A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

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  • A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

    This is a very interesting story and something to possibly study if you're a writer. Back in 1991, two very different scripts were written, one as a spec by Zak Penn, and one as a rewrite by Shane Black. Both stand vigorously by their drafts. Both claim that their scripts were ultimately screwed up by a production process where each key player was trying to make a different movie (The producers wanted an action film, Arnold wanted a backstory that ultimately didn't work for the character, and the writers wanted to make the next "Wizard of Oz").

    Making things kinda fun, another key player was Chris Moore, that of Project Greenlight fame.

    It all started when Zak Penn and Adam Leff decided to write a screenplay spoofing the action films of the 80s. They wrote a script titled, "Extremely Violent" about an Arnold-type action star whose world was rocked by an extremely movie-savvy 17 year old who magically crossed into his movie world. They thought it would be great to have a guy who said things like, "Hey no, you can't go have a scene with your CIA contact now. Your wife is dying." Basically the action equivalent of Scream before Scream was made.

    These two bastards wrote this script in college, came to Hollywood, and sold it immediately. The agent who eventually received the script and sold it for them was none other than Chris Moore, who admitted he never would've read the damn thing had a lunch not canceled on him at the last second. Moore loved this script. Loved it. He still talks about it today sadly and hopes that in five or ten years, after everyone's forgotten about it, he'll get a chance to remake it. He believes in the material that much.

    After the sale, in order to actually get the thing made, they were trying to package it with the kind of group that would bring buzz to the project. Of course at that time, there was no bigger name than Shane Black. The irony here was that Penn and Leff wrote the script making fun of Black's writing style (in the same way that the movie was making fun of action films). Moore knew if he could get Black, the film would be made. So they went to him, got him the script, and Shane decided he wanted to produce it.

    Now even though nobody said anything specific, everyone's hope was that Shane would rewrite it - as a script written by Shane Black was gauranteed to be made (at this time). Although Shane resisted at first (he'd never rewritten anyone) he felt very strongly about the direction he wanted the story to go. Also at this time, Arnold wasn't officially signed on. So a Shane rewrite would likely be able to get him.

    Everything started off wonderfully. Shane told Penn and Leff that all of their ideas were welcome. He would send them pages, get their take, etc. After the very first exchange of pages however, Penn was livid. He felt that even in this small dose of change, that Shane had already begun to butcher and ruin his script. After a couple of meetings, things became so heated between the two that it was decided it was best if Penn and Leff were no longer involved.

    Here is Penn's explanation of why the changes Shane made were terrible..."They added mobsters. They're taking the movie out of the strict action movie genre and trying to make it a parody of many different kinds of movies. Some of it's a parody of James Bond movies, some of it's a parody of action movies, and some of it's a parody of buddy camp noirish movies. It's pretty astounding to see how badly they screwed it up," Penn said, laughing.

    Zack felt that Shane shifted the parody of the hero to much more of the Mel Gibson-Bruce Willis archetype. The "wisecracking, angry down-on-his-luck cop, which is a pretty enormous change and pretty much pervades every line of Arnold's dialogue. I think, frankly, that it hurts the movie tremendously, because the whole point of the movie was the counterpoint between the kid who's smart and like us, and the other character who's a fantasy character, who's an idiot, who's literally one-dimensional."

    Shane shot back that Penn can say what he wants, but the reality is is that his draft is the one that got Arnold on board, and therefore ultimately got the movie made.

    I love it! Two writers brawling! Who says writers aren't badasses?

    I think Penn brings up a good point, and it's a lesson in how dumb Hollywood can be. The whole idea is that this action hero character is one-dimensional. He doesn't know anything because he's in a movie. You're making fun of that. But then Arnold comes along and says that he wants his character to be more fleshed out, have a backstory, have a family. Okay that's great and all, but it doesn't make sense for the story at all. But of course this is when Arnold was the biggest box office draw in the world. Who's going to say no to anything he asks for?

    Anyway, both writers stand by their drafts. And both drafts are available.

    Here's the spec draft: http://www.awesomefilm.com/script/La...t%20Draft).pdf

    And here's the Shane Black draft: http://www.awesomefilm.com/script/Last_Action_Hero.pdf

    Decide for yourself who's right.
    Script Reviews - 5 a week! http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/

  • #2
    Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

    wilsoneads -

    If you end up being half as good at screenwriting as you are at story analysis, you're going to work for a very, very long time. Thanks for continually bringing relevant, helpful material to the forefront.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

      ditto, that was an excellent read.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

        "who admitted he never would've read the damn thing had a lunch not canceled on him at the last second"... which proves the point of how much luck as in right place - right time is how a lot of things happen
        "you have to write right, right?" -- Todd Gordon

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        • #5
          Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

          Zak Penn gave his side also in a post on the Wordplayer site back in 1999 ... it's in the Wordplayer hall of fame section.

          http://www.wordplayer.com/forums/forufame-MZ.html

          Scroll down on the left side to the post by "Zak."

          And thanks for posting this, wilsoneads, I've been looking forward to reading the original draft for a long time.

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

            Originally posted by goosetown View Post
            wilsoneads -

            If you end up being half as good at screenwriting as you are at story analysis, you're going to work for a very, very long time. Thanks for continually bringing relevant, helpful material to the forefront.
            Hear! Hear!
            "Tone is now engaged in a furious Google search for Leighton Meester's keester." -- A friend of mine

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

              Thanks guys. I really am fascinated by this stuff. How a good spec can turn so bad so quickly. What went wrong? How did it go wrong? And could it have been prevented? BTW, this was first brought to my attention in a book by Thom Taylor. I forgot the title unfortunately.

              I just think it's funny because I think of Chris Moore trying to make this deal and I can't imagine it. "Where's Jeff Bayless!?" Apparently he was a bit of a golden boy back then. Incidentally, I heard he's directing his first movie.

              winter dreams, thank you for the link.

              todd, it's true man. the work has to be up to par but even then, it's gotta be the right place, right time. I think of how much time I have (quite a bit, relatively speaking) and even on a good day I can only read 3 scripts. These agents? After making calls and going to meetings all day then going home to their family? I wonder how they would even be able to read one or two scripts in a week. Take for instance that Chris Moore was trying to get all these producers to read it, and there was a big fish (sorry, forgot his name) that he was really targeting. And the guy came back and said, "Sorry, I just wasn't into it." And Chris Moore said, "Listen man. You know me. You know I have good taste. I think you're wrong here. I think you should read it again." And the guy's like "okay." He comes back the next day and is like, "You're right. It's amazing. I love it. I'll be honest with you. I didn't read it. I had someone cover it in my department. I fvcked up."
              Last edited by ScriptShadow; 01-18-2009, 05:39 PM.
              Script Reviews - 5 a week! http://scriptshadow.blogspot.com/

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

                I agree. Late to the party, but I agree.

                Great post.
                @TerranceMulloy

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

                  You are a hero.. I love reading about this sort of stuff, and thanks for posting the links to the scripts!
                  pay for soup
                  build a fort
                  set that on fire

                  jmb

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                  • #10
                    Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

                    Thanks for this. Always wanted to read the original script. Anything is better than Danger Girl, which I'm currently reading.
                    "What's worse than being talked about? Not being talked about."

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

                      Great post, wilson. Thanks for the insight.
                      For more of my thoughts on screenwriting, check out my blog.
                      Jonny Atlas Writes!

                      - Sic Semper Tyrannis.

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                      • #12
                        Re: A Study In Spec History - What happened with The Last Action Hero?

                        Originally posted by wilsoneads View Post
                        Thanks guys. I really am fascinated by this stuff. How a good spec can turn so bad so quickly. What went wrong? How did it go wrong? And could it have been prevented? BTW, this was first brought to my attention in a book by Thom Taylor. I forgot the title unfortunately.

                        I just think it's funny because I think of Chris Moore trying to make this deal and I can't imagine it. "Where's Jeff Bayless!?" Apparently he was a bit of a golden boy back then. Incidentally, I heard he's directing his first movie.
                        The book by Thom Taylor is called THE BIG DEAL: HOLLYWOOD'S MILLION DOLLAR SPEC SCRIPT MARKET. It is essential reading for any screenwriter.

                        And Jeff Balis was not working for Moore when Moore was an agent. They have both gone on to direct their first films last year.
                        Twitter: @WriterLe

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Spec History - Write It Until You Need Glasses

                          Welcome to Hollywood!

                          It's like the crazy guy says in Strick's TRUE BELIEVER - what you say into the telephone isn't what comes out the other end.

                          You write a script about a close-knit family of sharecroppers struggling to survive the great depression, the movie ends up about the close-knit crew of a torpedo boat struggling to survive WW2. Just the way the biz works.

                          - Bill
                          Free Script Tips:
                          http://www.scriptsecrets.net

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                          • #14
                            Re: Spec History - Write It Until You Need Glasses

                            You're absolutely right, Bill. It happens a lot.

                            And your WWII comment reminded me of another script that didn't make it to the screen quite as it was intended - PEARL HARBOR. I'll never forget going to see it and the horror that befell me about a half-hour into the movie as I was discovering that it was one of the worst pieces of trash ever to hit the screen. I was furious when I left - Michael Bay had just taken a ****ty romance drama and stuck a 45-minute Naval battle in the middle of it - and couldn't even imagine how the WWII Vets must have felt.

                            I found out sometime later that PEARL HARBOR had originally been titled TENNESSEE and was, more or less, about the romantic triangle from the film (two soldiers and a nurse of the era) and how the protagonists struggled with the controversy in Middle America circa 1940. And then the ultimate producers of PEARL HARBOR got a hold of it, decided it could market as a big-budget war epic, and retooled everything to settle around Hawaii.

                            Can you imagine being the writer on THAT one? Yoy.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: Spec History - Write It Until You Need Glasses

                              Interesting, but did Penn really have any say in it? He cashed his check and that's that. I don't know but if I ever sell anything I understand I've got my money and I need to focus on selling the next script. I guess it's not always that simple.

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