Lessons from Casablanca: The magic's in the rewriting

Last night I spent some quality time watching perhaps my all-time favorite movie, the famous 1942 flick Casablanca (picked up as a steal of a deal from Amazon) which is widely recognized as having one of the best screenplays ever.
All over again, I was blown away by the performances -- a depth of amazing talent that went far beyond Bogie, Bergman, and Claude Rains -- the unforgettable atmosphere, and so many classic lines that it seemed the script must have floated down from heaven in its pristine, perfect form.

Not so, I discovered after watching the documentary at the end. To my surprise, Casablanca was essentially written by committee, a screenplay adapted from an unproduced play called Everybody Goes to Rick's, by Murray Burnet and Joan Allison. The original script had a lot going for it, enough that it was picked up by Warner Brothers for $20,000 (the most ever, at that time, for an unproduced play) and given over to the adaption process, which was instructed to beef up the rather static script with action, more romance, and a more uplifting ending.

Despite what the studio had paid for the rights to the play, no one saw the future movie (whose title was changed to Casablanca to capitalize on the success of the exotic film, Algiers) as anything all that special, just one of more than 50 per year churned out by each major studio at that time. As a result, writers were pulled on and off it, with twin brothers Julius and Philip Epstein adding many of the funny zingers and great dialogue, Howard Koch coming in later and working on the political and melodramatic aspects, and the uncredited Casey Robinson brought in for a few weeks for rewrites and the addition of several scenes where Rick and Ilsa meet at Rick's. And still, they couldn't get the ending. The movie people thought the audience would prefer to see Ilsa and Rick get their happily ever after, logic dictated that Ilsa remain with Victor, and nobody wanted Rick to end up dead or in a concentration camp or prison.

But the clock kept ticking and the director kept shooting, with new script pages and changes in direction coming in daily, none of the actors (including Ingrid Bergman, who was really getting worried) having any idea who Ilsa would end up with and what looked like chaos unfolding all around them.

At last the Epstein twins came back onto the project (they'd been called away to work on another film) and in a flash of inspiration during a car ride, they supposedly simultaneously blurted the famous line, "Round up the usual suspects" that made the ending crystal clear. Still, even after shooting this scene, producer Hal B. Wallis wasn't satisfied, so he added the final scene which makes both Rick's and Captain Louis Renault's redemption and sacrifice for the greater good so very clear and leaves the viewer with the emotional resonance that's made the film such an enduring classic.

All those writers. All those changes. All the vacillating and the struggle that finally comes together as a single, seamless whole. It made me feel so much better about the sausage-making-like mess of constructing a finished novel and made me quit kicking myself for never getting things right in my first misdirected, typo-ridden drafts. Because in the end, the reader doesn't care if my critique partners ripped it into tiny shreds and gave it back to me to totally restructure. She doesn't know that my agent hated the clumsy device propping up the plot and had me cut the legs from under it and start anew. She doesn't mind that not one but two different editors plus a copy editor pointed out inconsistencies and had me beef up a weak romance.

Nothing matters but having the persistence and the faith in my own original vision, however imperfect, to see the project through to the end.

Justice Brandeis once said, "There is no great writing, only great rewriting." And today I'm adding to it by insisting that it's no crime accepting help. What's criminal is the failure to listen to the salient points and smart suggestions of trusted readers and failing to make your story the very best that it can be.

Comments

Suzan Harden said…
LOL GK and I are covering WWII, so I used it as an excuse to make him watch Casablanca.

Help is good when you have the right people. And you're lucky to have excellent, brilliant crit partners.
Don't I know it, Suzan!

I think Casablanca is a great way to study WWII. Except there's one historical "mistake," actually an intentional plot device. There was never any such thing as an "exit visa." I just read that somewhere and found it fascinating, since the story's so convincing, you never question it.

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