Screenwriter John Gregory Dunne (Nick Dunne's brother) and his wife, novelist and essayist Joan Didion, write screenplays as a team for a living, and a very good one. And now John Gregory has given Random House a non-fiction account of just what it's like writing for the movies. The book is called "Monster: Living Off the Big Screen."
And from a review I've just read by Charles Kaiser in The New York Observer, not a hell of a lot has changed since Scott Fitzgerald went to Hollywood in the Depression to do scripts and, the story has it, encountered the mogul who, having walked through his studio's writers' building, returned to his own office to complain, aloud, that some of the writers weren't actually writing when he passed.
Dunne and Didion spent eight years and did 26 drafts for a flick about the late Jessica Savitch called "Up Close & Personal," and it is this assignment and its frustrations around which his book is built. Since I knew Jessie Savitch slightly and knew well the man who died with her when their car slipped inexplicably into a canal, where they drowned in 5 feet of water, I was interested in the film and in Dunne's take on it.
When it looked as if the cast would be headed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert Redford, Mr. Kaiser quotes this great exchange: "After the umpteenth rewrite, Mr. Dunne asked one of the movie's temporary producers, Scott Rudin, 'What do you think this picture is really about?' 'It's about two movie stars,' Mr. Rudin replied."
Disney, through its Touchstone subsidiary, was the producer, thus creating "touchy" problems for the writers. Ms. Savitch in real life was reported to be a bisexual, do drugs, occasionally try suicide, sleep with her agent and with network biggies, have abortions and wed a gay gynecologist who hanged himself in their basement. But the studio inquired of the writing team if they had fully plumbed the character's "doubts and insecurities, compassion and love" or properly defined "the overall arc of her relationship" with a boyfriend?
Listen to this wondrous passage about Hollywood's C.E.s, or "creative executives": "These are young men and women in their 20s and early 30s who function as readers, gate-keepers and note-takers, a callow Swiss Guard working cruel hours six and seven days a week for an annual salary of $40,000 to $45,000, and the remote possibility of one day sitting at high table with the decision makers. Many are second generation Hollywood, often innocent of history, politics, art and Western civilization. His most important skill, a C.E. told Daily Variety, 'is assessing the taste of my V.P. so I can say what he wants to hear.' "
If you think this may be the core reason Hollywood produces so much crap, consider as well these Dunne lines quoted by Kaiser, which suggest the degree of contempt in which filmmakers hold filmgoers: "Everything is geared to polling and then taking the polling results and targeting a broader audience base. Since [director Jon] Avnet and Disney always knew that the natural constituency for the picture was female and up-market, the selection of the song to play over both the montage and the end credits was calculated to reach beyond this constituency and into a younger, more diverse audience pool."
Blah, blah, blah. "We don't have a script, Mel, but the montage music's terrific."
The title, "Monster," derives from Dunne's account of a script debate between a writer and a Disney division president over changes in a film under production. The president listens and finally warns the writer they may have to let "the monster out of its cage." Does the writer know what that is? No.
"It's our money," says the boss, emphasizing "our."
If you have no patience with Dunne for taking the king's shilling and putting up with this crap, get hold instead of a library copy of Budd Schulberg's novel, "The Disenchanted," all about being teamed up as a kid writer with Fitzgerald to do a script based on the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. Nothing's changed. The writers are still (well-paid) serfs, the bosses, many of them, are arrogant and bullying, the mailroom "Sammy Glicks" (another Budd Schulberg creation) are still running, and too many lousy movies are being made.