Robin Hood

How does a good idea become a terrible movie? That’s the perennial question in Hollywood, where the intersection of creative ideas, business sense and big egos can so easily produce something very different from what was originally intended.

That seems to have been the case with Robin Hood, which was originally meant to be based on a hot screenplay by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris called Nottingham. Then Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott came along and everything changed. Eventually the result was a film that stands at less than %50 Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and was beat by Iron Man 2 in that film’s second weekend. So what happened?

If you haven’t seen Robin Hood, treat everything after the jump as mildly spoilerish.

I’m going to lay this out in stages, as explained, for the most part, in a blog post written by screenwriter William Martell.

Stage One: Nottingham

The script was originally sort of a procedural tale, told from the perspective of the Sheriff as he investigated Robin Hood’s actions and tried to figure out who was ‘terrorizing’ the area. Arguably not a bad take, certainly novel within the context of other movies that deal with the character. A little silly, perhaps, but likely to be easily salable to the audiences that make CSI and Law and Order monster pieces of programming.

Stage Two: Archery

Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe come on board, and Brian Helgeland is hired to rewrite. Frustrating given that the heat on the script is what caused the movie to move so quick in the first place, but let’s not confuse the heat of the actual pages with an enthusiasm for a concept that a studio knows it can sell like ice in the desert.

But here supposedly is where Scott, recently obsessed with archery, has the focus of the story shift to archers. That aspect is seen, to some extent in the final film, as Robin is part of an a division of archers that is returning from the Crusades with Richard the Lionhearted.

Interlude: Another Perspective on the Nottingham Script

While the script had a lot of heat, neither Crowe or Scott now seem to have liked it. Recently both commented upon that draft to The Times Online. Crowe said, “it kind of read like CSI: Sherwood Forest to me…And I just wasn’t into doing that.” Ridley Scott is more aggressive, saying, “It was fucking ridiculous…It was terrible, a page-one rewrite.”

Stage Three: The Twist

I’ll let Martell say it:

Then [Ridley Scott] came up with a brilliant idea! What if the Sheriff Of Nottingham and Robin Hood were the *same person*! Kind of like FIGHT CLUB. He’d be chasing himself for the whole damned movie! And there were some drafts of the screenplay written like that, until someone (maybe Helgeland) must have hinted that it might be a little silly.

But here’s where we’re missing something. It’s the ‘?’ stage in the old South Park ‘Collect Underpants / ? / Profit!’ equation. Because Martell goes from that statement to saying the movie was eventually rewritten many more times to become the generic re-telling we see on screens now.

And, while the version on screens is not good at all, it certainly is not generic. The film is rather ambitious, actually, and suffers to some extent from the same thinking that could cause problems for Marvel if they’re not really careful. That is, it is more interested in setting the scene for a future movie than telling a good story in this movie.

As Scott said in that same Times Online interview,

If there were to be a sequel to Robin Hood, you would have a constant enemy throughout, King John, and you would follow his reign of 17 years, and the signing of Magna Carta could be Robin’s final act.

So he’s thinking of Robin Hood as the first chapter in an epic telling/reworking of the middle history of England. No surprise, then, that the film is stuffed with too many characters, almost all of whom get short shrift, and too little compelling action. But is that notion of the film as the first part of a saga something that was in play all along, or just a good after the fact explanation? I’m guessing a mixture of both.

Sequel and saga planning notwithstanding, what we see now is unrealistic for a single film, but it is not generic, and it is not a lack of vision. Martell’s perspective is very much that there was a great screenplay right at day one, so why change it? Any deep, dramatic alterations there are almost certain to be misguided. He goes on to rail against a studio system that gives big directors free reign for their creative indulgences, rather than firing them. But because they need to keep their jobs, screenwriters who put dumb director notes into words are given a free pass. After all, another writer will always come in to implement the notes someone else refuses to use. (I get that angle, very much so, but Martell cries about the system being broken; if that’s the case, it is all broken, not just the emphasis on directors.)

Stage Four: Losing and Finding the Plot

And, just as I’m about to publish this, Vulture drops a little more info. The site says Universal spent $6.7m on scripts alone. Furthermore, the ‘Robin and the Sheriff are one’ idea came from the notion that Robin would assume the identity of the Sheriff in order to return to England, after the Sheriff is slain in battle. That idea remains, in altered form, in the existing film.

But Scott didn’t like Helgeland’s draft, and Universal hired Paul Webb. Under him, the film became more serious. Scott didn’t like Webb’s draft, either. Helgeland came back, and changed the impersonation plot thread to what is seen on the screen now. In the meantime, Crowe had become impatient with Scott, as the film’s first release date was blown. Their relationship reportedly became quite strained.

Meanwhile, the film’s dialogue was problematic, being as it was the sewn-together amalgamation of several scripts. So Tom Stoppard was hired to smooth and polish even as the cameras rolled. Hard to tell how successful he was; while the dialogue isn’t terrible, it also contains almost nothing memorable.

And that’s the story of Nottingham –> Robin Hood as we have it now. Tangled, ugly and short-sighted, this is the ugly side of movie development. And, while this is an extreme version with far more participants, it probably happens a lot more often than you’d like to believe.

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