Good news: You're hired. Bad news: Write it in six weeks

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Stuart Beattie got good and bad news in September '07 as screenwriters were winding down to go on strike.

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura was on the phone and wanted him to write the screenplay for "G.I. Joe." And he had essentially six weeks to do it.

Flash forward: "Joe" opened Friday from Paramount, Spyglass and Hasbro, directed by Stephen Sommers from the script Beattie managed to write. The film topped the weekend boxoffice with $56.2 million. How did he pull it off in such short shrift?

Beattie, who'd written "Derailed" for di Bonaventura, told him he'd love to write "Joe" -- "But you know I'm on strike in six weeks."

Lorenzo: "That's plenty of time. Don't worry about it."

Beattie: "You're crazy. I love that. Let's do it."

So he dove in head first.

"For the first three weeks," he recalled, "I really didn't write very much at all. I just was concentrating on structure."

With a little luck, he added, the strike would end before "Joe" started shooting and he could then polish scenes during production.

"That six-week period was all about finding a strong structure so I could layer a good and simple story that will allow room for characters to breathe."

He also was looking for plot twists and turns, but nothing that would over-complicate things and leave him with scenes where he'd have to explain what was going on.

Sommers ("The Mummy," "The Mummy Returns") was already on board to direct when Beattie was approached to write.

Producing team to Sommers: "All right. We want to be shooting by February, so you don't have enough time to write this yourself. Let's hire a writer."

Just one problem. "Stephen had never directed a film before that he hadn't written, so he didn't really know any writers to bring in," Beattie said.

Lorenzo (to Sommers): "Well, I know this guy. Let me call him."

After Beattie met with Sommers for five minutes, he said, "I could tell he was my kind of guy. He had this great passion for the film, great energy and great ideas and no ego. So we kind of clicked and just started working together."

It helped that Beattie was already very familiar with the material, going back to 2000 when "a different set of producers came to me with it and that's where I initially fell in love with 'G.I. Joe.' "

Because he's Australian, Beattie hadn't grown up playing with the action figures Hasbro launched back in the '60s. But after studying the material he fell in love with "Joe's" world and read the '80s series of comic books.

When the project faded away Beattie kept everything he'd been sent.

Is it helpful for a writer to have so much material to wade through? "Because I spent many years immersed in that world I'd had a real chance to learn all that stuff, so it wasn't as terrifying to me," Beattie said. "And the good side is that it's an embarrassment of riches. Everything you select is really great -- a fun character, a fun vehicle or a fun plot device."

After structuring the story, Beattie started writing around the clock: "I wasn't sleeping much. I barely saw my family for three weeks even though I was in the same house with them. I was working Saturdays and Sundays, all hours. I just wrote and wrote."

Normally, writers have plenty of time in which to work: "It's 12 weeks usually for a first draft and then eight weeks for a second draft and all through preproduction, which is three or four months."

In fact, preproduction on a big movie like this should have been six months, but it was only about four. "That's when you want to fix things, because it's just on paper at that stage," Beattie pointed out.

Once a writer's working on set it's much harder to make changes "because the script is locked up. You may be changing a line here or there or you're changing a scene because the location fell through or you can't get an actor to be at a certain place at a certain time."

Although Beattie gets WGA credit along with David Elliot and Paul Lovett, the script that was shot is Beattie's. "They worked before me, but they worked on an entirely different movie," he explained. Studio to Beattie: "Don't read any of the previous drafts. There's nothing in them that we want to use. Just create an original story."

On one level that story, he observed, is about "good guys and bad guys and a weapon of mass destruction that everyone wants to get their hands on."

On the other hand, it's also about "a guy who fell in love with a beautiful girl and broke her heart and couldn't face her and she disappeared for four years. All of a sudden he runs back into her and she's no longer the person he knew. And the movie is really about what happened to that girl."

That may not sound very "G.I. Joe," he says, laughing, but "you've got to have something in there that everyone can relate to, and in this case it's lost love."

Meanwhile, Beattie's back home in Australia preparing to direct "Tomorrow, When the War Began," an independent production based on his adaptation of the first in a series of novels by John Marsden. "We're crewing up, casting, scouting and gearing up for a Sept. 28 shoot," he said. "My first feature as a director."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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