Writing Pretty Woman

People often ask me why my name doesn’t appear in the credits of the film, Pretty Woman. (Actually on the first one sheet or poster for the film, I did) It’s a long story and it’s a short story. The long one first.

In the late eighties, Touchstone Picture acquired the rights to the screenplay, 3000, by J.F. Lawton. It was the dark, gritty, very realistic story of Vivian, a street prostitute, and Edward, a manipulative, amoral, wealthy businessman who hires Vivian’s services for a week. The best way to describe the tone of the screenplay is that it ends with Vivian emptying her suitcases of all the expensive clothes Edwards has bought for her and, screaming and sobbing hysterically in the middle of Hollywood Boulevard, throwing them at his limo as he drives off into the sunset, never to see her again. It would have made a very interesting movie but it wasn’t the movie Disney/Touchstone wanted to make.

I don’t know who – it might have been David Hoberman or Donald DeLine but it was probably Jeffrey Katzenberg – but someone had the idea that 3000 could be a romantic-comedy. They were so sure of this they’d hired a director, Gary Marshall, and already had a lovely, young actress to play Vivian – Julia Roberts, who was coming off a film, Mystic Pizza and who had recently wrapped Steel Magnolias. What they didn’t have yet was a script. (As Gary Marshall would say – “I haven’t found the funny.”) And so they were interviewing writers. A lot of writers. And I was one of them. And probably like all of them, I had read this script and thought – “how the hell is the story/relationship of a coke whore and a Machiavellian asshole supposed to be a romantic comedy?” And guess what? Thanks to some small background in the theatre, I came up with an answer. When in doubt, steal.

“Pygmalion,” I said. “My Fair Lady.”

The room looked at me. Producers (one of them, the great Laura Ziskin), assistants, interns. Gary Marshall. You could see the light bulbs going off. Pygmalion is the story of well born professor of phonetics, Henry Higgins, who on a bet, takes Eliza Doolittle, a cockney flower girl from the streets, and turns her into a well spoken lady. And in doing so, falls in love with her. Vivian would be Eliza Doolittle. Edward would be Henry Higgins.

“We’ll get back to you,” the room said.

They didn’t have to. They could have taken the idea and gone with someone else, a more prominent name. I think it says something about the integrity of the time that they didn’t.

They hired me.

In the movies, story is everything.

It’s not for nothing that Robert McKee, the dean of screenwriting workshops, has a bestselling book called simply, Story.

So. With the structure and tone of Shaw’s Pygmalion and Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady in mind, let’s face it, I had a pretty good story to work with. (By the way, it is easier to make something good out of something bad than to take something good and make it better). One thing it did was it allowed me to add characters – the hotel concierge (played by Gary Marshall’s go to guy, Hector Elizondo) was Colonel Pickering. The young business exec who, to Edward’s dismay, falls in love with Vivian was Freddy Eynsford-Hill. (Never could figure out an Alfred Doolittle). It also suggested new scenes and places. At Gary Marshall’s request the LA polo grounds replaced Ascot races (“Rich people picking up dirt I can do funny!”) and the San Francisco Opera replaced My Fair Lady’s Embassy Ball.
I found it relatively easy to lighten the tone of the piece – to make the characters “likable” – which means, as an audience, identifying with them. I find writing dialogue sort of like an actor doing an improve – once I get the character’s voice in my head I follow him or her. I have a sense of where I want them to go but I don’t impose. I keep their motivations and objectives close at hand. So. A man is rich but he is unhappy. His life is empty. He yearns for something, he doesn’t know what. And now he finds it in such an unlikely place, he doesn’;t recognize it. We identify with that. A young woman through reasons unknown is living on the edge. She desperately wants something better. We identify with that. They banter with one another. They surprise one another. They desire one another. They are taken with one another. He treats her with respect and affection. She both surprises him and delights him. We see it. We are pleased by it. We begin to root for them. There are obstacles, thrown at them by others and of their own making. We want desperately them to overcome those obstacles. Why? Because essentially they are good people. Even though they are very different, with different backgrounds, like Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, they are right together. They complete one another. (He, in fact, needs her more than she needs him). Fairy tales are made of such things.

Favorite moment 1. When we first meet Vivian she is thigh high boots, heavy make-up, multi-colored condoms and yes, the fake looking, brassy blonde wig. We love the fact that she can drive a Ferrari and he can’t. (She can do a lot of things, he can’t.) She is, however, a prostitute. Society teaches us to look down on women of the night. What to do about that? I think one of the most important moments of the film – one I’ll take credit for in the writing – is when Vivian takes off the wig. In doing so, she transforms from a streetwalker into Julia Roberts. What else is there to say?

Favorite moment 2. At the San Francisco Opera, Edwards offers Vivian an open jewel case. In it is a magnificent necklace, one she is to wear for the evening. The sight of it moves her and leaves her breathless. Before the take (the moment when the director calls action), Gary Marshall asked Richard Gere (Edward) to snap the case shut as Julia Roberts (Vivian) reached for the necklace just to see her reaction. Gere did and startled, Julia Roberts stepped back, eyes wide and – began laughing. Neither actor broke character, neither broke the reality of the scene, both built on the moment. You sense Vivian’s trust of Edward and Edward’s adoration for her. And it was totally improvised. To me, it’s as amazing and honest a moment between two people as I’ve ever seen in a film.

The screenwriter, William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid), once wrote that if you have a good script and the right cast, the movie might work. A great cast can’t save a bad script and a bad cast will ruin a great script. Pretty Woman worked because Julia Roberts and Richard Gere worked.
And guess what? Richard Gere almost wasn’t in it.

Next – casting Edward.

Read Part II here


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