Script Preface by Lorenzo Semple Jr.

"What more agreeable fantasy than finding the most gorgeous girl in the world floating unconscious in the South Pacific?" 

Timed to coincide with the theatrical release of King Kong 1976, the screenplay, by Lorenzo Semple Jr., was published as a paperback, The Dino De Laurentiis Production of King Kong.  Included was a preface by Semple Jr. recounting some of the trials and tribulations involved in writing the screenplay.  The preface makes interesting reading, so I have posted it here at Kingdom Kong.

To publish a screenplay as a mainstream paperback was (and is) almost unheard of.  Why De Laurentiis did so in this case, I don't know, but it may have had something to do with the whole copyright mess that led to Paramount and Universal duking it out in the courts.  As I understand it, the situation was this. While King Kong 1933 started as a movie, a novelization was also published written by Delos W. Lovelace.  Thus King Kong basically existed in two forms, with two separate copyrights.  Years later, Dino De Laurentiis acquired the copyright for the movie King Kong (and thus for subsequent movies), while Universal held the copyright for the original novelization (and thus any subsequent novelizations).  For that reason, De Laurentiis, unable to release a novelization of his own remake, got around the problem by publishing the screenplay itself.  But, that, as I say, is just a guess.  Don't quote me on it.

The cover of the paperback was by the legendary Frank Frazetta.

Now, without further ado, on with Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s preface...


I’m sitting one morning in my small office in Aspen Colorado, where I live, when the phone rings and it is Dino.  The movie producer Dino De Laurentiis, that is to say.  His last name isn’t used much even by total strangers, though some of his most immediate entourage tab him “Mr. D.”  Words aren’t wasted.  “I give-a you jus’ a title, two words, you tell-a me what you think.”  Dramatic pause.  “King-a Kong!”  “Sounds terrific,” say I.  “Okay, you come-a down tomorrow, we discuss it!” 

So commenced my writing of the screenplay which is this book.  Some very simple folk imagine actors make up their own lines.  Some more sophisticated know that directors tell the actors what to say.  Both groups are seriously bananas.

Bit of background while I’m winging down to LA from Aspen.  I’d worked for Dino before on Three Days of the Condor, which had recently come out with Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway, and was thought to have turned out okay.  If it had turned out rotten you probably wouldn’t be reading my words here, for in this business if a script of yours turns out rotten you usually don’t work so quick for that producer again.  That is as it should be: it stirs the adrenaline, makes every page a fresh challenge, etc., etc.  Actually, I had met Dino several years before, when he was still Rome based but cooped up temporarily in a bungalow at the Beverly Hills Hotel.  We talked about a sequel to Barbarella, the comic strip sci-fi fantasy Dino had produced starring a bare and non-political Jane Fonda.  All he really had for the follow up was a setting and a terrific title.  Much of the action was to be submarine, and the title Going Down.  In those days before the full flush of the sexual revolution that title was stunningly daring -- if not out of the question -- and for many good reasons Going Down never went.  The reason I was summoned for it was presumably because I’d originated the TV version of another comic strip, Batman.  It was the first thing I’d ever written for film and was done while residing in Spain (1965) with wife and baby kids, the somewhat banal idea being to live cheap and write a Great American Play.  Anyway.  The next year found us all in California, me a fledgling movie writer.

I had good luck.  I worked steadily from the start.  The features I worked on in the ten years twixt then and now ranged from Pretty Poison (which lost lots for Twentieth Century Fox but copped me a Best Screenplay of the Year from the New York Film Critics) to a turkey called Fathom which starred Raquel Welsh as a cryptic skydiver, and was so entirely without merit that even Ms. Welsh’s drumbeaters omit it from her film bio.  Other of my credits were such as The Parallax View (Warren Beatty), Papillon (McQueen and Hoffman) and The Drowning Pool (Mr. and Mrs. P. Newman).  So much for history.

Now my flight from Aspen is finished, and we rejoin King Kong as I enter Dino’s office on North Canon Drive in Beverly Hills, an enclave so richly Italianate that one expects a Borgia Pope to be working the Xerox machine.  We are about to have our first KK story conference. 

A script writer friend of mine always says he’ll write such-and-such a job for free -- but he’ll want $5000 an hour for the Meetings.  Larry is dead right.  The Meetings one must endure in this game are excruciating and soul numbing -- said torture increasing directly as the square of the budget.  Nobody guessed at the time that our KK would weigh in at around $25 million, but obviously he wasn’t going to be a cheapie.  A writer might reasonably expect 100 hours or so of talk on such a heavy weight before being unleashed to bang key and ribbon. 

Dino is different.  Totally.  Nobody experienced in flicks is apt to believe the following paragraph, but I swear to God it’s true. 

My homework for the confab consisted of having run the original Kong a couple of times in 16mm, projected on a sheet in an Aspen living room heavily populated with kids.  I assume Dino had done the same in his Canon Drive projection room.  So my first question that day was should our remade KK be in the 1930s period of the original?  Dino thought not.  Modern.  I agreed.  It followed immediately that the story device of the original -- a two-bit movie producer heading for the South Seas on a speculation scouting trip with a gorgeous blonde actress -- had to go.  Just too plain silly for today’s audience.  What to replace it with?  “You think-a something, Lorenzo…”  I said I’d try and had just one other basic query: Should end still have Kong blasted off New York skyscraper?  Yes, said Dino.  We planted a couple of other guidemarks.  Start with as much reality as possible.   Develop the love story between Kong and the girl much further than it went in the original.  (People tend to forget, but Fay Wray’s behaviour with Kong in the old one is something less than emotionally rich.  Every time she comes out of a faint, she SHRIEKS!  Period.) Heaven knows how, but try to characterize Kong.  Dino capered around his office, pantomiming an enormous monkey plucking off a girl’s vestments, delicately, as one would pluck the petals of a flower.  (Dino began his career as an actor.)  That was the entire content of our conference on how to remake King Kong.  Fifteen minutes after it began, I was leaving Canon Drive HQ en route back to Aspen to write a story outline.

A producer friend, Jerry Bick, happened to phone me the next day about another project.  In the course of chitchatting he mentioned how he’d always wanted to redo KK, but couldn’t nail down the rights.  He didn’t know quite how he’d have approached it, Jerry said, except he had a mental picture of a terrific scene.  Kong in a supertanker, one of those 1000-ft long behemoths of the sea.  Zap!  Light bulbs glowing above the noggin!  I asked Jerry if I could use that elegant notion and he said of course.

The basic story device immediately fell into place: oil company expedition.  In truth I’d been toying with that idea before my gift from Jerry, and had even mentioned it to Dino as an off-the-cuff possibility, but it was the supertanker image that locked it in.

I returned to Canon Drive a couple of weeks later with an outline -- some forty double-spaced pages of narrative.  That is to say, I returned to Canon Drive a few days after sending the outline down, for it is a charming peculiarity of Dino’s that he has all written material translated into Italian for his reading.  All written material.  Outlines, scripts, whole novels.  Dino rises before six every morning and reads.  Carefully.  He is a disciple of the written word.  People who don’t know him well are often misled by his flamboyant character, and confounded when he catches them out on some tiny detail of the script. 

My outline was well received.  Re-reading those forty pages today, I find them startling for two reasons: (1) How exactly they set the style and story of the finished picture;  (2)  How totally many of the details got changed.  For example: Jack Prescott, the Princetonian played by Jeff Bridges, was originally an eccentric and semi-comical Italian attached to the Vatican library.  Dino rejected that person out-of-hand as utterly preposterous, and the concept remains in only one line of the script.  (Hint: look for it in dialogue on Page 30 of this book.) [Semple Jr. is refering to Prescott's line: "The rest of that log entry, unfortunately, was suppressed by the Holy Office in Rome."~Blair] The reason I made our present romantic lead a comical foreigner was because the romantic lead in my outline was Joe Perko, the oil-drilling foreman who remains in the movie only as a bit.  If I remember, I made Joe Perko the lead because I had just read an interesting piece in New York Magazine alleging that liaisons between classy semi-intellectual female persons and roughneck blue-collar males was all the rage.  I didn’t believe that then or now, but it sounded like it would make for an amusing relationship.  One might well ask by what lunatic fancy the girl of this script, Dwan, would qualify as a “classy semi-intellectual”.  The answer is, she was a different person in the outline too: Camera Operator of a movie unit along on the expedition to film TV commercials for the oil company.  Candy Bergen, that is to say. 

With the exception of the change in the girl, the character shifts described above were decided on instantly, almost by unspoken assent.  There’s a potent domino-effect in script construction.  The humorous Italian bit becomes a young Princeton anthropologist, therefore latter is now your leading man, therefore roughneck Joe Perko moves down the line, therefore the girl no longer has to be Candy Bergen.  It is not that I’ve got anything against Candy Bergen:  I’ve never met her, but I think she’s terrific.  The point is, there is something shamefully predictable and TV-ish about a beautiful girl Camera Operator, which no amount of fancy footwork is going to get around.  The basic concept is unworthy of a gigantic ape.  When I grumbled about this, however, and suddenly had a flash that the girl should be a nothing would-be actress found adrift in a raft, Dino looked totally blank.  Obviously he found it totally unbelievable, with which it was hard to argue.  It is unbelievable.  But so, I argue, is a 40-foot ape -- and having established “reality” of a sort with the oil-exploration vessel setting sail, we needed a bridge to the fantasy which will follow, and what more agreeable fantasy than finding the most gorgeous girl in the world floating unconscious in the South Pacific? 

This whole question of “believability” and “reality” was the heart of the matter -- greatly exacerbated, I must admit, by the phenomenon which was occurring while we were hammering out our outline.  Phenomenon named Jaws.  Here was a picture filled with ludicrous absurdities, both icthyological and otherwise, which was being accepted as totally real and because of that coining zillions.  Dino passionately demanded at the start that we make our ape as believable as their shark.  I tirelessly rejoined that despite the nonsense in Jaws, it was so skilfully done that people were willing to accept it as fact -- whereas nobody would ever “really believe” in a 40-foot ape who flipped out over a 5’4” blonde bride.

Back and forth we went -- this abstract discussion concretized in whether The Girl should be my Dwan or Dino’s hypothetical Candy Bergen -- and God only knows how it would have been decided except that the Director entered at that time. 

Enter John Guillermin.

It is customary for writers to blame directors for butchering their great scripts, and indeed that often happens, but certainly not in this case.  John is a little loony, as anybody would have to be to carry off Towering Inferno and King Kong -- I boast of a certain attractive looniness myself -- but from the moment he read the outline to the moment I am writing these words (just days before publication), he totally dug the style of Romantic Adventure we were after and busted his tail to keep that style coming through.  I won’t dwell on the nightmare problems of logistics and time pressure which hounded us throughout -- that’s for another book -- but somehow John survived them.  There were plenty of hot arguments with Dino along the way too, but in the end they were all resolved the same way: at the bottom line, if the picture needed it, Dino ordered it done.  (Maybe one exception to that, but that will remain our secret.) 

I remember some smart-ass type around MGM, where we were shooting most of the time, once telling me we were in horrible trouble because he’d heard it rumoured we were on our third costume designer.  My own feeling was that that was exactly why we were not in trouble --  unlike most producers, Dino wouuld keep doing things over until they were right.  The picture was all that mattered.  Res ipse loquitur

However.  Back to The Girl.  Candy Bergen, Girl Cameraperson, or the Actress Adrift?  John liked the idea of the latter as much as I did, and in the face of the combined opposition, Dino threw up his hands.  Try it.  If he didn’t like it, he’d let us know.  As it turned out, he liked it.

I guess I did my first draft in about four weeks.  It was easy to write, which is always a good sign.  It followed the outline closely, incorporating the various character changes just described, and again it was well received.  Obviously, however, it was too long.  It ran about 140 pages when mimeographed, which would be long for any movie -- and for a movie with so much non-dialogue action, much too long.  Make it ninety pages, Dino says.  John Guillermin looks concerned.  No problem whatever!  I say.  I’ll take it down to ninety, lose nothing, and indeed improve it in every way.  John looks extremely concerned, suggests that he and I go over possible cuts in detail before I do them.  I’ll have none of that.  Just wait and see -- I’ll be back in a flash with a terrific tightened script that will make everyone jump for joy.  So saying, I retreat to Aspen to execute these boasts. 

All writers are insecure in one way or another, and surely I’m no exception.  Unlike many, however, my insecurity doesn’t take the form of violently defending what I’ve written and denouncing people who criticize.  On the contrary.  When somebody implies something of mine isn’t one hundred percent PERFECT, I immediately feel guilty of having committed an awful crime, having betrayed those who trusted me, etc., etc.  I ruthlessly throw out everything.

I was really delighted with the rewritten Second Draft, which finally came out about ninety-two pages.  I shipped it down to Canon Drive for translation, following in person a couple of days later to receive the expected pats on the head and congratulations. 

Instead, I found utter shock and gloom.  The Second Draft was hated.  John said everything that distinguished the outline and First Draft had vanished.  Dino opined it was impossible I could have written such trash and actually accused me of having sub-contracted the rewrite to someone else.  All I could do was mumble that I had, after all, only done as I was directed -- hacked it to around ninety pages on Dino’s orders.  “So why-a you listen to me?”  Dino demanded contemptuously -- and unanswerably. 

Enough about what became known as “The Infamous Second Draft.”  It was discreetly chained in the attic like the batty aunt, never to be mentioned again.  John and I sat down quietly with the First Draft, and easily processed it into something very closely resembling the final script printed here.

Of course there were endless changes from January to October, 1976, as the actual shooting progressed and the budget rose.  Trim this.  Work out a substitute for that.  By pure happenstance, our KK was shot almost totally in sequence -- that is to say, the first night’s shooting was Page 1 of the script, and the schedule followed almost scene after scene to the end.  There are some advantages in that.  When it became apparent, for example, that Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange played well together, John had me extend some of their romantic scenes a bit.  To compensate, we cut back on the peripheral stuff like chitchat of the search party in the jungle.

The one area that drove us all nuts from beginning to end was what we called the “Presentation Scene” -- where Kong is unveiled in New York and makes his escape.  You may remember, in the original movie it was quite simple: the beast was unveiled on the stage of a theatre and broke loose from there.  We aimed at something more spectacular.  My outline and all drafts of the script had Kong making his break from a huge spectacular in Shea Stadium.  This was easy to write, but would be much tougher to execute.  Maybe millions of dollars tougher to execute.  There was also the point that two other big movies in production that summer featured stadium panics -- Two Minute Warning and Black Sunday.  Therein lies this writer’s sole complaint against the producer in the entire affair:  Dino clearly indicated from the start that he considered the stadium presentation infeasible, while John was insisting just as strongly that it was indispensable, but never until much later did Dino announce absolutely for sure that we must find a substitute.  Lest this complaint be weighed too heavily, let me quickly add that no producer except Dino could have made the movie at all -- that is beyond controversy.  Anyway, as a result of the diplomatic indecisions, midsummer found me writing tentative variation after variation as the cameras ground closer to the day….

Kong escapes from Madison Square Garden, which was only superficially appealing. 

Kong is landed by helicopter at a reception at the Bronx Zoo, from which he escapes  after also releasing all manner of beasts from their cages.

Kong escapes from a Brooklyn pier, where he is being landed from a huge barge.

Kong escapes from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, much as in the original where he is being presented for the TV cameras.

And others.

The unfortunate part of the procedure was that we all became so jaded and (yes!) bored with these variants that it became increasingly difficult to sift the good idea from the bad.  The chief determinant of the way we finally did it was that it enabled us to reuse the Great Wall of Skull Island, which still stood on M-G-M’s desolate Lot 2 at a cost of nearly a million bucks.  There John worked out a sequence that was essentially a trimmed version of the Shea Stadium of our First Draft, but still we were to be bedevilled.  Would you believe that residents of this Culver City neighbourhood complained about the noise and so the cops made us shut down at midnight?  This despite the fact that it was a night sequence, and in midsummer, it did not grow dark until nine o’clock.

However.  So 1976’s King Kong was scripted.  It was fantastic fun.  I’ve seen the picture in rough cut, and the faithfulness of film to what I had in head strikes me as amazing.  I also realize the picture is emotionally rather trickier than I’d thought -- forcing the viewer to love a monster he first feared, rewarding that affection by killing its object in the most brutal way, and not even sugar-coating this bitter pill with a Boy/Girl clinch.  I hope the concept doesn’t lay too much on the audience.  If it works, I will take bows along side Dino and John, 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 read this will ever realize that.

                                                                Lorenzo Semple Jr.