Treat Him Write

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

Sam Hamm is, relatively speaking, a successful Hollywood screenwriter, meaning he earns his keep penning screenplays without having to subsidize his income by tending bar or waiting tables. He has a handful of films to his credit, some little known (1983's Never Cry Wolf, his debut), some enormously profitable (1989's Batman), and one just released (Monkeybone, a dazzling trip through a comatose Brendan Fraser's stop-motion surreality). Hamm will tell you, if asked (which is hardly ever, since talking to a screenwriter instead of the director is like talking to the chef instead of the waiter), that his job satisfies his simple desire to amuse and entertain, even if he's amusing and entertaining only himself. As far as he's concerned, that's what makes him successful. That you know his name is of little consequence. It only matters that you know his work.

But that's precisely the problem: You know only a small amount of the work Sam Hamm has produced since he became a screenwriter nearly 20 years ago, and what you do know has all too often borne little relation to the scripts he has written. For every movie of his that's been produced, there are so many more that languish at studios, unmade if not forgotten. Hamm also had little control over the pictures that have been put before the camera: The final version of director Tim Burton's movie about the Dark Knight is a pale shadow of Hamm's witty, wicked screenplay, which is available on several Web sites. It exists in cyberspace almost as testament to Hamm's acumen, and proof that it's too often been diluted and ignored.

Hamm, for his part, shrugs off the notion that being treated so poorly is painful. Perhaps he's merely inured at this point, beaten for so long that he can no longer feel the sting.

Must be a dream: Monkeybone is the first film Sam Hamm's written that he was allowed to work on from beginning to end.
Must be a dream: Monkeybone is the first film Sam Hamm's written that he was allowed to work on from beginning to end.

"It's difficult to explain," he says, "and I am sure it's something I've come to as a kind of defense mechanism, because there are so many projects that crash and so many that come out not to your liking and so many that get mangled in rewrites and all that stuff. The thing I've always felt and what I always try to do is have my first relationship be with the thing that comes out of the typewriter. Much of the stuff I'm writing I'm writing for an audience of maybe 50 or 60 people, but the first audience I'm writing for is an audience of one -- me. It's just the nature of the job. You do feel a horrible pang when you realize that a project is going irretrievably down. It's bad, and you do have to deal with it for a little stretch, but then you have to pick up and go on, and what gets you to pick up and go on is the prospect of the next thing you're going to attack."

That's why Hamm says it's "not inaccurate" to describe Monkeybone as the most satisfying experience of his filmmaking career. When director Henry Selick (The Nightmare Before Christmas) stumbled across Dark Town, the dreamlike comic book on which the movie's based, he immediately phoned Hamm, brought him onboard, and allowed him to stay with the picture until the very end. Not that Monkeybone didn't come with its own frustrations. Selick confirms that Twentieth Century Fox subjected the movie to various audience tests, resulting in the trimming of nearly 30 minutes' worth of valuable footage, but at least the director and writer walked the plank arm-in-arm. The film, which cost an estimated $70 million, took in a humiliating $2.6 million at the box office last weekend. Gone, for now, are the days of Hamm walking into a theater to see his movie, only to wonder why his child no longer looks like its father.

If this is success in Hollywood, little wonder the Writers Guild of America is mere weeks away from striking and stalking the picket lines over issues of, among other things, respect. Caterers on movie sets are treated far better than the men and women who provide studios with, to use a 21st-century term, content. When your TV screens are filled with nothing but reality-TV shows come fall, when your movie screens are filled with nothing but hurried, half-assed product next year, this is why: Writers are tired of being getting the short end of the stick -- and having it shoved through their chests. Come May 2, they will likely put down their pens and pick up protest signs.

"It's part of the weird evolution of movies," Hamm says. "Writers for movies are the only writers in any field of literary endeavor who don't have moral rights to control their own output. Writers on movies are, in legal terms, creating what's known as work made for hire. It's basically the same as if you make a cabinet or a bookshelf and you sell it to somebody, it's then theirs to do with as they please. They can paint it, they can strip it, or they can hit it with a sledgehammer if they want to, and you have no control over that. That's just because the movies came about as something where you'd go and pop a nickel in a machine, and it was a long, long time before anybody realized they had any kind of serious artistic content or even frivolous artistic content. Writers have just always been in a bad position with movies."

It doesn't take long for an interview about Hamm's work on Monkeybone to 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 Four script, 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-Doo movie 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 Apes screenplay 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 Batman script, 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 comes respect," 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 only triumph, but it's -- ha ha ha -- the one that keeps you working."

For now, anyway.

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