Script doctors are the well-remunerated but mostly unsung heroes of the film world, usually brought in to pep up lacklustre dialogue, help nail that difficult third act and generally give the movie an extra touch of class. Recruited from the ranks of established/hot writers, the gig can be seen as a lucrative payday, with little opprobrium attached if the picture is a flop and high praise if it is seen as having benefited from their input.
In the words of rewrite king Tom Mankiewicz (The Spy Who Loved Me, The Deep, The Eagle has Landed, Goonies, Gremlins etc): “It’s one of the few times when the writer has a certain control over a film, because you’re coming in when the people on the film are at their most insecure, after all, if you’re there, they’ve had to admit that they needed someone there to help them out ... You’re coming in like Jack Palance in Shane. You’re the hired gun. Everyone is waiting for a revelation. You’re supposed to bring better parts for the actors, better scenes for the director. And sometimes, everyone likes it, not because it’s necessarily better, but just because it’s different.”
In the case of Bond 25, the addition of Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the scriptwriters’ room should be accounted a blessing, especially if the pedestrian team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade remain on board. The duo have been a fixture of Bond movies since 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, usually with a co-writer such as Paul Haggis to brush up the dialogue and plotting. Left to their own devices they almost managed to sink the franchise with the uninspiring CGI-fest that was Die Another Day (2002).
But to be fair, writing Bond scripts, although a nice earner, didn’t really bring out the best of either Roald Dahl (You Only Live Twice, 1967) or Flashman writer George MacDonald Fraser (Octopussy, 1983).
Other writers have managed to stamp some of their personality on the mainstream fare on which they were asked to sprinkle their particular brands of fairy dust. Quentin Tarantino punched up a couple of scenes in Tony Scott’s submarine actioner Crimson Tide (1995) with Silver Surfer and Star Trek pop culture references, although to some viewers they appeared somewhat jarring in context.
Hunter (Denzel Washington): Star Trek! The USS Enterprise? All right, now you remember when the Klingons were gonna blow up the Enterprise and Captain Kirk calls down to Scotty, he says: “Scotty, I gotta have more power-”
Vossler (Lillo Brancato Jr): He needs more, more warp speed, yeah.
Hunter: Warp speed, exactly. Now I’m Captain Kirk, you’re Scotty, I need more power. I’m telling you if you do not get this radio up, a billion people are gonna die; now it’s all up to you, I know it’s a shitty deal but you got it, can you handle it?
Under the pseudonym Richard Weisz, playwright David Mamet’s major contributions to 1998’s Ronin elevated the movie with some trademark jet black humour. An example:
Spence (Sean Bean): You ever kill anybody?
Sam (Robert De Niro): Hurt somebody’s feelings once.
Sam: So, how’d you get started in this business?
Deirdre (Natascha McElhone): A wealthy scoundrel seduced and betrayed me.
Sam: Same with me. How about that?
Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?
Sam: Yeah, I am. It covers my body.
The late Carrie Fisher was said to be the most sought-after script doctor in Hollywood, chalking up an extensive list of well-paid rewrite gigs, including Hook (1991), Sister Act (1992), Lethal Weapon III (1992) and The Wedding Singer (1998). Hardly arthouse classics, but again, nice work if you can get it.
Some writers have found the role of script doctor a way of filling in time when they suffer from writer’s block or can’t get their own projects off the ground. Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network) said: “I did it because I was just going through a period where I was having a very difficult time coming up with my own ideas. I was climbing the walls. So I did what is called ‘the production polish’, where you are brought into the last two weeks on something that you are not emotionally invested in. Basically, they just wanted some snappy dialogue for Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage [in 1996’s The Rock].
When talking to Mark Lawson in 2010, the playwright Tom Stoppard was upfront in his motivations for indulging in his furtive-sounding once-a-year script polishes: “The second reason for doing it is that you get to work with people you admire. The first reason, of course, is that it’s overpaid.”
But others have found the role of script doctor dispiriting, despite the financial rewards, with Joss Whedon (Serenity, The Avengers) commenting: “I refer to myself as the world’s highest-paid stenographer. This is a situation I’ve been in a bunch of times.”
The saddest case may possibly that of the scriptwriting legend Robert Towne (The Last Detail, Chinatown, Shampoo) whose post-70s career mainly consists of script polishes (sometimes uncredited) and the first two Mission: Impossible movies.
So, Phoebe – what price Hollywood?