I always tell students you can’t launch and sustain a career by writing good or really good scripts. You have to write truly great scripts. That’s the bar. Students sometimes want to know if writers need to consistently write exceptional scripts why are there so many terrible movies?
It’s a great question. And this New York Times Magazine article detailing the sobering script development process for this year’s disappointing Robin Hood helps gives part of the answer.
Here’s the New York Times Magazine’s Article:
“Many have noted that in the current version of Robin Hood, now out in theaters, Robin Hood does not actually rob from the rich or give to the poor. Perhaps that’s because in the insanely expensive development process for the Russell Crowe movie, the idea of redistribution of wealth hit a little too close to home for the filmmakers: Universal spent $6.7 million in scriptwriting costs just to eventually produce the complete opposite of the original story they’d intended to tell. And it was costly in other ways, too: The making of this epic would cause the near-splintering of one of Hollywood’s most successful actor-director partnerships, Crowe and Ridley Scott. The new movie might not live up to the famous Nottingham legend, but the behind-the-scenes tale of what went wrong should certainly be part of Hollywood lore.
It began with an original spec script called Nottingham, written by Sleeper Cell creators Cyrus Voris and Ethan Reif, the latter of whom had studied medieval history in college. It was, technically, a lighthearted Robin Hood movie, but with a clever twist: What if the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham had actually been a good guy, a dedicated public servant who’d just suffered from bad PR? What if Robin Hood was really kind of a jerk? What if they both had a thing for Marian? And what if the whole story were told from the perspective of this intriguing Sheriff?
Most studios and producers immediately passed on the Nottingham script when it hit their in-boxes in January 2007. It was set in the twelfth century (expensive!), it wasn’t based on a toy, board game, or action figure (Robin who?), and so far, it had no big-name talent interested. But four days after the spec script went out — an eternity in Hollywood development — it caught fire: Bryan Singer called, hoping to direct it at Warner Bros., and Jon Turtelbaub (National Treasure) expressed interest in making it at Disney. Suddenly, George Freeman, Russell Crowe’s agent at William Morris — where Reif and Voris were also repped — was interested, too: Was this something the Aussie Oscar-winner could star in? Absolutely!
By the next Monday, Crowe had read the Nottingham script and attached himself as the Sheriff. With him in place and several hot directors circling, studio executives who’d already passed were suddenly saying they wanted to read Nottingham again. A bidding war erupted: New Line Cinema made an offer, and so did Warner Bros. But Crowe had just made the hit American Gangster at Universal with Imagine, and wanted to make another film with producer Brian Grazer, so Universal agree to pay a whopping $1 million dollars to acquire the script, and another half-million if it got made. In April, Scott, who’d directed Crowe in the Best Picture–winning Gladiator, as well as A Good Year and American Gangster, came aboard to direct. Crowe, on a conference call with Imagine, Universal, and his agents, was told that Scott’s involvement would give him a chance to make a sequel to Gladiator — without having to make an actual sequel to Gladiator. At this, Crowe knew he was definitely in.
A month earlier, an ecstatic Voris and Reif had been told that they were being flown down to Australia to meet with Crowe and go over their script at the actor’s farm. But as soon as Scott’s arrival on the project was made public, the writers abruptly stopped getting phone calls from the studio. Their reservations to Australia were put on hold. And then, as usually happens in Hollywood, the pair of screenwriters found out they’d been fired not by being told, but by hearing that there was an open writing assignment at Universal; it was for a project called Robin Hood.
And now began the bizarre process of paying three other top-shelf screenwriters millions of dollars more to completely remove the very idea that supposedly made Nottingham worth acquiring for $1.5 million. Actually, scratch that: It actually began almost the moment Crowe said yes.
Crowe was eager to make the movie, but neither he nor Scott liked the Nottingham script’s unconventional focus on the Sheriff … which sounds a bit like saying, “I love this Crying Game, but can’t the lady just be a lady?” And so the director turned to screenwriter Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential, 8 Mile) to morph Nottingham into a more traditional Robin Hood tale. (Interviewed in the Sunday Times of London in April of this year, Scott told a reporter that the original premise was “fucking ridiculous” and that “you’d end up spending 80% of the publicity budget explaining why it was Nottingham and not just Robin Hood.”) Hired in the spring of 2008, Helgeland rewrote the script to tell the tale of Robin assuming the identity of the Sheriff of Nottingham after seeing him slain in battle. Hey, he’s the medieval Don Draper!
When Helgeland turned in his draft, Scott still didn’t care for the results. And so, Universal tried again, hiring British screenwriter Paul Webb (who had been writing on Steven Spielberg’s Abraham Lincoln biopic). Over the summer he made the film’s tone even more serious, according to insiders who read his draft. Crowe and Universal hoped that it would satisfy Scott, and that shooting might still be able to begin in early October 2008, just enough time to make a planned November 2009 release date.
But Scott was unhappy with Webb’s draft. With a Screen Actors Guild strike looming, and the release date blown, real tension began to mount between Crowe and Scott. Their familiar bonhomie had been replaced by frosty, terse exchanges. “There was a feeling of ‘Get it right already!” recalls one insider. “They were always speaking, but barely.” Said another source who watched the relationship deteriorate, “There were a lot of forces who all believed they were trying to do the right thing.”
Under pressure, the director turned once again to Helgeland for another draft at the start of 2009: In it, Robin would not impersonate the Sheriff, but rather a slain knight from Nottingham, and would fall in love with the knight’s widow, Marian. Now, Scott had finally gotten the story he wanted, but at a fairly high price to his personal relationship with Crowe, and to William Morris, too. The actor and director shared one of the agency’s top agents, George Freeman, but things got so tense that to save WMA’s relationship with Crowe, its president, Dave Wirtshafter, had to step in and help with Scott’s business. After all, Freeman — who’d long juggled representing both men but had started out as Crowe’s publicist — knew his loyalties had to at least appear to lie with his impatient and hot-tempered $20 million per film star.
When production started in April 2009 on what Universal Pictures was calling — even at that late date — An Untitled Robin Hood Adventure, the bickering over plot was mostly put aside. Yet after all that work to cement the story, there was still a lingering problem with the script: the dialogue.
The Nottingham-cum-Robin Hood script, having been repeatedly sawed apart and welded back together by so many, had a hero whose speech (somewhat unsurprisingly) suggested a multiple personality disorder. So, with the clock ticking, Universal hired still another Brit playwright, the Oscar-winning Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love), paying him hundreds of thousands of dollars to work as an on-set dialogue polisher, and pushing the film’s final screenwriting tab to a whopping $6.7 million.
So again, for those keeping score: As the cameras rolled, Stoppard was rewriting Helgeland’s rewrite of Webb’s rewrite of Helgeland’s rewrite of Voris and Reif’s original script, which started out with the complete inverse of the present concept. (Voris and Reif receive a shared “story by” credit on the film — the least amount of credit legally allowed for an original screenplay by the Writers Guild of America.)
For all that work and expense, Crowe and Scott have failed to improve on either the last Robin Hood movie to come along (1991’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) or their own Gladiator: As BoxOfficeMojo.com recently pointed out, Robin Hood had a $36.1 million opening; when the other films are adjusted for ticket-price inflation, Prince of Thieves‘ $25.6 million opening is equal to $48 million today, and Gladiator‘s opening would equal over $51 million today.
Amusingly enough, the New York Times would ultimately call Robin Hood a “crowded, lumbering film” — likely without realizing exactly how apt a description that really was”.
Ed. Note: This story was assembled by speaking to multiple sources close to all stages of the development process and who would only comment with the promise of anonymity.
Posted in Corey’s Blog | June 11, 2010