It's "Alternative Draft Week" here at Scriptshadow, where we look at alternative drafts from the movies you loved (or hated). In some cases, these drafts are said to be better, in others, worse, or in others still, just plain different. Either way, it's interesting to see what could've been. Yesterday, Roger reviewed a James Cameron draft of "First Blood 2." Today, I'm reviewing one of my favorite spec stories of all time, Penn and Leff's draft of "The Last Action Hero."
Premise: A high school kid finds himself inside the world of his favorite action star’s new movie. He uses his extensive knowledge of action films to help the hero, Arno Slater, navigate the story and beat the bad guys.
About: Zak Penn and Adam Leff wrote this as their very first screenplay and sold it soonafter. It was subsequently rewritten by Shane Black, which is the draft that made it to theaters. The story goes that those who originally championed the project felt that a cool edgy flick was turned into a silly watered down PG-13 piece of garbage. There are still hurt feelings about the project to this day. Penn has gone on to write the two X-Men sequels, Elektra, and The Incredible Hulk. Leff wrote another script with Penn, PCU, as well as Bio-Dome.
Writers: Zak Penn and Adam Leff
Details: 124 pages (9/9/91 draft)
The Last Action Hero saga is one of my favorite Hollywood stories, and something I’ve written about before. This shows exactly how a seemingly good idea (relatively speaking) can get stirred and shaken and slammed around in Development to the point where it becomes an utter piece of shit, resulting in the kind of movie that convinces the average movie-goer that anyone can write a Hollywood film. For those who don't know about the way it all went down, settle in and enjoy yourselves. This is a good one.
It all started back in 1991, when Zak Penn and Adam Leff, two college students, thought they could slap together a screenplay and sell it for a million bucks. The idea was to write a screenplay spoofing the action films of the 80s. They called it, "Extremely Violent" and it was about an Arnold Swarchenegger-type action star whose world was rocked when an extremely movie-savvy 15 year old magically crossed from the real world into his film. They thought it would be great to have a guy saying all the things that the audience was thinking, such as, "You should go save your wife now before they use her as a pawn against you later!” Basically the action equivalent of Scream before Scream was made.
The two had one of those “friend of a friend” contacts in the business, who read the script and liked it enough to recommend it to an up-and-coming agent by the name of Chris Moore (yes, Project Greenlight Chris Moore). For those who argue that Hollywood is all a game of luck and chance, this next portion of the story is your ammo. Being Hollywood’s Golden Boy at the time, Moore had hundreds of scripts he was supposed to read, and probably the lowest script on the totem pole was some garbage by a couple of college kids who obviously only got their script on his desk through a friend trying to help them out. Since Moore rarely had any time to read anyway, it was likely this script would never be read. But it just so happened that on that day, his lunch date canceled, and he had nothing to do for an hour. “Extremely Violent” was sitting on the top of the pile, so he thought “What the hell?” picked it up, and started reading it. He instantly fell in love with it. Thought the tone and the story were perfect. And it immediately become his number 1 priority project.
So Penn and Leff got the call of a lifetime (which they, of course, thought was normal, having no Hollywood experience). A big agent loves your script. They’re going to try and sell it. The script goes out, and low and behold, it SELLS for hundreds of thousands of dollars! Two college kids are living the dream. It’s true! Anybody can write a screenplay! (that’s the sound of me sighing)
But Moore didn’t want to just sell this thing. He wanted to get it made. So began the next step, which was to package the script with the kind of talent that would bring buzz to the project. Of course at that time, there was no bigger name in the writing world than Shane Black, the author of such films as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout. Now the irony here was that Penn and Leff wrote the script parodying Black's writing style (in the same way that the movie parodied action films). But all that was white noise. Moore knew if he could get the hot Black onboard in some capacity, the film would have a shot at getting made. So they sent him the script, and low and behold, Shane loved it! He immediately decided he wanted to produce the project.
Now even though Shane was on as producer, the unspoken hope of everyone was that Shane would rewrite it. With Shane being the hottest writer in town, a script written by him was guaranteed to be made. Although Shane resisted at first (he'd never rewritten anyone before) there was a key piece of the puzzle that needed to be addressed. For this project to be a sure-fire go-picture, they needed an A-List star. And the obvious choice to play the main character in the movie was the biggest movie star in the world – Arnold Swarchenegger. The likelihood of Swarchenegger signing on to a script written by two nobodies was slim. But if Shane Black rewrote the script….then maybe - just maybe - they could nab him. And so the rewrite process began.
Everything started off wonderfully. Shane told Penn and Leff that all of their ideas were welcome. He would send them pages, get their take, and a collaborative effort would be made to bring this thing home. After the very first exchange of pages however, Penn was livid. He felt that even in these small doses, Shane had already ruined a lot of the key things that made the script work. After a couple more meetings, things became so heated that fights almost broke out. In retrospect, the reason for this is fairly obvious. You had a writer who had never rewritten anyone before. And you had a writing pair that didn’t understand how the development process worked (just the fact that they were *invited* to participate in the rewrite should’ve been cause for celebration). Since there was obviously no way the project could continue this way, Penn and Leff were told to take a hike.
Here is Penn's explanation of why the changes Shane made were so terrible..."They added mobsters. They're taking the movie out of the strict action movie genre and trying to make it a parody of many different kinds of movies. Some of it's a parody of James Bond movies, some of it's a parody of action movies, and some of it's a parody of buddy camp noirish movies. It's pretty astounding to see how badly they screwed it up," Penn said, laughing.
Zak felt that Shane shifted the parody of the hero to much more of the Mel Gibson-Bruce Willis archetype. The "wisecracking, angry down-on-his-luck cop, which is a pretty enormous change and pretty much pervades every line of Arnold's dialogue. I think, frankly, that it hurts the movie tremendously, because the whole point of the movie was the counterpoint between the kid who's smart and like us, and the other character who's a fantasy character, who's an idiot, who's literally one-dimensional."
Shane shot back that Penn can say what he wants, but the reality is that his draft is the one that got Arnold on board, and therefore ultimately got the movie made. Now whether the script got Arnold on board because Arnold genuinely liked it, or because Shane was the biggest writer in town and his vision was more trusted, we’ll probably never know (unless anyone’s got a direct line to the Govenator). But this brings up a larger issue, and one of the major failures of the development system – which is letting an actor influence or change key aspects of a story. Most actors don’t understand how to craft a story, just like most writers don’t understand how to craft a performance. Any time you allow an actor to change major story elements, you’re playing with fire, and this is exactly what happened when Swarcheneggar demanded changes.
Arnold was initially disappointed that his character was too “two-dimensional” and wanted his character to be deeper. On the surface this sounds like a smart request. “Three-dimensional character” is a buzzword the industry lives by. But the whole point of Arnold’s character WAS that he was two-dimensional. That’s why he does all these dumb things. That’s why he needs the help of a 15 year old kid. That’s the exact thing the movie is making fun of, the fact that these action characters are so two-dimensional. So by adhering to this request, the writers and producers were knowingly making the movie worse. Of course, what was the alternative? Let the biggest action star in the world walk? Of course not. You gotta do what he says.
The final straw in the original writers’ eyes was to change the kid’s age from 15 to 12. This ended up sanitizing the harder edge they were going for and officially turned the movie into a kiddie film. The thought behind the choice was, younger kid equals broader appeal which equals larger box office, but the opposite actually happened. The audience sniffed out that the producers were trying to please everybody, and stayed away in droves (though I’m not convinced this decision wasn’t influenced by the fact that the John Conner character from Terminator 2 - released just two years prior - was closer in age and tone to the Danny character from Penn and Leff's draft – maybe they were afraid the characters would come off as too similar?).
But I think the ultimate question here is, was the spec draft really any better than the script that became the film? Or was this a misread from the get-go, a silly idea that never should’ve been turned into a movie in the first place? Interestingly enough, Chris Moore still talks about the project, haunted by the fact that it turned out so bad. He still believes it could be made into a great movie, and looks forward to the day when everyone’s forgotten it, so he can remake the thing and try again.
Now I was told the draft I read was the original spec but looking at the title page, it’s titled, “The Last Action Hero.” Since we know the original spec was titled, “Extremely Violent,” this may be one draft removed from that spec. Chances are it was probably an attempt to clean up the script before they sent it out to the big names, like Shane Black. Anyway, something to keep in mind.
“The Last Action Hero” introduces us to 15 year old Danny, a clever but introverted kid who embraces his loner label by escaping into the beautiful city of New York, or, more specifically, an old rundown movie theater where he watches as many movies as they'll play in a day. His favorite films are those starring super action star “Arno Slater,” whose new movie, “Extremely Violent” is coming out next week.
The reclusive projectionist of the theater (and Danny’s only friend) sets up a private screening for him so he can watch “Extremely Violent” before anyone else. During the screening, a tear in the screen causes a cosmic merging of reality and fantasy and sucks Danny into the very movie he’s watching. Before he knows it, he’s standing right next to his hero, Arno Slater!
The two are immediately attacked by the film-within-a-film’s bad guys, “The Twins,” and not only do the Twins promise to kill Arno, they promise to kill his new friend (Danny) as well! For this reason, Danny and Arno have to stay together so Arno can protect him.
Danny figures this is probably a dream and decides to ride it out. He warns Arno that because of the collateral damage he caused in his previous action scene with The Twins, he’s about to be screamed at by his always-angry captain, but Arno doesn’t know what he’s talking about (he’s a movie character and therefore has no idea what’s coming around the corner, even though it’s obvious to all of us). He’s completely shocked then when they get back to the station and he’s screamed at by his captain! Danny was right! But how did he know that? This is followed by another typically 80s action movie scene where Arno goes home to his purposefully cliché wife who only exists to dress his wounds and tell him everything’s going to be okay.
Danny becomes acutely aware that this world he’s in operates exclusively under movie conventions, and realizes he can prevent a lot of the unnecessary danger and violence that Arno would encounter. He points out that the real issue isn’t the Twins, but the big ultimate conspiracy. If they can figure out the conspiracy now, they don’t even have to deal with The Twins or any other nonsense. In essence, they can cut straight to the end. All this does though is make Arno’s head hurt because he doesn’t think three moves ahead. He thinks like an action-movie hero, in the here and now. And the here and now usually involves shooting a bunch of bad guys and figuring out the consequences later.
This sort of back-and-forth is the central conflict of the story. Danny tries to teach Arno how to think three steps ahead and avoid all unnecessary violence, and Arno resists, preferring to shoot the hell out of anyone who gives him a mean look (again, very similar to Terminator 2, which makes me think that a lot of Black's changes were out of his hands - he had to make them to differentiate the dynamic between the two films).
The Last Action Hero is actually a good idea for a movie. Part of the fun of watching popcorn films is predicting what’s going to happen next, which, even if you’re a minor movie buff, is fairly easy. To create a character who essentially says what all of us are already thinking is the kind of device that plays well if done right. Especially back in the 80s when every action film was so mindlessly predictable.
But my biggest problem with the script is that it doesn’t take advantage of this opportunity. For example, when Danny and Arno go back to the precinct, Danny observes, “You’re about to get chewed out by your captain." Where is the drama inherent in a random observation like that? Why aren't we using Danny's "powers" to create drama? For instance, it would be much more interesting if, say, he offered: “No no. You can’t go back to the precinct. Your captain’s going to yell at you and take away your badge and then you won’t be able to stay on the case!” Now Arno has to make a decision. Does he listen to the kid or ignore him? Because a choice is involved, the moment is dramatic. Same goes for the following wound-dressing scene. It’s sorta funny to see a paper-thin female lead exist only to dress Arno’s wounds, but if it’s just observational, then all we’re doing is spoofing action flicks a la “Scary Movie.” Danny doesn’t even need to be there for that. And if Danny doesn’t need to be there, what’s the point of having him in the first place?
This eventually changes later in the script when Danny starts calling the shots. He tells Arno they need to go get his wife so the bad guys can’t use her as a pawn later (which is kinda funny because the wife is so used to being used as a pawn that she actually resists being protected before she needs to be). And then, instead of going into a lair full of bad guys where he’ll surely get hurt, Danny advises Arno to go to a public place and call 50 policeman for backup so there’s no way the bad guys can possibly hurt him. Now we’re taking advantage of the concept, but it was a full 75 pages into the story, and in my opinion, too late. By that point, I’d checked out.
I’m also surprised, taking into account the nature of the story, Penn was so pissed about Black’s decision to turn Arno into more of a “Gibson/Willis” archetype. Swarchenegger wasn’t known for being a cop in his films, so the fact that Penn and Leff made him one already went against how we identify Swarchenegger. So Black extending that into the Gibson/Willis arena was at the very least a natural progression of what they'd already started.
Anyway, my guess is that “The Last Action Hero” is one of those scripts that was lucky to be written in the golden age of specs, when a great concept was all you needed for a sale. It likely wouldn’t have a chance in today’s stingy market. Though in fairness you could say that about most specs of yesteryear.
So which draft do you like better? Or should this script even have been purchased in the first place?
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: Well first of all, I think you need to exploit your concept to the fullest. Whenever you come up with a great movie idea, you want to sit down and write out all the possible scenarios that will best take advantage of that idea, then include all the “hits” from that list in your script. But because this script is really about deconstructing clichés, it’s a good reminder to always perform a “cliché check” run-through of your script. Read through it with the specific intent of asking yourself at every stage, “Will the audience know what scene is next?” “Will the audience know what line is next?” Because stories have a certain pattern, there is going to be an inherent predictability to your story. But the key moments should be unexpected and original.
For those who want to hear Zak’s reaction to the ordeal, follow this link.
The story behind “The Last Action Hero” comes from the book, “The Big Deal,” by Thom Taylor, which details the development process on a number of spec screenplays. You can find the book on Amazon here.