Treat Him Write

Sam Hamm writes great scripts. So why do they rarely get made?

It doesn't take long for an interview about Hamm's work on Monkeyboneto digress into a discussion about the movies he's written but will likely never get made; it's a long, long conversation. Among them are adaptations of Alfred Bester's novel The Demolished Man, about a wealthy businessman in the year 2301 who commits murder and becomes the prey of a telepathic cop; and Kate Wilhelm's short story Forever, Anna, in which a man must decide between marrying a two-timing woman or never meeting her at all. The former was written for Paramount, where it gathers dust; the latter "still kind of kicks around" at Castle Rock, Hamm says. "That's something that might have a fighting chance of getting made" -- small pause -- "in the next 42 years."

Hamm has also written several drafts of a Fantastic Fourscript, but the film is on hold at Twentieth Century Fox. Depending upon whom you believe, it's either because director Raja Gosnell has decided to go ahead with the Scooby-Doomovie or because Fox believes Hamm's script is too expensive to produce.

"I don't quite know what the status of that project is," Hamm says, no doubt to the chagrin of Web-cruising comic-book fetishists everywhere. "We got caught in a bit of a crunch when we had studio administrations changing. We never did quite get the budget down to manageable proportions on that. I don't know exactly what's going to happen on that one." The same can be said of his adaptation of Alan Moore's comic miniseries The Watchmen, a Cold War-era thriller in which superheroes have been outlawed. Every so often, director Terry Gilliam is said to be interested in making it, until he insists it's too unwieldy a project to tackle.

Hamm also penned a Planet of the Apesscreenplay for director Christopher Columbus, only to have it dumped when Columbus left the project -- to be replaced, finally, by Batman's Tim Burton. Hamm's script, yet another that's found its way into the cyberspace repository, is thrilling, funny and funky -- less a rewrite of the original than a deft, ironic homage. It begins with a space ape crash-landing in New York's harbor, bringing with him a virus that causes newborns to age a lifetime in a day, and ends on the monkey's home planet, where chimps talk on cell phones, organize human-rights protests, and drive cars past billboards advertising hit TV shows (among them, an animated series called The Simians), cereals (Wheaties, "The Breakfast of Chimpanzees"), and amusement parks populated by the likes of Mickey Monkey. The planet is described in the script as a "cracked, crazy-quilt parody of Earth culture -- and it's tad uncomfortably close to the real thing to have developed accidentally." Burton is not using Hamm's script -- and for Hamm, it must be a familiar feeling.

In the mid-1980s, he was brought in by Warner Bros. to pen a Batmanscript, after the studio had abandoned a 1983 screenplay written by Tom Mankiewicz, best known for his work on three James Bond movies. But just as the movie was to go into production, a writers' strike forced Hamm off the project, and a British screenwriter was brought in to do some polishing; after the strike, the late Warren Skaaren (who penned Burton's Beetlejuice) did even more doctoring -- plastic surgery, to be more accurate. Hamm wasn't consulted. "I could have come back," he says, laughing, "but I wasn't asked." Hamm would later write a script for the movie's 1992 sequel, Batman Returns, but in the end, he received only story credit -- which he shared with the film's screenwriter, Heathers' Daniel Waters.

During the strike of 1988, Hamm killed time and earned his pay writing three issues of Detective Comics, celebrating the 500th issue of the Batman series. Thirteen years later, he will do the same thing if -- no, when -- the writers go on strike.

"Now we've got another strike coming up, [so] I figured I'd better write another comic book," he says. "I try to do this every 12 years or so."

Essentially, the writers are threatening to strike over two issues: money and respect, which are inextricably linked. "With money comesrespect," Hamm insists. The WGA insists that the studios are socking away percentages of profits that belong to them from the sale of movies on DVD and video, pay-per-view, on the Internet, in syndication, and in foreign markets.

But the writers also want to be treated with, ahem, respect -- a term banished from the film industry around the time celluloid was invented. Writers want to be invited to the sets; they want to be consulted about rewrites; they want to be treated like artists instead of hired help. Under the current system, it's perfectly okay for a director to receive a film-by credit (as in, "A film by Bryan Singer") even if the director didn't contribute a single comma to the script. The WGA wants that, in essence, outlawed.

"I don't think you can legislate, in terms of a strike, that a writer has to be treated with respect," he says. "I don't think it makes any sense. But the key thing, the important thing, is to fight for what's rightly yours in terms of the money, in terms of the profit, in terms of the concrete cash issues. . . . This may sound kind of dopey, but the bulk of what I do is basically just sort of sitting alone in a room. The pleasure of it for me, because I write far more stuff that doesn't get made than stuff that does, comes from being able to satisfy myself that I've licked it. That's the first triumph. Sometimes, that's the onlytriumph, but it's -- ha ha ha -- the one that keeps you working."

For now, anyway.

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