Wednesday, February 9, 2011

In defense of development

Kevin writes:

Often times, it seems to me, that all "development" does is ruin a good script. It seems like good screenplays, when they are good, don't stand a chance after an army of people (who are not writers) have to "fix the story" to justify their jobs.

Is it wrong of me to think this?

Well, yeah... that's kind of an unfair blanket statement to make without citing any facts or specific examples. From my view inside the process I've seen examples of development working both ways. I've seen producers make suggestions and offer guidance that makes a so-so script stronger, and I've seen examples where scripts die the death of a thousand cuts, where small changes bit-by-bit weaken the film.

But honestly, most of the time when development seems to make a film worse, it's because the script was built on an untenable premise to begin with.

Yes, there are plenty of examples where auteurs scream that studio meddling is what destroyed their precious vision - and yes, sometimes that's a fair cry. But let's not forget that there are plenty of instances where a filmmaker went hog-wild once they were big enough to not have to put up with the development process and the result was a weak film.

- Had Judd Apatow not been untouchable, I have faith that the development process would have honed Funny People into a strong two-hour script that told a consistent story, rather than the nearly three-hour film and-a-half that resulted.

- Richard Kelly should BEG people to meddle with his films. The "compromised" version of Donnie Darko is considered by many to be superior to the director's cut. And Southland Tales will stand as the ultimate example of why some directors need to be reigned in from their worst excesses.

- Let's also not forget the Pixar process of writing films, where creative decisions are debated and made by an entire staff that is constantly evaluating the film. This article on Toy Story 3 covers the process in some length.

So while I'm sure there are plenty of stories where some director legitimately complains "studio meddling" ruined a good script, let's not forget that no filmmaker is ever all that forthcoming in crediting "the suits" or the development people with making a decision that improves their film.

On a different note: I once wrote a letter to Oliver Stone, explaining why he should read my script - and everyone, except the teacher, in my screenwriting class laughed at me. They said he would never write me back and that I was crazy. I found humor in their negativity.

They were right. He called me.

Smart lesson, when I was younger, I had similar luck getting a response from Ronald D. Moore, and also got personal letters and email from several other writers I took the time to contact personally.


  1. Zach Snyder is another good example of someone whose carte blanche seems to have done him a disservice.

  2. I haven't seen the Owl movie he did, but I think we can't totally make that call until SUCKER PUNCH is released. I think Watchmen had some good stuff in it, despite not being perfect, and I think he was kind of in a no-win there. He was never going to make everyone happy on that film no matter what he did.

    But recasting the role of Adrian Veidt would have been an excellent start.

  3. A fiend of mine, who is a successful thriller writer (novels), wrote to John Le Carre, just to say how much he admired his work.

    He was stunned and delighted to receive a hand-written reply.

  4. Totally agree. Despite all the horror stories of “yeah love it, but what about if it took place in space/future/was about a dog named Chappy?”, I can think of a lot more examples (such as those you mentioned) of films that would have benefitted from more development than I can of genuine examples of development ruining a great script. I didn’t read the original screenplay, but from what I picked up on a couple of blogs, Robin Hood was originally a much more interesting film told from the point of view of Nottingham, rather than the mildly dull Russell Crowe vehicle it turned into, but I’m fairly confident that was an exception rather than the rule.

    While I do think that the writer’s vision should be respected to a large extent, I do believe that writing is collaborative – unless you are writing for an audience of one (maybe three if you count your mum and dad), no screenplay is any good if it only makes sense to you! I know for a fact that none of the projects I’ve had any success with would have got to where they are without a lot of tough feedback. It’s not a very trendy viewpoint, but in my experience, the majority of development people know what they are doing – which doesn’t mean blindly re-writing to their specifications necessarily, but taking on board what they have to say for sure.

  5. I just read your interview with Dan Callahan a couple days ago, which would seem to confirm the nightmare of development. I don't think there's anything wrong with having ideas challenged, because if you can't defend them intelligently I'm inclined to think you didn't put enough thought into them in the first place.

    What scares me are seemingly random notes, based purely on the bias of the exec. I don't think Dan ever did mention why they wanted him to take out the sister character, but it certainly didn't seem like it was motivated by interest in the strength of the story. That's my problem - lack of clear intent on the part of the powers that be.

    An entertaining send-up of development from Ken Lavine...
    It isn't real, but I have to imagine it came from a place of amalgamated experience that's pretty close.

  6. I would like to cite LOST on the TV side of things as to why development can be enormously beneficial in bringing about a successful final product. Many people don't know that the original pilot for LOST was actually a script called NOWHERE, written by Jeffrey Lieber, who was brought on board by ABC executive Lloyd Braun. When ABC didn't like how the script was turning out (and rightfully so; I read it and it was garbage), they fired Lieber, sacked Lloyd Braun, and brought in two young guns named JJ Abrams and Damon Lindelof. What precipitated from this was one of the best shows in the history of television, the invention of "New Media," and the onset of the showrunner/fan relationship as an entire internet subculture came of age.

    (My views on this are subject to change if I ever get a project into development and am subsequently kicked off it and rewritten.)

  7. Walker does bring up a good point with Dan Callahan's story. Yeah, that was absolutely a case of development gone wrong. Nicholas' example of Lost is a great contrast though.

    It's worth pointing out, though, that when Abrams' team came on to do the rewrite, they were the ones that added all the mystical/sci-fi elements. I could be wrong about this, but I *think* I recall hearing that ABC was somewhat uncomfortable with it being turned into a sci-fi show and downplayed that at every opportunity. This might be supported by their later efforts to avoid "V" being branded as sci-fi.

    So in that case, score one for ABC development, and deduct one for ABC development.

  8. So we get it both ways huh? I can't remember if you've ever posted something to this effect on this site but I can't count how many times I've heard the excuse that "a script may go through many changes from page to screen" as a rebuttal to the claim that Hollywood buys a lot of terrible scripts.

    But it seems to me that you're agreeing with the claim that Hollywood buys a lot of terrible scripts: "But honestly, most of the time when development seems to make a film worse, it's because the script was built on an untenable premise to begin with."

  9. Lesqueletterouge - I think there's a fallacy in trying to find an absolute answer here. Yes, there are times when a brilliant script is compromised due to budget, director's vision, post-production, and test marketing. You can start with a daring script and end up with something less than. But sometimes you win with the compromised film and sometimes you don't.

    Take Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The writers have been very open about how the process was that director Michael Bay told them the action scenes he wanted to shoot and left it up to them to string those pieces together. so from a writing standpoint, you end up with a square peg in a round hole in places, compounded by the fact the writers' strike left little time for rewriting. But the film had a release date and that meant it had to meet a start date.

    Most like me would argue that the film that resulted was a terrible assault on the eyes... but it made a shitload of money. So is it a terrible movie or a huge success? Each one is true... from a certain point of view. And if we do concede that it was a failure, whom do you blame, the writer, the director, the execs who set the start date, the development people who either didn't care or demanded extra robots so they could sell toys?

    Let's look at the ending of Se7en. Spoiler: Gwyneth's head ends up in a box at the end, and Brad Pitt shoots Kevin Spacey dead. Producer Arnold Kopelson hated, HATED this ending. He thought they had a nice genre thriller that was going to be ruined by the major downer of an ending. These days, it's hard to imagine that film without that ending, and Director Finscher stuck to his guns.

    But what if we'd gotten the happy ending? The Silence of the Lambs ending where the hero saves the girl and captures the person they've been hunting all the film? It could have been a powerful emotional release for the audience, one that left audiences charged up to watch the film again and repeat the thril-ride.

    Could it have worked? I don't know. Maybe the feel-good ending would have felt so false that audiences would have rejected it like a bad organ. Or it could have done 50% more in box office.

    And here's the rub - we'll never know. I think that the downer ending feels true to what Fincher wrote... but then I can't say for sure what my reaction would have been to a new ending had I not known the original one. But had they done a feel-good ending that worked, we might be praising the process as finding a more crowd-friendly ending than the original intent.

    Then look at Fatal Attraction - it's original ending was darker, with Glenn Close committing suicide and framing Michael Douglas for her murder. It tested poorly and the new ending had Anne Archer "killing the bitch." Result: Box office hit. Audiences cheered.

    Would it have been a better movie with the suicide? Or did the studio/producers/whomever have the right idea in changing the ending?

    The original question assumes that there's a villain in the process and that that same part of the process is ALWAYS the villain. All I'm saying is, that's not always the case. Each film has its own circumstances. Sometimes the writer is the asshole, sometimes it's the director, sometimes it's the producer, sometimes it's the studio and sometimes it's the actor.

    At one point or another EVERYONE gets their turn to be the heavy.

  10. Ugh, these comments really need a spell-check. I misspelled "Fincher." Anyway, does Hollywood buy some scripts that aren't perfect? Sure, it happens.

    Does Hollywood buy flawed scripts and find a way to make them work? Sure, as well.

    Does Hollywood buy brilliant scripts and fail to deliver on that promise? It's bound to happen.

    Does Hollywood buy brilliant scripts and producer even better films from them? Yes.

    So to cry "Fuck Development" or "Fuck the writers" across the board is way oversimplifying it.

  11. Zuul, you are correct that it was Abrams and Lindelof who brought in all the scifi elements. What's more is that JJ didn't even want to do LOST at first, and only agreed to do the show if he could do whatever he wanted on it. ABC was so desperate that they let him. He then went home and tried to come up with the weirdest shit he could, never expecting them to keep it. But they loved it, and he and Damon were on the exact same wavelength when it came to ideas. Pretty cool.

    I know more useless facts about this show than is probably healthy.

  12. I also agree that you can't blame development alone. There is so much collaboration in Hollywood that blanket statements simply become invalid. There are two many moving pieces, to many mitigating factors, to blame one aspect of a film or show for the reason it sucks. Unless we are talking any work by Michael Bay, at which point feel free to blame just him. (Although for the record, I quite enjoyed both The Island and The Rock.)

  13. From what I see, development, especially for first-time writers, is there to make the script marketable and if the script isn't from the start, then that may be the downfall.