Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Tower Heist" - a struggle to execute a high-concept one-liner

It took five years for the Ben Stiller/Eddie Murphy film Tower Heist to go from concept to screen, and in that time, the one-line hook that got everyone interested went through substantial changes.  The LA Times has the story:

Eddie Murphy had a simple suggestion about six years ago: Why not make an all-black version of "Ocean's Eleven"? 

Director Brett Ratner and producer Brian Grazer loved the comedian's idea, and before long, the trio was throwing around ideas about who could star opposite Murphy: Jamie Foxx, Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Tracy Morgan and Chris Tucker headed the list.

As anyone who's seen the trailer for the film can tell you, the final cast was multi-ethic and predominantly white.  But you have to admit - there should be a market for an all-black Ocean's Eleven.  Heist movies are a pretty popular genre and the novelty of getting the biggest African-American stars all in one film would almost certainly have marketable appeal.

The evolution of "Tower Heist" illustrates how even a seemingly straightforward idea can go through countless iterations from concept to screen. While "Tower Heist" is credited to screenwriters Ted Griffin ("Ocean's Eleven"), Jeff Nathanson (Ratner's last two "Rush Hour" movies) and writing partners Adam Cooper and Bill Collage ("Accepted"), the script also was revised by Russell Gewirtz ("Inside Man"), Rawson Marshall Thurber ("Dodgeball"), Leslie Dixon ("The Thomas Crown Affair") and Noah Baumbach ("The Squid and the Whale").

What follows is a pretty stardard look at the development hell that many films go through.  It's a good illustration of how just having a good idea isn't enough - it takes talent to execute even the most seemingly-obvious no-brainer.

As the film's racial profile changed, another question loomed over the production: Who are these bandits, and what is their motivation? The earliest plot held that the protagonists worked in a building owned by someone like Trump. "It was a fun movie, a classic underdog story," Ratner said. "But the problem was, you couldn't distinguish the characters apart." Even more knotty, it wasn't clear what provoked their thievery.

After two and a half years of screenplay revisions, Ratner called up Griffin, with whom Ratner collaborated on "Ocean's Eleven" before Steven Soderbergh replaced Ratner as that film's director. 

"I have good news and bad news," Ratner recalled Griffin telling him. "The good news is that I am going to do this. The bad news is that I'm going to throw away your script." 

So what was the fundamental change that Griffin felt was necessary and how did that define the cast?  Check out the rest of the article here.

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