ARTS: FILM: A private practice

'Crimson Tide' boasts uncredited contributions from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Towne. But how did they get there? David Thomson explains
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THE NEW movie Crimson Tide has its writing credits like any other. It was written by Michael Schiffer. Yet for close to a year now, the film has subtly boasted of other contributions, or signs of pedigree. There are scenes in Crimson Tide, the instant legend goes, that were written by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Towne. Which scenes? Well, perhaps it's more fun if you have to guess. Meanwhile, Crimson Tide is a ship that sails with the extra aura of secret weapons, or magical guests at its party. After all, if they're owning up to Tarantino and Towne, who else had a hand in the stew?

There are "re-write" stories all over the history of Hollywood, fascinating and grisly. Better yet, as far as I can judge, they are but modest versions of the insanity that actually prevails. So you can trust anything and everything: from the writer who went off to Miami with his signature money and holed up in the Fontainebleau Hotel with a couple of Cuban hookers doing his first draft, because he was saving his ideas for the second draft; to Sidney Howard, dragged out to Hollywood to do re-writes on his first draft of Gone With the Wind by producer David O Selznick.

Only Selznick is too busy shooting The Prisoner of Zenda to meet and talk Wind. But he doesn't want to waste Howard, who is on salary, so he asks him to do some re-writes on Zenda scenes. Howard is willing; he wants to be used. So Selznick asks for a re-write on the big ballroom scene. OK, says Howard, what's wrong with the version you've got? "I don't know," says Selznick. "I haven't read it yet."

(Re-write: maybe "Havana hooker" is better - or he could have gone to Vegas with the hookers and a plan to beat the casino system at roulette. Play with it - just off the top of my head.)

If only to be nearer the heart of the dark joke, you have to know that The Prisoner of Zenda has credits as follows: "Screenplay by John L Balderston, adapted by Wells Root from the novel by Anthony Hope." No Howard. Whereas, Howard gets the full and sole credit for writing Gone With the Wind, no matter that maybe another 30 or 40 writers had a go at it and a word in edgeways. They stopped shooting that movie after about 10 days, ostensibly to fire the director, George Cukor. But it was really because Sidney Howard's script - a diligent, faithful but wise editing down of the novel - had been steadily ignored, abused and "improved" by a dynasty of writers, and by their boss, Selznick.

When the shooting stopped, Ben Hecht was brought in - one of the great characters in Hollywood history, and a sure sign of imminent disaster. Only the undertaker came after Hecht. Selznick admitted that the script was a ragged rainbow (because re-write drafts then were literally done on different coloured paper). Hecht said he had no time to read what they had written - like all true script experts, he read as little as possible. "Just tell me the goddamn story," he begged. They tried - Selznick and the new director, Victor Fleming. Hecht despaired; he couldn't make head or tail of it. How did this book ever sell? he wanted to know. So he searched in the files and he found Sidney Howard's script. The original. He read that, if only to shut Selznick up. He liked it. He could understand it. Do you realise what you have here? he asked Selznick. This is it! Oh that, said the producer. Well, sure, that was great a year ago. But we started refining it. It's still great, said Hecht. Re-write it like that, asked the eternally hopeful Selznick.

Ben Hecht had been around in pictures since silent days. He had come out to the coast, from Chicago and New York - serious places, where there was winter and literacy - just to make some fast money so he could be free to concentrate on the real things, the things he and posterity cared about, his novels and plays. Turned out he had a knack for photoplays; he could write snappy dialogue; he understood picture construction; he could swap insults with the producers; and he could cash the terrific checks while feeling superior.

Then he turned sour. He was prostituting himself, a thing no potential genius likes to do. He was doing garbage for idiots for the ridiculous money, when it was his calling, his destiny, to be writing masterpieces. He lost his self-respect, a thing only more crazy money can appease. He became famous as a bitter cynic. Tourists were shown him and exposed to his lacerating jokes, all at the expense of the business and himself for being part of it. So he made a point of writing only for the money: pay me by the week, he said, or the day - just leave the $5,000 on the bed at five o'clock and never mention my name in polite society. Forget the credit. Grant me obscurity and I'll save your worthless picture. Just tell me I was beautiful. Hecht was good enough, and entertaining enough, to get away with it. Selznick was only one of several producers who liked to keep him up their sleeves to "doctor" a script.

This isn't a pretty or a sane story, but screenwriters have to learn the value of their own insignificance early. They may have the first idea for a movie - the germ, the hook, the trick that makes magic. But they have always been treated like expensive dirt, gourmet manure. Moguls and producers feel they can get themselves new writers - like new wives. Except that wives in Hollywood are protected by community property laws. A wife can claim half of the loot accrued (and it can be crude) in her administration. Whereas, a writer ...

A writer has no rights. Decent lawyers won't even see writers - it's a waste of time. A writer has to do whatever it takes to get an assignment. That can be anything from having a knockout idea in the league of Shakespeare and O Henry, to being polite to the boss's dog. Remember in Sunset Boulevard how hack writer Joe Gillis is pitching a story at Paramount - about a rookie shortstop who is pressured to throw the big game. Bases Loaded, Gillis wants to call it: it would be great for Alan Ladd. The producer muses - he is horizontal, on the couch, the posture in which he is prone to attacks of genius. Make it Betty Hutton? he wonders, a girls' softball team, throw in a few songs ...

If a writer gets a deal he can live for a while - he's back on health insurance, so he can even afford to die. Today he'll get anything from $50,000 to $3 million for a script (though for the $3 million he needs to be as bad as Joe Eszterhas). But he never has the copyright. In most other lines of the writing trade, writers are raised to do it for nothing maybe, but never to sign away the copyright. Without his copyright, the writer is rootless: money is his only reason for being there, as well as a screen credit that may make more money. Because if you have your name on one well-known failure, you have a chance at others; and well- known failures are the product here. So he goes along with the request for dumb changes, and he waits for the dread news that he's going to be let go. "We thought it would be good to get a new writer on it - a fresh approach."

In the old days, when studios had whole floors and buildings - like prisons - of small offices loaded with writers and typewriters, it was sometimes the case that at lunch a guy would sit down with a stranger, get talking, and discover they were both assigned to the same project. It was a reason for drinking your lunch alone in the office. No one had bothered to tell them - hell, that might upset their concentration. In other words, re- writing was institutional; and the writers learnt to love their institution. To make a picture, it was said - and it is still said, and the "they" that say it are right - you only need something that plays on screen. Movie-making isn't publishing. The script is always open territory, and in the era of the word-processor the changes are easier to make. Actors "improve" their lines; directors interfere; and then, later, in the editing room, you find that entire golden scenes have to go, because the picture's running too long, because they've got to keep the Acapulco sequence because that's the one where the producer's "friend" is posing in the background. The only real script is what you can put down on paper after the picture is shot, cut, post-produced, and locked. That's why published scripts are so misleading - they're just like the movie!

Pictures have never had very reliable credits as far as writers are concerned. But the great advantage of being the first writer - even if your script was lousy and abandoned - is that, by industry conventions and Writers' Guild credit arbitration, you're likely to get some kind of credit. On Ben-Hur, for instance (this was a big movie once), Karl Tunberg got the credit, and an Oscar nomination, even though his script was jettisoned and used for packing long before further work by Gore Vidal and Christopher Fry (the professional screenwriter always risks competition from celebrity poets, etc). Very often those re-writers are urged - for the sake of their future, and even a bonus - to make as little noise and trouble as possible over credits. Such loyal and effective doctors get asked back. They become famous for their discretion and their magic remedies - some of them administered overnight.

The role of the script doctor was defined in modern times by Robert Towne. He had done nothing very remarkable by 1966 except become the specially trusted friend of a very suspicious mastermind, Warren Beatty. When Beatty took the crucial step in his career - producing and acting in Bonnie and Clyde - he asked Towne to accompany the unit to its Texas locations. Bonnie and Clyde had a famously brilliant and innovative script, by Robert Benton and David Newman. They had written it with Francois Truffaut in mind. But that romance never came to fruition. Beatty bought the rights, hired Arthur Penn and enlisted his skilled but essentially obedient re-write man. In Texas, Towne was re-writing every night so the others could film the next day. When the movie came out, he had a remarkable credit: "Special Consultant." It was better than "Witch Doctor".

His reputation flourished when he "rescued" The Godfather by re-doing a scene - the final conversation between Vito and Michael that no one else could lick. Thereafter, Towne got his own writing jobs, but he was always there, secretly, for friends, giving a quick polish, re-working a star's dialogue, or putting in a new scene that changed the tone. Behind the scenes, Towne had great prestige and glamour, and a certain fragile power. But only that. When he wrote Chinatown, for Roman Polanski, Jack Nicholson and producer Robert Evans, he could not prevent Polanski's drastic changes to his ending. ("Robert, this is not your picture. This is our picture. Which sort of means it is mine.") Towne had wanted the Faye Dunaway character to escape; he wanted a gentler, happier ending. Polanski said that was a crime against Towne's own vision - and I think Polanski was right. At any event, the film worked, done the way the producer and the director wanted. Chinatown won an Oscar for Towne. It was his peak, and the start of his decline: after that he tried to be a director; he gradually lost his great friends; and now sometimes his own scripts are doctored by younger surgeons.

Still, the new generation owe their position to Towne. He cultivated not just the rare kind of work, but the cultish secrecy - the insider knowledge - that a doctor was in the house. On Disclosure, for instance, Barry Levinson couldn't get a workable version of the big seduction scene between Demi Moore and Michael Douglas. And anyone could see that this was the scene that sold the movie: they needed it for the trailer as much as for the picture. Levinson called in a friend, James Toback, who wrote a lot of dialogue, with moans and gasps, some of which got used. ("Jim says that is his moan, but my version was big into moaning a year ago.") That doesn't make it Toback's scene. After all, Levinson was in charge, and the rather preposterous set-up depends upon the actors, the cutting, the music, and the general power of our dirty minds.

Re-writing is a dog's life (that's why producers like their writers to get acquainted with their dogs), even if sometimes people get $500,000 a week for it. No amount of money, or freedom from public blame, will ever get away from the fact that film works on the screen and scripts are just one among many things that constitute the weather that can aid or provoke the moving thing. Some say there's never any real writing on movies - it's always re-writing, the state of mind that fears and avoids decision and one certain text, but thrives on the crazy liberty that believes everything could be better. Re-writing is like gambling or screwing around: it helps persuade the people in charge of movies that they're alive and in control, and that the magic never ends.

(Re-write: Well, OK, I think I like it. I really think I like it. But just for something to do while we're waiting, can we get Steve or Elaine to give it a fresh look? I mean, I would value their point of view. What do we lose if we have brilliant people like Steve and Elaine share their thoughts with us? Right, so we get their thoughts, then we kick it around a little. Meanwhile, I think I like it. That Hecht stuff, I love. Is he alive still? Does he work?)

! 'Crimson Tide' (15) opens on 3 Nov.