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The Nostalgic Attic: Bargain-Bin books #3: King Kong the complete script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

23 July 2014

Bargain-Bin books #3: King Kong the complete script by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

This was one of a handful of oddities that popped up in work-related book sales, and I think I grabbed it for about 50 cents. I'm not sure why, as I was never all that crazy on the remake at the time, but it probably had a lot to do with the Frank Frazetta cover art. Since then though, I've swung around a little on the film, and I've decided to devote the rest of this week to Dino De Laurentiis and his mad attempts at bringing the big hairy fella back to the big screen.

Despite loving films so much, I've never really been all that pushed about reading scripts from big productions. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's that we don't really get much of an insight into the writing process from reading them as we do into the actual film making process from listening to a directors commentary, or watch a 'making of' special feature on a DVD or Blu Ray. And as much as I enjoy reading books on the 'making' of my favourite films, I really do wish we got more input from the writers perspective, which is probably why I went nuts for The JAWS Log, by Carl Gottlieb a while back, as he was very much instrumental in seeing the final drafts of the screenplay through to what we saw in cinemas. How do they feel about what becomes of their labour in the transition from page to screen? Mortified at what has become of the baby they slaved over? Delighted with finally seeing these characters come to life?

Sadly, we don't get much insight from Lorenzo Semple, Jr. here on what he thought of the film, as the book was published before the final film screened and delivered for the public and critics to devour. We do get a fun introduction from him, however, which at least sheds some light into the early production of such a dividing film. Semple was coming hot off of the acclaim for Three Days of the Condor which he had written for Dino, and before that, a string of success bearing names such as The Drowning Pool, The Parallax View and Papillon. Dino had apparently been talking to Semple about getting a sequel to Barbarella off the ground, which ultimately never transpired, but it led to Dino giving him the call for King Kong.

Despite not going into great detail on re-writes or changes, we do get a few little snippets - such as the character of Jack Prescott, who was played by Jeff Bridges - was "originally an eccentric and semi-comical Italian attached to the Vatican library". Same goes for Dwan, the love interest, who was initially written to be a camera operator on board the ship to film oil commercials for the company. Some things get changed for the better, others for the worse. Other back-and-forth's between the producer, director and writer included the climax, which was deemed too expensive to film at the time. Not surprising that issues were raised, as the budget ended up coming in around 25 million dollars. But as they say, they were making a big film, and it called for a big budget.

To be honest, not much else changed in the transition from script to screen here; no major sequences chopped at the last minute, or roles completely hacked away in the final cut: I get the feeling that De Laurentiis was putting such huge eggs in the basket that no chances were being taken with what was filmed. from a writers point of view, Semple seemed very happy with what he had seen in the rough cuts. Despite his run of hits, his career did take a bit of a cool-down after this, despite writing the 1980 updating of Flash Gordon. No doubt he had just reached that point where he had done plenty of great work, and by the time the 80's rolled around, he would have been in his 60's. Ultimately, the film did suffer from special effects problems, uneven performances and very mixed reviews, but we'll dive into that tomorrow. As far as Dino was concerned, "I wanted a good time from this movie, and that's what I got". Semple's final thoughts? "If it works, I'll take bows alongside Dino and John (the director), who made it happen. If it doesn't, I'm not being falsely modest when I say the blame is mine. Luckily, only those who ever read this will realise that".

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At 24 July 2014 at 00:31 , Blogger Wes M said...

Good stuff John, very interesting… I feel the same way as you about reading screenplays – it seems rather redundant unless the screenplay is radically different from the film it spawned – I’m thinking of Tarantino’s Natural Born Killers or William Peter Blatty’s screenplay for The Exorcist. Speaking of the latter I have a nice paperback called William Peter Blatty on The Exorcist: from Novel to Film, which might be something close to the King Kong book. The bulk of the book is Blatty’s screenplay but it comes with quite a long meaty preface about the screenplay and why his version remains superior to the final film. It’s been years since I read it, but I suspect it’s all encapsulated in the The Version You’ve Never Seen and Blatty’s commentary track… I must say I am a fan of King Kong ’76, it was one of the first monster movies I saw, in fact it was only years later that I saw the original film. I have the French Blu-Ray and it’s very good, the scope framing really makes a huge difference after years of disheveled TV appearances. I have what might be a companion to your Kong book, a 288 page paperback production diary entitled The Creation of Dino De Laurentis’ King Kong. Reading the book, one would think they were making Gone With the Wind, such is the bluster but it's a good interesting read for fans of the film. All this talk has me itching to see the film again, I might see if I can grab a screening this evening...

At 24 July 2014 at 01:06 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Wes, as always, thanks for the excellent recommendations - that's exactly what I'm talking about in regards to The Exorcist. I haven't read that Blatty book, but you've intrigued me enough to want to get my hands on it. Blatty is very outspoken, so I'd be very interested to hear what he has to say on the subject. In many ways he's right - as much as I love the film, his novel still tips it for me.

That's great that you're a fan of Kong '76, as I mentioned briefly, I never had much love for it, but watching it recently has put it back on the scales as a very decent film. I saw that book you have, the production diary, when I was doing a google search on this one. Looks great, the kind of book I really like. I'd love to know more info on the creative process of this film, and how decisions were made regarding the FX and fantasy elements. Try and re-watch it tonight if you can, would love to get your perspective on it!

At 24 July 2014 at 20:10 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I got my mom to take me after the barrage of advertising in 1976 - I was not yet in double digits. And - and this is a hugely important and - I had been completely brainwashed by the pre-publicity into believing that every single second of Kong onscreen was a real, working, 50 ft robot. I was enthralled for the entire 2+ hours. (Side note - thanks to this release, my local TV channel played the original 1933 movie - which I also loved. I still love that movie as one of my very favorites.) Later, when I started delving into special effects - and I found out Rick Baker in an ape suit was 99.95% of Kong onscreen - and the robot appears for about 25 seconds - I was utterly disgusted (possibly at myself for falling for it) and HATED the movie for decades. I calmed down - and sat down with it again - and it's an entertaining movie. There are some cringe worthy moments - but it's a big production with a lot of money onscreen - so I'm right there with you these days, John.

The sequel is surely going to show up here sometime, right? As the bulk of it was shot about five miles from where I sit - I might have a tale or two to tell about it.

And the making of Kong book is pretty amazing - half puff piece and half blame casting chronicle.

At 25 July 2014 at 01:07 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Thanks Craig! That makes perfect sense in feeling cheated - and I think you'll find I had a similar reaction when I was re-watching this film in my teens - I mean,no doubt we both love Japanese kaiju films, which were men in suits, but this was KING KONG! They couldn't have stooped to that, surely?? Needless to say, I came around too, and I actually think it works quite well for what it is. The sequel will definitely we getting covered, will get to it tomorrow no doubt! I really must check out the 'Making of' book - that's two recommendations in the same post - and why I love hearing from you guys on this stuff!

At 29 July 2014 at 12:48 , Blogger Drew Grimm Van Ess said...

That is a great score, dude! Very informative write-up too. I learned a thing or two, ha ha.

At 30 July 2014 at 02:24 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

my work here is done, then! Thanks for stopping by, Drew.


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