Commentary: World of difference between writing for films, theater


Writing words: For writers, it's not 3,000 miles but a world of difference that separates Hollywood from Broadway.

The fact is L.A. and New York are far apart in terms of the power, influence, status and compensation that writers receive for their work. For some insights into how writing for the screen and for the Broadway stage differs I caught up Tuesday with Dan Gordon, whose drama "Irena's Vow," starring four-time Tony Award nominee Tovah Feldshuh, and directed by Michael Parva, opens Sunday at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre. There's already talk that "Irena" will be a contender for Best Play when this year's Tony nominations are announced in May.

The play's Web site describes it as "the riveting, life-affirming story about one of the most courageous and unsung heroines of World War II. During the German occupation of Poland, Irena Gut Opdyke, a Polish Catholic, was forced to work as head housekeeper for a prominent German major. Over a two-year period of service, Irena would risk her own life in order to protect the lives of twelve Jewish refugees whom she secretly took under her care. 'Irena's Vow' is the extraordinary true story of one woman's choice and the twelve lives that would ultimately be saved -- or lost -- by her decision."

If "Irena" were a movie -- which it will be with Gordon writing and directing, but that's getting ahead of ourselves for now -- it could have a good shot at Oscar consideration as Holocaust driven stories have resonated well over the years with Academy members -- most recently with the best picture nominated "The Reader."

Although Gordon's making his Broadway debut with "Irena" he's written a number of other plays, including hit adaptations for the British stage of "Rain Man," starring Josh Hartnett, and "Terms of Endearment," starring Linda Gray. His stage adaptation of "Murder in the First," which he wrote for the screen, is to be produced in New York by the Invictus Theatre for the 2009-10 season.

Among Gordon's screenwriting credits (shared) are the 1999 drama "The Hurricane," for which Denzel Washington was Oscar nominated; the 1994 western drama "Wyatt Earp," starring Kevin Costner; the 1997 thriller "The Assignment," starring Ben Kingsley; and the 1995 thriller "Murder in the First," starring Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater.

With his wealth of stage and screen writing experience, Gordon's well positioned to talk about the rewards and challenges of working on both sides of the writing fence. There are, he told me, "night and day differences" between writing for the theater and for films and he calls Hollywood's "development hell" system "a very painful experience, done by committee (and one in which) writers are inter-changeable."

When a script attracts a top director or star's interest, Gordon explained, one of the first things that happens is that a new writer is brought on board to rewrite it for them. "Which is interesting because it's your script that got the movie star or the director in the first place," he said. "Everyone says, 'It's wonderful! Now let's change it.' So you wind up seeing your best material (changed), for which you have been paid royally, but in exchange for that you signed over your work and they can take it, rewrite it, add to it, bring in 10 new writers, have two sets of different writers working in parallel who know nothing about (one another) and turn it into whatever they feel like turning it into.

"On the creative end of it, I've never known a writer who will not admit to the pain of that process. It's a pain for which we're amply compensated, but on a creative level it's a painful experience. And nothing much good comes out of it, by the way. Good things start to come out of it when you have one creative direction. But when you're still in the committee stage, when you're developing it with studio executives who go back to what they call their 'group' -- and these are all nice people, by the way, I don't want to vilify anybody, it's just the nature of the beast -- nothing good comes of that process. It doesn't serve the studios well and the fate of anything that's being developed by the 'group' is they'll choose to develop it as opposed to abandoning it because they don't want someone else to do it."

That thinking holds, he added, until a major star or an A-List director says they are interested in making the project "or until they've spent so much money on it they say, 'Well, it's just time to bury it.' " However, if a director comes on board that changes everything: "Then it can begin to take shape again because you don't have the 'group,' you've got the director and the director then can shape it into whatever the director wants either working with his or her own go-to writer, which many of them have, or whomever they decide to bring on at that point. And then again it will get back to the creative process of one vision guiding this thing. But as long as it's the vision from a corporate group I've never seen anything good come out of it with the exception of the types of movies that the studios now like to do, which are the tentpole comic book movies. An awful lot of them -- I won't say all of them -- are more a function of the marketing than anything else."

Other than being well paid, do screenwriters have much in the way of power or prestige? "Very little," Gordon answered, "because the truth is the engine that drives any movie is the movie star. Movies get made because movie stars want to make them. So the top of the pecking order is the movie star. The movie star generally wants to know who the director is because that's going to influence the way they look, how their performance comes across (and) who's going to take them in interesting places (as actors) that they haven't gone into before. And a lot of them are drawn to screenplays, but not drawn enough to say, 'I was so impressed by that screenplay that, by God, that original writer has to be the one who's through to the end.' That's very, very, very rare."

Meanwhile, 3,000 miles east on Broadway, do writers have more clout? "We're gods," he laughed. "The only place the writer has more power than in the theater is as a show runner on television. A show runner on television -- the writing executive producer -- has a Vesuvian-like amount of power. The writer in theater has approvals over casting (and) over marketing. Usually you can put in an approval of your director. Such a thing is unheard of as a screenwriter. In theater that's close to a given."

Playwrights have approval, he emphasized, over everything from casting to "who's hired as a director, who's hired to do the sets, the music, incidental music. The flat out fun is that you get to work with everybody. It's just the most fun in the world. You come to the theater and get a sense of the people coming in every night and unlike movies where once the thing is done and in the can, in theater it's pretty much always a work in progress. You can go to the theater on a given night and say, 'Gee, I have an idea for a great new speech and let's try it out tomorrow' and you will. If the thing works, it will be up on the boards the next night."

In the theater, if someone wants to change a line of dialogue, Gordon pointed out, "they can only do it with your approval. They have to come on bended knee, cowering, genuflecting at all times to the writer and say, 'I have an idea to maybe change this particular line. Is that all right with you?' And I'm talking about the biggest stars on Broadway (who) must get the opinion of the lowliest paid playwright. If you are the playwright, nobody changes a word without your approval."

In Hollywood, if a star wants to change a line of dialogue do they have to call the screenwriter to ask permission? "Oh please," he laughed. "I can't tell you the number of sets from which I've been barred on movies that I've written yet alone having any sort of approval of whether they change (anything). The movie star on a movie is God and can pretty damn well do whatever they want to do.

"It's interesting when you see movie stars work on Broadway and have to stick to a text. They sometimes are stymied by the fact that they can't change dialogue or that they need to actually stick to the words on the page. It's a different muscle they're not used to working. This season I think there are more movie stars on Broadway than ever in the history of Broadway. It's very exciting for Broadway audiences. They like it because they get to see movie stars up close in the flesh without someone saying, 'Okay, cut, let's do another take.' You're up there on the boards and you live and die in the time period between curtain up and curtain down.

"Theater is an actor and writer's medium much more than a director's medium. Motion pictures are in terms of artistic involvement much more a director's medium. I think actors get that instant gratification and feedback feel of the audience. Talk to any actor who plays legitimate theater and once they finish telling you about how great the fear (of doing live theater) was and get into the enjoyment of (performing) they wax rhapsodic because it's just great, great fun."

Asked if writers are as well compensated for working in the theater as they are for working in Hollywood, Gordon replied, "If the play's a hit you can make a chunk of change. If the play's a flop, you're not going to make a dime. You get a piece of boxoffice. And, again, what an extraordinary concept! You get a piece off the top. If you're getting 6% of boxoffice, what that means is you don't need Price Waterhouse to figure out what that is. You just take the total of boxoffice as reported and you say, 'I want 6% of it.' That's what you're going to get. They usually have a sliding scale. When they get 100% of recoupment there's a scale and you get more money at 125% of recoupment. And you can usually put in your contract that you get another bump as well. So the writer has a vested interest and that's a nice concept. If we fail, we all fail together. If we make money, we all make money together."

Gordon's worked in both fields and said he will continue to do so because "I have a lot of alimony that needs to get paid. Someone once said, 'What is your greatest inspiration?' I said, 'Alimony. It inspires me every morning of my life.' I've been really lucky. I've done 300 hours of television and I've got a feature that's coming up this year that will be my 11th feature."

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