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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

When Bad Things Happen to Good Writers

Wavers, we are lucky indeed to hear from one of the writers of SHARK SWARM. The Wave-inatrix actually has been a casualty of the development process and I've seen it happen to other writers as well. And yet I still wrote a rather snarky bad review of the finished work and for that I apologize for impugning the writers in a rather cavalier manner. So the Wave-iantrix humbly offers my apologies, a cupcake and excerpts of the email I received from the writer in which he explains what went so very wrong and why. Listen and learn.

***

Hi Julie,I’m one of the writers of SHARK SWARM.

SHARK SWARM was an assignment project that I and my writing partner took over a year and a half ago. It was to be a four-hour miniseries with a fairly large budget, and it was scheduled to air on a network other than Hallmark, thus ensuring that we could include a good bit of violent content -- after all, it was a killer shark movie – who would ever expect it to end up on Hallmark, right? My partner and I worked night and day for two months, finally turning in a 240-page draft. In the end, we were very happy with it. Our script was a satirical marriage between a Peyton Place-esque small town story and 70s-style “nature run amok” movies. We wrote a series of interconnected three-dimensional characters with motivations and conflicts that were more than just surface traits (a la simple stubbornness), we poked merciless fun at corporate greed as well as blind activism, we wrote huge setpieces that would put the cost somewhere in the 30 million dollar range – pretty high for a miniseries.Then, production began. Actors and crew were hired, executives got involved, and filming commenced. We were involved in the early going during pre-production and helped to smooth out a few things, but as the film rolled, our job was done. A week into it, the budget was lowered considerably, the network deal changed, and Hallmark became the destination. An hour was hacked out of the script by the production crew. Certain big-name actors who’ve been working for years decided to change every single line of their dialogue. Other actors changed their characters entirely. Connective scenes were deleted by the producers, while scenes that we hadn’t written were added. Characters were dropped, subplots disappeared, setpieces were rewritten by producers to make them smaller, logic be damned.

The entire film was restructured in editing, meticulously researched scientific scenes (I visited marine biologists in Monterey and Santa Cruz) were dropped, reshoots were done to change character motivations and plot points, the climax was dropped in favor of a completely retooled and simplified scene that we never would have written. The final cut was a drastically different film than the one we wrote. While maybe fifty percent of our scenes made it in, they were reshaped entirely and often filled with dialogue we didn’t write. Here are a few examples. That toxic dumping thing? Not ours. Our script dealt with offshore drilling that inadvertently uncovered a mineral sheaf with electromagnetic qualities that affected local sharks and sent them into a perpetual feeding frenzy. Those pulse guns? In our draft, they were minor ultrasonic caving devices that were only used in two scenes, not supersecret military weapons. That shark cage sequence? Utterly different in our draft. And that only scratches the surface. Even worse, the final cut, which is twenty-five minutes longer and actually features a few scenes that we ended up liking, was butchered further for the Hallmark showing. So even LESS of our work made it through.

Anyone who goes through the production process knows that it’s often a wonder that ANY script survives remotely intact. Ours was one of the casualties, and the producers themselves know it. That’s the nature of the beast. At the same time, it provided a stepping stone that got us plenty of other work and allowed us a greater deal of control in the process. Since writing SHARK SWARM, we’ve written two television films (one for Spike and one for Lifetime). We’re currently working on a miniseries for one of the Big 3 networks and a feature film for one of the best actors in the business. We’ve got a career now.SHARK SWARM was our first produced credit, and we’re still quite proud of our script, despite its vast difference from the finished product.

***

And that, Wavers, is a great response. My worry, Shark Swim writers - is that aspiring writers will view this type of finished product and think that it's then okay to write scripts with gaps of logic, etc., not being aware that in actuality, the script was probably quite good and that the production may not be a representation of what is on the page.

I must say, I thought Assante's dialogue was really good - did that stay intact? He was smarmy and insincere but quite articulate and the interspersed speeches about "neighbors" and "solidarity" were fantastic. So again, cupcakes for the Shark Swim writes for taking a moment to add to the conversation and my apologies for being snarky about something that must have been a frustrating experience.

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5 comments:

Jeff Lyons said...

Dear Shark Swarm Writer:

My heart and word processor go out to you. Your experience on this show is the writing equivalent to what seals experience in the kelp forests by Catalina Island during Great White mating season. Ok, I won't keep up the shark metaphors, but I really appreciate your pain.

Don't be so hard on Julie though, she only calls it as she sees it, and what she saw is not what you wrote! What she saw was a mess (no fault of yours) and a silly mess at that. The great lesson here is for other writers to learn to appreciate the realities of what happens when they are lucky enough to be really working on a job and (sorry) swimming with the sharks... it isn't safe out there and producers eat their young when told to by the VP of Production. Correction, they eat their young and have the writers for desert.

Frankly, I'd love to hear more about your experience, it is a cautionary tale worth telling to toughen up the new generation of seals as they enter the Hollywood kelp killing ground.

Ok, I lied about the metaphors.

Best of luck to you Shark Swarm Writer!!!

Jeff Lyons

Davros said...

Hey Jeff,

No worries, and just to let you know, I assured Julie in my message to her that I wasn't attacking her, but just trying to illuminate the process a bit more for anyone who's keen to enter this business.

While I'm not saying that our script was perfect (it's about mutated killer sharks, after all) I thought it was a fun, darkly humorous throwback to the type of genre flicks that we love. We even named F. Murray Abraham's character after the director of the 1970s shlocker DAY OF THE ANIMALS.

Although the film didn't turn out how we envisioned it, we're not remotely bitter -- indeed, we wear it as a badge of pride, and we're even doing a DVD signing at Dark Delicacies in Burbank next week.

While the DVD version retains the plot holes caused during production, it's also considerably better than the butchered Hallmark cut, which excised about twenty minutes and also featured a boatload of incomplete effects shots. Anything bloody was cut right out, as with anything sexual. Also missing are character introductions as well as my absolute favorite scene, which finds a young girl who has already witnessed an attack forced back into the water by her clueless parents. It's both mean-spirited and funny as hell. This and other scenes have been reinstated, elevating it to at least fun, goofy b-movie status.

Oh, and Julie, the "neighbors" and "solidarity" speeches were ours. Virtually everything else was Armand's. While some of it worked, I do think that our dialogue was more, ahem, biting.

PJ McIlvaine said...

I can feel for Mr. Shark Swarm. My one big fear with my Showtime movie was that it would get mangled through no fault of my own. My experience, however, was Nirvana compared to this one. Whew!

Julie Gray said...

Wow, what a rousing day on the Rouge Wave! Well, Shark Swim writers, I would seriously love to come to your signing and get a copy of the dvd. If I bring a cupcake will you tell me where and when?
xo

Davros said...

Julie, we'd absolutely love it if you came. And yep, cupcakes are always welcome! The signing is on Saturday, June 7th, at 2 pm at Dark Delicacies in Burbank.

Here's the address:

4213 W. Burbank Blvd.
Burbank, CA 91505

FYI, Dark Delicacies is a family-owned shop that has become the premiere horror-related book and video store on the West Coast.

Their official website is www.darkdel.com. Those who live outside California can order a bevy of awesome signed memorabilia online, including signed copies of the SHARK SWARM DVD (we can personalize them with tons of profanity, if you want ;-). We don't make a dime for this event, but you'll be supporting a fantastic small business.

Looking forward to seeing you there!