Lorenzo Semple, Jr.: Having fun with James Bond in "Never Say Never Again"
The writer who put the "camp" in "Batman" tackles the troubled "Thunderball" remake, renewing Sean Connery's Licence To Kill in the biggest Bond year of them all. By Steve Swires.
Is the man who wrote Batman for television and Dino De Laurentiis' productions of King Kong and Flash Gordon really the best.choice to script Sean Connery's long-awaited James Bond encore in Never Say Never Again?
"Sean wanted this to be the greatest film ever made, so it wouldn't appear to be a rip- off for the money. I was extremely apprehensive about that idea, because I felt a Bond movie-especially one that's essentially a remake-would never be the greatest film ever made," says screenwriter Lorenzo Semple, Jr., the Batman/Flash Gordon/King Kong veteran. "I tried to make it as sparkling as possible, but 1 think it would be a very bad idea to become super-artistic about this movie."
One thing Semple need never fear -at least from disgruntled fantasy film fans-is the accusation of being an artist. "Perhaps 1 don't take the movie business as seriously as 1 should," he admits, "but 1 was looking to have some fun with this film, Having fun with a project is very important to me. Life is too short to do it any other way."
After accepting the assignment from producer Jack Schwartzman, Semple was ready to experience a most peculiar kind of fun. Not only did he have to satisfy Schwartzman with his work, but also Connery who had total script approval. "All actors are spoiled madmen-especially stars who have full control," he laments. "But Sean Connery is no dope. He has a very clear vision of himself as James Bond, and what Bond would and wouldn't do.
"He had been on record as saying that if the script was right, he would do another Bond picture someday. That fact was very intriguing to me, like searching for a lost mine. Of course, his salary had to be right, too -which, in this case, it was. Being a Scots- man, let's say there's nothing to suggest that Sean doesn't have a proper regard for money."
The Legal Scenario
Additionally, due to of the variety of legal entanglements surrounding the production, Semple's screenplay had to pass muster by a battery of skeptical lawyers. "That was an added attraction, an extra challenge," he declares. "Like many people, I fancy myself an amateur attorney. So, the first thing I was presented with was the legal briefs relating to the case. In reading all that material, I was amazed by how much was undefined regarding rights to the property. Although it was set down in writing, there were various interpretations. Part of the fun of doing the screenplay was threading my way through this legal minefield."
Such obstacles originated in the project's beginnings (STARLOG #71). Jack Schwartzman purchased the motion picture remake rights to Ian Fleming's novel Thunderball from producer Kevin McClory, who had made the original film version (also starring Connery) in 1965 in partnership with United Artist Bond series producer Albert R. Broccoli and his then-partner Harry Saltzman. McClory originally obtained those movie rights as part of a settlement of his lawsuit against Fleming for unauthorized appropriation of story material that the two had developed together.
After a contractually-guaranteed, decade- long no-remake period expired, McClory attempted to exercise the remake rights himself, and co-wrote a property entitled Warhead with Connery and British novelist Len (The Ipcress File) Deighton. He was unable to launch the movie, however, because of legal action taken against him by Broccoli, the Fleming Estate and United Artists. Once Schwartzman became involved, those parties added him to the McClory litigation.
For his part, Semple wasn't discouraged by such difficulties. "I had no doubt whatsoever that we were within our rights," he states. "I was absolutely certain that if Sean Connery said he would do it, the picture would hap- pen. When there's big money involved and profits to be made, one way or another it will get off the ground. Jack is a brilliant lawyer and diplomat. He said from the beginning that if there was a great deal of profit, nobody would care, because something could be worked out. And if there wasn't any profit, there would be nothing to sue over.
"There's a bonding company behind us, and a very large insurance premium has been paid. Jack and I had meetings with them in Los Angeles, and they were satisfied. They wouldn't have allowed us to go ahead unless they thought we had a very good court case. I think it's really pique on Albert Broccoli's part, more than anything else."
After being presented with the legal parameters within which he must write, Semple began fashioning a screen treatment under Schwartzman's supervision. "It was all very jolly at that stage," he remembers, "as movies always
are. We agreed that the story would follow the same general construction as the Thunderball film. Spectre would hijack a couple of nuclear missiles and hold them for ransom. We would start at the Shrublands health clinic, where Bond would overhear some information and become involved. He would follow a tenuous lead to the Bahamas, and then take off for another part of the world.
"The major change we made is that James Bond is in semi-retirement, and must force his way back into action. He's the last person M wants involved, because he's too dangerous and.they don't do things like that any more. They want to get Bond out of the way. When he goes to the Bahamas, they think they've gotten rid of him. He in no way has the resources of the British Secret Service behind him. His only support comes from his friend, CIA agent Felix Leiter [played in the film by Bernie Casey]. At one point, we even had Leiter kicked out of the CIA and working in security for an oil company, but we had to change that back for legal reasons.
"The biggest area of contention concerned the geography. The same action which. previously occurred in the Bahamas would now take place elsewhere. I kept saying the story was more important than the location, but Jack and his lawyers were very nervous about moving the setting from the Bahamas.
"We were in a Catch-22 situation. We definitely owned this material, but if our movie wasn't something like the Thunderball movie we would be in trouble-although, at the same time, we couldn't use anything unique to that film. However, it really didn't worry us, as long as we could get Sean. First, we would make it as different as possible. Then, if we had to pull it back, we hoped he would understand."
Although he based his script on the previous picture, Semple also found it useful to retain various elements from Fleming's novel. "The rule was that anything I could take directly from the book which hadn't been used in the movie would be a brownie point," he explains. "But the rules changed constantly, depending on what the lawyers said last.
"I remember one day in Los Angeles when . Jack pitched the project, to lawyers representing the insurance company. They had read the script and were being very difficult. One young guy kept coming up with differences from the film. Jack silenced him by saying: 'Look, we have the rights. You've got the legal papers-read them. We're adapting the novel again.'
"They all agreed. That fact should have meant we could do anything we wanted if it was suggested in the book. For example, in the scene in which Spectre and Ernst Blofeld are introduced, Blofeld summarizes various operations his organization has carried out in the last year. He describes five separate incidents. I didn't see why we couldn't have taken one of those incidents and done a whole new picture from it. I asked the lawyers many times about that idea, but they said we couldn't get away with it. The lawyers kept saying: 'The bottom line is if it's too different from the Thunderball movie, then you're not doing a remake, you're doing a sequel.'
"It really came down to matters of opinion. Everything is so vague that there really is no precedent for. such a case. It's a fascinating legal situation-and probably more fun than the film.'
The Connery Treatment
Amidst the legal confusion, Semple penned a 70-page treatment, which was sent to Connery at his home in Marbella, Spain. "Sean liked it," Semple reports. "And so did Jack-especially when Sean liked it. I'm quite a good narrative writer, if I may say; It was a classy, literate, well-written treatment. I threw in many character points, which I knew would appeal to Sean."
After a positive response from Connery, Semple wrote a first draft screenplay which closely followed his treatment, and then awaited the star's judgment. "The word came back that Sean liked it but had some ideas," he recounts, "so I went over to Marbella and visited him for a few days. I thought all his ideas were excellent. I listened to him most closely, and did my best to incorporate them in my rewrite."
It was the first time that Semple had.met Connery. Naturally wary of actors, the writer was nevertheless impressed. "Sean has a great fondness for James Bond," he observes. "It's really what made him a star. His other pictures generally haven't been big box office successes. He's still proud of his career, though, and with some reason. He has always selected his own films, and he criticizes other actors who have been ruined by doing what their agents said."
The addition of new ideas inevitably changed Semple and Schwartzman's conception of Never Say Never Again. "We had made a conscious decision at the beginning
to try to make it more like the classic early Bond movies," Semple relates. "Thunderball was the one in which they started getting silly, and the series deteriorated from there. We wanted to do without the huge gimmicks. But then, everybody became increasingly nervous about the audience's reaction to a more realistic approach to James Bond. We were concerned that perhaps times have changed, and the public actually wants silliness now. So, while we wanted to be pure, there was a steady tendency to hype it up."
Semple wrote a revised draft after his sojourn in Spain, which reflected the star's scripting suggestions. "Then, it became more serious," he points out, "because for the first time Sean was faced with having to put up or shut up. In fact, I had always felt if anybody with any intelligence had wanted to, they could have talked Sean Connery out of doing another James Bond picture in an hour-except for greed.
"It will hurt him a great deal if this film turns out to be terrible. People will wonder why he didn't quit while he was ahead," Semple says. He thinks for a moment and adds, "If I were Broccoli, I wouldn't worry about lawsuits. I would have slipped some money to a friend of Sean's to get him into a bar, and persuade him not to do Never Say Never Again. But Sean wanted to make a hit-and the money he's getting is considerable."
At that point, before Connery had definitely committed to the project, Schwartz- man began searching for a director. Once again, the actor had the right of complete approval and, according to Semple, "That was the biggest stumbling block. Part of the deal was that Sean would provide us in advance with a list of 10 directors he would agree to work with, if Jack .could get one of them. I don't think he ever submitted that list. But he was very hard to pressure, of course, because he could have cancelled out at any moment. All negotiations had to be done very delicately through his lawyers-and he's a tough negotiator.
"Sean wanted Richard Donner [who directed Superman 1] very much, but Dick didn't like the script and didn't want to do a remake. I was quite alarmed by that fact, because when an actor wants a certain director and the director doesn't want the job, everybody becomes terribly insecure. Some thought was given to hiring directors like Terence Young [who helmed Dr. No, From Russia with Love and Thunderball] or John Guillermin [who directed The Towering Inferno] and Sean wasn't totally opposed to those ideas, but he wanted the most 'artistic' director he could have."
The Kershner Solution
Schwartzman eventually selected Irvin (The Empire Strikes Back) Kershner (STARLOG #34), who had previously directed Connery in A Fine Madness in 1966. "Sean was by no means high on Kersh," Semple reveals. "He said he didn't trust his sense of humor at all. With Kersh's Talmudic approach. to things, it's hard to imagine two people more different than him and Sean, so Jack had to do an extreme sales job."
Semple also had reservations of his own. "Kersh is the most notorious destroyer of scripts in Hollywood," he charges. "Some people say he's the only person who can turn a 'go project' into a development deal when he starts working on the script-which he has done a number of times. Quite a few people in Hollywood turn white at the very thought of Kersh becoming inyolved with a project. His habit is to immediately say the script is terrible and start rewriting it himself. "
And, according to Semple, that's exactly what happened in the case of Never Say Never Again. Indeed it seems as if Kershner's arrival on the scene hastened Semple's departure. "Kersh had tons of ideas," he acknowledges. "First, he said the script was great, then, he said it needed more action. He's very enthusiastic, but he's like a child. He would say: 'I've got a sensational idea. Let's do this.' Two days later, he would say: 'That's terrible. It doesn't work at all.' "
For Semple, adjusting to the director's working methods wasn't easy. "Anybody would have had difficulty with Kersh," the screenwriter insists. "It might have been fun if we were beginning the project then, but at that stage, it was extremely unpleasant. Sean was waiting to start the movie, so it wasn't the time to play around. But Kersh took the view that we were starting from scratch, and played around for months. That was exactly what Jack and I had hoped to avoid."
Finally, Connery traveled to Los Angeles for consultations with Kershner and Schwartzman, . while Semple continued rewriting according to the director's instructions. "We ripped up scenes and changed the script around wildly," he recalls. "Eventually; Sean approved it and went away. Then, Kersh said: 'We've got to
change everything again.' He brought in one of his friends and they wrote 20 pages, which were just terrible .
"By then, even Jack was finding it very difficult to get along with Kersh. I was subsequently brought back in by Kersh for more rewriting. The first thing I did was throw his stuff out. Everybody was leaving for London by that point, so it was agreed I would go along to work on the script.
"Kersh worked with me in London for two weeks, but without consulting Jack. We did a rewrite with which Kersh was very happy. He took it to Sean in Marbella, and there was an explosion. Sean said: 'I hate it! You've ruined it! I won't do the movie!'
"Naturally, there was great panic.
"Jack turned on me and said: 'I should have thrown your typewriter out the window!' I don't blame Jack, because Kersh was really out of control.
"I was immediately sacrificed. It was agreed that I wouldn't have anything more to do with the writing, because I was the one who had destroyed it. The fact that I had destroyed my own script was considered immaterial. What then happened was that Kersh, Sean, the assistant director and a secretary pasted together another script, restoring material from the earlier drafts. All together, I think there have been about 10 writers since me who have fiddled with it."
The Semple Sacrifice
Once separated from the Bond project, Lorenzo Semple lost all interest in its fate. "I made a point of not hearing a word about it," he claims. "I remember the confusion and panic that was starting just as I was leaving, so I'm very happy not to be further involved in Never Say Never Again. "
However, he still has a financial participation in the motion picture, one he anticipates will require an arbitration proceeding from the Writers Guild to preserve his screenplay credit on the film. "My final payment de- -pends on whether I receive sole or shared credit," Semple discloses. "Almost all movie deals are structured that way now, which is why the arbitrations are becoming more difficult. The procedure is that the producer must send a tentative notice of credit to the Guild and to any writer involved. The writer can protest, and then there's an arbitration. I don't know that will happen in this case, since I'm certain many of the other writers don't have contracts."
Lest he be accused of professional jealousy due to his dismissal from the production, Semple is anxious to clarify his position. "If I seem to be blaming Kersh, I am," he emphasizes. "I think he's extremely undisciplined. The script problems wouldn't have occurred if we had a director who was a craftsman, and didn't also fancy himself a 'great artist.' Of course, if the movie is successful, everything Kersh did will be considered correct. It always happens that way."
Despite their differences, Schwartzman and Semple continue to collaborate. Surprisingly, the producer has hired Semple to script a proposed film version of Alfred Bester's classic science-fiction novel, The Stars My Destination. The writer, already at work on the second draft, has a confession: "I don't like science fiction that much." He laughs, "But, I felt this project would be a challenge. It's a terrific adventure story with a very up- lifting, metaphysical ending. The problem is there's too much material in the book.
"The storyline is somewhat similar to The Count of Monte Cristo. It's set in an indeterminate future in which everybody has a mental power called 'jaunting,' that enables them to travel from place to place. This talent has changed the world a great deal. The main character is Gulliver Foyle, the prototypical common man. He's abandoned in space after a mysterious explosion aboard his ship. After surviving incredible, picaresque adventures, he manages to return to Earth bent on revenge."
John Carpenter has been signed to a development deal as director. "We've had several meetings, and I think he's very bright," Semple says. "He knows movies, and has an extremely good story sense. The hope is that he can bring it in. on a more reasonable budget than other directors. But he's also involved with other projects, too, so he may have to bow out."
Meanwhile, a pragmatic Lorenzo Semple, Jr. awaits the forthcoming release of Never Say Never Again with mixed feelings. "I consider my work on it to be a total success," he maintains, "because we got the damned thing made. In this business, you can't ask for much more than that.
"Paradoxically, due to the mania for perfection by Irvin Kershner and Sean Connery, it could turn out to be a good film. I would love it to be a big hit-it wouldn't hurt. Besides, I really don't want to be known as the man who finally wrote a James Bond flop."
[Source: Starlog #74, pages, 24-27.]