NEW YORK — Barry Levinson has threatened to withdraw his membership in the Writers Guild of America because David Mamet didn’t get sole or at least first-position shared screenwriting credit for the political satire “Wag the Dog.”
Levinson told Daily Variety he’s livid that first-position shared credit went to Hilary Henkin.
Before Levinson committed to direct the film, Henkin adapted the Larry Beinhart novel “American Hero,” upon which the movie’s based. But Levinson argues that Mamet wrote every line of dialogue in the script, and that the film radically departs from the novel and Henkin’s adaptation.
According to Guild rules, a credited writer must contribute at least 33% to a finished script, and the first scripter adapting a novel gets credit for whatever plot element is used from the book.
The Writers Guild awarded Henkin first-position credit, and upheld that judgment in an appeal. The Guild wouldn’t comment, but a WGA member there said three professional scribes compare the scripts, judging dialogue and scenes, sequences, construction, structure, characterization and tone.
Mamet declined comment, but Henkin, whose screen credits include “Romeo is Bleeding,” wasn’t apologizing for having her name first. In fact, she feels she deserves it: “When David Mamet rewrote my script, it’s automatic for the Guild to arbitrate,” she said. “I did not ask for sole credit, I asked for shared credit and the Guild decided in my favor.
“What they found is that my script significantly informs every aspect of the finished film, including structure, story, dialogue and characters. I know what I wrote and I know I made a very significant contribution. The Guild agreed.”
Levinson and producer Jane Rosenthal said Mamet never read the novel nor Henkin’s draft, and that he deserves to call the movie his own.
Levinson said Mamet is “philosophical” about the issue. “He says the Guild has done good things for writers, but I feel this is a complete misrepresentation,” said Levinson. “I am furious, beside myself — to the point of actually wanting to quit the Guild, period. I’m embarrassed.”
The film is about a U.S. President who is caught in a sex scandal, 11 days before election. To divert voters’ attention, he employs a political operative (Robert De Niro) and Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create the perception of a phony war with Albania. Included in their plot is Schumann, a soldier supposedly left behind enemy lines, who is turned into a folk hero, complete with a theme song.
Levinson said, “Not only isn’t one line of dialogue from her script in the movie, Dustin’s character is not in the other script, the Schumann character is not there, the music and scenes from Nashville, how we handle faking the war. Nothing.”
Levinson said he originally was sent Beinhart’s novel by Tribeca Prods. partners Rosenthal and De Niro.
“I said it’s not for me, and then they sent me Hilary’s screenplay, which was a direct reflection of the book,” said Levinson. “Again, I didn’t have an interest, except for the concept of faking a war. I didn’t like the way it had been done, but I liked the idea.”
He said he talked with the Tribeca partners and Mamet about the media, Hollywood, manipulation and marketing. “It evolved into what is ‘Wag the Dog,’ this totally different work.
“It’s not a reflection on Hilary Henkin, who did an adaptation of a book. We had to say it was based on the book, because this wouldn’t have been possible without it. But nothing of her screenplay is left, because we didn’t adapt the book.”
Upon hearing the Guild’s ruling, Rosenthal and Levinson compiled a scene by scene breakdown to show the differences in the scripts.
The script breakdown didn’t help. Rosenthal said the Guild told her she’d sent it to the wrong person and she’d sent it too late: the Guild should have received it before arbitration.
The Guild wouldn’t comment on Levinson’s possible defection, and even Levinson himself wasn’t sure if he could exit and continue as a writer.
“As a writer, I have some sensibility to variations of script and because this so differs, it’s foolish. I cannot have respect for this decision or the laws that gov-ern these decisions.”
The Guild has firmly stated that “there’s no appeal, no discussion,” according to Levinson. “Any writer with any sense will say this makes absolutely no sense. I know there have been arbitrations and situations where things have gone out of whack, but this has gone to the wall of madness.”
Question of changes
Henkin said that Levinson and Rosenthal’s assertion that Mamet’s dialogue is completely different does not constitute an open and shut case: “The Guild says you can change a great deal of the script but not make a significant change in the screenplay as a whole. Certainly, being the first writer, and the inventor and originator of almost every concept you see up on the screen carries significant weight.
“When I read the book, the only thing I chose to hold onto was the notion of a fake war and my exercise was to determine how a fake war can be sold to the public. I went to D.C. and interviewed 150 people, speechwriters, ex-chiefs of staff, CIA, imagemakers. My theme was an investigation of what is real, what isn’t, and what is the difference between the two. Remember,” she concluded, “this is my Guild as much as it is Barry and David’s.”