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 to his credit a handful of films, 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. 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 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 a 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.

"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."

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 20th 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 movie, which cost $70 million to make, took in a humiliating $2.6 million last weekend.)

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 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."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky