Your Script’s on Life Support? Call a Doctor!
Jon Connolly knows a lot about the film industry. He should, considering he’s worked on three to four hundred films over the course of a thirty-five year career that is still rocking! His experience in advertising, screenwriting and script doctoring offers an informed perspective on a number of fascinating topics. Thanks, Jon, for sitting down with BCB to answer a few questions.
Amy M. Hawes: You’re a script doctor. Everyone I’ve spoken with who is not involved in the film industry has no idea what role a script doctor plays. How about a definition to start?
Jon Connolly: Well, the script is the foundation for the movie and the script can be anything in terms of permutations. It can be good, bad, indifferent, terrible. And, people who are making the movie are very insecure about the material. They second-guess themselves. The least expensive part of making a movie really is the script because when you produce it and you have actors and all the technical people, the director etc., it gets expensive. Once you get started, you wind up with an insecure guy [the director] with a picture that’s all made up, 100% fictional. They get nervous when they start shooting and what they do is bring in someone they think knows more than the original screenwriter, who has a loss of perspective because it’s their own work.
Also, your train is leaving the station and you don’t have a track. So the script doctor comes on and, in theory, makes you feel comfortable about what you’re doing, helps you to amplify the good parts and reduce the bad parts. Get character, story, and dialogue going. Get an arc and a resolution to the story. And, finally the script doctor makes more than the original screenwriter because the studio’s got so much invested now. When the screenwriter signed the contract they hadn’t hired anybody. There was no money spent except for the writer’s services. You’re basically a babysitter who can write.
AH: You just said something interesting–you used the words insecure and director in the same sentence. Most people would never expect that.
JC: It’s not true of all directors. (Here a friend, Mathieu Roberts, interjects, “Probably the good ones are.”) Well, sometimes that’s true and sometimes some of the ones who should be insecure aren’t. And that’s always a sign you’re going to end up with a mediocre product.
AH: Sounds like overconfidence can be a problem. Are the ones who are constantly self-guessing perfectionists?
JC: Exactly! Generally speaking, it’s a fine line you walk. I mean, you don’t want to explode the whole thing by criticizing it. You want the criticism to be constructive. But then you have time constraints because you’ve got to get this scene shot because you’re on to something else and what happens is you can write it eighty-one ways but because you’re the guy that’s called in to be the final answer and they know the studio’s not going to give them any more money, they better like what you do.
AH: Seems like you need to be able to work quickly when you’re a script doctor.
JC: Yeah, you’ve got to be able work quickly.
AH: Do you have an intimate working relationship with the director?
JC: I wouldn’t say intimate but . . .
AH: Who’s telling you what to do?
JC: The director and the producer, depending on how important the director is at this particular stage in his career. And, there are all kinds of ways to be called in. You can have somebody, say a producer, who comes to you and says, “Listen, I don’t want the director, or the star, or the studio, to know anything about this. Will you, for X amount of money, write this scene that we’re shooting tomorrow?” And, you’ve got to write it in one night but there’s no record of you ever having worked for the studio, the Writer’s Guild is not involved. You’re doing it because you know this guy, you’ve worked with him in the past and he’s a good guy who will write you a nice check.” That’s really the lowest level of coming in. The highest level is when the studio calls you and says, “We think this picture’s in trouble! We’re really fucked! And if we don’t get this thing right we’re going to be losing $400,000 tomorrow morning because that’s what this scene is going to cost us.”
AH: That’s very enlightening. When did you get called in to work on Apocalypse Now?
JC: I was working on the advertising end. I’d been working on it for two, two and a half years, and I was called in because they didn’t have an ending. It was one of those things where you’re present as an advertising person and you’re being asked to be a screenwriter. And there was one great scene in Apocalypse. Playboy bunnies are leaving in a helicopter, all these guys are in the jungle and they haven’t seen a woman in six to eight months and here were these Playboy bunnies jumping around on the stage in their high boots and all that stuff.
I’ve got the script in front of me and see in the margins Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! No one believed the scene but they had a great line at the end of the scene, and I thought my contribution to this would be to make sure this line stays in the movie. There are all these guys charging the stage and the girls are freaking out as the helicopter is coming down. The girls are hanging onto the rope ladder and climbing up to the helicopter and GIs are screaming and, you know, these are your own people. And, the voiceover of Martin Sheen came in and said, “It’s 10 p.m. America, do you know where your children are?” Which I thought was a perfect way to end that scene and I had this discussion with Coppola and he said, “Oh yeah, you’re right. You’re right.” And then he took it out at the end for reasons unbeknownst to me.
But, I was more heavily involved on the advertising end of that movie. I saw that there was no ending. And, the whole thing, the whole story of Joseph Conrad’s book was: We’re going upriver and we’re going to meet this insane man and you’re not going to believe it, he’s going to change your life. And then you got upriver and you’ve got this fat, old Marlon Brando and he’s quoting T.S. Elliot and he’s orchestrating ritual slaughter of animals. And you’re thinking this is not such a great guy–he’s not even that interesting.
AH: Going back to Kurtz [the Marlon Brando character], there is that build-up both in Heart of Darkness and in Apocalypse Now. He’s almost this god-like figure and then you meet him and he’s the total opposite. He’s creepy and immoral. Maybe I’m reading into it, but I felt that in both cases, it was a metaphor for the wars being fought. On the outside they might have seemed like a noble idea but then when you really get into the meat of it, it’s horrible and wrong.
JC: That’s true. I’ve never thought of it that way. But, what was interesting about the build-up was Dennis Hopper, the guy who plays the photographer [when we are about to meet Kurtz/Brando]. Dennis Hopper was so fantastic. He was the last guy you saw before you met Kurtz and he’s saying, “You’re not going to believe this mother-fucker. You can’t wrap your mind around him, he is so . . .” And, then too bad you have to meet him and you’re saying to yourself, this is the guy? But, hey, you know, it was still a good movie.
AH: A great movie! Let’s talk a little bit about screenplays. I wrote a terrible screenplay about ten years ago. But, before I wrote it I purchased screenplays of well-known movies to study. Now I’m beginning to wonder what they look like when they start out?
JC: You wouldn’t believe the number of rewrites these things go through. Especially the ones that are made. I’m talking about thirty-five to forty rewrites. That’s why the writing services are so high in some of these movies. You start with one thing and this thing can morph into anything. A serious British drama can morph into a cartoon. That’s how extreme it goes. It doesn’t happen often but they really, really do go far from their original conception.
AH: What are the studios looking for when they’re choosing a script? Is it just a core idea? Does the quality of the writing even matter?
JC: No, they’re looking for a story with characters and with a beginning, middle and end that they think they can make into a movie that will say something. They always want to say something even if they’re making the stupidest cartoon in the world. Then they get enough energy in the studios that they can convince some executive that they should write a check for $500,000 for a first draft from a famous writer. That’s how it starts.
AH: It’s the bones. They’re looking for good bones?
JC: Yeah, good bones.
AH: And then the tendons, muscles, etc. that all gets added on later?
JC: Yeah. They’ll work that out over time. Some of these pictures are in development, and I’m not exaggerating, twelve or fourteen years. And the world can change around them, especially if they’re topical. That’s the reason why if you make a movie about the killing of Bin Laden you better do it in two or three years because it’s old news if it goes the way some of these things go and you take fourteen years. Nowadays some people don’t even know who Bin Laden is. So movies can have an express rate, especially if there’s an important director or producer attached to them. Then the studios will bend. And, suddenly you’ve got a start date.
But some of them get turned around in studios. The studio can’t get Brad Pitt and they won’t make it with George Clooney. The stories in this business are unbelievable. For example, Frank Oz who did the Muppet movies, he had a classic mob story where some 245-pound mob guy from Sicily is living in a small town in New Jersey and he’s doing all these horrible things in front of people. Frank said to me, “The problem is I can’t sell it to the studios. Here I have this 245-pound man from Sicily with a Sicilian accent but these are the people who they’re willing to make the movie with: Robert Redford, Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman. These movies don’t get made because they have such a narrow range of stars. Then the director goes, “Robert Redford playing a 245-pound Sicilian mob guy? I don’t think so.” But that’s what you run into: If you can’t get this guy, we’re not going to make the movie.
AH: That’s the business side. A side the regular person doesn’t know anything about.
JC: Oh yeah, there’s so much that goes into it.
AH: Making a film is the most collaborative project you could have. You have writers, directors, etc. Then, of course, you have the physical constraints of what can actually be done and where it can be done.
JC: Well now with CGI it’s simplified the process because you can fake stuff that would have cost millions before. That brings me to something else, you were asking about adapting books to film. [The question of how you adapt books to film was the original intent of this interview but after Jon and I chatted casually for a little while, we realized he had more expertise in other areas, which I believed would be quite interesting to readers.]
That’s a very interesting process. I’ve never had a movie made from a script I adapted from a book. But I did write two scripts for the studios. In one case, I was reading the NY Times Book Review and found a great story called Into the Heart. It was a book about an anthropologist from Penn State who went down to do his doctoral thesis in the Amazon and wound up living with a Yanomama tribe for twelve years. While there he was given a child, a three- or four-year-old girl as a bride. The tribe wanted the trade goods and money that would flow with him being there, so they wanted him to stay. In their mind it’s going to keep him there–they’re giving him a wife. But, he’s a normal person and he sort of just raised the kid. He loved her as a daughter. Then he went and he left the Amazon and went to the Max Planck Institute to finish up his doctoral degree. He came back to the Amazon five or six years later, back to this tribe, and they’re completely isolated in the Amazon. The girl who came to help dock the boat was this gorgeous Yanomama Indian. [It was] his daughter Yarima all grown up.
The book was about how he was down there fighting club fights to the death to help his tribe against another tribe, writing about why people fight. Is it ingrained in them? Or is it from a necessity for protein, derived from a need to survive? Maybe it’s not built into us genetically but simply a means to an end. Ken thought it was the latter. He went up against his advisor, Napoleon Chagnon, who wrote a book called The Fierce People, who had a different take on it. He believed that people were intrinsically violent. Chagnon’s thesis was that the violence in the Yanomama culture was hard-wired. Ken disagreed, so Chagnon left him stranded down there [in the Amazon]. Not the nicest guy.
Ken ends up marrying Yarima and having three kids. They were happy but the death rate from babies in the Amazon is something ludicrous like eighty percent. They decide to move to New Jersey because he’s going to take a job as a professor at Rutgers.
They bring the three kids up to New Jersey, but she can’t live in New Jersey. She can’t sleep with a roof over her head. If she can’t see stars at night, she can’t go to sleep. She ended up sleeping on the median divide of the Jersey Turnpike for about a month. They realized she might not be able to make the transition, and they were both in love but they didn’t know what to do.
During that time, I called Frank Price, who was the president of Columbia, and asked Frank to buy the book for me, which he did. I was working on it and Ken brought his family to meet me. I lived across the street from Central Park on 63rd and 5th and we went over to the zoo. It had just rained, and there was a slug on the sidewalk, this disgusting after-rain slug. Yarima picks it up and she eats it. It made me . . .anyway. Then we’re outside the monkey house and little David [one of their children] whispers to me, “My mommy eats monkeys.”
We went back to my apartment, and when they went out to find their car, Ken had forgotten where he parked it. But Yarima had such a great sense of direction that she was able to find the parking lot.
Finally, she went back to the jungle. And the last line of the script was: I know I will never see Kenny or our children again but I will love them even when I am an old woman.
The movie didn’t get made because there was a regime change at Columbia.
AH: Ah, a political reason.
TC: Very much so. It had a $100,000,000 movie budget and it was set in the jungle. You were taking a chance, and it never quite got made. If it had stayed with Frank Price it would have got made because he liked it a lot. Things change, Peter Guber and John Peters came in. So that was that.
AH: Even when you have a script that’s been purchased, what percentage of them get made into movies?
TC: Good question. For some people, zero. But, I’d say once the studio has invested and made a full script, maybe one in twenty, one in twenty-five. That’s after they’ve put a lot of money into writing it. That’s me giving a ballpark figure, just through my own experience. I haven’t read that anywhere.
AH: Do you learn to write with questions in mind like: Is this going to be able to be cast? Is this going to meet all the criteria the studios are looking for?
TC: Yes, you definitely have to ask yourself questions like, “Who would play this?” So, you’ve got a great scene where a guy is haranguing a football team– Al Pacino! Or we have this scene where a woman falls in love with this guy in Africa and he’s a poet–Robert Redford! Nowadays it would be George Clooney. You write to an archetype. You know how they sound. You know the cadence of their words. So you write it that way. It might end up being a cliché, but then again, it might work.
AH: [I ask a question about Apocalypse Now, that Jon doesn’t have a specific answer to, but it sparks a conversation about Coppola.]
TC: He [Coppola] had this place that was like a medieval castle. He was like a prince, like Galileo. People came up to his studio to ask him questions like he was a medieval king. He would make pronouncements like his word was law. At this point he was at the top of his career. It was amazing to see the fealty paid to him by other film people, even pedestrians. I remember him saying–he was starting to sound like a dictator–he was standing in front of his place on Geary Street and he was saying, “The last man who almost ruled the world was a filmmaker.” We’re thinking, “Oh my god, is he talking about Hitler?” And he was.
AH: Hitler used to watch two films a day. I just interviewed a woman who wrote a historical fiction novel set in that time period, The Pursuit of Pearls. I think this book would make a fabulous film. I’m curious, when you read is there a part of your mind always wondering if it would make a good script?
JC: Absolutely. You always are asking yourself: How would you do this? I have a friend who’s a director. He produced Dead Poets Society, he directed Revenge of the Nerds, and half a dozen other movies. But every time he reads something he calls and asks, “What’s this going for? Is it available?” He hasn’t made a film in ten years but every time he comes across something he looks into securing it.
AH: When a book is bought, I know there is a certain amount of time you have to make it into a movie. Can you tell me a little bit about that process?
JC: You buy an option. You don’t usually buy it outright. You buy three years of development rights. If it’s not made into a movie and you’re not willing to pay a penalty after the three years, it reverts to the original author. It’s called putting it in turnaround, which means the studio has decided not to make it so they [the author’s team] turn it around and try to sell it to another studio. That happens a lot.
I’m working on a movie now; it’s called Walking on the Moon. It’s the first script I wrote. I wrote it in 1985. It’s the story about a cab driver who has the President’s black box left in his cab by accident. It’s his story of how he can launch a nuclear strike anywhere in the world. He had the codes and he knew how to do it. The story is about his odyssey with the box. I was about to get it directed by the biggest director in Hollywood, a guy by the name of Paul Brickman who did Risky Business. My agent was saying, “Don’t tell anyone. Don’t breathe a word of it.” He was a guy with the name Mike Ovitz, he ran a company called CAA, which is still around now and one of the most powerful agencies in the business.
[At Jon’s request, I edited out some details regarding what happened next. Let’s just say he ended up telling someone about the deal and that changed everything.]
Then everything exploded. I sold it to Fox but they didn’t make it. It reverted to me, and that’s what I’m working on right now. So that’s twenty, twenty-five years.
Let’s get back to adapting books. I feel like the essential ingredient is to capture the tone of the book. You can’t keep all the facts, but keeping the tone is critical.
JC: Absolutely. If you don’t capture the tone, you’re going to end up with a bad movie. That’s the thing. I’ve seen it happen a lot. They have this footage and then you suddenly realize they don’t have a clue. There’s no story here. Here they’ve shot each scene, but the continuity is off and what do you do? Here you are at the end of the movie and you’re trying to get magic. Everyone’s thinking, “We’ve got to get the best editor in the history of the world!” Which isn’t going to happen. And then suddenly the producer realizes this just isn’t going to work and they go to the studio and say, “You know what, I think we should release this at a very special time, with no competition.”
The advertising aspect is really interesting because you have to position a movie correctly to the audience. If you sell something that is comedy, but it doesn’t deliver as comedy but it’s a great drama, it really won’t work because people go in with a mindset that they’re going to see a comedy. And sometimes you’re working so hard to sell a thing that really doesn’t work.
AH: Sounds like my husband’s business. He works on one side of the drug development business. When a client has a drug that they want to work and it doesn’t, they don’t stop until the FDA says explicitly you cannot sell this drug. Only then do they finally accept the truth.
TC: Yeah, it’s a lot like that.
Jon and I paused our conversation here when other interview participants arrived. These included a journalist, a filmmaker, two Directors of Photography, and a sculptor. The conversation flowed on, meandering through a varied and intriguing landscape, which crossed terrain from visual and literary mediums. Which means there’s more to come!