Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You -- For Better or Worse
by David S. Cohen
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Perhaps you can't even count the number of times you've been sitting in a movie theater, thinking of all the other things you'll never buy with your misspent money, and you turn and say to your equally dismayed companion, "How did this piece of crap ever get made?"
A fascinating, detailed dissection of the screenwriting process, David S. Cohen's Screen Plays explores exactly that question ? and wonders how the good ones survived the grueling process. Cohen devotes a chapter to each screenplay under scrutiny, interviewing the writer and exploring the sometimes torturous path from idea to finished film from its very root. To his credit, Cohen doesn't sugar-coat failures; as revealed by the chapter on Evening, last summer's critically drubbed adaptation of Susan Minot's novel from The Hours author Michael Cunningham, it's every bit as instructive to learn what went wrong as what went right.
Leslie Dixon had the best of intentions when she adapted Catherine Ryan Hyde's drippy novel Pay It Forward into an agonizingly unwatchable film starring Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt (instead of actually subjecting yourself to the movie, read the Onion AV Club's much more entertaining takedown). While it may seem hilariously misguided to imagine the screenwriter of Outrageous Fortune and Mrs. Doubtfire wanting to branch out into gritty drama ? let alone the sheer lunacy of imagining Pay It Forward as "gritty drama" ? it's intriguing to see where Dixon's aspirations failed to find their way into the finished material.
Of course, the writers themselves can't always be blamed for failure. The most commonly lamented scenario among produced screenwriters is the changing of their work, usually for the worse, by directors, actors, and studio executives. (The most commonly lamented scenario among unproduced screenwriters is how much they'd trade their whole lives to have a produced screenwriter's lament.) Cohen offers a terrific case study in Mona Lisa Smile, a film that began as a way to explore the burgeoning ideals of feminism in a women's college in the generation before Hillary Clinton, and wound up as a toothless all-girl remake of Dead Poets Society. The film's star, Julia Roberts, was drawn to the edgier material, but the necessity of appealing to all denominations in a star vehicle prompted the studio to neuter the material, turning it into a Lifetime melodrama.
Cohen interviews such writers as Scott Smith (A Simple Plan), Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Sofia Coppola (Lost In Translation), Alan Ball (American Beauty), and John Logan (The Aviator). While several pieces examine outright failures (the aforementioned Evening and Pay It Forward, along with Random Hearts and, to a lesser degree, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), one's own perception will determine whether one considers, for instance, Erin Brockovich and Troy to be "successful" simply because of box-office receipts.
Cohen gives each script thorough scrutiny, never failing to single out its weak points along with its strengths. Several times one walks away wondering what might have been ? although there are instances where one feels tremendous relief that the writer didn't entirely get his/her way, as when Alan Ball acknowledges several changes to American Beauty that he fought in production, only to realize in hindsight that the cuts he'd resisted vastly improved the finished film.
Oddly, my favorite piece focuses on Don Roos, whose Bounce is not a film I've thought about even once since renting it on DVD years ago. Roos makes some terrific points about why writers ought to direct their own work, rather than cashing in for a paycheck and then crying that someone else mangled their brilliance.
Unfortunately, screenplays have to sell off a read, and the readers and buyers are often the people who want everything spelled out in the dialogue. As Roos explained, few of them really grasp the power of film. "There are very few film enthusiasts in Hollywood, really, at those levels. Very few people who have favorite films, who are moved by films or understand remotely what film does. It's difficult talking to idiots, it really is."
That paragraph alone explains more about the ugly reality of the film industry than an aspiring screenwriter could get out of the most prestigious graduate writing program in the world. There are roughly eight million "how to write a hit screenplay" books littering bookstore shelves. Avoid them all. Get your expertise from the mouths of those who have been through the process; learn from their mistakes and take their successes to heart. Screen Plays
is a fascinating book that will inspire any screenwriter, professional or otherwise, and help guide him/her through the tangled morass of the modern film industry.
Chris Bolton's days are spent providing images and content for Powells.com — but when the veil of night falls, he dons a cape and tights to save the world and entertain friends. In his secret identity he writes a web-comic called Smash with his artist brother, Kyle, and is in preproduction on a web-series called "Wage Slaves."