Everybody complains about the movies these days. They’re awful, they make no sense, there are no characters on the screen anymore that bear even a passing resemblance to actual living, thinking, breathing, adult human beings. Hollywood films are trite, clichéd, insulting, too loud, too long, too vulgar or just plain dumb.
And almost everybody inside the movie business has a pet theory why.
“Directors have too much power,” posits a studio executive whose career was almost torpedoed this past summer by a director’s “vision.”
“Stars are out of control,” moans a well-known female screenwriter whose million-dollar script was “improved” on the set by two Oscar-winning actors last year, resulting in a box-office gross that didn’t begin to cover their almost eight-figure salaries.
And an older former Marine turned successful producer grouses, “You’re dealing with an entire new generation of filmmakers-writers, directors, executives-who have absolutely no life experience outside Hollywood. They’re culturally illiterate. They have no history, no literature, no storytelling skills. All they know is television, and they can barely read. It’s the Ritalin generation. And they have almost no connection to the ticket-buying audience.”
Obviously, nobody sets out to make a bad film. And good movies still, occasionally, do get made. But to understand what we’re up against, allow me to share the development-process nightmare-namely, what would probably happen if you turned in a certain well-known screenplay today.
Memo from: Executive Vice President for Development, Generic Pictures Corporation
To: The Producers
Re: Script notes for the next draft of Casablanca .
Before we begin, let me say how tremendously excited everyone here at Generic Pictures is about the first draft. And with a few minor changes-some tweaks, some sharpening-we believe we will be able to attract an “A-list” director and stars, resulting in a major motion picture with international appeal. Herewith, then, our notes:
1) Rick needs to be more proactive. As presently written, the Rick character is too passive. Things happen to him; he reacts-as in choosing not to sleep with Ilsa-but he’s not the master of his own fate. (Yes, he arranges for the newlyweds to win at roulette, but that’s a relatively minor plot point.) Even the idea of Ilsa and Victor Laszlo “just showing up” in Casablanca seems arbitrary. Consider: Perhaps Rick manipulates their arrival in order to win her back.
2) How does Rick really feel about the Germans? At present, he seems uninvolved. Could he secretly be working on a clandestine mission for the C.I.A.? (It did exist back then, didn’t it?) Likewise, the script mentions that Rick once ran guns. We should definitely see this.
3) I may have misread the script, but are you certain that Africa was involved in World War II? This is not mentioned in Saving Private Ryan . And The English Patient was set in France, wasn’t it? If Africa wasn’t involved in the war (and let’s face it, with the Spielberg-Hanks Band of Brothers on HBO, this whole World War II thing may be getting a wee bit played out), perhaps we should consider resetting the film in Kuwait, Bosnia or Vietnam.
4) The Ilsa character needs to be better defined. The role needs to be fleshed out. What was she doing in Paris? Could she have been working as a designer at Chanel? There’s a great opportunity here to bring some glamour-supermodels and celebrities-into the film.
5) Do we need the flashback? If we’re going to attract a major actress, Ilsa needs to appear earlier in the film. What if we started in Paris, with some kind of Rick/Ilsa Nora Ephron–esqe “meet cute?”
6) If the film is really set against WWII, we also need to see more of the war. In the current draft, the Germans aren’t evil enough. We need to make it clear that they are the villains in WWII.
7) Currently, the French Captain Renault character is ambiguous. Is he good? Is he bad? We’re afraid the audience won’t understand him. Please clarify, one way or the other.
8) Rick is unsympathetic when he allows the Peter Lorre–like character to be taken by the Germans. A real hero would never allow this. Please fix.
9) We think it would be better if Rick actually does sleep with Ilsa. The attraction should be overwhelming. It’s what the audience is paying to see. They can both express regret afterwards. (Also: If we’re going to attract a major star, it would probably be helpful if Rick had some kind of “actable” Oscar-winning pathology: disease, addiction, a young daughter from a dead wife.)
10) We like the “Sam” character, and the possibilities for music here, but we’re unclear why he’s so devoted to Rick. Could Rick have saved him from a German lynch mob? Better still, let’s retool this role for Jennifer Lopez. Maybe she had a previous relationship with Rick in Paris, which would solve the devotion problem.
11) The title. Sorry, but for the studio, Casablanca just doesn’t work. It doesn’t evoke anything, and the research shows that our target audience has no idea where it is. Can’t we find something more urgent? Something more imperative? Something that will work better with a sequel?
12) At present, your script is 148 pages long. As you’re aware, the studio limit on page count is 124. With the new war sequences, we’re going to end up with a long film, so let’s make dialogue cuts now. With the cost of action sequences, it’s naïve to think that a single frame of mindless mayhem is going to end up on the cutting-room floor.
13) The ending is anticlimactic. Sorry, but it just doesn’t build to anything. There’s no danger, no jeopardy, no ticking clock. We need a sense that the Germans are invading. Could they begin to shell Casablanca? Could Rick rush in to save Ilsa’s life? What if we revealed that, in fact, her husband, Victor Laszlo, was actually working for the Nazis?
14) In general, the film needs to be edgier, darker and younger. Let’s start thinking about a new writer. In the meantime, we’ll be sending over tapes of the guy who directed the latest Boyz II Men video.
Trust me. We’re going to make a great film here. It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.