BootLeg Betty

BetteBack December 7, 1988: Hot Screenwriters – Bette And Stepmother Is An Alien

Daily Herald Suburban Chicago
December 7, 1988

9-18-2010 12-04-12 AM

Screenwriters Timothy Harris and Hershel Weingrod have placed not one, but two Christmas movies on the screen this holiday season, “Twins” and “My Stepmother is an Alien” (both opening Friday m Chicago-area theaters).

As befits writers who toil anonymously in Hollywood, Harris and Wemgrod are something less than household names. So it is only fair to identify them as the writers of “Trading Places,” the Eddie Murphy-Dan Aykroyd comedy that grossed $150 million. They also penned “Brewster’s Millions,” which earned less.

At the moment, they are the hottest writers in Hollywood.

Their partnership is such that they occasionally complete each other’s sentences and seem as temperamentally compatible as they are artistically harmonious.

They agree on the sorry plight of screenplays at the hands of producers, bankers and other non-creative types who insist on branding scripts with their own imprints.

They believe the success of “Trading Places,” directed by John Landis, was because 95 percent of the original screenplay made the final cut.

On the other hand, they took their names off another film — which they refuse to identify — because it was botched by other writers’ revisions and ego-ridden executives.

The history of any screenplay today is as complicated as a United Nations treaty. Everybody gets into the act Often, several writers or writing teams become involved before a film is completed. The Writers Guild of America then determines through arbitration who gets screen credit.

“We were spoiled by the simplicity of ‘Trading Places,'” Harris said.

“I’d say that ‘Twins’ is about 75 percent our work. ‘Stepmother’ is hard o figure because we inherited the project from another writer, and still another one was brought in to polish it.”

“We worked on the screenplay when it was understood Shelley Long would play the stepmother role, which finally went to Kim Basinger,” said Weingrod “The whole concept of the stepmother was changed.

“Originally she was supposed to be a real alien bitch and it was suggested we write for Bette Midler, Faye Dunaway or Joan Rivers Maybe ‘Stepmother’ was 50 percent ours.

We couldn’t work on it during production because of the writers strike”

Writers sometimes remain with a picture throughout principal photography, making last-minute changes and rewriting, which was the case with “Twins.”

“We stayed with Twins’ until the last day of production,” Harris said.

“Staying with a picture through production depends on the writers’ relationship with the director.”

The team originally wrote ”Trading Places” with Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder in mind for the Murphy and Aykroyd roles.

“We usually work with actors and actresses in mind, not directors, because everyone thinks in terms of casting possibilities,” Weingrod said.

“Casting is the key element in the success of a good screenplay,” Harris added. “No actors can save a bad screenplay, but great performances can really enhance a good script.”

Harris and Wemgrod are fortunate they are in demand and do not have to hustle scripts to agents, producers and studios.

“What we do is write an invitation to make a movie, so producers, directors, actors and financiers will get excited and want to become involved,” Weingrod said.

“Once that is accomplished, you tailor the story for the individuals who want to make it.

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