Is There a Doctor in the House?

I spoke to my mother earlier tonight; she really enjoyed GIFT, and since she is a doctor, she appreciated the medical details. 

That’s an interesting coincidence ; my mother worked as a doctor for forty years, and her brother was also a doctor (working in Canada.) My elder brother Alan is also a doctor, though not of medicine (he has a PhD in neurochemistry.) And I’m a doctor too!

Okay, you could argue I’m not a REAL doctor.  If someone has a heart attack on a Tube train, don’t look to me to know what to do. (I worked on MCCALLUM, an ITV series about a pathologist, so I’m up to speed on post mortems of already dead people; when they’re merely ill, I’m a bit shaky.)

But no, my expertise is is of a different kind entirely. I am a SCRIPT doctor.  Dr Palmer; script healer.

Script doctoring is an odd concept. It’s not the same as script editing, even though as a script editor you can get very very closely involved in solving story problems, and even suggesting scenes and dialogue.  But a script editor always work WITH a writer; the script doctor only comes into play when the writer is off the scene.  Imagine a doctor who kills his patient, steals his identity, moves into his house, and spends the money in his bank account; that’s a script doctor for you!

I once script doctored an Oscar winning screenwriter – I can’t name him, but he’s extremely well known – though sadly my version didn’t get produced. (Maybe one day.)  A friend of mine script doctored a screenplay by David Mamet; then had HIS draft rewritten by some other schmuck. 

(Allthough I should be careful about definitions here; there’s a world of difference between REWRITING and SCRIPT DOCTORING.  Or is there…?)

In theory, the difference is that rewriters get a screen credit, but script doctors don’t.  When Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola wrote the screenplay for THE GODFATHER, there was one scene which eluded them – when Michael Corleone spoke to his father about the family business.  This was the second draft version of the scene:

DON CORLEONE (MARLON BRANDO) AND MICHAEL CORLEONE (AL PACINO) IN DISCUSSION AFTER MICHAEL’S RETURN FROM SICILY):

DON CORLEONE
Have you thought about a wife?  A
family?

MICHAEL
  (pained)
No.

DON CORLEONE
I understand, Michael.  But you
must make a family, you know.

MICHAEL
I want children, I want a family.
But I don’t know when.

DON CORLEONE
Accept what’s happened, Michael.

MICHAEL
I could accept everything that’s
happened; I could accept it, but
that I never had a choice.  From
the time I was born, you had laid
this all out for me.

DON CORLEONE
No, I wanted other things for you.

MICHAEL
You wanted me to be your son.

DON CORLEONE
Yes, but sons who would be
professors, scientists,
musicians…and grandchildren who
could be, who knows, a Governor, a
President even, nothing’s impossible
here in America.

MICHAEL
Then why have I become a man like
you?

DON CORLEONE
You are like me, we refuse to be
fools, to be puppets dancing on a
string pulled by other men.  I
hoped the time for guns and killing
and massacres was over.  That was
my misfortune.  That was your
misfortune.  I was hunted on the
streets of Corleone when I was
twelve years old because of who my
father was.  I had no choice.

MICHAEL
A man has to choose what he will be.
I believe that.

DON CORLEONE
What else do you believe in?

MICHAEL doesn’t answer.

DON CORLEONE
Believe in a family.  Can you
believe in your country?  Those
Pezzonovante of the State who
decide what we shall do with our
lives?  Who declare wars they wish
us to fight in to protect what they
own.  Do you put your fate in the
hands of men whose only talent is
that they tricked a bloc of people
to vote for them?  Michael, in five
years the Corleone family can be
completely legitimate.  Very
difficult things have to happen to
make that possible.  I can’t do
them anymore, but you can, if you
choose to.

MICHAEL listens.

DON CORLEONE
Believe in a family; believe in a
Code of Honor, older and higher,
believe in Roots that go back
thousands of years into your Race.
Make a family, Michael, and protect
it.  These are our affairs, sono cosa
nostra, Governments only protect
men who have their own individual
power.  Be one of those men…you
have the choice.

Here’s the same scene as it appears in the movie; tweaked, rewritten and generally ‘doctored’ by Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown:

DISSOLVE TO: The Don’s garden. The Don, older looking now, sits with Michael -day

VITO CORLEONE
So — Barzini will move against you first. He’ll set up a meeting with someone that you
absolutely trust — guaranteeing your safety. And at that meeting, you’ll be assassinated.

(then, as the Don drinks from a glass of wine as Michael watches him)

I like to drink wine more than I used to — anyway, I’m drinking more…

MICHAEL
It’s good for you, Pop.

VITO CORLEONE (after a long pause)
I don’t know — your wife and children — are you happy with them?

MICHAEL
Very happy…

VITO CORLEONE
That’s good.
(then)
I hope you don’t mind the way I — I keep going over this Barzini business…

MICHAEL
No, not at all…

VITO CORLEONE
It’s an old habit. I spent my life trying not to be careless — women and children can be
careless, but not men.
(then)
How’s your boy?

MICHAEL
He’s good –

VITO CORLEONE
You know he looks more like you every day.

MICHAEL (smiling)
He’s smarter than I am. Three years old, he can read the funny papers

VITO CORLEONE (laughs)
Read the funny papers –
(then)
Oh — well — eh, I want you to arrange to have a telephone man check all the calls that go in
and out of here — because…

MICHAEL
I did it already, Pop.

VITO CORLEONE
– ya’know, cuz it could be anyone…

MICHAEL
Pop, I took care of that.

VITO CORLEONE
Oh, that’s right — I forgot.

MICHAEL (reaching over, touching his father)
What’s the matter? What’s bothering you?
(then, after the Don doesn’t answer)
I’ll handle it. I told you I can handle it, I’ll handle it.

VITO CORLEONE (as he stands)
I knew that Santino was going to have to go through all this. And Fredo — well –
(then, after he sits besides Michael)
– Fredo was — well — But I never — I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life, I
don’t apologize, to take care of my family. And I refused — to be a fool — dancing on the
string, held by all those — bigshots. I don’t apologize — that’s my life — but I thought that –
that when it was your time — that — that you would be the one to hold the strings. Senator -
Corleone. Governor – Corleone, or something…

MICHAEL
Another pezzonovante…

VITO CORLEONE
Well — this wasn’t enough time, Michael. Wasn’t enough time…

MICHAEL
We’ll get there, Pop — we’ll get there…

VITO CORLEONE
Uh…
(then, after kissing Michael on the cheek)
Now listen — whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting — he’s the traitor. Don’t forget
that.

Yeah, it’s better isn’t it?

The point here being that Coppola always generously gave Towne all the credit he deserved for the rewriting; but it was never Towne’s movie.  He just did a job of work, on a single scene; script carpentry, more than script doctoring.

And this is something I’ve always enjoyed doing.  Coming in on an existing project; fixing problems, adding stuff that wasn’t there, improving stuff that was there, and then walking away again. Vision is great, passion is fun; but life’s too short for EVERY project to be a passion project.  Sometimes it’s cool to be a writer for hire.

The two major script doctoring jobs I’ve done which resulted in movies that got made are very different.  One is an extraordinary and surreal movie set in Cuba called GUANTANAMERO (aka ARRITMIA), produced by Michiyo Yoshizaki, producer of THE CRYING GAME, and MERRY CHRISTMAS MR LAWRENCE.  My brief initially was to script edit a Hispanic writer/director on an audacious screenplay (for reasons I can’t even explain, I can’t name said person!)  The script editing job involved a trip to Paris, first class on Eurostar (you know it’s First Class when they bring unnecessary free champagne) and evolved into a full rewrite.  The movie is remarkable  – flawed ,but very beautiful. (For details, see here.) But though I get an IMDb credit for the film, I still regard it as ‘doctoring’ not proper writing; it wasn’t my story, my vision, my characters.  But I did help, I think, to make it work. 

The other project is a Greek film called URANYA. Here the deal was very simple; I was given sixty pages of script and asked to turn them into 100 pages of script (60 pages is only half a film!) The writer/director Costas Kapakas had written a quite wonderful coming of age story set in a Greek village, oozing with character and vision and wit; but like many passionate artists he had only written the ‘best bits’, not the joining bits which make the best bits work. Story logic; causality; setups & payoffs; all tha technical stuff.

I did my job – and loved it – and I get I think a simple script editing credit, which I’m very happy with. Because this was Costas’s movie! And, I’m told by a former screenwriting student of mine from Cyprus, URANYA has gone on to develop a cult reputation as one of the best Greek movies of recent years. (Details here.)

All these memories are fresh in my mind because I’m currently working on a new script doctoring job, for a British producer who has written a delightful British comedy  based on his own experiences, and has hired me to shape and finesse it. I won’t reveal the story, but I will say that this project has introduced me to a style of music I’d never experienced before – modern Klezmer music, which is Jewish folk music with a modern tang. This music is the motif and undercurrent of the story; and it lends great magic to an already magical project.

More news on this if the movie gets made….

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