I had a successful career writing for television. My movie-writing career is a different story. A very short story. Or, more precisely, no story at all.
Be gentle, will ya? I’ve got heart problems.
Sorry. I was just trying to be accurate.
Accuracy isn’t everything.
That doesn’t sound like you.
It’s me with heart problems.
Can I still tell the story?
Sure. It’s a good story. It’s about my favorite subject – human foolishness.
My own foolishness is not without entertainment value. But given the option, I greatly prefer other people’s.
So I have permission to proceed, Mr. Pre-Op Italics Man?
Being a successful television writer occasionally earned me the opportunity to, as they say, call “take a pass” at a film script, originated by another but that wasn’t quite right. “Taking a pass” means reading the script, looking for ways to improve it. It’s called “taking a pass” because that’s what you do.
You temporarily pass by the script.
The job gives you a shot at one rewrite, maybe two, and then the script proceeds to an unspecified number of other movie writers who are hired to “take passes” of their own. That’s how movie writing generally works. It’s “gang writing”, conducted by gang members who never meet. (Except maybe at a credit arbitration.)
Okay, so one day, I’m asked by an executive at Disney named Marty (who I’d never met) if I’d be interested in taking a look at a script originally written by the highly successful French writer/director, Francis Veber (La Cage aux Folles, among dozens of others). I said sure.
The script I was sent was pretty much a literal translation of the original script, which Weber had already made into a successful movie en France. Now Disney wanted to make an English-language version, and to that end, they were searching for a writer to make script changes deemed necessary for the transatlantic crossover. I was one of, I’m sure, many candidates for the job.
I diligently prepared for the meeting. I realized I’d be discussing the script with its original author, and that would require diplomacy and tact. Of which, I have neither.
My only hope was to know what I was talking about.
As I pored over the script, I focused on those elements where the story points or character-driven action felt more French than believably American. I identified maybe half a dozen places where I was certain adjustments would need to be made. I wasn’t talking about mistakes of any kind. It was merely a matter of cultural differences.
I went to the meeting.
I don’t go in much for personal descriptions. All I’ll say is that Francis Veber was a very handsome fellow. He spoke in a smooth and confident English, dolloped charmingly in French dressing.
After some obligatory small talk, we got down to the business at hand.
I mentioned that I had a short list of cross-cultural concerns, moments I felt needed re-imagining for an audience lacking the French sensibilite. (Imagine that last “e” with an accent aegue.)
I offered my first example of a scene I believed needed changing. Monsieur Veber listened in respectful silence. When I finished, he responded. (I believed he sighed first.)
“I will say only zis. When zat scene played in ze zeeter, ze owdience was loffing, and loffing. I am telling you, it was so funny, zey could not stop loffing. And loffing. And loffing.”
Marty (the producer) remained silent. I was entirely on my own. As politely I could, I explained to Monsieur Veber that, though I had no doubt that French audiences found that scene hilarious, American audiences might not get it. And therefore, not loff.
Monsieur Veber considered my remarks (I believe he stroked his chin), and then replied.
“I am not opposed to changing zat scene, if euw ‘ave zumthing to replace it with zat is funnier. I will only repeat zat when zat scene played in ze zeeter, ze owdience was loffing, and loffing, and loffing. More zan a minute, zey were loffing. It was so funny.”
It gets tiresome writing in dialect, so I will summarize our encounter thusly. It’s not so much summary, actually, as a loop. After every of the half-dozen suggestions I made, Monsieur Veber responded in precisely the same fashion. He surrendered to the possibility of replacement scenes – if the replacements were funnier – but he assured me that when the scenes I was criticizing played in the theater,
“…ze owdience was loffing and loffing and loffing.”
The meeting ran mercifully short. As I passed Marty on my way out, I announced,
“This guy doesn’t want to change anything.”
To which Marty replied,
Leaving me the angrifying but (wimpily) unasked question:
“Then why did you ask me to come here?”
In the end, Veber’s English version of the movie was just the French movie over again. Word for word, and scene for scene. It failed. This came as no surprise to me. French moviegoers have a greater tolerance for “slapstick reality.” (I’m not sure exactly what that means. Then again, I’m not French.)
I imagine the whole experience left Monsieur Veber shaking his head. How could American audiences sit stone-faced at those classic, comedic moments, when, en France,
“…ze owdience was loffing and loffing and loffing”?
This is just one movie job I never got. Once, a producer asked me to “take a pass” at the script for his movie, Cannonball Run V. I read the script.
I told him it was perfect the way it was.