Double act, triple whammy

Monster: living off the big screen by John Gregory Dunne (Pan, £5.99, 203pp)
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The Independent Culture

A true story: a year or so ago, a pair of reasonably well-heeled producers in Hollywood contacted my agent regarding the rights to my novel, The Big Picture. There was a problem, however. The producers wanted to sell the book to an independent company with established studio backing. The guy who ran this company was a former studio boss - a serious player with serious connections. Let's call him Jack (as I might have to do business with him again).

"We love the book," the producers told me in a transatlantic phone call. "We think it will make a great movie. So does Jack. But he hates the ending. He wants the guy to get punished for what he did."

"But he does get punished," I said.

"Oh, we know that," the producers said. "But Jack still thinks it's the wrong ending."

"Surely, if he re-read the book..."

"He's never read the book."

Long silence. "You can't be serious".

"Jack doesn't read books," one of them said.

"I don't understand."

"He reads the coverage [a reader's assessment of 'the material']. But he never reads books."

"Let me get this straight: he's never read my novel, but he doesn't like the ending."

"That's it". The producer sounded as this was perfectly acceptable behaviour.

For some strange reason, I was reluctant to entrust my novel to these people. But, as I have come to learn, when you enter the realm of Hollywood as a writer, you enter a hall of mirrors against which you are always slamming your nose.

Consider the tales told by John Gregory Dunne in his wonderful, mordant book, Monster: living off the big screen. Dunne is one of America's best narrative journalists. He's also a novelist of considerable prowess. And he has also had a lucrative career as a pen for hire in Hollywood.

He's married to his screenwriting collaborator, Joan Didion - without question, one of America's major writers. Though they are both deeply cerebral, canny people, they certainly don't mind pitching for the rewrite of a potential Sylvester Stallone "hurricane bank-robbery thriller."

Describing their first meeting with the producers of this potential piece of schlock, Dunne notes: "What they wanted in the next draft was a combination of Die Hard and Key Largo, with our job to supply the love beats and the tortured Key Largo morality."

The next day they had a meeting with the proposed director, Renny Harlin (the Finnish action specialist who directed Die Hard 2). When Dunne and Didion asked him how he envisaged their rewrite of Gale Force, Harlin was rather succinct: "First act, better whammies. Second act, whammies mount up. Third act, all whammies."

A whammie is a big action set-piece. And yes, there are writers in Hollywood hired specifically to beef up the whammies in this season's Die Hard clone. Just as there are writers who are employed to "supply the love beats" (ie enhance the romantic stuff).

As Dunne makes perfectly clear, anyone who thinks about writing for Hollywood must accept that the writer is never considered anything more than a hired hand; a gastarbeiter who can be tossed away like a soiled Kleenex when he's served his purpose.

Given that, the money can be astonishing, and you do meet some rather interesting people along the way. Like the late Don Simpson - the famous producer of mega-whammie junk like Top Gun, who hired Dunne and Didion to write some action nonsense and bragged about never wearing the same pair of Levis 501s twice.

Monster is, on one level, a chronicle of the eight years that Dunne and Didion spent working on the script for Up Close and Personal. Thankfully, they didn't just dedicate eight years to this piece of romantic piffle (like true pros, they each wrote a novel and six nonfiction books during this period, and also worked on a bunch of other scripts). But Up Close was a recurrent professional leitmotif - a true-life tale of an ambitious, drug-addicted news reader named Jessica Savitch (who died in a car accident at the height of her 15 minutes of fame) which was gradually transformed into a nice old-fashioned love story featuring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford.

Listen to Dunne describe an early meeting about the script with the Disney people: "Did she have to die in the end? He [Jeffrey Katzenberg, the then-studio boss] wanted to know... The transformation had begun, and the caveats to add up... Her abortions could pose a problem, as could her two marriages, especially the second to a gay gynaecologist who, less than a year after they were married, hanged himself from a crossbeam in the basement of her Philadelphia home... "

Dunne is a splendidly dry stylist, with an ace journalist's brilliant ear for the quirky nuances of reported speech. But what makes Monster such a riveting and original document is Dunne's refusal to playact the deranged writer, living the Hollywood version of la vida loca. On the contrary, the book - crammed with fantastic anecdotes and namedropping yarns about assorted Tinseltown players - wears its tone of irony lightly.

Dunne knows the system. He understands its limitations, its skewed pleasures, its potential to give you a nervous breakdown. Yet he works within this system. So his attitude is: this is how the game is played; take it or leave it.

In short, what gives Monster such trenchant bite is the very fact that Dunne never editorialises. By maintaining a coolly knowing, controlled tone, the events he describes (and the process by which a script is mutated beyond original recognition) come across as truly jaw-dropping.

It's a reminder - as if one is necessary - of that famous Gore Vidal adage about writing for the movies: shit has its own integrity.

Douglas Kennedy's novel ,'The Job', is published by Abacus