The life of a Hollywood screenwriter might sound like a glamorous one, but it’s not all premieres and champagne.
As one of the smaller cogs in an often complex machine, the writer can often find his or her work changed almost beyond recognition by other hands. Such is the case with the following movies, which were all changed quite drastically in one way or another between their original draft and their final cut.
Some scripts were pressed into service as sequels. Some began in one genre and wound up in another. Rather than put together an exhaustive list, we’ve chosen a few examples of the script changes that intrigued or bemused us most.
Nic Cage with long hair and a thick southern drawl. An expensive sports car hitched to the back of a transport plane. John Malkovich threatening a stuffed rabbit with a handgun. Yes, there are many memorable moments in Con Air, and it’ll probably be remembered by history as one of the most screamingly over-the-top action movies of the 1990s.
But according to director Simon West, Con Air wasn’t originally written as a high-octane action flick, but as a drama-thriller more akin to Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead, also penned by Scott Rosenberg.
“The original script was much smaller than the eventual film,” West told us back in 2013. “It was a character piece, really, by Scott Rosenberg who did Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead and Beautiful Girls, which were very small little indie films with great characters. Jerry [Bruckheimer] liked it, obviously, and I liked it just because of the characters and their names, like Cyrus The Virus and Diamond Dog and things like that. I thought, well, I can do something with this. But I had to make it into a big summer action movie, whereas at the moment it’s a small character piece. So then I set about blowing it up out of all proportion, really”
Con Air was therefore rewritten to suit producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s personal brand of widescreen destruction, with several actors adding their own contributions. That southern drawl? That was Nic Cage’s idea. The rabbit? Also Cage. Rosenberg took these ideas and incorporated them into his already salty and quotable script. “Put the bunny back in the box,” indeed.
“This was about a guy who’d been an Israeli soldier, who’d actually turned his back on violence,” recalled screenwriter Jeph Loeb of his original Commando screenplay. “That’s not the movie they made.”
Indeed it wasn’t. Released in 1985, Commando was a post-Terminator action vehicle for the hulking Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played an ex-soldier all too willing to get the guns out when his daughter’s kidnapped. Loeb and co-writer Matthew Weisman had originally written the central character for an older, less sculpted actor – they initially had Kiss rocker Gene Simmons in mind, but Nick Nolte was also considered when Simmons turned it down.
Everything changed when Commando was chosen for Schwarzenegger, at which point action hotshot Steven E de Souza was brought in to give the script a rewrite. The result was a garish and eminently quotable machine gun opera which probably lacked some of the light and shade Loeb and Weisman intended, but at least contained such choice lines as, “John, I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes. I’m going to shoot you between the balls!” Poetry.
Released at a time when virtual reality helmets were all over the media, Brainscan is an amiably silly horror film about a videogame that turns an unwitting teenager (played by Edward Furlong) into a murderer. One of the film’s goofier elements is Trickster, a Freddy Krueger-like character who looks like an ageing refugee from a hair metal band. His gurning presence does much to offset the inherent darkness elsewhere; this is a film where Furlong’s encouraged to hack off a man’s foot with a saw, after all.
In fact, Brainscan may have been even darker in an earlier draft. According to T. Ryder Smith, who played Trickster, his character was originally written as little more than a face on a screen. It was when director John Flynn saw Smith at an audition that he decided to make give Trickster a more prominent role.
“I didn’t know at the time that they were in the process of expanding the character into a three-dimensional being, and that the discussion was about how much makeup might be needed,” Smith said of his audition. “I still thought I was going to be pretty much just an off-screen voice.”
Given that Brainscan was an early script from Andrew Kevin Walker – who’d go on to write such dark odysseys as Seven and 8mm – it’s probably fair to say that the film could have been very different had Trickster been a more subtle presence.
Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
You may not have heard of WW3.com, but you’ll probably have heard of the film it ultimately became: Live Free Or Die Hard, or Die Hard 4.0. Like all the Die Hard sequels (with the exception of the fifth), it wasn’t originally written as a John McClane adventure; screenwriter David Marconi wrote it as a stand-alone cyber-thriller, its premise taken from a Wired article called A Farewell To Arms.
That script was hot property in the late ’90s – Variety even reported that WW3.com was scheduled as a major summer film for 1999. But then 9/11 happened, and the entire project was quietly set aside. Years later, the WW3.com screenplay was dusted off and reworked as a Die Hard sequel by Mark Bomback. Inevitably, the nature of the screenplay changed in the hands of another writer, but Marconi remains satisfied that at least part of his handiwork finally made it to the silver screen.
“I was happy my script was resurrected as often times when a script gets ‘shelved’ it usually signifies its death,” Marconi writes on his website. “And through the script I originally crafted was more political and harder-hitting at the underlying issues, I did take pleasure at seeing a semblance of my work finally hit the screen.”
Pretty Woman (1990)
It’s strange to think that a frothy romantic comedy could be made out of a sombre drama about prostitution, but that’s exactly what happened with Pretty Woman – a $460m hit that was, for years, Disney’s most profitable live-action movie.
Screenwriter JF Lawton originally wrote Pretty Woman in the late ’80s as $3,000, a drama about a 22-year-old LA prostitute’s doomed relationship with a wealthy businessman from New York. Needless to say, the story was lightened up a bit when Touchstone Pictures took it on; in fact, Lawton’s rewrite was even considered to be a bit too light according to a piece over at Vanity Fair.
The screenplay was therefore rewritten by other unnamed writers, who kept many of the events in Lawton’s story while frothing up the tone – and considerably altering the downbeat ending. But like the writer of WW3.com, Lawton’s simply thankful that his story got to the screen in the first place.
“I was thrilled! That’s the other side of it, is that I’m supposed to be the wounded artist in all of this who painted the da Vinci or whatever and then they slashed it,” Lawton said. “I was a guy who was writing ninja movies and trying to get a job. If you’re an architect and you design a cabin for the woods, and somebody says, ‘We want to make it into a skyscraper’… the fact that Disney came in and wanted to do it as a big-budget movie with a major director was a great thing.”
Last Action Hero (1993)
This, surely, is one of the weirdest screenwriting stories of the ’90s. Two Hollywood outsiders, Zak Penn and Adam Leff, wrote a screenplay designed as a parody of mainstream action movies – the kind of stuff written by Shane Black in his ’80s pomp. That screenplay was soon picked up as an expensive vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. And who did the studio bring in to rewrite it? You guessed it – Shane Black.
“With Last Action Hero, we watched what was a genuine love note to movies – that was the way it was written, by two guys outside the industry – turned into this giant superstar wank,” Zak Penn told us earlier this year. “It was actually pretty informative and interesting to watch.”
Black wasn’t the only writer on Last Action Hero, either – Carrie Fisher, William Goldman, and David Arnott were all brought in to provide their own polishes. Expected to be the biggest hit of 1993’s summer season, Last Action Hero was instead swallowed alive by a film called Jurassic Park. For Penn, attending the premiere and seeing the heavily altered version of his story was a curious experience.
“…as we watched the movie, my parents were turning to me and saying, ‘Did you write all these fart jokes?'” Penn recalled. “And I said, ‘I promise, I didn’t.'”
An erotic thriller written by Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) and directed by William Friedkin probably sounded like sure-fire success at the time, but Jade ultimately proved to be a financial and critical disappointment. According to Eszterhas, the major reason for the film’s failure was Friedkin’s alterations to his script. In his book Hollywood Animal, Eszterhas describes his reaction to an early scene described by a respected film critic as “totally out of character and pretty dumb.”
“When I read the review I got nauseous,” Eszterhas wrote. “Because I agreed with [the critic] Dolores Barclay. It was one of the scenes that was not in my script, that Billy Friedkin had inserted.”
Eszterhas goes onto write that reviewers consistently picked fault with the screenplay, which, he maintains, Friedkin “destroyed” and “butchered”; Friedkin has himself admitted that he’d pretty much rewritten the entire script.
In an attempt to cheer Eszterhas up, Friedkin called one day and said, “Don’t lose heart, Joe. Think about Gustav Mahler. He was a genius, a creative maestro, and he never got one good review in his life.”
About a group of people terrorised by mysterious beings that visit in the night, They came and went without much of a fuss in 2002. But the original screenplay, written by Brendon Hood, had a far more bold, sci-fi infused premise. In it, a group of college students discover that humans are being used as unwitting organ donors for a hidden race of “organic machines.”
“I came up with the idea that there were a bunch of monsters out there – organic machines who were basically a fusion of metal and flesh that would prey upon human beings and use them for replacement body parts and skin,” Hood told JoBlo. “These creatures existed in our world, but had somehow never been detected for two reasons – they had the God-like ability to alter reality and the power to erase people’s memories.”
Just about all of that was ejected as the screenplay passed through the hands of other writers – and the producers, who clearly had their own idea of which way the story should go.
“Great horror films work because of four important components: a strong story structure, three-dimensional characters, original concepts, and most importantly, tension,” Hood said. “They was developed in such a haphazard manner that it really didn’t allow for those four qualities to be addressed in a logical approach that championed creative thinking. Stuff was put into the script and thrown out very arbitrarily, and it ended up hurting the final product.”