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In terms of money spent, time invested, pages turned out, there’s more script “doctoring” than script creating in the American movie business.


The Doctor Is In: Why Hollywood Spends So Much Time and Money “Fixing” Screenplays

In terms of money spent, time invested, pages turned out, there’s more script “doctoring” than script creating in the American movie business.

Writing is creating something out of nothing.

Rewriting is creating something out of what is there…

Robert Towne

Tomorrow, your wannabe screenwriter’s prayers are answered; you get a break, you get hired to work on a movie. And you’re lucky — that first gig opens doors for you. People in the business come to know your name, know what you can do, they ask for you so you don’t have to scuffle around for work, and there isn’t much downtime between gigs. You go for 10-20 years working regularly (well, semi-regularly — let’s not stretch a fantasy into the fantastic). You become what you’d always dreamed of becoming: a working screenwriter.

But here’s the rub. You go that whole time, from the head-exploding giddiness of that “We want you” phone call until that day 10-20 years hence when you wind up teaching screenwriting at some small two-year college out in the hinterlands, without once working on an original piece of your own. Your future students Google you up on IMDB, and they run down a respectable list of film credits under your name, but one after another is followed by, “uncredited…uncredited…uncredited…”
How is that possible? Is that even possible? You’re damned right it’s possible.

Because, my friends, the bulk of screenwriting is just that: rewriting. And not rewriting your own stuff. In terms of money spent, time invested, and pages turned out, there’s more script “doctoring” than script creating in the American movie business.

In a previous piece I’d written about screenwriting, five-time Emmy-winning writer/producer/director Bill Persky described his decades-long career thusly: “…most of what I have written was filling in the next episode of people someone else had created, and except for originals, that is what most film writers are doing.” One of Hollywood’s ace rewriters, Robert Towne, once told an interviewer asking him about his script doctoring, “All scripts are rewritten…” In a New York Times Magazine profile of another rewrite ace, David Rayfiel (whose credited/uncredited screenplay work runs 60/40 percentage-wise), Alex Ward wrote: “In a medium where, according to one agent, ‘approximately three movies are made for every 1000 screenplays that are written’…virtually every screenplay that is produced undergoes revision of some kind…” In that same article, Ward continued, “Almost every movie writer, (Rayfiel) points out, has at one time or another had his work revised, by himself or others. The torturous process of revising scripts — to suit directors, or actors, or production schedules, or all three — is an accepted fact of life in the business.”

This is nothing peculiar to the Hollywood of today. Thus it is, thus has it always been. Back during the heyday of the studio system — say from the 1930s into the early 1950s — it was not uncommon for a producer and/or director and/or studio production exec to run a piece of material through any number of its salaried writers in the hopes of attaining that ever-elusive cinematic grail of “getting it right.” Take the 1942 classic, Casablanca: the screenplay passed through the hands of five credited and one uncredited writer — and was still being worked on during the shoot. In fact, there were times when a studio would have more than one writer working on the same project simultaneously, each not knowing about the other!

The only difference between then and now is that in our media-glutted environment, a movie’s screenplay going through a process not dissimilar to a long relay race makes for a juicy bit of entertainment news. We hear more about it these days because we can.

That said, however, there are times it goes to levels that seem ridiculous. My favorite tale on this account has to do with the 1994 live-action version of The Flintstones. According to several sources, from the time film rights to the 1960s animated TV series were acquired in 1985 until the film’s release, over three dozen writers worked on the project. End result: a moneymaker, but one with an abominable 22% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

So what is it that goes on in that process? What’s that vast tonnage of rehashing and re-rehashing and re-re-rehashing material all about?

The answers range from the strictly practical to typical Hollywood insanity. And despite how it looks when the score of rewrite talents a production runs up a la The Flintstones, it’s never a decision to be made capriciously. “If you’re replacing somebody,” says veteran TV movie producer Gerald Abrams (over 70 TV movies and miniseries including Family of Spies [1990] and Nuremberg [2000]), “it’s expensive, especially on television budgets.”

Sometimes, fate allows no choice. On what was then titled The Empire Strikes Back (1980, later re-branded, Star Wars Part V The Empire Strikes Back), George Lucas had to bring in Lawrence Kasdan to finish developing the screenplay when the original scribe, veteran screenwriter Leigh Brackett, was lost to cancer. Abrams tells a less-lethal but no less a sometimes-life-gets-in-the-way story of having to replace one of the writers on a medical drama pilot, Cutter to Houston, when the writer had to be hospitalized with chest pains.

I went through a similar experience myself. Back in the early 2000s, producer Sonny Grosso asked me to take over for a writer on a true-crime TV movie who, after having delivered the story outline, landed in the hospital for surgery. I banged out two drafts for Grosso which kept the project alive, but then was shown the door when the original screenwriter recovered enough to come back on the project. So goes the Hollywood talent merry-go-round.

There are times when the issue may be purely logistical. On one of my favorite movies, John Sturges’ 1960 Western classic The Magnificent Seven, Walter Newman, who had written the screenplay, decided not to accompany the production to Mexico for personal reasons, so Sturges brought in William Roberts to do on-scene rewrites (Newman was so miffed when the Writer’s Guild decided Roberts’ contribution was enough to warrant a shared writing credit that Newman pulled his name off the film completely).

While such cases illustrate that replacing a writer may be a case of have-to, most of the time it’s about want-to.

Think of any film project as a Jenga tower; you remove a few key pieces, the tower collapses, and you have to start all over again. In the movies, that process looks something like this:

A producer hires a writer to develop an idea the producer has for a movie. They go through a couple of drafts, get the material to a point where the producer thinks he/she has something that can hook a director…and he/she does. But the director has his/her own vision of the material, doesn’t feel in sync with the writer, and so brings in another writer he/she feels will be more in tune with that vision. The producer takes a long time to try to find a home for the project — too long, in the director’s eyes — so the director leaves to take a more promising gig elsewhere. The producer then brings on another director who has another creative vision requiring another writer. The producer can’t find a home for the project, sells the property to another producer/production company/studio with their own ideas of how the project should play, which means yet another writer, and then…well, you get the picture.  Typically, the longer a project is in development, the more likely it will go through one set of creative hands after another; every time one of the check-signing, decision-making players changes, one writer will be going out the door as another one is coming in.

My second professional gig was adapting Douglas Terman’s post-apocalyptic bestseller Free Flight for a couple of newbie producers. They shopped the property around for several months before selling an option to producer Elliott Kastner. Kastner wanted his own writer on the project, so I was dropped. When Kastner’s option expired six months later without him being able to set the project up anywhere, the rights reverted to the newbies, who brought me back onto the piece. Another few months passed and they sold the property to RKO, which was going through one of its sporadic attempts to revive its production arm. RKO liked the work I was doing and kept me on through three drafts, but on the eve of greenlighting the project, the management which had brought Free Flight into the studio was ousted and the piece was shelved. Sometime later, I contacted RKO about the possibility of resurrecting the project only to find that they’d already tried that with another writer and director. When both were offered more attractive gigs, they bailed and Free Flight went back on the shelf. Round and round on the merry-go-round.

Oh, the Horror!

I went through this same whirl-a-gig on an adaptation of Steven Szilagyi’s novel Photographing Fairies, a 1920s-set fantasy inspired by the case of the “Cottingly Fairies” (full disclosure:  Steve was and remains a good friend, and was a co-author on my first novel, The Advocate). When the book was published in 1992, it did quite well both commercially and critically, enough so that Steve’s agent thought it worthwhile to try peddling film rights. When they couldn’t get any takers, the agent thought it might make the material more attractive if there were already a screenplay adaptation, so Steve hired me to hammer one out. The agent finally got someone interested in a film adaptation — a husband and wife team who had done special effects on one of the Muppet movies. But — and you probably see this coming — they wanted to do their own script, so I was bounced. The property changed hands again, the Muppet FXers were out, and the screenplay on the finished 1998 film is credited to Chris Harrald and Nick Willing, who also directed. Round and round.

In the late 1990s, Cliff Hollingsworth was an aspiring screenwriter bouncing between his native South Carolina and L.A., where he kept himself fed as a security guard while trying to sell his screenplays. In 1995-96, he latched on to the Depression-era story of the comeback of light heavyweight boxer James J. Braddock. Hollingsworth tracked down Braddock’s two sons, spent hours getting stories from them about their father, and molded them into a screenplay titled Cinderella Man. Hollingsworth finally landed the script in front of Penny Marshall who, after one rewrite, replaced Hollingsworth. The project stalled, eventually came to the attention of Russell Crowe, who pitched it to Ron Howard, with whom he’d scored a major hit and a Best Actor Oscar nod with A Beautiful Mind (2001). Howard, in turn, called in Beautiful Mind screenwriter Akiva Goldsman for a rewrite (after a WGA arbitration, Hollingsworth and Goldsman shared screenplay credit on the 2005 release). Round and round and round. 

Often, the change of hands isn’t so much about changing visions at the top as much as a writer’s inability — despite his/her best efforts — to get material where a director and/or producer want it to be.  Writers do hit walls.  

On his Emmy-nominated 2000 miniseries Nuremberg, Gerald Abrams was working with veteran TV writer David W. Rintels, but found what he says was a widely-shared experience by those who’d worked with Rintels. He could deliver a strong first draft, but no matter what notes he was given for revision, subsequent drafts didn’t look much different from his first draft, and so another writer had to be brought in.

I was writing a small thriller called Road Ends (1997), and after a half-dozen drafts had to tell director Rick King, who was producing the film along with star Chris Sarandon, that I’d burned out on the material and couldn’t take it any further. King and Sarandon had to do further polishing on their own, and then King had to do on-scene rewriting to accommodate the film’s tight budget and locations (the screenplay had been set in the Florida keys, but budgetary reasons forced shooting in the hills outside of L.A.).

A piece may not need a page one overhaul, but be missing…something. This from a Mark Harris 2017 piece in New York about screenwriting:

“I often hear execs admiringly describe writers as ‘specialists’:  This one can give you a page-one dialogue polish in a week, that one can ‘bring the heart’; this one is a carpenter who can hammer the framework of a plot into place, that one can ‘add depth’…” “If you want to use the ‘script doctor’ analogy,” Robert Towne once told an interviewer, some projects don’t require “…a major operation — just spot surgery in a highly specific area.” 

These are the true “script doctors” who are something like baseball’s relief pitchers — brought in late in the game to save a project. The label may not have always been there, but the function was, as screenplays routinely wound their way through the writers’ stables of Old Hollywood.

I first heard the term in the 1970s in connection with Robert Towne, who by then had been branded a rewrite ace. Towne had begun his career in the early 1960s working on low-budget horror flicks for B-movie king Roger Corman, but it was his rewrite work on Bonnie and Clyde (1967) which not only established him as a go-to script doctor (credited and uncredited work include Drive, He Said [1971], Cisco Pike [1972], The Godfather [1972], The Yakuza (1974], The Missouri Breaks [1976], among others), but led to a long-running collaborative relationship with Bonnie and Clyde star/producer Warren Beatty, which extended through The Parallax View (1974), Shampoo (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Love Affair (1994).

Part of Towne’s reputation was based not only on his ability to artfully fix script problems, but to do so under high-pressure circumstances. In one interview, Towne recalled Francis Ford Coppola tasking him with coming up with a scene for Marlon Brando and Al Pacino on The Godfather, knowing the project was going to lose Brando within 24 hours. The resulting scene is a lovely autumnal duet late in the film, Michael Corleone sitting with his father, Vito, in their yard, the ruminative father saying how he’d never wanted the gangster life for his son. “There wasn’t enough time, Michael,” Vito Corleone muses, “wasn’t enough time.” “We’ll get there, Pop,” Michael replies, “We’ll get there.” It may be one of the most affecting scenes in Coppola’s mob epic, and belongs to neither of the film’s credited screenwriters — Coppola and Mario Puzo — but to relief pitcher Towne.

Like Towne and Beatty, there are filmmakers who regularly like to run material through the hands of a writer not just to fix problems, but because they feel that writer is exceptionally plugged into their particular sensibility. Says Akiva Goldsman, as respected for his rewrite work (Charlie’s Angels [2000], The Sum of All Fears [2002], Hancock [2008], among others) as for his originals: “The more you work with someone, the better you work together.”

One of my script doctoring heroes, and someone who exemplifies Goldsman’s philosophy, is David Rayfiel, who was regularly director Sydney Pollack’s go-to script guy. In his 1986 New York Times Magazine profile of Rayfiel, Alex Ward wrote:

“…(Rayfiel) is generally unknown outside the movie-making business. But among some insiders, says (director Sidney) Lumet, ‘The word is, if you’ve got trouble with your picture, get David’.” 

Award-winning novelist and free-lance editor Ellen Akins had worked for Pollack in her early post-graduate days. Her take on the Rayfield/Pollack collaboration:

“They both started out in theater, in New York City, and they shared a love of jazz (Rayfiel often said that he wrote dialogue ‘like jazz’). But most of all, I think, Sydney was a romantic, and David Rayfiel had a sort of wit and magnetism that emerged in the elliptical or suggestive sort of writing that Sydney admired. Rayfiel used to say that art is courtship, and his writing conjured that in a way that worked on Sydney as much as if not more than on an audience.

“I should say there was an industry insider who once said to me that some said (always ‘some’) that Sydney’s dependence on Rayfiel was actually a weakness. But if that’s what got him through so many movies, then I’d say Rayfiel was critical to Sydney’s success.”

Though Rayfiel worked for a number of directors, the largest share of his efforts were in service of Sydney Pollack, whom he’d met when they’d both been working in television in the early 1960s. Of the 17 feature films listed by IMDB for Rayfiel, 10 were for Pollack, including Jeremiah Johnson (1972, uncredited), The Way We Were (1973, uncredited), Three Days of the Condor (1975, credited), Absence of Malice (1981, uncredited), and The Firm (1993, credited). “(We) are complementary,” Rayfiel said of their collaboration. “There’s something he doesn’t have that I have, and there’s certainly some things he has that I don’t have.”

For Pollack, Rayfiel’s strength was what he could do with character. “If (most writers) want you to know something about a character, they’ll simply have the character say it or have another character say it about him,” Pollack told Ward. “David doesn’t do that. He writes elliptically, so that it comes out organically, the way you would know something about someone in real life.” “…the dialogue I write gives characters character,” Rayfield explained in the same article, “I am a good eavesdropper.”

Perhaps the paradigm that galls screenwriters the most is when the parade of rewriting rewriters has less to do with improving the material than it is about Hollywood’s insane form of producer paranoia.

David Breckman, a 20-year TV veteran whose writing/directing/producing credits include the hit cable series Monk, outlines the dynamic this way:

“At the risk of oversimplifying, one reason I’ve heard (rewriting) is common at the studio level is that it serves as a kind of cheap psychic insurance for executives. When you’re talking about Disney, Warner Bros., Universal, etc., the script phase is still the least expensive part of a production, and when frightened suits are about to press forward with a $200 million tent pole — Transformers 12, let’s say — they can tell themselves they’ve done all they can to ensure its success if they’ve thrown five or six (and often more) top-tier writers at the screenplay.

“It’s a nutty way of telling stories, and multiple writes often homogenize a script and drain it of its ‘voice’ — but it was ever thus.”

Which explains how and why top caliber talents like Joss Whedon (The Avengers, 2012), and Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, 1993) get hired to punch up a bit of FX-heavy nonsense like Twister (1996).


Whether due to changing creative visions or risk-averse producer paranoia or someone simply doesn’t want to leave home, the endless interchangeability of screenwriters in the development process displays the movie industry’s general attitude that writers are as valued and disposable as Kleenex tissue. It makes the concept of the screenwriter as some kind of author — a fantasy I think many young aspiring screenwriters hold — laughable.

At the same time, as for the script doctor, well, there can be pride in being the person who comes in for the save. Robert Towne told interviewer John Brady in Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter:

“…it’s better to have a reputation for fixing things up than for messing them up…In rewriting someone…you can come to feel it’s your very own…Or you can feel that you are in the service of somebody else’s material that you love very much, and you want to work. We all have rescue fantasies. Somebody may have a terrific idea, but they’ve screwed it up, and you’ll fix it.”

For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.




Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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