REMAKE… AMERICAN STYLE
American Writers Discuss the Writing and Crediting Process for Remakes of Foreign Films
The Writers Guild credits determination process has long been a topic of discussion among writers and the press that covers the entertainment industry. While the credits process as a whole is worthy of a much longer discussion, for this article writers were polled about the complicated and often confusing process for determining credits on American remakes of foreign films. Indeed, while the Writers Guild does have a policy applicable to the remakes of American films, in the case of remakes of foreign films, where the original film is not produced under the Guild's jurisdiction, there is none -- leading to some interesting combination of credits that finally make it to the screen.
Article 7.C. of the Guild's "Policy on Credits" in its Screen Credits Manual relating to remakes states: "In the case of remakes, where the Story or Screenplay of any earlier version produced under the Guild's jurisdiction [emphasis added] represents a major contribution to the current Screenplay, the Arbitration Committee may decide that the Writers of the Previous Version should share Story and/or Screenplay credit… [according to] 1. The contribution made by the writer(s) of the original material expressed as a percentage of the whole, and 2. The form of the credit to be accorded such writer(s), which credit may include a credit in the nature of a source material credit, such as 'Based on a Screenplay by...'"
Examples of a shared screenplay credit on remakes include the 1994 version of the 1972 The Getaway, where original writer Walter Hill shares screenplay credit with remake writer Amy Holden Jones; and the 1991 version of the 1950 Father of the Bride, where the screenplay is credited to Frances Goodrich & Albert Hackett [the original film's writers] and Nancy Meyers & Charles Shyer [the remake's].
On the other hand, examples of a "based on" credit on remakes include the 1995 version of the 1954 Sabrina, where the credits read: "Screenplay by Barbara Benedek & David Rayfiel based on the film written by Billy Wilder and Samuel Taylor and Ernest Lehman from the play by Samuel Taylor," or the 1991 remake of the 1962 Cape Fear, where the credits read: "Screenplay by Wesley Strick based on a screenplay by James R. Webb and 'The Executioner' a novel by John D. MacDonald."
These, of course, are American remakes of American films, and in each case, both versions were covered by the Guild, and therefore subject to the rules outlined in the Screen Credits Manual.
Most of the seventeen writers polled for this article expressed little faith in the arbitration process that determines such credit: Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon (Jungle 2 Jungle) dub it "capricious and subjective;" Marshall Brickman (Intersection, co-written) calls it "far from a perfect instrument," and adds, "I am often quite surprised at how credits are awarded and withheld;" Alexandra Seros (Point of No Return, co-written) refers to it as "murky;" and Stephen Metcalfe (Cousins) says, "they [The Guild] don't handle our own credits process very well."
In the case of Father of the Bride, James Orr (Three Men and a Baby, co-written) comments: "My partner [Jim Cruickshank] and I wrote the first three drafts of the Father of the Bride remake script. Later, director Charles Shyer and his wife, Nancy Meyers, did a rewrite of our material. Even though we were the first writers, the Guild elected to give credit to Meyers & Shyer and the writers of the original movie, one of whom was dead and the other of whom was in his 90s and had nothing to do with the remake, thereby cutting us out. We suggested the credit should be Orr & Cruickshank and Meyers & Shyer based on a script written by Goodrich & Hackett. We argued that a screenplay credit is an active credit and the writers of the first movie were never actively involved in the remake, but the Guild didn't see it that way."
The water is even murkier when it comes to American remakes of foreign films, however, because in mot cases, the original film was not covered by the Guild, and the subsequent credit determination for the remake does not necessarily take the original foreign writer into consideration -- unless the original film has been made under the auspices of an affiliate of the WGA or the original writer has contractual protection regarding his r her credit on remakes.
A study of the credits on twenty-nine such remakes, made between 1977 and 1997, led to some startling discoveries. Seventeen writers responded to a questionnaire mailed to twenty-seven writers (or writing teams) involved in these films. The replies revealed, not surprisingly, that most of the respondents had seen and primarily worked from a sub-titled version of the original film. Some were even true devotees, such as David Rayfiel (Intersection, co-written), who said of Les Choses de la Vie, "I'd known and admired it for some years," and Jim McBride (Breathless, co-written), who claimed to have seen À Bout de Souffle "fifteen or more times." Only five of the writers polled used a translated copy of the original script and had more than a passing acquaintance with French.
The sole exception was Paul Brickman (Men don't Leave, co-written), who stated, "I don't believe Men don't Leave was truly a remake. It evolved into something far removed from the original. Initially I was presented with a script by Barbara Benedek. While I could have had access to the original material, I chose to avoid it, so as not to be influenced by it. I wanted to stay true to Barbara's voice. I did not see the original film until well after the script was completed."
Like Men Don't Leave, several of the films departed markedly from the original: Sommersby, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Twelve Monkeys and The Associate, for example. Nick Thiel (The Associate) observed, "The original source material was used only as a jumping off point. Only two scenes from the original movie were adapted for the American film, and one of those was cut. I did not use any of the dialogue from the original film." These sentiments were shared by McBride, who recalled that, for Breathless, "In the first draft, we were pretty faithful to the original script, after which we stopped referring to it, and to a certain extent let the American script take a life of its own." Regarding Intersection, Rayfiel said, "I followed the advice of painter Kuniyoshi who once said: at a certain point, I send the model home."
In the majority of cases, however, the work involved required less drastic steps. In the words of Charlie Peters (Blame it on Rio, My Father the Hero, co-written), "I treated it as any rewrite. Some things in the original movies weren't acceptable to the directors/producers for either business or artistic reasons." Paul Mazursky (Down & Out in Beverly Hills, co-written) agreed, “I saw Boudu Sauvé des Eaux and then resaw it. I used what worked in it, and changed the rest to fit my film.”
Indeed, twelve of the writers polled referred to their job as Americanizing the original screenplay. "My objective was to write a screenplay with a decidedly American sensibility in terms of story, characters and dialogue," said Metcalfe of Cousins. Similarly, Bruce A. Evans & Raynold Gideon said of Jungle 2 Jungle, "We had to make it an American film, stronger characters, stronger story line."
"We took the original set-up and elements and re-packaged it for the American sensibility," replied James Orr when discussing Three Men and a Baby. And commenting upon Point of No Return, Alexandra Seros explained "I watched [La Femme Nikita] and then chose the elements I wanted to keep, including scene construction, sequence, character and dialogue. I changed a little more than one-third of the original movie. [Original writer/director] Luc Besson and I completely reworked the entire last act, restructured the antagonist's role and changed some of the locations to reflect more of an American setting."
Five of the writers polled actually worked with the original writers. "I met several times with the original co-writer/director René Gainville, but not until after he had read my first draft, which he hated," remembered Thiel of his work on The Associate. "He loved my next draft and from then on was very, very supportive."
Seros, too, met with the original writer. "Luc Besson and I worked together every day. It was a close, intense collaboration," she said. And on Three Men and a Baby, Orr recalled, "For several months, we worked closely with [original writer/director] Coline Serreau who was contracted to direct the American version, but she fell out of the project because of severe creative differences with the studio."
David & Janet Peoples, whose film Twelve Monkeys was inspired by the experimental French short-feature La Jetée, said, "We met with [original writer/director] Chris Marker before we started and we sent him the drafts we submitted and we talked with him throughout. We did not want Twelve Monkeys to embarrass him in any way because his film was a perfect movie. That he liked Twelve Monkeys made us very happy."
Such rewrites are a vital part in overcoming "not the language problem, but more a cultural one" inherent in any adaptation said Larry Gelbart (Blame it on Rio, co-written). After all, as Marshall Brickman explained, "American audiences might be less satisfied with mood, atmosphere and 'cinema' than the French ones."
"I remember feeling that an American audience needs to be shown, told more; that the story had to be more traditional in structure," noted Metcalfe. Or, as Evans & Gideon put it, "otherwise, why not just shoot a translation?"
On the other hand, French writer/director Francis Veber whose credits include My Father the Hero (co-written) and Three Fugitives, as well as the original French films that were the basis for the remakes of The birdcage, Buddy Buddy, Father's Day, Pure Luck, The Man With One Red Shoe and The Toy, pointed out the dangers inherent in the process: "You must be cautious to not become so familiar with the Source Material that you forget what it was that made you decide to remake it in the first place. If you forget the emotional thrill that you felt the first time you saw the original film, you then feel compelled to add new things to it, not necessarily bad things but it's like putting whipped cream on top of a slice of foie gras. The result becomes unpalatable. You lose the charm of the original."
Veber also warned that changing things is not a guarantee of commercial success: "The Toy took a lot of liberties with the simplicity of the original concept and added elements tailored to Richard Pryor's brand of comedy and didn't do well; on the other hand, The birdcage, which was very faithful, was a big success," he said.
In most cases, the original foreign films mentioned above were not covered by the WGA and therefore did not figure in the credits determination process for the remake. For the sake of discussion, however, do these changes account for more than the 77% required by the WGA's Policy Manual's Article 7.A.4 to obtain sole "screenplay by" credit? Consider the differences between Father of the Bride mentioned above, where the original writers were granted shared screenplay credit, and the 1996 versions of The birdcage or Diabolique, both fairly faithful remakes, where the American writers enjoyed sole upfront screenplay credits, while the foreign writers' "based on" credit was pushed back to the end of the film.
Is this practice in accordance with the spirit of the Guild's Working Rule No.15, which states that "No member shall accept credit which misrepresents the member's contribution to a picture or program"?
When asked to consider what credit would have been attributed to their film had the original source material been in English, and therefore subject to the same WGA rules that applied to Father of the Bride, five of the writers polled won't speculate because of what they perceive as the seemingly arbitrary, illogical nature of the process, which one of them compared to "the O.J. jury." Nine others agreed that the credit given the original writers would, in all likelihood, have been more than a "based on" credit.
"I can see where, in a somewhat different world, Intersection would have had only French names on the screen," said Rayfiel. And Peters noted, "There are strict WGA rules about all this for American movies. The whole thing about uncontested story credit is if you write the first original draft or some such phrase. So yes, probably, it would have been different."
"If the source material had been subject to WGA rules I feel that [original writer/director] Jean-Charles Tachella would at the very least have gotten a shared story credit. The essential story is his," stated Metcalfe. And McBride commented, "We didn't know the WGA rules didn't protect foreign writers, and we decided independently to make sure they were properly credited. Whether covered by WGA rules or not, I think it's outrageous to claim credit for work done by others, as so many WGA members do, sanctioned and encouraged by the Guild itself."
At this time, the only involvement the Guild has is in determining the accuracy of the American writing credits. It’s actually up to the studio that owns the remake rights to determine whether the original writer’s name will appear in the credits and where. If the studio does include it, the WGA then has jurisdiction over how the credit is written, but only as it affects its members and based on the information provided to it. This often puts foreign writers at a huge disadvantage when their films are remade in America.
"In the case of foreign material where you're dealing with a translated script, you're at a disadvantage during the arbitration process because even though you're providing far more than the structure and the characters, often the translated elements from your original script will read 'foreign,' e.g.: a soccer match instead of a football match, a character named Perrin instead of Smith, giving a greater if somewhat misleading emphasis to the role of the American rewriter," explained Veber.
Additionally, as mentioned above, foreign writers denied a shared story/screenplay credit, have increasingly seen their "based on" credit relegated to the very end of the film, when it does not vanish altogether. Out of twenty-nine films surveyed, three had no source material credits at all (for various contractual reasons), and in fourteen films, the credit was incomplete in one way or another. For the purposes of this article, "incomplete" is defined as: 1) the source material is not correctly identified; 2) not all the source materials are listed (if the original film is itself based on a novel or a play); and 3) the source material credit does not correctly identify all the writers who contributed to it.
A good example of a complete credit is the 1983 remake Breathless, whose upfront credit reads: "Based upon the Motion Picture À Bout de Souffle from the Screenplay by Jean-Luc Godard of the Story by François Truffaut." Or that of Jungle 2 Jungle, which states: "Based on Un Indien dans la Ville written by Hervé Palud, Igor Aptekman and Thierry Lhermitte, Philippe Bruneau."
On the other hand, a number of remakes omit the title of the original film. For example, the credits on True Lies, while correctly identifying all of the original writers, do not mention the title of the 1991 French film upon which it is based, La Totale. The credits for Mixed Nuts fail to differentiate between the 1994 French film, Le Pere Noel est une Ordure, and the earlier stage play upon which it is based. More seriously, the source material credit for the 1996 remake Diabolique fails to identify three of the four co-writers of the 1954 French film Les Diaboliques: Jerôme Geronimi, René Masson and Frédéric Grendel. Finally, in eight films, the source material credit was displayed at the end of film, often as part of the crawl. Interestingly, all of these films were made in the 1990s. A new trend?
Only six of the writers polled knew the origins of these credits, but those who did know revealed that the final credits were determined in all sorts of ways. "The American film's credits were determined by the producers," recalled Thiel of The Associate. "There was already a contractual arrangement with René Gainville on what his credit would be -- 'in association with' and 'co-producer' -- but René's co-writer [noted French writer Jean-Claude Carrière] received no credit at all."
"The producer and I determined the credit [on Breathless]," stated McBride; and David & Janet Peoples remembered, "The 'inspired by' credit [on Twelve Monkeys] was the credit that we and Chris Marker wanted and so the Guild said okay."
Veber said he's open to suggestions when it comes to remakes of his films. "As for the Source Material credit, it is determined contractually with the studio," he said. "I'm very flexible. If the American producers feel that it will hurt the film if it is labeled a remake, I'm very willing to compromise. I've been told there is the perception that American reviewers will be more critical of a film if they know it's a remake."
But what if the situation was reversed -- not an unlikely eventuality considering the recent announcement of a Spanish remake of I Love Lucy? Peters spoke candidly: "Frankly, I think credits are largely nonsense apart from the money. I doubt if the French lose any sleep because their names aren't plastered all over the American productions. As far as I can tell, they're perfectly happy as long as their names are on the checks. If the French were stupid enough or lazy enough to remake any of my movies, what could I do? The studio will do what it wants and good luck to them. I'd want the money and couldn't care less if my name were on it."
However, echoing the debate surrounding the Father of the Bride credits, Metcalfe introduced an interesting distinction with his comment: "If a French film were made from one of my original projects, my feelings would depend on whether they were basing it on a produced film or an unproduced screenplay. I would have no problem with a 'based on' credit for an already produced film. I would probably want to be involved with an unproduced screenplay and even if I wasn't, I'd probably want story credit if not shared screenplay credit. I guess I find myself thinking a produced film is almost like a novel -- someone buys the rights to do their version of it."
"If a French film was remade from an original script which I wrote, my feelings would vary according to what was done with the film. If an original of mine had been redone in France under these conditions, I would probably believe I was due a co-story credit," says Robert Getchell (Point of No Return, co-written). Sarah Kernochan (Sommersby, co-written) agreed and recognized that an adaptation works both ways. "Another screenwriter would have to make the story work in an indigenous way, by introducing French elements, locales, etc., but I still would like at least a 'based on' credit."
"I believe that credits should accurately reflect the content of the work. I wouldn't want anyone appropriating my work without attribution; but neither would I want to take credit for work that does not reflect my thoughts and values," also agreed Paul Brickman. Gelbart's simple "I would definitely want credit on any foreign adaptations of my work," was representative of the general reaction.
When asked to contemplate a "harmonization" of the WGA rules to include remakes of foreign films, six of the polled writers feel unqualified to speculate, or reserved judgment. "The problem is always going to be that honorable men can differ on the importance of any particular contribution to a work," observed Marshall Brickman. Evans & Gideon expressed concern about reciprocity.
Eight writers, however, were clearly in favor. "I believe there should be guidelines for the accrediting process for remakes, just as there are for adaptations and these guidelines should include the different contributions possible by the original authors," said Seros. And Nick Thiel concurred, "I think adaptations of foreign films should be subject to the same arbitration process as rewrites on scripts."
The final word belongs to Paul Brickman who said, "I would support any change that moves us closer to truth in credits."
Those Crazy Credits…
The Associate (1996) remake of
The birdcage (1996) remake of
La Cage aux Folles (1978)
Blame It On Rio (1983) remake
of Un Moment d'Égarement (1977)
Breathless (1983) remake of À
Bout de Souffle (1959)
Buddy Buddy (1981) remake of L'Emmerdeur
(1973) (aka A Pain In The A..)
Cousins (1989) remake of Cousin,
Diabolique (1996) remake of Les
Down And Out In Beverly Hills
(1986) remake of Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux (1932)
Father's Day (1997) remake Of
Les Compères (1983)
Happy New Year (1987) remake of
La Bonne Année (1973)
Intersection (1994) remake of
Les Choses De La Vie (1970)
Jungle 2 Jungle (1997) remake
of Un Indien dans la Ville (1994) (aka Little Indian, Big City)
The Man With One Red Shoe (1985)
remake of Le Grand Blond Avec Une Chaussure Noire (1972)
Men Don't Leave (1990) remake
of La Vie Continue (1981)
The Mirror Has Two Faces (1996)
remake of Le Miroir à Deux Faces (1958)
Mixed Nuts (1994) remake of Le
Père Noël est une Ordure (1982)
My Father The Hero (1994) remake
of Mon Père, Ce Héros (1991)
Nine Months (1995) remake of Neuf
Point Of No Return (1993) remake
of Nikita (1990) (aka La Femme Nikita)
Pure Luck (1991) remake of La
Scent of a Woman (1992) remake
of Profumo Di Donna (1974)
Sommersby (1993) remake of Le
Retour de Martin Guerre (1981)
Sorcerer (1977) remake of Le Salaire
de la Peur (1953) (aka The Wages Of Fear)
Three Fugitives (1989) remake
of Les Fugitifs (1986)
Three Men and a Baby (1987) remake
of Trois Hommes et un Couffin (1985)
The Toy (1982) remake of Le Jouet
True Lies (1994) remake of La
Twelve Monkeys (1995) remake of
La Jetée (1963)
The Woman in Red (1984) remake
of Un Éléphant, Ca Trompe Énormément (1977) (aka Pardon Mon Affaire)
Article © 1998 Randy Lofficier. All rights reserved.