There’s No Business Like Show Business…Thank God

Friday, April 21st, 2006, 12:20 pm

Bill Simmons of ESPN has a two part conversation with Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the gentlemen who wrote Rounders. Simmons of course asked them the question all fans of that movie want to know–Why the hell doesn’t Mike sleep with the slinky, scrumptious, yet surprisingly vulnerable Famke Janssen? It beggars belief. I can’t believe Damon himself didn’t walk off the set demanding a rewrite.

And here’s how they answered: “We plead guilty. Biggest mistake of the film, probably of our entire career…(i)t’s not that we’re monks, just idiots.”

About the only believable excuse, and I suppose none of us is without sin. They do mention that they’d imagined Petra as a more “regular-looking” girl. It’s hard to imagine a less “regular-looking” girl than Ms. Janssen, so it’s perhaps asking a bit much to process the fact that THIS is the woman playing that character and that strong men would swoon in her irregular presence. If you start fiddling with that character you’d probably end up re-writing the entire script to give her more screen time, and so maybe that wasn’t a productive path to head down.

It’s an interesting read, though Simmons didn’t ask a few questions I would’ve liked to ask. Actually, there’s one in particular–pretty much every professional player who’s written or spoken about Tilt hated it. HATED it. It made them look like cheats and crooks and scumballs. So, any backlash? And why, after making a name for yourself glorifying poker, would you make a show that rips it apart? Especially in as silly a way as Tilt does? And why would ESPN, which shows WSOP highlights 50 hours a week, do the same?

Though it doesn’t sound like Tilt came out quite as they hoped–“There is no way we can overstate this: We must have quit/threatened to quit the show five times over the nine episodes…no matter what we said, we just couldn’t believe the answers coming back at us.”

It must be very, very, very strange to come up with an idea for a TV show, or a movie, and get someone to agree to produce it, and then have to collaborate with dozens of other people who often have completely different ideas about how to present “your” idea. I’m sure change100 could go on and on and ON about this particular subject, but I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship writers have to the performing arts. Fascinated in the same way I’m fascinated by watching multiple-car pileups on the interstate.

One of my writing professors at Penn State was a gentleman named Bob Downs, who had two of his novels turned into TV movies. He told us a story about walking onto the set and feeling an overwhelming sense of deja vu. He couldn’t put his finger on it, until he realized that the set he was on was of the living room he’d described in his book. It wasn’t quite as he imagined it, but it was close enough to give him the willies.

He said that a friend of his enjoyed the perfect relationship with Hollywood–every single one of his novels had been optioned…and not one of them had been turned into a movie.

There was a documentary about James Ellroy on HBO awhile back (It might’ve been titled My Dark Places, as much of it dealt with the same subject matter as the book of that title) and Ellroy tells a little story about the movie version of L.A. Confidential. He says that the success of that movie is something that he had absolutely nothing to do with, it was a once in a lifetime event. And he says, “Once in awhile some sweet little old lady will stop him and say, “Ohhhh, I just loved that movie. It was so wonderful. Tell me, is Kim Basinger nice?”

And Ellroy says, “Yeah, she’s OK.”

“Ohh, isn’t that nice? Tell me, is Kevin Spacey gay?”

And Ellroy says, “I don’t know. But let me ask you something. Did you read the book? And invariably the little old lady says she didn’t. and I say to her, ‘Then what the fuck good are you to me?'”

I taped that show, I really need to dig it out and watch it again. If you haven’t read L.A. Confidential, good Lord, you should. And, good Lord, you should read My Dark Places. That reminds me that I haven’t read White Jazz yet, nor The Black Dahlia. Add them to my summer reading list.

Anyway, my point is that the path from the written word to celluloid can be a tortured one indeed. You don’t often see great works of art created by committee and tested before focus groups. Too many cooks spoils the broth, the saying goes, and perhaps its a wonder that some movies and TV show are actually watchable.

What got me thinking about this subject was a piece I read in today’s Post-Gazette. There’s going to be a movie made from Michael Chabon’s novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which is a favorite of mine. There’s been talk of making a film from it for years, but as I read the article I found myself half-hoping it gets shelved. First of all, they might not actually shoot it in Pittsburgh. As the article says, the city itself is a character in the book, which is one of the reasons I love it so much. They might film instead in Canada or Louisiana. WTF? Louisiana? I’ve lived in Pittsburgh my entire life (less 4 years at Penn State) and I’ve never heard anyone say, “This reminds me of Cajun country.” My friend Mark spent four years in Shreveport when he was in the Air Force–at no time did he say, “Basically it’s Pittsburgh with crawfish”.

On top of that, the film version would take two major characters and merge them into one, which to my mind would ruin things right there. For further that-topping, Sienna Miller would play a character who was the girlfriend of one of the un-merged characters from the book. The problem is, the merged character would be gay, so I don’t exactly see why she’d still be required.

Another problem with making a film from this particular book is that Chabon is a spectacular writer, and so much of the magic in the book comes from his beautiful words. He didn’t write the screenplay–it’s going to be written and directed by the guy who did Dodgeball, which doesn’t fill me with confidence. When asked about the changes made to his book, Chabon said, “”You’re not just making a transcript of the novel with pictures, you’re trying to reinvent the story so it works as a movie. … I think it’s going to be great.”

I think I might just grab the book off my shelf and read it again.

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4 Responses to “There’s No Business Like Show Business…Thank God”

  1. dugglebogey Says:

    Great post Gene.

    Sort of OT, but have you seen the documentary “Overnight” about Troy Duffy and the script for Boondock Saints? I’d be curious about your thoughts if you had. If you haven’t please consider it.

  2. Garthmeister J. Says:

    Gene, have you ever read “Which Lie Did I Tell?” by William Goldman? Fantastic collection of stories by a screen writer (including stories about fighting with actors etc. about the script), and my best ever “airport bookstore purchase”. Amusingly enough Bill Simmons has mentioned the book more than once, and holds Mr Goldman in high esteem.

    I give it 5 “Awesomes” out of 5.

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  4. franQ Says:

    Hi, Gene–

    I’ve been reading your posts re: MYSTERIES OF PITTSBURGH which like you, I also read at 22 right out of college. I too felt a similar connection to Michael Chabon’s debut novel and have considered it my “favorite” for these past 16+ years.

    You can imagine how excited I was to learn about the film that was being shot in Pittsburgh FINALLY after all the years. What bummed me out was that I had just spent the last 2 years at Carnegie Mellon getting my MFA in Dramatic Writing. With hopes of one day actually penning the screenplay myself. But I graduated and left the ‘urgh in May, just months before shooting began.

    Then I found out that Rawson Marshall Thurber was writing and directing and it pretty much all went to Hell right there!

    Back in the fall I created an online “boycott” group alerting fans of the novel to the changes that have been made to the story AND the fact that Chabon himself gave RMT the thumbs up… Does he really need $$ so much so that he would allow Hollywood to RUIN the story that put him on the literary map?

    Apparently so…

    If you’re interested in joining the boycott, please check out my group at

    I also managed to get my hands on a copy of the screenplay… Which is actually good but not the MOP we all know and love in ANY way. Literally, only 15 pages out of 124 have been taken from the original source.

    If you’d like to read it, I can email you a copy in PDF… Just drop me a line and let me know where to send it.

    Thanks and take care!

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