2ND UPDATE (below): I can report exclusively that the Writers Guild recently decided the credits on The A-Team, the movie based on the ’80s TV show and opening this weekend. There were 11 screenwriters who worked on the film — 5 single writers and 3 teams of two: Kevin Broadbin, Bruce Feirstein, Jayson Rothwell, Laurence M. Konner and Mark Rosenthal, Michael Brandt and Derek Haas, Skip Woods, Joe Carnahan & Brian Bloom, Mathew Carnahan. And that’s with the interruption of the writers strike. The final credit now reads: “Written by Joe Carnahan & Brian Bloom and Skip Woods. Created by Frank Lupo & Stephen J. Cannell.” In other words, 11 writers, and in the end, the director and his partner get first position credit. The WGA has a history of idiotic credits decisions. But the story behind these 11 writers that interests me most is how Alex Young lost control of The A-Team.
The pic comes out Friday following almost 10 years in development, millions of dollars in script costs, all for a movie version of a forgotten TV show that 20th Century Fox already is predicting to reporters may not gross more in its opening weekend than the recent 4th installment of the Die Hard franchise. Not since examples like Sister Act and Armegeddon and G.I. Joe have so many screenwriters labored so much to produce so little. (This is not about whether the movie’s any good. It’s about yet another unoriginal movie idea emanating from Hollywood and how it was developed.) So I chuckled when I read a trade review today that started out: “Beginning with the sound era, studios and films producers have longed for a way to eliminate the screenwriter from the filmmaking process. By and large, writers are prickly personalities who absorb too much time, demand too much credit and need to be kept clear of the set, where they might interfere with the director, who is, after all, the real auteur of the film. With The A-Team, a Fox film derived from a 1980s TV series, this dream now is a reality. The film seems nearly writer-free. Absolutely no time gets wasted on story, character development or logic.”
Some believe in the fish-stinks-from-the-head theory of studio politics. But in actuality I know that Tom Rothman wasn’t that close to the tortured A-Team development process itself. Instead, everyone lays the responsibility squarely at the feet of Alex Young who took charge of the pic while an SVP of production at 20th in 2002 (after the expensive rights had been bought by Fox 2000 and then moved over to main Fox). Young, one of the most disliked movie execs inside and outside Building 88 but for whom Rothman always had a soft spot. Young, who rose to become co-president of production at 20th with Emma Watts in 2007, and then crashed and burned last October only to become a producer on the lot. But not before making sure to wrangle himself a producer’s credit on The A-Team. And there he was at the A Team premiere, “smug on the Red Carpet, giving bro-hugs with everyone in the production,” a source related to me. “He lucked out and got put on it as producer, which is ironic because in development he almost destroyed it. If it’s a hit he gets to take a victory lap as if he’s the man who assured its success. I think it was just the opposite.”
So what in god’s name was his problem? Why so many stops and starts and about-faces? And how could there have been so many writers? One Young defender tells me, “TV shows into movies usually take years and years, and often never emerge at all. I don’t think it was inordinate. Indeed, there is only one writer and a writing team credited on the movie, and for a summer action film, that’s not a lot these days. I don’t really know what went on in the early development years with it, but those credits do accurately reflect the version of the movie that got made. But bottom line, it’s terrific fun and all of a piece, more so than most ‘Action Jacksons’.”
But talk to insiders, and you’ll hear a very different story of panic, lies, and mimicry by the executive. Young is not untalented: he oversaw several of Fox’s money-making guy movies. But go back through the development process and he tried to make The A-Team anything but the A-Team — when that’s what the studio expected to release as the start of a badly needed action franchise. I’m told that, at various points in the process, Young declared that A-Team should be “gritty like Bourne” (a big hit at the time) or “in the style of 24” (he considered hiring that TV show’s writers) or “Hard R like Tarantino” (which is “ridiculous because Tom Rothman would never have allowed that. Rothman hates R-rated movies more than anything for box office reasons,” a source reminds me.)
Most inexplicably, Young asked one seasoned writer to delete all the humor from the movie. Also to that end, I’m told Alex did everything possible to keep Stephen J Cannell, who made the TV show such a hit and had script and story approval, away from the project, to the point of lying to him continuously about where the project stood in terms of its development, and ordering writers not to talk to Cannell about their script if he phoned.
And Young lied to the writers, again and again and again. “He flat-out lies, ‘We’re not thinking of firing you,’ and you read in the trades that you’ve been replaced,” one scribe told me. The structure of the movie was always the same: instead of committing a crime in Vietnam, this A-Team had committed a crime in Iraq. But Young would never even get back to scribes once they’d handed in a draft trying to move the story forward and expecting Alex’s notes in return. But the notes never came. “It’s his personality. It’s not that he says ‘no’. It’s that he says ‘yes’, ‘I love the story’, ‘the work is great’, and then you never hear from him again,” one scribe recounted to me.
Alex hired every kind of writer, from Feirstein an uber-experienced scribe who’d written several Bond movies during the Pierce Brosnan tenure, to Rothwell who was so young and inexperienced he got the gig only because he’d sold a script called Invaders to Warner Bros and used that as a writing sample. And then there were all the countless writers who tried and failed to get the gig. None were to Alex’s liking. Writers complained to agents who said and did nothing. As one of my insiders put it, “To the major agencies, it was another open writing assignment.”
What wasn’t to the writers’ liking was an executive so arrogant that on several occasions he actually “ran the script through his own typewriter,” one scribe tells me. “I’m not kidding. He wrote pages.” And another source confirms to me, “he was rewriting stuff personally.” Still another tells me: “He micromanages scripts (down to insulting writers about grammar, which he’s often wrong about), he rewrites scripts himself in violation of every guild rule, and along with fancying himself a screenwriter, he considers himself a story genius – without realizing that most of ideas are clichés he comes up with are all the latest clichés from the movie he saw last weekend.”
[UPDATE: Young’s POV, according to sources, is that he wasn’t able to really take the opportunity to pause in the movie’s development, and reassess what it should be, until during the writers strike. Right afterward, he hired Skip Woods, whom Alex has credited as the one who “really cracked The A-Team”, with Joe Carnahan and Brian Bloom “taking it home” by reworking the characters and dialogue when Carnahan signed on to direct. But by then the project was on fast forward and Young had to get out of its way.]
[2ND UPDATE: A Fox insider now tells me that Cannell was consulted on the pic after Joe Carnahan came aboard, and flew up to Canada once it went into production. “He has been closer to this movie than any rights holder has been,” the studio emailed. But Cannell also is saying now that he’d been unhappy with previous drafts of the film.]
Along the way, Young met and married a TV actress in a fairy tale romance described as such in the pages of US and People only to find himself a seeming nanosecond later embroiled in an ugly divorce from Private Practice star Kate Walsh chronicled on the Internet. Yes, it was embarrassing for the studio to have a top executive badmouthed repeatedly by TMZ for trying to shake her down for every nickel. And it even entangled ABC Entertainment czar Steve McPherson whom Young was legally forcing to talk about the contract which the network gave Walsh. I heard Alex lost focus. “That started getting back to bosses, because people were complaining on the physical production side that he wasn’t returning calls,” an insider tells me. “And then he was getting caught in lies.”
[UPDATE: Young himself likes to claim “the utmost respect for writers” and consider “many of them my closest, closest friends”, according to sources, and believes that as an exec and as a producer he likes “as much as humanly possible” to stay with one writer throughout.]
Others say Young’s relationships with writers are hanging by a thread. “He doesn’t realize that all writers talk about executives. Even among writers who he’s made movies with, his rep is god-awful. There’s at least one who refused to work on a Fox rewrite unless they promised him Alex wouldn’t be involved. You can burn lots of writers if you’re good about it, and make good movies. People still want to work with you. But Alex isn’t good about it, and the movies he turns out speak for themselves.” As will The A-Team at the box office this weekend.