Business Of Comedy" moderated by Hal Kanter. The all star panel included Carrie Fisher, Lowell Ganz, Garry Marshall, Carl Reiner, Robert Townsend, and Tracey Ulman. Within minutes, over a thousand screenwriters were laughing at the witty banter. Garry Marshall explained that you could teach a really funny person how to write a screenplay, but it was impossible to teach an un-funny screenwriter to be really funny. It was interesting to note that Reiner gave Marshall his first TV job, and Marshall gave Ganz his first TV job. Why did Marshall hire Ganz? "He was a funny kid."
"Words Into Pictures" ended with a giant barbecue on the hotel's back lawn. Friendships forged over three days of mad dashes through the hotel hallways to grab a good seat for the next seminar were celebrated with an exchange of phone numbers and business cards. The Writers Guild event may have started as "A film festival, just without the films" but ended as a celebration of screenwriting and the screenwriter.
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copyright 2002 by William C. Martell