Ten Screenwriter Dispute Stories Which Might Make Good Films

December 20, 2020

In honour of Mank, Stephen Vagg put together a top ten of other legendary screenwriter dispute stories which would make great films...

Eleanor Perry and Martin Poll on The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973)

Perry earned an excellent reputation as a screenwriter in the 1960s working with her director husband Frank on films such as David and Lisa, The Swimmer and The Last Summer. They broke up, Eleanor went her own way, found the novel The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing in galleys, optioned it, developed it, wrote the screenplay, made herself producer to protect her script… and still got screwed over by the producer (Martin Poll) and director (Richard C. Sarafian), with the film being extensively rewritten (male writers added a rape scene). Perry’s career never really recovered.

The making of The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing was colourful to say the least… star Sarah Miles was married to Robert Bolt but was having an affair with her assistant who was obsessed with her; then when she started flirting/something more with co-star Burt Reynolds the assistant killed himself and Reynolds and Miles were genuinely suspected of murder… Ah, the ’70s…

William Goldman with Robert Redford and Alan J. Pakula on All the President’s Men (1976)

One of Goldman’s greatest scripts was an incredibly painful experience for him… Robert Redford, who had become a star appearing in Goldman’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, hired him to adapt the book, Carl Bernstein wrote his own script on the side with then-girlfriend Nora Ephron, eventual director Alan J. Pakula drove Goldman up the wall with incessant rewrite requests, Pakula and Redford wound up rewriting the script only not really (you can read Goldman’s drafts), but they think they did because they moved commas around, and Goldman slagged off Redford in his memoirs, and Redford has sooked ever since, and two men who were once personal friends fell out… Great movie, but.

PS Goldman wrote the script.

Paddy Chayefsky and Ken Russell on Altered States (1981)

Chayefsky was a genius screenwriter who liked to have his opinion heard (let’s put it that way), so a lot of directors found him troublesome, though when it worked it was wonderful (Network, The Hospital, Americanization of Emily). He couldn’t find a director for Altered States (Arthur Penn, who was a friend, tried but they fought, and Penn was fired) and eventually after going through the filofax they wound up with none other than Ken Russell. The two men clashed, which was probably inevitable; Chayefsky quit the film and died soon after. Russell was blamed for contributing to the writer’s death because Russell is, well, Russell, but I’ve actually read the script and seen the movie and Russell, who could be appalling, did shoot the script as written, and what’s more, I think did a fine job – I really like the movie. I just think maybe he wasn’t good with Chayefsky wrangling. And smoking cigarettes and refusing to see a doctor may have contributed something to Chayefsky’s early death as well…

The writing of Blazing Saddles (1974)

From what I gather, this actually wasn’t a massive dispute, I just think that watching the making of this movie would be hugely entertaining… you’ve got Andrew Bergman, an academic who wrote the original script, and Mel Brooks coming off two big flops, who decided to have it rewritten writers-room-style with a room that included Brooks, Bergman and Richard Pryor, battling a cocaine addiction and just prior to superstardom, and Norman Steinberg who wrote on everything…  Who wouldn’t want to see 90 minutes of Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor riffing about Westerns?

Joe Eszterhas on Basic Instinct

Eszterhas wrote one type of film script very well (person falls for charming psychopath), but for a time, that was very lucrative, and in the early ‘90s, he became a screenwriting rock star, famed for his personal life as much as his (genuine) talent. The period around the writing of Basic Instinct was particularly dramatic: clashing with Mike Ovitz, writing Basic Instinct, having a one night stand with Sharon Stone, seeing his married best friend run off with Sharon Stone, running off with his best friend’s ex-wife, clashing with protestors and director Paul Verhoeven, eventually getting along so well with Verhoeven that they made Showgirls together… (You could do a movie too on Eszterhas’ collaboration with Mel Gibson writing the unfilmed Maccabees, which the author wrote up as Heaven and Mel).

Raymond Chandler vs himself in the forties

During the 1940s, Chandler went from being a little-known pulp writer to a legendary major literary figure, who, from everyone’s anecdotes, seemed to spend a lot of that time drunk. He was recruited by Billy Wilder to help adapt Double Indemnity into screenplay form, during which both men clashed, and Chandler whined. Then there was the script for The Blue Dahlia which, according to producer John Houseman, Chandler wrote while constantly drunk in order to finish a tight deadline. Then there was the making of Strangers on a Train with Alfred Hitchcock who Chandler also clashed with… all the while being devoted to his 18-years-senior wife Cissy. Billy Wilder once commented that the two collaborators he was always asked about were Marilyn Monroe and Raymond Chandler. I’m genuinely surprised no one’s made a Chandler biopic because it would seem to be a guaranteed Oscar nom for whoever played him.

June Mathis and Rudolph Valentino

Mathis was a screenwriter in the 1910s and 1920s, who discovered Valentino and had him cast in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, which she wrote. The role turned Valentino into a star. No one understood his persona better than Mathis, but then they fell out, in part because of the influence of his wife. Mathis went on to work on some legendary silent era MGM disasters (Greed, Ben Hur the Italian edition, after which Mathis was fired). She made up with Valentino, then he died, and she died not long after him, only 40 years of age. It was a fascinatingly complex relationship.

Here’s the complete Apocalypse.

Neil Simon and Mike Nichols on Bogart Slept Here

There was no more potent writer-director combo in the 1960s than Simon and Nichols, who teamed on the original stage productions of Barefoot in the Park, The Odd Couple, Plaza Suite, The Prisoner of Seventh Avenue… Although both men also worked in the movies, Nichols didn’t direct any Simon screenplays until Bogart Slept Here with Marsha Mason and Robert de Niro in the mid-1970s. Shortly into filming, Nichols and Simon realised that de Niro, “fresh” from Taxi Driver, wasn’t getting the rhythms right and the film wouldn’t be as funny as they hoped, so the film was abandoned mid-shoot. This sparked a crisis of confidence for Nichols (who was coming off a series of box office disappointments: The Fortune, Day of the Dolphin, Catch 22), who didn’t direct a film again until Silkwood… but Simon rewrote the Bogart Slept Here script as The Goodbye Girl, which became a huge success in 1977 with Herbert Ross directing and Richard Dreyfuss in the de Niro role (Dreyfuss won an Oscar for his performance). Simon and Nichols worked together again on stage in Fools, the little remembered 1980 play, which is probably the worst thing Simon has written, but their collaboration has a happy ending: Nichols directed a fine film version of Simon’s Biloxi Blues in 1988… And de Niro survived just fine, though I’m sure the experience is a sore spot. (If it makes him feel any better, a 1990 film, Arrive Alive, directed by Jeremiah Chechik, was abandoned mid shoot when they felt star Willem Defoe wasn’t funny enough.)

Bob Ellis versus David Elfick and Phil Noyce on Newsfront


Ellis seemed to have a lot of disputes throughout his career, but this was the most colourful and had the best end result. He was hired by producer David Elfick and director Phil Noyce to write a script based on their idea (about newsreel cameramen), produced a draft that became the basis of what became a classic, but which was reworked. Ellis didn’t take this well, to put it mildly, resulting in behaviour such as stealing the script and running away, taking his name off the credits, and running up to accept his AFI award ahead of Noyce… The film was a hit, giving Ellis a film career, and a topic to never stop whining about… oh and it launched Noyce too.

Preston Sturges and Howard Hughes

In the 1940s, Sturges – based at Paramount – had one of the all time hot streaks of any writer director: The Great McGinty, Sullivan’s Travels, Palm Beach Story, Hail the Conquering Hero, Morgan Creek Miracle etc…. He was one of the best paid people in the country but still he wanted more, and so when Howard Hughes came along offering Sturges his own company the dill accepted… meaning he had to leave all the technicians and stock company at Paramount who helped him. Two films resulted: The Sin of Harold Diddlebock (an attempt to bring back Harold Lloyd) and the notorious fiasco Vendetta… Sturges never recovered, though he did have his chances… the boozing and financial irresponsibility played a part too. The story of these two men would make a great movie.

Here’s the complete Sin of Harold Diddlebock.





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