21 May 2010

They Shot the Sheriff: how a great screenplay about Nottingham became the mediocre, 112th Robin Hood movie

"You know that dream come true of having your script sell and get fast tracked and star Russell Crowe and be directed by Ridley Scott? 


William Martell, Robbing the Poor Writer

(Sources for the story come mainly from Robbing the Poor Writer from the blog Sex in a Sub and Vulture Exclusive: How Robin Hood Nearly Destroyed the Russell-Ridley Relationship, from NYmag.com)

Reading about the new Robin Hood, I was introduced to a supposedly whiz-kids team of writers called Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris. And Reiff is said to have studied medieval history. But this is Hollywood (dreamland) reported by the press (fantasy land) and “having studied mediaeval history” at an American college could mean a Friday afternoon elective. So I imdb-ed them and these praised writers have given the world Kung Fu Panda, Sleeper Cell and M.K.3 (yeah, I had to look it up, Mortal Kombat 3) amongst other "achievements". Obviously, being a successful Hollywood writer isn’t the same as being a successful fiction writer. It’s not just about the money your films have grossed. No one expects you to bat one thousand, or five hundred, or three hundred when it comes to film (which might begin to explain why everybody and their dog wants to work in film), but it seems that to survive at all and to be working year after year is itself a proof of success.
Ironically, it is the flashier writers who seem to have undone what everyone says was a masterpiece of a script. With Brian Helgeland we’re really talking big guns here. His credits include L.A. Confidential, A Knight's Tale, and Mystic River. Then there’s also Paul Webb whose films all seem to be in development, but that includes Steven Spielberg’s film about Abraham Lincoln. And then there’s the great playwright Tom Stoppard who need not be imdb-ed. Shakespeare in Love, enough said. What is fantastic about this is not the long list of writers, that happens a lot in Hollywood, but the list of writers which Hollywood considers “top shelf”. Helgeland was hired to rewrite the script twice. The total spent on writers for this film is said to be in the neighbourhood of seven million dollars.
That need not be a staggering number when the budget of Robin Hood is estimated somewhere between 250 and 300 hundred million dollars. But this is Hollywood and as my favourite book about Tinsel Town says, “writers and actresses are the niggers of Hollywood” (Julia Phillips, You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again).
So, Robin Hood opened last week, a year late and to lukewarm reviews. The film reunites Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, who worked together on one of the great movie successes of the last decade, Gladiator and one that should be known as a commendable cinematic achievement of the last decade, Master and Commander.
But it all started with two young writers and a script — one which all major studios and producers passed on. Who wants to make the 112th Robin Hood, right? But Reiff and Voris had an interesting twist on it which I love on the face of it and would have bought (I should be a Hollywood producer!): what if this was the story of the sheriff of Nottingham, a cop who is just doing is job? “What if Robin Hood was the jerk?”, writes Claude Brodesser-Akner for New York Magazine.
Nice idea, because I find it dovetails nicely with the last memorable Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves with Kevin Costner, in which the real hero was Alan Rickman as Nottingham who walked away with the movie, those over 35 will remember. And the product of Voris and Reiff’s labour was Nottingham, a fun, by all accounts (mind you, Hollywood accounts), fantastic screenplay that sparked into a bidding war and finally sold for one million dollars (adding five hundred grand if the movie gets made). Opie got the rights and one of the biggest Hollywood stars of our time (don’t ask me why, ok, I sort of get it), Russell Crowe swiftly got on board.
And then they brought in Ridley Scott and everybody, including the critical sources used for this blog seems to think this was the cherry on the sundae and I’m, like, wait, what????
Ok, let’s back up a bit. These are the guys (Reiff, Voris) who penned Kung Fu Panda write a fun screenplay centred around the sheriff of Nottingham and you give it to Ridley Scott? Ok, how does Scott in any way equal fun? Does it rain a lot in Sherwood Forest? I know this is England but this is Ridley Scott and I’m telling you this isn’t going to be fun, and there isn’t going to be any sun. Scott restrained himself with Thelma and Louise (set in the American desert) but I wouldn’t be surprised if in Robin Hood, which is a sort of a prequel and please, Hollywood gods, bin the sequel or... what’s between a prequel and a sequel, a quel?... just can it already... anyway, I wouldn’t be surprised if it rains in Ridley Scott’s thirteenth century Middle-East whilst Robin Hood is fighting in the crusades. 
Because Ridley Scott didn’t like Nottingham. According to Martell in his excellent blog Sex in a Sub, Scott became obsessed with archery and wanted to make a film about archery. But this is a fun script about Nottingham.
And then he hired Helgeland and it became a script about Nottingham and Robin Hood. And at some point, with one of the writers, it became about Nottingham and Robin Hood as alter egos.  But this is meant to be a fun script about Nottingham as a good guy and Robin as the bad guy.
Hold on, why not this, why not have Nottingham and Robin Hood be the same person! I kid you not.
And then Nottingham recedes and all but disappears. The film becomes Robin Hood. As if we needed it. Two-hundred and fifty million dollars later, a year too late, a friendship that suffered greatly (Crowe-Scott, like we care), and wound up with a schizophrenic script. A half dozen writers later and Robin Hood comes across as a character with multiple-personality disorder, writes Brodesser-Akner. Enter Stoppard, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, on set to rewrite as they go along and make Crowe’s “voice” more uniform.  
Aside: Crowe’s accent is the subject of derision here, as was Costner’s but that doesn’t bother me. This is Robin Hood and, sorry to sound like a broken record, but it’s meant to be fun. Of course, accent and schizophrenia are two different things.
We are told we needed this new Robin Hood because this one’s gritty. Well, even though Errol Flynn’s version was positively gay, it was good, which is all that counts. And although the world didn’t need Prince of Thieves, it was indeed, gritty. As Martell writes “Oh, they say it’s [Scott’s Robin Hood] gritty. But the Costner version was gritty for its time - remember? He wore leather instead of tights and there was more realistic violence and Sherwood Forest was muddy and... well, it was gritty.” There was mud! Actual grit!
And I want to touch on this idea that pervades film and television these days and for which Ridley Scott may be partly responsible, after all both Alien and Blade Runner influenced our culture across media. I believe sections of television and film have for a couple of decades now, been trying to attain a higher form of credibility under the guises of gloom and grit. There is no competing with Europeans in terms of psychological complexity, although The Wire is as psychologically complex and engrossing as European television is at it’s best (Fanny and Alexander and a LOT of British television) and Americans who work for the screen are right not to want to emulate a complexity which only a sliver of the American audience might be interested in. And I think we can all be happy American filmmakers are not exploring this side of the pond’s ability to reproduce the Last Tango in Paris en masse. But does this emo stuff really do the trick? All torment, all the time. I don’t plan on seeing Robin Hood, but, let me tell you for sure, Crowe’s Robin is a tormented man. I read about it. He’s tormented about the fairness for the crusades, for Christ’s sake! 
I've seen Alien and Blade Runner so many times, I shan’t ever see them again but I am grateful both exist as works of art. This “trend” isn’t Scott’s fault. The problem is to seek to apply to a form of story-telling, across each form of story telling. Torment is easy and because it is easy it should be handled with care by the best only and, most importantly, it should be used sparingly.
But no. We have wall to wall vampires now and the next phase is angels and demons, i.e. fallen “tormented” angels!!!! And vampires are easy. Half dead, they are the definition of torment, although, originally, they were just mean beasts. I’m with Tarantino who, fighting the good fight, said he made From Dusk ‘Til Dawn that he wanted to bust this Anne Rice idea that vampires have a soul with potential for good. And, like Scott, it may be true that Rice has a lot to answer for. 
The public has reacted positively to what I’ll call the emo trend because it is self-serving. I am sorrow. From Buffy, to the X-Files, to Dark City, The Matrix, all of scifi is emo now. Thank God for lights in the dark, like Galaxy Quest. I mean how much fun was that? And now it’s adventure stories like 300, Gladiator, King Arthur, and now they killed Nottingham and gave Robin Hood a morose stare. Thank you Ridley.
We can all be happy with the idea that film is a director’s medium I think, but, from the start, this means striking a fine balance. After all, the writer is the ultimate creator here. What the director does is to superimpose his creative input upon another creation. This might work better in the theatre where the playwright has input on casting and directing but this is unheard of in film. There is a merging of creation if you will. But if you’ve read a bit about film, you’ll know that, these days, the director possesses much of the power. In the old days, producers reigned — remember the story about the long line up of directors who were fired and hired to direct Gone with the Wind? Today the fear is that if a director were to be fired, no other director would touch it.  
In his blog, Martell suggests this isn’t just about ego. Actually, Martell has another interesting explanation. As a writer it is a self-serving explanation, but it is, I suspect, at least partly true.
“I think part of the 'director’s stamp' thing is that many directors have no idea what they are doing and can not use their visual style / directorial style to 'put their stamp on it' so they mess with the story (the writer’s job) [...] even with the experiments, you can tell a Hitchcock film from directing style from a handful of shots. No need to know what the story is. Same thing with Nick Roeg. Same thing with Don Siegel. Same with Orson Welles. Same with Kubrick. Same with Kurosawa. Same with Bergman - even though his stories are often very different, his directing style is his own. It’s when you have a director who doesn’t know how to do his job that he starts messing with yours.”
This makes a lot of sense to me. Some directors gleefully admit that all they do is get a bunch of people together and say “action” and although we know there is a lot more to directing than that, there is also a bit of truth to it. Being a decent director seems to be within reach, being a great director is a thing seldom seen. It’s the same with photography. It’s not so difficult to develop a photographic eye and with the digital revolution, at times  it’s become impossible to discern an amateur from a professional photographer. Having your own vision as a photographer and being able to put a stamp on it is a thing of beauty but very rare. How many such photographers per generation? A handful, I’d say.
So, if lots of rain and gloom is Ridley Scott’s stamp, why was he given a fun screenplay about a jaunty, delightful myth? And why did he accept to do it? Another very human, understandable idea, is the idea that comedy does not grant the same honours as tragedy and that Scott wants to be taken seriously. A Knight’s Tale, Galaxy Quest, such movies never make it to the Academy Awards in major categories. Rainy does. The problem with Scott making Robin Hood is that Nottingham is gone forever. That original script will never be made. It’s been paid for, it’s been transformed beyond recognition, but it’s been made. 
And was that Kung Fu Panda (oh, sorry, mediaeval history scholar) writers script all that it was cracked up to be? Hollywood is about myth-making and it’s scribblers, fictional and journalistic are both interested and vested in spinning us a tale. 
Hey, it’s a crappy movie but we still got you a good story out of it.

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