Writing Pretty Woman – Part II

Read part one here

Casting films is a crazy business. Career changing roles often come about by accident or happenstance, by offers being rejected by other actors first. Martin Sheen replaced Harvey Keitel on Apocalypse Now. Tom Selleck couldn’t get out of his commitment to Magnum PI to play Indiana Jones. John Travolta turned down the role of Forrest Gump. Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings.

And speaking of Sean Connery.

I was working on my first draft of Pretty Woman when it came down that that’s who they were talking to about playing the role of Edward. First impression? They were taking the idea of Henry Higgins way too seriously. Connery and Julia Roberts – hmmmm. (Maybe Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer who, I later heard, was offered the role of Vivian before Julia.) At any rate, he passed.

I subsequently heard the pitch – there wasn’t the new draft yet – subsequently went to Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Warren Beatty and Mickey Rourke (who in the 80’s, post Diner, post 9 ½ Weeks, pre-plastic surgery, would have been interesting). “Went” means it was discussed with their agents.

Script went in and it was well received. I even got a phone call from Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg – “Great work. Talk soon. Gotta go.” – and even though Katzenberg was famous for making about billion phone calls on his thirty minute drive home every night – he sat in his car, his secretary fired them in from the office – he traded in his Porsche for a Mustang because he almost got killed once downshifting – I was thrilled. (A lot of people could learn from Katzenberg).

I began a second draft with notes – lots of notes. People always have notes. To sit in a studio script meeting and not have a note to give the writer is like saying you’re not fit for anything in La La Land but going for coffee. (My personal favorite – I think we need to develop the characters more. My second favorite – I think we need to make the scene more magical. WE.) Anyway, one day, while working away, sifting through notes, I got an excited phone call from the assistant to someone – “Al Pacino wants to do a reading of the script.”

Now I am often a huge Al Pacino fan. Godfather I & II. Scarecrow with Gene Hackman. Serpico. Dog Day Afternoon. The Basic Training of Pavlo Hummel (on Broadway). But I also think he can be guilty of chewing the scenery to bits and I’ve never seen him successfully pull off a romantic comedy – actually I think the only one he’s been in is Author, Author where he played – ouch – a playwright.
But we flew to New York and we read. Al Pacino, Julia Roberts (who was, like, er, uh, immediately, tongue glued to the roof of my mouth, amazing? – and she hadn’t even read a word yet) Gary Marshal, (who somehow got stuck in a toilet stall for 20 minutes until his female assistant freed him) and various New York based actors to play various roles. Al Pacino, dressed in black from head to toe, shirt open to his navel, was…. Al Pacino. Intense. Feral. Mercurial. Genius and wackjob, hubris and insecurity, in equal measure. The role of Edward, as written, did not flow trippingly from his tongue. Saliva flew (when Pacino did a play, the people in the first several rows needed umbrellas). The sense of connection between the two leads was questionable at best.

Hollywood Rule 7a. When in doubt, do a rewrite on the script. (7b – When forward motion on a project grinds to a halt, do a rewrite on the script – it creates a false sense of progress. 7c – When offering the role to a “bankable” star or director, always tell them the script is a work in progress, “we’re working on a rewrite” and “any input you have would be invaluable” – meaning we’ll change it to what you want if you say you’ll do it.

So it came to pass that I was hired to do a rewrite for Al Pacino. It was a vague assignment at best. I wasn’t changing the beats of the story or the objectives and motivations of the character. I was trying to incorporate an actor’s energy, his delivery and his tics into the role – make a more comfortable fit. And around the time I finished the draft, I got a call that Al Pacino had passed. He felt the role just wasn’t for him. I think he was right.

Being a screen writer is a funny thing. All in all, I did three, maybe four drafts of Pretty Woman. Quick note – the title of the movie didn’t come into play until months and months later – somehow someone acquired the rights to the Roy Orbison song – not sure what came first the song or the idea to use it. I would say I had sort of slipped away before that. There is really only so much a (re)writer can do. You start repeating yourself, second guessing yourself, in trying to address the endless notes, you lose your perspective and the originality you initially brought to the work. I had moved on to another writing project by the time Pretty Woman went into production. They had, yes, cast Richard Gere – “settled for him” – by then. His career was in a lull at that moment. He had gone from films like Days of Heaven to American Gigolo to An Officer and a Gentlemen to semi-disasters like Cotton Club and King David. They had also hired a wonderful writer, Barbara Benedict to help shape the role of Edward for him.
I guess you could say it all worked out in the end.

And now we go back to credit. When there are three or more writers on a film, credit on the film automatically goes to what is called arbitration. A panel of three WGA members (Writers Guild of America) sit down with the drafts of the script and statements from the writers detailing what they think is their contribution to the final draft and why they should receive credit. I’m sure they take individual scenes, character development and dialogue into account but as I understand it, at the end of the day they are focused on structure and story. It was my feeling that I contributed a lot to all of the above. And that’s what I said. My statement to the arbitration committee was something along the lines of – I think the work I did on the script speaks for itself.

I was an idiot.

I have learned in subsequent years that statements from writers on what they did to a script can go on forever. They take the script and give a detailed account of their perceived contribution to every page. They point out that C is a variation of B which is a variation of A which originally was my idea! I didn’t and I don’t have the patience for it. Coming out of the theatre I also had this feeling that If I was ever rewritten, I would no longer feel complete ownership of my work. How can you claim credit for something that”s no longer yours? (The reality with a screenplay is that it’s never really yours. I’ve been on sets where things were changed, rewritten, made up and/or improvised at a moments notice.)

It’s is my opinion that there should be a contributing writer credit. You have associate and executive producer credits given to those who never set foot in a meeting or onto a film set. In the end credits you have list of drivers, assistants to the assistants, location managers and the craft service people (caterers). No writers? Come on. Why isn’t there such a credit? Because sole credit brings a writer money in both bonus and residuals and it brings them future work. In the current system, a writer have every reason not to want to share. It’s disingenuous at best.

In the initial one sheet (poster) of Pretty Woman, the screenplay is by J.F. Lawton, Stephen Metcalfe and Barbara Benedict. I have a miniature version, given to me by Touchstone Pictures, on my desk. In my opinion, that’s what it should have been, simple as that. Was I disappointed? Yes. But because my contribution to Pretty Woman was common knowledge in Hollywood, the phone didn’t stop ringing for many, many years.

The downside is that I was categorized as a writer of romantic comedies.

But that’s another story.


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