Lessons from “The Lone Ranger”

October 20th, 2011 by

As screenwriters, whether we are aware of it or not, we wear several ‘hats’: Obviously the most important one is our screenwriter hat, but we also act as director — in how we execute scenes — and as producer — in how we frame and locate scenes and sequences. While you may be relatively oblivious to these aspects of your screenplay, if a studio buys it and you move into development, you will be forced to become aware of these issues.

The recent behind-the-scenes saga of The Lone Ranger provides some interesting insights into the mindset of a producer. Per THR:

Jerry Bruckheimer says he never had any doubt that The Lone Ranger would get made with star Johnny Depp. But the project proved to be the most difficult negotiation of his career after Disney halted production in August as the budget reportedly spiraled beyond $260 million. Disney CEO Robert Iger set a hard number — $215 million, according to a knowledgeable source — and agreed to go forward with Lone Ranger only if the filmmakers hit the target. In an exclusive interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bruckheimer explains how they got there.

Some excerpts specifically related to the project’s script:

THR: How did negotiations get to the point where Disney shut down the movie?

Bruckheimer: We had a script that we kept working on. It was evolving. You start looking at locations, you look at the menu and say: “I like all these desserts. I want ‘em all.” And you hit a number and they say, “We can’t afford that.” Then you start cutting it back.

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Disney would have much preferred us cutting stuff out of the script. But the competition is fierce. You can’t compete with The Hobbit, you can’t compete with Transformers if you do that. The audience will stay home.

THR: Did you have to lose sequences from the script? There was talk that some train sequences were cut back.

Bruckheimer: We cut a sequence involving a coyote attack — supernatural coyotes — and a small animated segment. The train [scenes] are intact. We trimmed it a little bit. Gore made some sacrifices creatively, but nothing that would hurt the film. We had to work it out. The studio set a number, and it was always our responsibility to get to the number.

You can read the whole article here as Bruckheimer gets into all sorts of issues a producer faces in budgeting a scripted project (e.g., locations and tax rebates, reducing size and scope of sequences, travel costs).

In general on most scripts, I don’t advise thinking like a producer most of the time. Job #1 for you is to write a great, entertaining story and that means giving free reign to your creative impulses. However there are some projects, such as contained thrillers, where the producer’s mentality pretty much comes with the conceptual territory. Moreover if you hope to work as a screenwriter in Hollywood, at some point you have to become aware of a producer’s concerns and mindset. Indeed eventually you will probably want to become a writer-producer, so it’s never too early to start learning how to wear that producer’s hat.

For more on this subject, read the interview I did with screenwriter John Swetnam — here — and scroll down to the last few paragraphs. He has a solid take on things and you would do well to heed his words as he sold the spec script Evidence earlier this year.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from “The Lone Ranger”

  1. CrashDaily says:

    It can get tricky too when you are writing for a studio or producer and the director is attached. You get “creative” notes that push their individual agendas, and you are stuck in the middle.

    We just finished writing an action movie that was given a small five million dollar budget (so budget becomes a huge issue). The director had really specific notes, like for example, he wanted us to put an actual squib count within the description of a big shootout. He wants to get as much production value detail into the script as he can so he can point to it (“look it’s right there in the script”) in some future debate about what he can or can’t have. We want to keep him happy since he pushed for us to get the job and we want to keep working with him. But the studio is signing our checks and we definitely don’t want to bite the hand that feeds us.

    Studio wants to spend money on recognizable names for the poster, a component they can calculate on a spread sheet. Director wants all that money on screen and to blow more shit up. Meanwhile we’re just trying to write a really good movie and concentrate on that but, like it or not, there are political land mines that you must recognize and avoid.

    1. Scott says:

      Crash, first off, good luck with your project. Screenwriters often get stuck in the middle. I remember on one project I wrote, a sequel to a successful cult film, where the original director [now producing] essentially wanted to do a remake with one fairly significant twist, while the studio kept pushing to make it a legitimate sequel. That was pretty hellish and didn’t end very well, a case of getting stuck in the middle of a power struggle.

      When you say “political land mines,” that’s exactly right, as a lot of what we do is non-story related, and just dealing with individual egos and agendas, sometimes more psychologist than writer.

      Again good luck on that project!

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