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as Research Tools

What 150 pages of brass-bound text tell you, and what they don't.

Original movie scripts float around Hollywood by the thousands - the unproduced kind, that is. Original scripts for finished films, especially classic titles, can be cherished collectors' items. Many new scripts are actually profitably published, as with the Tarantino script for Pulp Fiction, the sales performance of which attested to the desire for writers to emulate the latest 'hot' writing style.

But there are other uses for scripts. For a film which was reportedly cut or reedited before release, the original writer's draft scripts may be the only clues short of interviewing filmmakers in determining what a film's original form was meant to be. For example, if it were not for A. I. Bezzerides' original Kiss Me Deadly script so nicely preserved in the UCLA Theater Arts Reading Room, there would have been no real evidence that that film could have had a missing ending. Filmmakers' own recollections can be notoriously unreliable, as in the case of Frank Capra, who repeated his own tall tale of 'throwing away the first reel' of Lost Horizon so often through the years he apparently believed it. I heard Capra quote it twice in person to rapt audiences -- it's a great story. After appearing in print umpteen times, it has become the accepted truth, even though reading the production scripts for Horizon don't reveal the existence of any such 'first reel' to be thrown away.

I myself have been looking for a script of Peggy Sue Got Married, or perhaps even a novelization paperback of that Francis Coppola film, to settle a question. I've heard about some radical restructuring done on Peggy in post production, a 'rumor' that has some credence when one makes some observations on plot points in the film. Peggy Sue is very tightly constructed and most every story detail introduced 'pays off' in some way later in the film. All the characters introduced in the opening reunion scene figure in the dream / time travel flashback, and all are 'explained' - except Rosalie Testa, a woman in a wheelchair. Remember her? She remembers Peggy's locket. How did she become disabled? And in the flashback, Peggy has an overly tearful, nostalgic reunion with her awkward younger sister Nancy (Sofia Coppola) - who doesn't appear in the 1985 reunion scenes! What happened to the sister? The wrapup of the film presently hinges on a couple of very brief scenes that appear to be reshoots. Did Peggy become distraught and visit her grandparents at the end of the film because something awful happens to her sister? Did Coppola drop the whole subplot because it was too grim for the tone of his whimsical story? For all I know there were big articles on the subject when the film came out that I just missed. These are questions that could be quickly answered by someone with access to an original script, so there are logically hundreds of Hollywood folk for whom this 'mystery' is no mystery at all. But for the rest of us touched by Peggy Sue Got Married, the issue is an interesting one (This is a prompt for someone to set Savant straight!). 1

On the other end of the spectrum are the classics-that-were-never-made, unproduced screenplays that for one reason or another have become legendary items. These can take the form of draft versions that were discarded, as with an original RoboCop sequel by Ed Neumeier that expanded the robot crimefighter tale into a multi-generational saga about Murphy's son or grandson in the next century. Or they can be simply scripts that were never made for one reason or another but that circulate from writers to producers, usually with the words, 'this is the greatest script I have ever read'. This sometimes applies to scripts that eventually get made, such as John Sayles' Eight Men Out, or Miracle Mile, which for years were touted as the 'somebody's gotta make this' scripts. The title I have in mind is Walter Brown Newman's Harrow Alley, a truly remarkable epic with wonderful characters, hilarious dialogue, and absorbing drama, about great and universal ideas yet accessible at an intimate level. In short, the 'the greatest script I have ever read'. So why has it never become a movie? Apparently written in the early 60's and optioned again and again by parties unable to launch it (John Huston, George C. Scott), Harrow Alley is what is known as a 'tough sell'. I neglected to mention that it takes place in the 1700's, deals with the black plague, and most of the characters meet cruelly awful fates. It also needs an epic budget. Reading Harrow Alley is a thrill because one can't help but mentally cast one's own actors and director as the imagination kicks in. This is a trap, of course, because if the film were to be produced, it would obviously resemble the director's personal vision, and not mine. Right now Harrow Alley remains untouched and perfect, and not an actual, imperfectly realized movie. 2 With this logic, I pity anyone trying to film Lord of the Rings, whose millions of fans with personal conceptions of the story are bound to feel betrayed by any movie version. Likewise, the greatest detractors of Dune are invariably the loyal readers of the book series. (NOTE, 10/31/99: Both these properties are presently being remade, Dune as a television miniseries in Prague, and Rings as a theatrical trilogy in New Zealand!)


1) Just Because You Read it In The Script, It Doesn't Mean It Was Filmed.

Scripts often go through many rewrites, in which the content may change radically. At UCLA in the 70's the library maintained ten different drafts of Citizen Kane for students to chart its development. Ditto Point Blank, where we saw how a fairly straight gangster tale mutated in the course of its revisions into an oblique puzzle film. Both titles contain dozens of pages of scenes never filmed, that never came close to being shot. Although it is true that many scenes are shot and discarded from some films, the fact that a scene is scripted doesn't indicate much. Kiss Me Deadly's missing ending being in the script raised suspicions, but provided little proof. Paul Seydor's book on Sam Peckinpah details the fact that Major Dundee's mutilation is clouded by the fact that some script scenes were shot and some were not. The opening Hallowe'en party of Dundee, often quoted as Peckinpah's greatest written scene, is supposed to never have been filmed. I have a still from that scene, that, unless it was done at some in-costume rehearsal, would seem to indicate that the scene, or part of it, was indeed shot. The still isn't conclusive, but it is a lot more concrete than the script of Dundee, almost 40% of which is unfilmed scenes.

I was present for the production of 1941, a two-year process in which new script pages would sometimes appear on almost a daily basis. As more and more insane pages showed up detailing crazy tangent ideas like a Nazi spy headquarters hidden in the Ocean Park pier, revisions replaced revisions and rebinding one's script became a daily chore. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale's original was scarcely over a hundred pages, but the final script was so fat, margins were ignored to pack more words on each page in an effort to make the film look shorter to the studio. I saved the obsolete pages, which constitute an hilarious, but uncollatable, mass twice as thick as the actual script.

2.) Don't Confuse Shooting Scripts, Continuity Scripts, and As-Produced Scripts.

A shooting script is what actually was used on the set. This is obviously the most interesting and desirable kind of script. Many in UCLA's collection were director's scripts with their own notes, scribbles and sometimes even thumbnail storyboards. Script supervisor's copies can tell you exactly how many takes were made of each shot, and the director's opinion of each take. Art director's scripts are full of pasted-in photos, costumers might have fabric samples, etc. I cherish my Quatermass 2 script for what it tells me about the production of that film. I know it's the original because it includes folksy notes, such as several reminders to the crew that they will be filming in an oil refinery and cannot smoke. The script also follows the finished film so closely that I quickly surmised that Hammer productions must have been planned to the nth degree. Val Guest shot his script exactly as written and practically no improvisation of any kind took place. No wonder the 60's tearaway directors like Richard Lester were considered such wild men.

A continuity script is a studio's official technical description of the movie for preparing and maintaining prints. Little description remains, but each dialog line is entered with the actual footage of the reel it appears in, along with other notes. This kind of script is a blueprint for lab work, dubbing, legal reference (all the text titles are there too). I have the continuity script for Billy Wilder's One, Two Three, which includes a note from UA's subtitling and dubbing departments. Because there is so much fast dialog in the film they doubted it could ever be successfully prepared for foreign release! Continuity scripts are good for checking for missing scenes. Even if the scene in question is not present, the numbering of the shots might indicate a gap, or the presence of an unusually short reel might be a clue that material was taken out after the film was divided up into individual reels.

An as-produced script isn't much use at all, unless you like to read along with movies as you watch them. That's all that has actually been done - someone has just transcribed all the dialog and made a description of scenes that simply serve as a substitute for watching the film. Most of these are done completely after the fact and aren't going to be any help in learning anything new about the movie. A making-of book for It's a Wonderful Life has what is billed as an original script, which turns out to be an as-produced document (it even says so on the title page). In that case there is, I think, some not-so-subtle disinformation going on. The book chronicles some of the problems of the filming of the movie but this script-switching seems to me to be a deliberate attempt to make the success of that film appear to have been more 'Capra magic' than sweat and tears. (I have a pet theory that the film's structure had to be reinvented in post-production that I am trying to figure out how to present for Video Savant).

3.) Novelizations Are No Substitute For Scripts.

Those prolific writers who dash out (sometimes very good) novelizations are usually working from early script drafts, which of course end up differing greatly from the films. Although cut scenes may figure in these minibooks (contributors have convinced me that certain scenes missing from Duck You Sucker are included in that film's novelization), so do a lot of author inventions. It was common a couple of decades ago to have characters in "PG" films behaving and speaking in the novelizations in an "X" manner.

A comic version of 'GOG' (UA 1954)

Likewise potentially bogus are comic-book versions of movies. In the late 50's Dell started a series of comics that I loved and collected like a fiend because it was the very first way of preserving a movie experience that might go away forever (home video would have seemed ridiculous Sci-Fi at the time). The comic covers were often improvements on the movie poster art; I remember the beautiful painted covers for Master of the World and The Time Machine to this day. But gross inaccuracies cropped up for the same reasons they occurred in novelizations, when comic writers embellished the preproduction scripts they were given or pictured elements of stories later dropped. I missed Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea when it first came out, and for years couldn't wait to see the S.S. Sea View attacked by the slithering tentacled reptilian sea monster. In the comic book, the sub looked a lot like a big-finned '59 Cadillac. In the movie, the fantastic monster became a simple octupus. What a letdown. On the other end of things, I managed to keep some Star Wars comics that preserve a discarded opening sequence either never filmed or not restored for the SPECIAL EDITION release in '97: Luke Skywalker visits his friends in town, and while they discuss the rebellion and his entrapment on his uncle's farm, they observe flashes of light in the bright sky above that indicate a space battle in progress, which we suddenly cut to....

4.) Online Scripts are Right Out.

I have seen some very attractive websites with actual movie scripts for dozens of films old, new, and unmade, including what are purported to be upcoming Indiana Jones and Star Wars films. Although some of these may be the genuine article, I've been told of at least one that was actually a fan's draft which had no connection with the franchise it invaded. The problem with unattributed scripts found online is that, academically speaking, they don't have the credibility that a script in the hand does. I have an original script for Jules Dassin's Night and the City, complete with revision notes from Darryl F. Zanuck himself, which served as a great resource when writing about that film noir title. Such a credible original source is a great asset in a writing field where most of the time 'it would appear that' and 'it seems' and 'it has been reported that' are necessary phrases. The problem with a script appearing online is that You Don't Know Where It's Been ... a quality I hope Savant doesn't acquire.


1. Nine years later, (3.28.07) I've been set straight by the very generous Melissa Gordon:

Hello, I was just reading through some of the older articles, and saw the one titled, "Movie Scripts as Research Tools". I also had some of the same questions regarding Peggy Sue Got Married, so I did some looking around on the internet and found a full "rehearsal draft" of the script (that's what it claims to be, anyway). You've probably run across this by now, but just in case, here it is. The same script is on two sites:



Basically, it looks like there was a good deal of material that was cut out at some point:

--At the beginning of this script, we get to see Peggy Sue's son, Janet the bimbo, and Peggy Sue's business (a bakery). Then it goes to the scene in the film with Peggy Sue and her daughter preparing for the reunion.

--There are extra scenes in the flashback (or whatever it is), as well (i.e., Peggy in home economics class, Richard Norvick hypnotizing Peggy (ummm, OK, sure), etc.)

--In this script, Peggy Sue has more interaction with her parents. She has a blow-up with her father regarding his traditional attitudes toward women. There is also a sort of subplot involving her father's declining business. To help him, she "invents" pantyhose and invites Michael Fitzsimmons' parents (who turn out to be crooks) over to discuss starting a new business venture with her father.

--We FINALLY see how Rosalie, the woman in the wheelchair, figures into all this. She was a champion diver who apparently suffered a spinal cord injury in a diving accident. Peggy Sue tries to stop Rosalie from diving (in 1960) but to no avail.

--I never saw any further explanation about Peggy Sue's little sister. Even in the cut scenes, it seems like something sad must have happened to her, but it doesn't seem that anything specific was mentioned. There is a scene in which Peggy tells her father that he should encourage Nancy to go to art school, but I think that was it.

--The scenes with the grandparents and Peggy going to the grandfather's lodge meeting is pretty much the same. Then, as in the film, Charlie grabs Peggy, they have a fight, he gives her the locket, and Peggy decides to stay with Charlie, despite everything. In this script, it gets kind of wacky at this point. In the big thunderstorm, Richard appears out of nowhere with a kite saying "Happy Birthday Peggy Sue". Peggy's grandfather and all the other lodge members come outside to see Peggy Sue grabbing the tail of this kite. She sails off into the sky, and Charlie, Richard, and the lodge members watch as she floats away and becomes a star. The script ends with the hospital scene that is in the completed film.

Sincerely, Melissa Gordon

2. You can read about Harrow Alley where I first found out about it, in The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, William Froug, Macmillan, New York, 1972.

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