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Monster: Living off the Big Screen

Monster: Living off the Big Screen

by John Gregory Dunne

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In Hollywood, screenwriters are a curse to be borne, and beating up on them is an industry blood sport. But in this ferociously funny and accurate account of life on the Hollywood food chain, it's a screenwriter who gets the last murderous laugh. That may be because the writer is John Gregory Dunne, who has written screenplays, along with novels and non-fiction,


In Hollywood, screenwriters are a curse to be borne, and beating up on them is an industry blood sport. But in this ferociously funny and accurate account of life on the Hollywood food chain, it's a screenwriter who gets the last murderous laugh. That may be because the writer is John Gregory Dunne, who has written screenplays, along with novels and non-fiction, for thirty years. In 1988 Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, were asked to write a screenplay about the dark and complicated life of the late TV anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Eight years and twenty-seven drafts later, this script was made into the fairy tale "Up Close and Personal" starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. Detailing the meetings, rewrites, fights, firings, and distractions attendant to the making of a single picture, Monster illuminates the process with sagacity and raucous wit.

Editorial Reviews

Larry Gelbart
...offers a crash couse in getting a script through the hazards of the present-day studio system. -- New York Times Book Review
David Futrelle

Monster is intended to answer a particularly baffling set of questions: how and why two of our country's most perceptive writers and cultural critics — John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion — managed to lose eight years of their life to a movie, Up Close and Personal, that was by the time it saw the screen so over-the-top schmaltzy even Rex Reed found it hard to take.

The two embarked upon the script for Disney in 1988, in large part, Dunne notes, as a way of keeping themselves covered by the Writer's Guild health plan. (They hadn't worked on a script for some time.) In its original incarnation, the film was to be an adaptation of the life of troubled TV journalist Jessica Savitch. Many drafts later it became a "contemporary love story" about a journalist bearing only slight resemblance to Savitch. This is because Disney wanted a nice film, and "it was clear that an uplifting story that would make an audience feel good about itself was not going to encompass any allusion either to Savitch's suicide attempts or to the lesbian episodes in her life," among other disturbing facts of a personal history that was anything but feel-good.

The tale Dunne tells — how over 27 drafts of the script, Savitch's calamitous life became a kind of "Pretty TV Reporter" — is a combination of melodrama and black comedy. Much of the comedy, alas, is inadvertent. Dunne describes several other abortive film projects the two embarked upon in these years — from a Die-Hard-inspired action flick (pitting "rogue" Arab terrorists with a nuclear device against a heroic presidential aide) to an "oil field thriller called 'North Slope,'" based on "an annual report from a now defunct oil drilling concern in which we owned a few shares."

Surely, you might think, the two realized the absurdity of these endeavors. After all, in the years they were writing and rewriting this monster of a script, the two managed to produce a number of novels and essays that showed they were still capable of much more than melodrama. Dunne does recognize the absurdity of their life — up to a point. Monster makes clear how easily even the most talented writers can become caught up in the Hollywood machine, so enmeshed in the process of writing and rewriting, negotiating and renegotiating that they lose sight of how ludicrous it has all become. Instead of wondering if the world really needed another syrupy, star-driven love story, the two become obsessed with fixing the "obdurate" scene 158.

Monster is a book you may not wish to read, but you would do well to send copies of it to any aspiring screenwriters you might know: It may be able to scare one or two of them straight, thus saving them (and perhaps the rest of the movie-going public) from a considerable amount of pain. -- Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Novelist (Playland) and journalist Dunne makes much of his living by writing screenplays, and this journal covers the eight years it took between the time he and his wife, Joan Didion, were approached to write a screenplay based on Golden Girl, a biography of newswoman Jessica Savitch, and the 1996 appearance of Up Close and Personal, a rather different movie that made no mention of Savitch. The "monster," this veteran of Hollywood knows, is the producers' money, which always takes precedence over creative ego. This account-written while Dunne had much other work but also money worries-is often digressive and undigested, as if it were written to satisfy Dunne's own money monster. Even so, Dunne can be a deft and amusing reporter both of the tricks of the screenwriting trade and of the foibles of the "industry," as Hollywood is known. He explains why studio execs like screenplays with explanatory exposition while good actors don't, and he uncovers the dynamic of a script reading, in which stars need less dialogue than others to establish their characters. He tells of the youthful "creative executives" who give screenwriters critiques laden with peculiar jargon, and he reports on working with a series of charismatic executives-first producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, then producer Scott Rudin and director Jon Avnet. In the end, the film made a nice profit and Dunne not only had a good time but wrung a book out of the experience. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Dunne turns the movie-making business inside out.
Kirkus Reviews
Further proof, elegantly presented, that Hollywood screenwriting is a mad, bad, wasteful, and highly remunerative process. Novelist Dunne (Playland, 1994 etc.) and his wife, Joan Didion, seasoned screenwriters, were approached by a producer with a hot movie idea: a biopic of the late news anchorwoman Jessica Savitch. Her life was a classic American tragedy, with the bonus of a richly prurient overlay: wild ambition, abusive relationships, supercharged sex, drugs galore. Disney was the only studio to express interest. Because money is Hollywood's wizard king, transmuting ideas with alembic ease, it was soon bye-bye to seamy biography and hello to the plucky tale of a sanitized Savitch-like reporter. Ambition became enthusiasm, sex became romance, drugs shriveled to the occasional social drink, and Savitch's abusive Svengali was replaced by the improbably named and conventionally characterized Warren Justice. As draft followed draft, almost every last drop of tragedy was drained away. Perhaps the producer, Scott Rudin, best summed up this new conception of the story: "It's about two movie stars." For whatever reason, this project attracted enough attention to remain alive, but not enough to get made. In other words, it was in development hell. As the years went by, producers came and went, Dunne and Didion were repeatedly on and off the project, more and more drafts were written (for more and more money). Eventually, Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer signed on to star in it, and suddenly there was speed, progress, urgency. A director, Jon Avnet, was found, locations scouted, a crew hired, and just a few drafts later, what was now called Up Close & Personalstarted filming. It had taken nearly eight years. This is a reasonably familiar Hollywood story, but Dunne's limber prose and acute, acid-tipped observations always keep things interesting: No need for rewrites here.

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Meet the Author

John Gregory Dunne (1932-2003), the late husband of Joan Didion, whose sudden death was the subject of her prize-winning book The Year of Magical Thinking, was a novelist, screenwriter, and literary critic. With Didion, he collaborated on a number of screenplays, including The Panic in Needlepark and True Confessions, based on his novel of the same name. He also wrote a number of novels and nonfiction books and contributed articles to The New York Review of Books.

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