Last Friday, Seattle Times freelancer Tom Keogh reviewed “Man on a Ledge”, giving it a rating of one and a half stars and describing it as a well-intentioned movie that “hasn’t a clue what to do with its own potential, quickly dissolving into absurd logic.” And he promptly got an email — from the movie’s screenwriter, Pablo F. Fenjves. I’ll let Tom tell it . . .
Here’s something that doesn’t happen every day in the life of a film critic.
Last Friday, January 27, the Seattle Times ran my very negative review of the action thriller “Man On a Ledge,” starring Sam Worthington as a disgraced cop whose threat to jump from the ledge of a Manhattan hotel is actually part of an elaborate scheme to clear his name.
Great concept, but the finished product bore the look and feel of way too many cooks in the script development kitchen. “Man On a Ledge” stumbles over mismatched ideas, arbitrary elements, and the kind of overstuffed storytelling that results when someone starts adding superfluous stuff to one corner of a narrative and then has to create balance by adding elsewhere.
I got an email from Pablo F. Fenjves, the sole credited screenwriter on “Ledge,” with his original, 2002 script attached. Fenjves wrote “Maybe you should review the original screenplay, before it was ‘developed.’ If nothing else, it will give you an insight into the biz.”
I read that screenplay and was surprised to find Fenjves’ initial vision of “Ledge” a far more organic, streamlined story, the blueprint for a smart heist movie with a certain 1970s visual sensibility and a witty, satiric eye on human behavior. (There’s a running joke about several cops’ obsession with sandwiches.)
The action-filled third act bears no resemblance to the movie, and the story’s real villain gets a far more satisfying comeuppance than Ed Harris’ scenery-chewing character on screen.
Check Fenjves on IMDb.com and you’ll find a long list of made-for-television movie credits, though he is active in theatrical features, too. In that weird way professional screenwriters make part of their living rewriting one another’s work, Fenjves’ uncredited fingerprints are on two other recent releases, “Red Tails” (he spent five days working with George Lucas) and the Katherine Heigl action comedy “One for the Money.”
I called Fenjves and asked him what happened to his “Man On a Ledge”
script. Based on his email, I expected to hear the bitter tale of a crass development process at the project’s studio, Summit Entertainment. But as with most Hollywood scribes, Fenjves has long accepted that if you’re going to work with major studios on high concept movies, rejection and radical changes are the nature of the game.
“You get up, you write for a few hours, you go for a run, and you start working on your Oscar acceptance speech because you’re sure what you wrote earlier is that good,” Fenjves says by phone from Los Angeles. “But when a studio buys your material, it’s theirs to change.”
Fenjves sold “Man On a Ledge” to MGM a decade ago, where it failed to find a committed director. A Writers Guild provision allowed him to re-acquire the screenplay after five years, which he did with producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, who set it up at Summit. Fenjves says Di Bonaventura’s production team brought in other writers, and while he was kept in the loop reading subsequent drafts, the story’s direction was beyond his control.
If Fenjves isn’t happy about the film, he prefers to take the long view. (“I can’t bad-mouth my own movie,” he says.) He’s got a career to manage and other projects (including a Halle Berry comedy called “Mother”) going on, and at 58 he feels good about selling spec scripts and being offered projects in an industry where ageism is rife.
“You turn 40 and they think you’re out of touch,” he says. “Young executives are reluctant to take pitch meetings with someone their dad’s age. But think I get better the longer I do this job.”
Elizabeth Banks and Sam Worthington in “Man on a Ledge” (photo by Myles Aronowitz, courtesy of Summit Entertainment)