Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Interview with Bill Martell, part two

Yesterday I posted part one of my interview with brutally honest action screenwriter Bill Martell. Here's part two.

We’ve all read your stories about how good scripts go bad. How do you handle the psychological toll of rewriting something to make it worse?

It kills my soul. When you get a bad note, you don’t just say, “Yes, sir, I’ll put a donkey in it!” you fight for your script. You ask the reason for the change in hopes of finding a better solution to whatever the problem is, you explain exactly why this note doesn’t work well, you use other films and their box office numbers to show how implementing the note will make the movie less profitable and lose the producer money, you bring out all of the evidence that prove the note will not work... But at the end of the day, you have sold the script to them and they are the new owner and get to decide what they do with *their* script. And if your contract includes revisions, you have to make the changes even if they will destroy your baby.

Now, you may think that something like this is just hack work, but anytime you write something that you are not passionate about, it shows and usually does not sell. The original story was about a workaholic divorced cop who opens herself up to love again... but with all kinds of conditions so that she won’t get hurt, never realizing that those conditions will hurt the other person (or android). Though I was not a female homicide cop in the future, the rest of that was me - autobiographical. So, to change my personal; story (disguised by fiction) to be some story about robot hookers from outer space was painful. What happened in this situation is that I started from scratch and came up with a different story with a different “personal doorway” that connected me to the subject matter.  It became a buddy action comedy with one guy who just wants to do his job without being bothered by romantic entanglements, and one guy who wants to become romantically entangled but work keeps getting in the way. Kind of the same personal issues as the original in a different form. I think good writing is always autobiographical, even if it’s a big summer tentpole movie.

And I guess that’s part of the way to deal with bad notes - if possible, try to find the way to make the changes they want in a way that keeps the things you are passionate about in the script. Not always possible, but you try your best.

Plus, something Frank Darabont once told me (don’t you just hate name droppers) - I was at his house once, and noticed a book shelf across from his desk filled with his own screenplays. I asked him about it, and he said: “Those are *my* screenplays the way *I* wrote them.”  Now I have a bookshelf of my own screenplays near my desk.

What warning signs do you usually get on a project that’s destined for badness?

They don’t understand the script at all... or latch on to some element and want the script rewritten around that element. I had a project where the producer loved this minor character who was in a couple of scenes and wanted me to do a page one rewrite making that minor character the lead... except that character was not really involved in the conflict at all, and couldn’t really be involved in the conflict. But no matter how carefully you explain the problem, or how many times you ask why they want the crazy rewrite, they will not budge an inch on their brilliant script note. Sometimes you create the problem yourself - you come up with a cool idea that overshadows the concept of the script, and they suddenly want the script to be about that.

But there are so many ways for the script to go south, it’s surprising any film comes out good. Even if the script - or parts of it - are not ruined by bad notes or other writers or the director’s girlfriend who used to work at a cosmetics counter in a department store doing a rewrite (you think I’m kidding), you still have the minefields of production and post-production to deal with.  You probably won’t be around for those, so you go to the premier and see something that looks nothing like the final draft they went off to produce.  On NIGHT HUNTER one of the supporting actors decided to change all of his dialogue, not realizing that his character was carrying the theme, and screwed up the story. I had a film where the director had never read the script, just the coverage, and would only read the pages he was shooting today... and would improvise scenes. He put a character who had been killed several scenes earlier in a scene. Plus, locations fall through and actors insist on wearing their lucky leather jacket when they are playing an uptight engineer (yes, that happened) and millions of things go wrong in shooting that require the story to be changed. And once filming is finished, we get to editing - which can make or break a film - and music and sound design and... crap, they forgot to film that shot of the gun that makes the whole scene work!  I was once brought in to write some new dialogue for a scene that would cover material they didn’t shoot that was critical to the story - we dubbed the dialogue to plug the massive plot hole (which was never in the script). I know of movies that were changed *by their trailers* - some piece of info was left out of the film, so they put in the trailer.  On a big studio film they may spend millions doing reshoots, on the stuff I write, HBO would give us $3 million for a submarine warfare movie like CRASH DIVE and there was no money for reshoots or any other “movie rescue” stuff. If something went wrong, it might still end up in the final cut of the movie.

Droid Gunner has a serious Star Wars type feel to it and what seemed to be a direct reference to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Was that intentional, something you put in, or did the director do it?

In the script. When the script went from my story to a tender, touching, Oscar caliber tale of robot hookers from outer space; I focused on the comedy elements and tried to make it the perfect film to see while consuming a six pack of beer. So I did kind of a STAR WARS / EMPIRE STRIKES BACK parody in the background of the story, with the great Robert Quarry as a Jabba The Hutt guy who had a dancing girl on a chain, and the Mattius Hues character as kind of a Han Solo (he’s a space smuggler with a ship called the Perpetual Condor- like the Millennium Falcon, only silly), and there are a bunch of other references. There was a CHINATOWN element that was cut out of the film completely... but I think I still snuck in a James Bond theme lyric in the dialogue as well as a Sam Fuller movie title. I tried to make the dialogue between Marc Singer and Rochelle Swanson fast paced and fun banter like in HIS GIRL FRIDAY, all of the characters are named after directors who made adventure films in the 1930s and 1940s, and the pocket watch created as part of the back story for Marc’s character came into play at the end in a three way Mexican stand off homage to the end of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. I just wanted it to be fun. If you were a film lover and rented it, you would have fun finding all of the film references... if you rented it looking for a silly sci-fi movie with lots of hot women, you wouldn’t be disappointed.  

I always like to have a few in jokes in my scripts for film fans - James Bond theme lyrics and Sam Fuller film titles, the name game - figure out what all of the character names have in common, etc. I call it “self amuse” and it is similar to “self abuse” - I do it for my own pleasure. So I make sure it is in addition to the story, not critical to the story. If you have never seen FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, it’s just a Mexican stand off before a bunch of shooting. But I had fun writing it.     

What’s your favorite movie of those you’ve had produced?

HARD EVIDENCE turned out the most like the original script that I sold them. A USA Network thriller starring Gregory Harrison. Directed by a TV guy in the blandest possible way; but when I watch it, I recognize almost all of the dialogue and almost all of the scenes as things I wrote. After airing on USA Network, it was released on VHS the same day as a Julia Roberts movie called SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT... and my movie was #7 rental in the nation and Julia’s was #8!  I was going to buy a half page advert in The Hollywood Reporter that said “I Beat Julia Roberts!” but that would have cost me about $2k and I’m a cheapskate. I *did* get a bunch of meetings at Warner Bros (which released both HARD EVIDENCE and SOMETHING) where development execs asked me why my film that had already shown for free on TV could beat their big budget film. My answer was: Have you seen the Julia Roberts movie? It’s kind of a train wreck.

The biggest problem with judging movies made from my scripts is that I know what they were *supposed to be*, so when I watch CRASH DIVE I think it completely sucks because the script was so much better... but Playboy Magazine gave it 3 out of 4 stars.  I am just now able to watch BLACK THUNDER without trying to poke out my eyes with knitting needles, because it got screwed up on the way to the screen - but that’s another film that some reviewers liked. If you see one of the movies that began with a screenplay I wrote - writer gives no refunds - and *you* think it sucks, I’ll bet I think it sucks even more.

What’s your favorite screenplay that you wrote independent of production?

Good question!  I have an incredibly expensive to produce movie about homeless people called ANYONE CAN LOSE that has an indoor shark attack when the glass at San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium ruptures, plus a huge downer ending. People who have read it, love it... but it is so extreme no one wants to hire me after they read it.

I really like UNDERCURRENTS which is always a bridesmaid, never a bride - it was optioned by one of the producers of MEMENTO for a while and they tried to set it up at Universal. Since then, that script has almost been made several times - it’s like THE GRIFTERS on a yacht. Con men (and women) on a cruise through the Caribbean with some millionaire “marks”... and someone is murdered and the money goes missing. The new yacht captain (protagonist) has to find the money and killer to prevent people from shooting each other on his boat. Lots of plot twists in that one, and it’s noirish. It will be made someday.

I also really like ANDROID ARMY, a script written quickly for a possible sale... but the characters are fun and it ended up with one of the most dramatic scenes I’ve ever written... in a script about the Alcatraz of outer space where the most dangerous criminals - humans, aliens, and androids - are sent to work in the mines. When the androids organize a riot, it’s steel against flesh! The strange thing about a script like this is that I know going in that it’s going to be a genre movie that will not ever be in the same sentence as the phrase “Oscar nominated”, so I am free to have fun and actually work on big character moments because no one will care if I reach for the stars and only get the moon.  This is another script that has almost been made a few times. A couple of years ago a producer attached one of my favorite directors - who has kind of disappeared recently - and it looked like we had a movie... until the first story meeting with the director (in a bar), who had all kinds of *crazy* notes and wanted to throw his weight around based on his past theatrical hits. Um, not recent past. When the producer asked him why he wanted one of the wacky changes, his answer was because he’s the director and he says so... and the producer said, “You are no longer the director” and fired his ass. Cool - the producer stood up for the script! Not Cool - having no director caused the project to crash and burn. Option expired, script is mine again... anyone wanna buy an action sci-fi script?

I wrote this sleazy low budget horror script called GATORBABY that is CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF meets JAWS - but with a half-man/half-gator... and I love that script. I had so much fun with those characters, and again - I reached for the stars in some scenes. The script was written because I knew a producer who had access to a cool location, but only after I finished the script did I discover he had no access to money... just a nice office across from Radford Studios.  So I ended up stuck with the script... and have since decided to find the money and produce the script myself. Probably next year in Louisiana (gator country). After a couple of decades of having other people ruin my scripts, it’s about time I ruined one myself.

Also on the make-it-myself list is a script called DREAM LOVER that I plan to shoot in the Bay Area next year with three of my oldest friends - we worked on each other’s super 8mm films when we were kids.

Tune in tomorrow for part three.



    I'm the producer Bill mentions, and it wasn't hard sticking up for Bill's story.

  2. I want to see Gatorbaby!!

    Bill Martell, thank you for your wonderful blog. I have enjoyed it so immensely, for several years now, it's a treasure trove of informative delight, so many goodies.

    And thank you, Emily, for these fabulous interview postings, can't wait for part three.

  3. Great... on top of everything else I'm working on these days, I'm now compelled to squeeze in a Bill Martell Film Festival.

    Looking forward to part three!

  4. Anonymous12:29 PM

    Bill, how do you do are so busy...writing and must be the power breakfasst you have. But you got to be The Superman Of Screenplay Blogs. And Emily is Superwoman.

    Rest assure we appreciate your hard work and dedication and inspirational blog.


    LETS BRING BACK SEGAL, NORRIS, JEAN CLAUDE, JENNIFER GARNER, JOHN CENA, TRIPLE H the greatest action movie, something what Stallone did. Do it Bill. If you had to write a script with all these stars what would be the logline.....



Please leave a name, even if it's a fake name. And try not to be an asshole.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.