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Something Old, Something New

Something Old, Something New

Articles - Directing

Alyson Hannigan, Jason Biggs and Seann William Scott return
for American Wedding.

“Revisit your characters with similar set-ups, then
bring in an interesting new character in the second act.”

Adam Herz, American Wedding

Guess what’s coming soon to
a movie theater near you? That’s right, another sequel. While
the mere thought of seeing Chucky, Rocky or Freddy once again may
cause
the diehard (pardon
the pun) film buff to cringe, Hollywood studios have almost two
dozen sequels in the pipeline—and for good reason. Last year,
six of the top 10 grossing films were sequels. And this year should
prove no different as Charlie’s Angels, The Terminator and those Bad
Boys
all make return engagements,
to name just a few.

While box office glory may be why studios
make sequels, how they make them is another story, best explained
by the people who write the scripts. “The days of sequels making
a fraction of the [original’s] business at two-thirds of the budget
are long gone,” says Adam Herz, writer of American Pie and American
Pie 2
. Years ago, studios were content to capitalize on title
alone (remember Jaws 3-D and Jaws the Revenge?),
cutting back on costs and hiring new actors. Nowadays, studios
raise the production value of subsequent films and retain as much
of the original cast as possible. “People want to see the [same]
characters they fell in love with,” says Herz.

In 1999, American Pie grossed $102 million
domestically. The second film, released two years later, grossed
$145 million.
Universal Pictures hopes to continue the skyward trend this summer
with Herz’s third installment, American Wedding, due out
August 1st.

“[The first] American Pie was made for
$10.5 million,” says
Herz. “It was like an independent movie.” But when audiences started
flocking to the theaters, Universal immediately saw the possibilities
of this becoming a much-coveted franchise film. Initially, Herz
was unconvinced and wanted no part of any sequel. “The characters
had learned what they had to,” he says. “There was no Stand
By Me 2
for a reason.” But when the studio kept pressing him,
Herz softened and agreed to supervise another writer on the screenplay
for American Pie 2. Unfortunately, the ensuing script did
not live up to expectations. That’s when Herz came aboard as a
writer and started from scratch.

American Pie 2 was very rushed,” notes Herz, who was writing
a script for a movie that—unlike most other new films—already had
a release date and opening weekend expectations. There were also
a lot of politics and egos involved. One problem was that the cast
had much more clout after the success of the first film, and a
Universal executive had promised many of them starring roles in
the sequel. “I literally had the studio call and ask me to add
20 pages for certain characters, [but] we can’t shoot a 150-page
script. It was difficult,” says Herz. “That’s why some characters
have strange story lines that are peripheral [to the main story].”

Despite the problems, Herz was happy with the screenplays for
both American Pie 2 and the upcoming American Wedding.
The trick to writing a sequel, he feels, is finding a convention
that works. “Revisit your characters with similar set-ups, then
bring in an interesting new character in the second act,” he explains.
For example, “Sean Connery gave something nice to Indiana Jones
3
. There was a new Terminator in Terminator 2.” With
the American Pie series, Herz says, “We feel it’s a continuation
of a story, not a new adventure. We’re tracking people through
major rites of passage.”

Another big hit in 2001 was MGM’s Legally Blonde, starring
Reese Witherspoon, which grossed $96 million domestically. Writers
Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz were unavailable to pen the
sequel, so new scribes were brought in. But as with most studio
movies, the first writers on a project are seldom the last. For Legally
Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde
, that honor went to Kate Kondell,
whose sole involvement with the original film was being a big fan. “Initially,
we were going to work off the [previous] draft. But as the project
developed, it became obvious we would have to start from scratch,” says
Kondell, who describes the tone of the sequel as “Mrs. Smith Goes
to Washington.”

Bob Newhart and Reese Witherspoon star in Legally
Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde
.

“Sequels have a cheat sheet: just see the first movie
again and again.”

Kate Kondell, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde

In the new movie, Witherspoon’s character, now a successful lawyer,
finds out her dog’s mother was used in animal testing. Outraged,
she goes to D.C. in hopes of making animal testing illegal. The
overall aim of the screenplay was to combine light comedy with
an important political issue. “It was Reese’s idea to do something
about animals,” asserts Kondell. Witherspoon, one of the film’s
producers in addition to its star, took a much more active role
in the sequel’s development. “She’s very smart about story and
had lots of ideas,” remarks Kondell.

But even with Witherspoon’s input, there was no guarantee the
much-in-demand actress was going to commit to the movie, and Kondell
had to move fast. “There was only a certain window for her,” says
Kondell. “I had to work in a concentrated time period—only a few
months—on a real draft.” However, once the draft was done, Witherspoon
expressed interest in reprising her role—a role that paid her a
much-publicized $15 million, making her one of the highest paid
female stars ever.

Unlike Herz, Kondell was writing characters
that had been created by someone else long before her involvement. “I found it really
challenging,” says Kondell, who wanted to keep the character’s
voice and the movie’s tone identical to the original, while at
the same time, change enough to make the movie feel fresh. Fortunately,
she says, “Sequels have a cheat sheet: [just] see the first movie
again and again.” But at the same time, she adds, it’s a balancing
act. “People who liked the first [movie] will resent it if you
give them the first one again.”

Kondell’s way to keep things the same but different
was simple: take the character everyone loved and put her in
another context. “[That way], it feels like she’s inhabiting the same world without being boring.” As
far as the supporting characters go, “I knew which characters worked and which
the audience wanted to see again,” she says. But in general, “Every character
was up for grabs.” Kondell is pleased that she was able to attract interesting
actors to take on the new supporting roles she created, including one of her
favorites, Bob Newhart. “It was exciting to see these actors round out the cast,” she
says.

Kirsten Smith, co-writer of the original movie,
says, “I loved
Kate’s draft and I so admired the inventions she made in terms
of plot. The direction she took the story was really impressive.
She went places I’d have never imagined going and to great comic
effect.”

Even though Legally Blonde 2 was an
important film for MGM, Kondell got much less interference from
studio execs than
she anticipated. “I was surprised that, for a high-pressure project,
it was hands-off. I was not bombarded with 18 opinions. It was
a happy surprise,” she says. Kondell’s biggest fear was that she’d
ruin the memory of the first movie for its fans. “A lot of little
girls liked that movie,” she says. It’s important to her that they
like the sequel, as well.

MGM had another big hit last year with Barbershop,
a $12 million movie that grossed $75 million at the box office.
Don D.
Scott, co-writer of the original film and writer of the second,
says the studio was planning a sequel before the first film was
even released. “After initial test screenings the scores were so
high the studio hedged their bets and locked up sequel deals [for
the talent involved],” he notes.

But as with Herz and Kondell, Scott was not
interested in merely repeating the first story. “The sequel has more depth to the plot,” he
says. “The first Barbershop plot was very light and simple,
so we could service the barbershop conversations and nuances. [In
the sequel], Ice Cube has more to deal with, though he doesn’t
take over the movie.”

Some of those conversations in the original
film proved to be quite controversial, most notably the less-than-flattering
comments
made by Cedric the Entertainer’s character about Rosa Parks and
Jesse Jackson. Scott says he wasn’t deliberately trying to ruffle
any feathers; he just wanted to write about good, juicy topics. “Let’s
have stuff that pushes the boundaries,” he says. If similar talk
is appropriate in Barbershop 2, it’ll be there.

In writing the sequel, Scott found it easier
to carry the voice of the characters, as he knew them so well. “The challenge,” he
says, “is that when working on the first film I was telling a completed
story. Terri got away from her cheating boyfriend. Ricky got out
of jail. The white barber got to cut hair. All the stories were
resolved.” In the sequel, Scott had to come up with new subplots
for all the characters.

In addition, the first Barbershop was
a very small, low-budget film, at least by studio standards. “No one was looking at us,” says
Scott. “There was no pressure. It was just ‘See if we can make
our money back.’” The second time out, producers and executives
were repeatedly calling Scott to check on the status of the script—a
script that needed to be written in a much shorter timeframe. “I
spent 11 months working on the [original] script from start until
shooting wrapped. Now I’m starting from scratch and am given less
than six months,” he says.

Scott notes, however, that the sequel has a
lot more value and meaning to MGM. “They’re treating us well. We’re
important.”

Not all sequels come from movies released in the past two or three
years. Currently in development is Easy Rider A.D., a sequel
to the 1969 hit starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson.
The original film is considered by many to be one of the first
independent movies to achieve both commercial and critical success.

Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper ride to
their deaths—maybe—in
the original Easy Rider.

“[My first question was]: How do I do it? It’s
a classic, Plotless. And the characters are dead!”

Sean Jacques, Easy Rider A.D.

When writer Sean Jacques was hired to pen a
draft, his first question was, “How do I do it? It’s a classic. Plotless. And the characters
are dead!” Initially, he thought about doing a contemporary remake,
but that idea was nixed by the producers. Part of the problem was
that many of the things that made the original so successful—the
biker subculture, the blatant use of drugs and the rock soundtrack—had
rarely been seen in movies. “Now, what movie hasn’t shown
that over the past 30 years?” asks Jacques.

Most important for Jacques was to remain pure
to the original film, and create a story that would find an audience
for all kinds
of fans—even those who haven’t seen the first movie. The story
line he created involves Peter Fonda’s Captain America in prison
for the murder of Jack Nicholson’s character. The bikers think
he should be set free. He’s an icon hero to them. Captain America’s
nephew tries to find the necessary information to get him out of
jail. Ah-ha, you say. How can Captain America be in prison if he
was killed at the end of the first movie? Jacques points out that
if you look closely at the final scene in Easy Rider, “You
never see him actually die.”

Fonda, though aware of the plans for a sequel,
has yet to commit. Jacques hopes to seal the deal with a great
script. “His character
is extremely cool with lots of integrity,” Jacques says. The chance
of getting Hopper back as well is slim, due to a rumored rift between
the two actors.

When Jacques tells people he’s writing a sequel
to Easy Rider he
gets both good and bad responses. “I try not to listen too much,” he
says. “Film critics are gonna knock the idea of it. The younger
generation likes the idea; they just think it’ll be a cool biker
movie.” He notes the popularity of the original film 30 years later—Diet
Pepsi recently ran a commercial using shots of Fonda on his chopper
from Easy Rider. “I can’t recreate the impact of the original,” says
Jacques, “but [I can] pay great homage to the story and characters
and I can celebrate the biker culture.”

“[On the first Barbershop], there was no pressure.
It was just ‘See if we can make our money back.’”

Don D. Scott, Barbershop

As the number of sequels made each year continues to rise, so
do the number of critics blasting this trend. Derek Copold, co-editor
of The Texas Mercury, a weekly review, writes, “[The reasons]
for sequels boil down to three of the Seven Deadly Sins: greed,
sloth and vanity.” He cites studios’ hunger for a surefire hit,
lack of creativity on the part of writers and the desire of talent
to be part of a well-known franchise as the core of the problem.

Kate Trainor, of UniverCity Magazine,
an entertainment publication aimed at college students, is even
less kind. She writes, “A
sequel is much like the last bitter droplets of juice wrung from
a wizened lemon. There’s nothing left but a few stringy yellow
strands clinging to the rind, yet [Hollywood] persists, trying
to squeeze the remnant scraps of life from it. But the result is
merely a puddle of thin, diluted syrup that tastes sickeningly
sour.”

However, as Michael DeLuca, head of theatrical production for
Dreamworks SKG told the Los Angeles Times last year, sequels
are a necessary part of the film industry: “Franchises create tent
poles, movies that have a built-in awareness and interest from
a pretty big potential audience. Franchises give you something
to count on in a business where you can’t count of anything.”

And as writer Kirsten Smith, who co-wrote the original Legally
Blonde
script  says, “Sometimes sequels are great if there
are passionate, new creators involved. They can elevate it from
just a monetary-driven ‘sequel’ into a valid, film-going experience.”

With production and marketing costs of the average
Hollywood film approaching $100 million, profit-conscious studios
find it safer
to reproduce the tried and true than to take a risk on new material.
Anyone for Blonde American Rider Gets a Haircut Part II? MM

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