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
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
Dino is different. Totally. Nobody experienced in flicks is
apt to believe the following paragraph, but I swear to God it’s
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
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
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
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
Kong escapes from Madison Square Garden, which was only superficially
Kong is landed by helicopter at a reception at the Bronx Zoo, from
which he escapes after also releasing all manner of beasts from
Kong escapes from a Brooklyn pier, where he is being landed from a huge
Kong escapes from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, much as in the
original where he is being presented for the TV cameras.
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.