Monster: Living Off the Big Screen by John Gregory Dunne

Random House 1997 203 pp. 21.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Eight years, twenty-seven drafts, countless threats and counter-threats later, John Gregory Dunne and his wife, Joan Didion, saw their honest telling of the bitter and short life of reporter Jessica Savitch transformed into the saccharine piffle we know as Up Close & Personal, starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Usually there’s some question about whether the movie’s better than the book it’s based on. Monster is a book about a movie that’s much, much better than most movies midwifed by Hollywood. This entertaining mixture of drollery, insider information, and sophistication parts occasionally long enough to allow us to see JGD the business bulldog behind JGD the gifted writer.

Dunne and Didion were approached by the Katzenberg and Eisner incarnation of Disney (nicknamed Mouschwitz or Duckau by its jovial employees) to write a screenplay on the troubled life of television’s star blonde reporter who died "by drowning with her last lover in three feet of Delaware Canal mud after a freak automobile accident." In Katzenberg’s first meeting with them, he wanted to know if she really had to die in the end.

"It was a question we had anticipated. If the character was not called Jessica Savitch, we answered carefully, then it was not necessary that she die. Disney, with its family reputation, was also uncomfortable with Savitch’s addiction to cocaine. The transformation had begun, and the caveats to add up, if only inferentially. Savitch had once had an affair with CBS newscaster Ed Bradley, and we surmised that the interracial nature of that relationship might be another source of discomfort for Disney’s core audience. Her abortions could also pose a problem, as could her two marriages, especially the second to a gay gynecologist who, less than a year after they married, hanged himself from a crossbeam in the basement of her Philadelphia home. And it was clear that an uplifting story that would make an audience feel good about itself was not going to encompass any allusion either to Savitch’s suicide attempts or to the lesbian episodes in her life."

So while "her story was a perfect cautionary gloss on the perils of the counterculture," Dunne shows that Disney, along with the rest of Hollywood, is not concerned with truth, or history, or ourselves, but instead about engineering emotional uplift for the purpose of profit. In Dunne’s version, this is more a description than a criticism, since what’s riding on his participation is not a desire to make the world better, but to keep up his medical insurance payments by remaining in the Writer’s Guild.

Throughout the endless writes and re-writes, Dunne and Didion found themselves dealing not with studio heads, but with "creative executives," many of whom are "second-generation Hollywood, often innocent of history, politics, art, and Western civilization," who offered dependably contradictory advice. Frustrated, Dunne asked Scott Rudin, who spent some time producing the film, "’Scott, what do you think this picture is really about?’ ‘It’s about two movie stars,’ Rudin said."

Throughout this tale Dunne offers instructive information both to fans and those—masochists—who might consider screenwriting as a career.

Dunne has encountered two types of executives, the smoothies and the bully boys. "In general, … we prefer doing business with the bully boys than with the smoothies. The clout of the bully boys allows them to act as a baffle between you and the studio … The bad behavior they seldom take the trouble to refute … rarely takes into account that they are usually smart. If you let them know you will yell back when they yell at you, then they are more prone to listen—or else they fire you quickly; the smoothies just jerk your chain and smile as they measure your rib cage—for the ribs between which they will slip the stiletto."

While most might consider screenwriting a lucrative profession, screenwriters themselves would prefer to be script doctors.

"The exorbitance of rewriting fees--$100,000 to $200,000 a week for the top script doctors … makes a production rewrite the most sought-after script job in the Industry. … The justification for such fees is that if a studio is forced to cancel a picture because of script difficulties, it is still liable for preproduction costs that could have mounted into the millions of dollars before a frame of film was shot."

And no scriptwriter should turn in the best that he can do. Instead, he should lard the work with unacceptable elements. "What you do with any script is pile on the objectionable in order to give yourself flexibility when stars or the cops for the production code order cuts; the rule is lose some, keep the ones you want."

But what seems to be the worst part of screenwriting is not the writing, but the attempt to deal with your employers, whose mercurial judgments and temperaments, as well as their peripatetic habits, make every day an assault to the nervous system. "A whole day could be spent fixing two lines, as in Scene 19, where it took three faxes and a half dozen telephone calls to beepers changing the line ‘Just do it better" to "A little local color goes a long way."

Screenwriters, a group who Jack Warner once called "Schmucks with Underwoods," are overpaid and underappreciated, feared and maligned, sought-after and snubbed. Monster is the most recent fax from the front lines in Hollywood, full of the anger, humor, and bemused ambivalence that comes with the job description.