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John Scalzi – Showing Sympathy for SciFi Screenwriters

I was talking movies with a friend recently — I know, shocker — and he made an offhand comment which I found both deeply amusing and true: “You know, if I were spending millions on making a movie, I think I could afford to have the script make sense.” The point was brought home to me, quite literally, last weekend when my wife picked up the DVD of Push, the recent science fiction flick in which attractive people with psychic powers run around Hong Kong for reasons that make absolutely no sense at all. Really, that’s in the script: Someone actually tells the other characters they have to move about as if they don’t know what they’re going to do next. I could just see the screenwriter snickering his ass off when he wrote that; in terms of the movie making sense, he’d let himself off the hook. Nicely done, sir.

However, pushing aside Push for the moment to get back to my friend’s observation, I have to say I have some sympathy for screenwriters at moments like that, particularly ones writing scifi. Writing a script with good, rigorous science fictional concepts while still being entertaining is hard enough, but then hoping that script makes it through the sausage grinder known as Hollywood intact — that’s a little far-fetched.

Let’s say you’ve written a ginchy scifi movie script and you’ve managed to sell the script to a movie producer. Congratulations! Treat yourself to a celebration at TGI Friday’s. Because now it get wacky.

The producer takes the project, including your script, to a movie studio. They like it, but they think the script needs work. Fortunately, they have a guy they like to use to tidy up scripts. Sometimes he’s a script doctor, whose work will be uncredited, and sometimes he gets a screenplay credit. He fiddles with the script until the studio likes it.

Then a director’s attached. He loves the project, but there are a couple things about the script that don’t quite work for him. He gets his own pet screenwriter to fiddle — or fiddles himself — until the screenplay is how he likes it. Then he and the studio have an argument about the new script, because now producing the screenplay as written will cost $20 million more in effects shots. Director leaves the project, new director comes on. New director has some script notes. Script gets re-written again. And everything’s groovy…

Until the studio head gets fired. The new head comes in and starts killing off movies championed by her predecessor because, after all, if his choices were so good, why was he fired? The good news is your movie survives the ax. The bad news is, the new studio head wants to make it for a third less than the original approved budget. So: Another rewrite.

Meanwhile, your project lands an A-list star. A-list star loves the script but notices some really good lines are going to other characters, and also thinks his character needs to be more sympathetic. Maybe more of a backstory. And a love interest! And he’s got a screenwriter friend he knows can nail it. So in comes another script doctor. Finally, after the efforts of many diverse hands — not all of whom are particularly interested in the story — there’s a shooting script. And if you think that script is going to make it through filming intact, well. Surprise!

Where is the original screenwriter in all of this? He might be involved all the way through. But more likely he’s still at TGI Friday’s, wondering what the heck’s going on with the script. And when he gets to see the movie he wrote, he may find out that what’s left of his original screenplay is a few scattered lines, a story credit and a shared screenplay credit.

If you think I’m exaggerating, check out “Building the Bomb,” a classic essay by screenwriter Terry Rossio about the troubles adapting Robert Heinlein’s novel The Puppet Masters to the big screen. The result? Well, The Puppet Masters isn’t exactly at the top of anyone’s movie list.

But it brings home an ironic twist to my friend’s comment: A major reason so many scripts don’t seem to make sense is not because movie makers can’t afford to make them better, but because there’s so much money involved that everyone who comes in needs to feel they’re justifying the millions they’re spending. And often the easiest way to do that is to fiddle with a script. The miracle is that at the end of the day, any scripts make sense at all.

Winner of the Hugo Award and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, John Scalzi is the author of The Rough Guide to Sci-Fi Movies and the novels Old Man’s War and Zoe’s Tale. He’s also Creative Consultant for the upcoming Stargate: Universe television series. His column appears every Thursday.

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