NYC Screenwriters Collective Message Board › Dish Served Cold - By Screenwriter Leslie Dixon
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For those of you unfamiliar with Leslie's screenwriting credits you can check her out on IMDb.com
DISH SERVED COLD
By Leslie Dixon
In 2000 I had one of my better scripts fatally mangled. Why? Well – let’s take a political pause and think. Should I be venal? Finger-point? Assign blame?
Twist my arm: it was all the actors’ fault.
SIDE NOTE: Never believe a writer’s tale of woe, “Oh, my brilliant script was ruined.” They will proceed to tell you, “My version of the scene where she regained her sight was so much better.” There can be, sometimes, not the dimmest awareness that the thing was a turd from the get-go.
That said, there are barometers by which writers can judge if their script was ever any good. If you get 50 job offers after your agent circulates the material, if big stars are clamoring to do it, that’s a pretty fair indication you’ve delivered. By those standards, at least, Pay It Forward was a success.
I was coming off The Thomas Crown Affair. Ooh. Let’s talk about those actors for a minute.
Here’s Pierce Brosnan: we’re having a script meeting in a hip London hotel lounge. Across the room are two girls having a drink. They’re young – barely 21 and all dressed up – it looks like one of them was buying the other a birthday drink at a “posh” place – thrilled just to be there. They are sneaking looks at Pierce, awed to be across the room from him, but desperately wanting to be classy. They weren’t going to go over and bother him. It was enough just to be breathing the same air.
Pierce saw them, took it all in. Next thing the girls knew a waiter appeared at their side. “Mr. Brosnan would like to send you both a drink.” It was fun watching them try not to faint. He raised his glass to them, wanting nothing – certainly not a sleazy pick-up, just deriving pleasure from their stammering thanks.
It must be nice, with a simple gesture, to be able to give people something to tell their grandchildren.
Here’s Rene Russo: It’s the premiere of Thomas Crown. I arrive behind her. She’s already on the red carpet, in front of the paparazzi. They’re snapping away. She sees me, grabs me, clamps an arm around me so I can’t get away and says, “This is the writer! I wouldn’t be here tonight if it wasn’t for her wonderful script!” She doesn’t let go of me, forcing them to take my picture if they’re going to get anything of her. Grudgingly, they continue to snap.
The movie gods, watching all this, must have decided to cast me out of heaven, down, into one of Dante’s inner circles.
I hadn’t exactly heard warm, fuzzy things about Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. He was supposed to be tough, and she currently held, by rumor, the title of Most Difficult Working Actress.
“What are we talking about here?” I asked a knowledgeable friend. “The glory days of Debra Winger?”
“Shit no. Debra Winger could be fun.”
“And what about him?”
“Did you see ‘Swimming With Sharks?’ That was the kinder, gentler side of his personality.”
At least they were good actors, which was lucky, because Pay It Forward was an easy film to ruin. It was about a burned out, cynical teacher who gives his class an assignment to come up with an idea that will change the world. He doesn’t believe for a minute that the kids are capable of such a thing, it’s just a rote assignment that always produces predictably lazy results. When one 7th grader takes the assignment seriously, the teacher is profoundly affected.
The tone of the movie needed to be “Tender Mercies.” Not Capra. The characters needed to be matter-of-fact, inarticulate, to cut the treacle of that dreaded trap -- moral uplift.
Helen was actually quite charming until the first moment I politely disagreed with her. Her mouth set, her eyes grew hard, and she never again demonstrated the slightest pretense of civility. I quickly learned that anyone who said anything but Yes to her was, then and forever, the enemy.
Immediately Kevin let me know my caste. During our first meeting, he began making phone calls in front of me, without ever saying “Excuse me,” or acknowledging that a person was sitting there, waiting. I was wallpaper.
Finally off the phone, he announced that he wanted a change in his character: “I think he should be a good teacher and really connect with those kids.”
My heart sank. I did not say, “Um, Inspirational Teacher 101 is a moldy movie formula from the dawn of sound!” Instead I mentioned, gingerly, that that moral transformations did seem to be more powerful when they happen to cynical people.
Well, but he’d played a lot of cynical people. He wanted to be cuddly.
He also wanted a lot more on-screen back story about how his character had been physically scarred by his father. He did not come out and say the words, “Give me a big, scenery-chewing speech,” but I got the message. More paragraphs. Can’t win the Oscar without talking a lot!
Helen’s first of many demands was that she be seen, not as a tenuously recovered alcoholic, but still fighting the demons of the bottle. Again I was distraught – oh dear, drunk scenes. Territory covered by so many actresses in so many movies. She’d be staggering, wallowing, throwing up.
Edited by User 9,727,243 on Jan 26, 2013 6:47 PM
|A former member||
One morning she took me aside. “I was talking to my therapist about this character, and she said, well, the way this woman behaves, she’s a classic case of a person molested as a child.”
“Oh,” I said, wary.
“And it’s very important to me that this be made clear.”
“That she was molested as a child.”
“On camera. In dialogue.”
“You do realize… that this would make dueling child-abuse backstories for you and Kevin.”
It didn’t matter. She wanted her very own underage grope, and she was going to get it.
I stared at the producer and director. No one said boo.
Resigned, I began making the script worse. There weren’t wrenching changes; it was more the death by a thousand little razor cuts. A few things got better… when I saw that the delightful Haley Joel Osment was not the dour little thing of Sixth Sense, but in fact a light spirit, I wrote more humor for him, which improved his scenes.
The week before production I spent in Las Vegas, separated from my family, in a windowless conference room, for what were supposedly rehearsals. In fact, it was simply, in Helen’s own words, a “script autopsy,” days spent picking at, criticizing, and reshaping the thing down to the last comma. No word was too small to escape protracted and negative discussion. (Kevin once gave a 45-minute soliloquy, the end result of which was that he wanted one line changed.) Occasionally I was yelled at -- more often, just ignored. A week passed in which no one said a personal word to me; even kneejerk courtesies like “Hello” and “Goodbye” had gone by the wayside.
“What’s it like?” my agent asked, on the phone.
“Like being trapped in a cell with Mengele and Eichmann.”
I wondered, if they thought so little of me, why didn’t they ask for another writer? But the days passed and it didn’t happen. No – no – don’t tell me – I wasn’t going to be fired--! Could a room be that cold, that free of nutrients, like an airlock, and not portend a firing?
Apparently it could.
No longer consoled by the certainty that the end was near, I began to crack. As I was sniveling to my husband one night on the phone, he pointed out that I alone, out of everyone on that movie, could, within 48 hours, be floating down the Grand Canal in a gondola.
Time passed; I finally saw the film. Everything I dreaded had happened: looming close-ups, ham-fisted dialogue, searing obviousness, a jarring ending. My agent asked me, “How was it?” “Not my kind of movie,” I said, wishing I’d written Reservoir Dogs.
Annoyed at my desertion, the actors began taking pot shots at the script. It had been “goo,” they said during their publicity junket, but they had gotten in there, rolled up their sleeves, made it ring of Truth.
The critics disagreed.
I lay low, licked my wounds. But when my mother called, after reading a movie magazine, and said, “Well! Those actors certainly don’t think much of you, do they?” something in me began to boil. Was I really going to lie down for that? --Well, if I wanted to remain a professional screenwriter, I should; I should bend over for that. Besides, wasn’t I a classy person? Too mature for petty vengeance?
Soon after, a Wall Street Journal reporter began poking around, curious as to why this film, released with the studio’s highest expectations, had flopped. He quickly determined that the actors had been calling the shots from day one. In the ensuing article, he made the observation that perhaps Mr. Spacey’s judgment about corniness wasn’t entirely to be trusted, since this was the man who improvised, on camera:
EUGENE (KEVIN SPACEY)
I don’t want to spend another
second of wasted air, you beautiful,
lovely, difficult hilarious woman.
Please don’t let me stay trapped in here
forever. I’m so exhausted from being
Phones rang. The Powers That Be were raging. That speech was cut from the film! How the hell could that reporter have seen it?
Oops. Well. I guess someone gave him the shooting script.
As if in apology, the movie gods next threw me Steve Martin. I wrote my brains out for him, turned it in. He called the next day. Just wanted to say how pleased he was.