In this fascinating survey of contemporary screen craft, David Cohen of Script and Variety magazines leads readers down the long and harrowing road every screenplay takes from idea to script to screen. In interviews with Hollywood screenwriters from across the board—Oscar winners and novices alike—Cohen explores what sets apart the blockbuster successes from the downright disasters.

Tracing the fortunes of twenty-five films, including Troy, Erin Brockovich, Lost in Translation, ...

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Screen Plays

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In this fascinating survey of contemporary screen craft, David Cohen of Script and Variety magazines leads readers down the long and harrowing road every screenplay takes from idea to script to screen. In interviews with Hollywood screenwriters from across the board—Oscar winners and novices alike—Cohen explores what sets apart the blockbuster successes from the downright disasters.

Tracing the fortunes of twenty-five films, including Troy, Erin Brockovich, Lost in Translation, and The Aviator, Cohen offers insider access to back lots and boardrooms, to studio heads, directors, and to the over-caffeinated screenwriters themselves. As the story of each film evolves from the drawing board to the big screen, Cohen proves that how a script is written, sold, developed, and filmed can be just as dramatic and intriguing as the movie itself—especially when the resulting movie is a fiasco.

Covering films of all kinds—from tongue-in-cheek romps like John Waters's A Dirty Shame to Oscar winners like Monster's Ball and The HoursScreen Plays is an anecdote-filled, often inspiring, always revealing look at the alchemy of the movie business. With Cohen as your expert guide, Screen Plays exposes how and why certain films (such as Gladiator) become "tent poles," those runaway successes every studio needs to survive, and others become train wrecks. Full of critical clues on how to sell a script—and avoid seeing it destroyed before the director calls Action!—it's the one book every aspiring screenwriter will find irresistible.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061843167
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/13/2009
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,370,758
  • File size: 616 KB

Meet the Author

David S. Cohen is an entertainment and business reporter as well as a writer and producer for film and television. During his thirty years in show business, he has acted and directed off-off Broadway plays, scripted television documentaries, and written for the syndicated series Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. As a reporter, he has covered screenwriting, visual effects, and film production for Variety and Script magazines for more than a decade. He lives with his wife in Los Angeles.

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Read an Excerpt

Screen Plays
How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You--for Better or Worse

Chapter One

"Get a Life"

Gladiator • David Franzoni

With the possible exception of showbiz legacies like Jason Reitman and Sofia Coppola, everyone starts out in the movie business at the bottom of the same mountain. We look up at the summit and start trudging, daydreaming all the way about the view from the top.

Pretty much all of us imagine ourselves at a podium, statuette in hand, thanking the Academy, but other than that, we may well disagree about what, exactly, the top of the mountain is. Some daydream of making a film for the ages, like Citizen Kane; others of having millions flock to their movies at the multiplex. Some want fame, some crave respect, others just want money.

Whatever the screenwriting mountain is, by the mid-1990s David Franzoni had set up camp pretty darn near the summit. He was an established writer with money in the bank and a staff to help him. He'd been nominated for an Emmy and was the sole credited screenwriter on Steven Spielberg's slavery saga Amistad, so he had not just credibility, but cachet. And he was on a first-name basis with Spielberg, too—ideally positioned to pitch a movie. So well positioned, in fact, that when he pitched a big-bud-get gladiator movie, he barely had to open his mouth to sell it.

How many people have dreamed of being in just such a spot? But the story of Franzoni and Gladiator, while generally a happy tale, is a warning that in movies—as in mountaineering—the weather at the summit can turn very, very suddenly, for betteror for worse.

I met Franzoni at the bar at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, steps away from the movie business's epicenter of excess, the I. M. Pei–designed headquarters of the Creative Artists Agency. Not coincidentally, CAA repped Franzoni. He doesn't carry himself like an ink-stained wretch; he arrived in a sport coat and slacks, not worn jeans, looking less like a writer than a producer—which, as it happens, he is. He was credited as a producer on Gladiator; a few months later, that credit would put a Best Picture Oscar in his trophy case.

Nor is Franzoni the classic tortured, introverted writer. He is raw and enthusiastic. He tells gripping, funny stories. He can talk for an hour and leave you wanting more. If ever a man was born to pitch, it's Franzoni. He also, as it turns out, is a self-described "bad boy" and not one to take an insult lying down. All these qualities serve him well in the movie business.

It was May 2000 when we met, and Franzoni was fifty-two, a twenty-four-year vet of the movie business. Gladiator had premiered to generally positive reviews. He'd sent me several drafts of the screenplay, but they turned out to be so different from the movie that I just let him tell me where the whole project started.

Thereby, not surprisingly, hangs a tale.

"Honestly," he said, "the idea originated when I was twenty-two and I was bumming around the world on a motorcycle. I was in Baghdad, and I traded a really good book on the Irish Revolution for a book on the Colosseum. It was a very tawdry, exploitative book about the Roman games. It was a book by Daniel P. Mannix, who has written tons of stuff. He was a sword swallower at one time; he became a writer. He wrote the book that The Fox and the Hound is based on.

"He took a lot of ancient sources and pieced together the story of an animal trainer in the Colosseum. He explored the provincial arenas and modern-day sort of spinoffs, but what he really did was connect in my head gladiators and O. J. Simpson, or any great athlete, and the worship of athletes.

"From that point on, even though I didn't know I'd end up being a screenwriter, I was trying to find a way into the Colosseum, to the gladiator."

Franzoni may not have known he wanted to be a screenwriter, but he'd always loved film and wanted to get involved in the film business. Somehow, he ended up being a geology major in college and still didn't have a career when he set out on that motorcycle trip.

"When I was driving to Lahore, India [sic], on my motorcycle, I had an especially difficult night getting to Lahore, because the roads went out in the jungle and they ended, and the signs were wrong, and I got diesel fuel instead of gasoline in my bike, and the water was bad. But I remember the sun came up and I was in Lahore. And I thought, You know what? If I can do that, I can do anything. And this is still easier than that.

"So I figured, okay, I'm over the hump that I can do that. The second hump was that you have to make a decision to do it or die trying. So once I got that organized in my head, I decided I wanted to do it. I wanted to be in film more than anything else in the world. And since this is my life, why can't I have that? Why settle for second best when even the best isn't enough?"

His family had a business, and he had the chance to join it, but his get-into-film-or-die-trying resolve was reinforced when he actually got shot back in his Los Angeles apartment.

"I decided, fuck it, I want to do this. Because what difference does it make? I'm dead anyway."

So he spent five years writing on his own. "I remember the day I broke through," he said. "I had a meeting with Sissy Spacek and I come out and I've got a flat tire. And my spare's flat. I've got twenty-six bucks. I take the spare and roll it down the street. For twelve bucks they patch it for me and I roll it back. I get home. I don't really have an agent, I have a girl at CAA who's representing me on the side. I get home and there's a message. 'Sissy wants to hire you, and we sold the spec script.' " He was twenty-eight.

Screen Plays
How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You--for Better or Worse
. Copyright © by David Cohen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 "Get a Life": Gladiator: David Franzoni 19

2 Scripter: Long Island Lolita Was My Muse!: American Beauty: Alan Ball 37

3 "I Didn't Think This Was Really Going to Happen": Random Hearts: Kurt Luedtke 53

4 "It's Two People; Nothing Happens": Lost in Translation: Sofia Coppola 67

5 "Gotta Stay on This Job": Black Hawk Down: Ken Nolan 79

6 "Let's Shoot Big": Troy: David Benioff 91

7 The Anti-Troy: Hero: Zhang Yimou 103

8 "Can I Write Midnight Cowboy?": Pay It Forward: Leslie Dixon 113

9 "Every Good Story Is a Love Story": Erin Brockovich: Susannah Grant 127

10 Sith, Schmith. Thanks for All the Fish: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Karey Kirkpatrick 141

11 Roll Over, Cary Grant: My Best Friend's Wedding: Ron Bass 151

12 Life's Two Tragedies: Mona Lisa Smile: Lawrence Konner & Mark Rosenthal 163

13 "It's Difficult Talking to Idiots": Bounce: Don Roos 177

14 Great Science Fiction - But Don't Tell Anyone: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: Charlie Kaufman 191

15 Slaves to Desire: Happiness: Todd Solondz 201

16 Sex Ain't What It Used to Be: A Dirty Shame: John Waters 213

17 "If You Talk to Earl, Tell Him to Call Me": Witness: Bill Kelley & Earl W. Wallace 223

18 The Best Script That Couldn't Get Made: Monster's Ball: Milo Addica & Will Rokos 235

19 The Golden Lion, Sure. But Did She Get an "A"?: Monsoon Wedding: Sabrina Dhawan 245

20 Protecting Howard: The Aviator: John Logan 257

21 Chance, Fate, and Homework: A Simple Plan: Scott Smith 269

22 No SimilarMovies: The Hours: David Hare 281

23 Good Work Fails Sometimes: Evening. Susan Minot & Michael Cunningham 295

24 The Return of the (Spec) King: Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang: Shane Black 309

25 "All You Need Is One Person to Believe in You": The Caveman's Valentine: George Dawes Green 319

Acknowledgments 333

Index 335

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