Q: When is a Spaceship Not a Spaceship?
A: When It's a Brain Coral.
Writing the Screen Adaptation of
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet
Terry Rossio, 1995
It seemed like a good idea at the time: get the studio to buy the
Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters
and adapt it for the screen.
are whole sequences we can use straight from the book," I
Executive Producer Michael Engelberg, standing in the parking lot
Team Disney Building. "We can get a great script done pretty
Several years, countless drafts and many screenwriters later,
would delight in reminding me of the conversation.
Like I said...it seemed like a good idea at the time. My writing
Elliott and I had just finished working with Engelberg on an
adaptation of the
Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of
Mars. The studio was happy
with it and
us, and wanted to hire us for another project.
So we pitched them The Puppet Masters.
They bought the rights. We
script, turned it in. And they hated it.
Upon reading the script, the quote from then-Hollywood Pictures
Ricardo Mestres was, "I hated the dialog. I hated the story. I
characters. It doesn't work on any level."
We were dumbfounded. After all, the story is pretty simple: alien
arrive on earth, ride on people's backs, plug into their brains and
what to do. Special agents Sam, Mary, and the Old Man try to stop
them as they
spread across the United States. Our screenplay was the same story we
which was the same story of the outline we turned in. It was also the
from the book they'd just spent so much money to own. Finally we
nobody at the studio had ever actually read
The Puppet Masters.
So Engelberg talked Ricardo into belatedly reading Heinlein's
eventually came back that we had "stayed too close to the
Ricardo in fact didn't like, but it did have "a germ of an idea
My partner Ted pointed out the irony: "So even though we
close to the book' we somehow managed to cleverly exclude the one
of an idea' that Ricardo liked."
Contractually we owed the studio a re-write on the project, which
the question, what the hell did they want us to do?
Several things, in fact. Ricardo didn't want the U.S. President to
be in the
film. "Films with Presidents don't work," he informed us.
didn't want the entire United States to be infected with slugs. That
big - he preferred just one small town. And he didn't like the story
of the lead
female, Mary. "She doesn't have to be connected to the
plot," a female
executive on the project told us, "in this type of film, the
woman is just
the hero's girlfriend."
Finally, Ricardo really hated the spaceships. They were too 'flying
saucer-ish,' too fifties - he thought they would date the film.
So how did the Puppet Masters travel to earth, if there were no
"Spores," Ricardo suggested.
We pointed out that the film he was describing sounded
Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
"Okay," he said, "why
them come down on the space shuttle?"
It was at that point that Ted and I bolted to the feature
for several months to re-write Aladdin.
Hollywood Pictures began
other writers to execute a draft of Ricardo's version of the story.
probably should have ended for us then and there, and in some kinder,
alternate universe it perhaps did.
But then Ted had an idea.
"Whatever writers you hire," Ted told Engelberg,
you suggest they set the story on an Air Force base instead of a
There were a number of advantages to an Air Force base setting. It
been used before, at least not in this type of film. It had an
intriguing mix of
military (people with guns to fight slugs) and civilian (people we
could put in
jeopardy). And base-housing, even in normal life, has a slightly
similar to what Heinlein created with his story. Finally, you could
an Air Force base more convincingly than you could a small town.
Engelberg told the idea to Ricardo, who loved it. Engelberg then
asked us a
favor: would we please do it?
Ted reminded him that he didn't make the suggestion with the idea
actually having to write the thing. Did we really want to be known as
screenwriters who screwed-up one of the great science fiction novels
time? But Engelberg was persuasive - if it wasn't us, then it would be
else, perhaps writers not as good.
Also...he never brought it up, but we did feel we owed him a favor
giving us a chance on A Princess of Mars.
So Ted and I sat down and wrote what eventually became known as the
'B-version' of The Puppet Masters: a
shuttle astronaut becomes
slug-ridden on a
satellite repair mission. The shuttle makes an emergency landing at
New Mexico. The slugs start spreading, eventually taking over the
consoled ourselves that at least the monsters were the same, and we
got to play
out many of the same story beats that were in Heinlein's novel.)
We turned the draft in and the reaction was positive. So now the
back on track. And to be fair to Ricardo, the new screenplay did
more 'like a movie,' i.e., something that could be filmed on a
So everyone was happy -
To understand this, one must understand that Dr. Michael Engelberg
is a hard
core, lifelong science fiction fan. His apartment is like a
library - crowded
with shelves of books and magazines, you feel perhaps you should
speak in hushed
tones. He originally read The Puppet
Masters as a kid when it was
monthly as a serial, eagerly waiting by the mailbox for each new
No matter how filmic our 'B-version' script was, it just wasn't
Heinlein. And that's what Michael really wanted to see.
So using political machinations worthy of the Old Man himself
called, strings at high levels were pulled) Engelberg engineered this
Hollywood Pictures would go back to the book (and our first script)
the original story concurrently with the B-version. Whichever next
out the best would be the film that would be made.
Also, because the B-version was treated as a separate screenplay,
owed them a re-write. So Ted and I were asked to revise the original
(which was the story we preferred anyway). Ricardo assigned new
Bonny & Richard Finney) to the 'B-version.'
They also got a director, Dan Petrie Jr. - which shows which
was backing. (For our B-version research, Ted and I had to violate
security and sneak away from an air museum tour at March Air Force
contrast, Petrie and his writers received special passes to Edwards
base and got to watch the shuttle land.)
So that's how Ted and I found ourselves in this bizarre situation:
working on a screenplay that the studio head didn't want, competing
writers on the same project - and they were working from one of our
And since they had a director and we didn't, things weren't
looking too good
for Heinlein's original story. And rumor had it that Petrie was even
the creatures - he liked the idea of them going under people's skin,
inside people's bodies. And since we were preoccupied on Aladdin with
holes you could drive a truck through, they even got their draft in
first - a
definite tactical advantage.
But then a couple things happened. First, no one was real jazzed
Petrie and the writers did on the revised 'B-version' script. Second,
revision was an improvement on our first effort (at least we like to
Third, another Body Snatchers remake was
announced, and it was set
an Air Force base. And finally, Engelberg continued in his efforts to
anyone who would listen that we should be doing the classic, original
(Michael Eisner agreed, commenting that no one wanted another Bonfire
Next, screenwriter David Goyer was hired to re-write our script
original version). David did a great job, keeping stuff that was
changing some elements that weren't. In many ways he improved on our
putting together the best of any of the drafts up to that point.
Amazingly, Ricardo was convinced, and the 'B-version' was
The green light flickered, and the search for a director was on.
So next a director gets hired and he shoots the script, right? Not
What happens is this: the director gets hired (in this case,
director Stewart Orme) and he sits down with screenwriters of his
decides what film he wants to make. All the screenwriting work up to
is potentially moot. The director can (and usually does) throw out
script and start over from scratch. Which is just what Stewart
decided to do.
New writers were brought in (Neil Pervis & Rob Wade) and, with
photography weeks away, a new script was commissioned, to be written
Stewart's direction. Writing screenplays under these rushed
conditions goes a
long way toward explaining the generally mediocre quality of
films - the
screenplay that gets shot is quite often not the best version that
(This does not stop critics - who generally have not read any
version - from
sympathizing with directors and actors who must "struggle with a
So it turns out that Stewart, too, has a thing against spaceships.
was that slugs would grow from a seed that was left behind by a
And like many people, he was interested in the idea of a 'mother
concept that every writer along the way fought hard to keep out.
Those and other new ideas frustrated Engelberg enormously. They
backwards steps, he felt, from Goyer's revision of our script. When
shooting script came in - with principal photography just days
away - Engelberg
was beyond frustrated, he was depressed. The script wasn't very good,
Worse, it wasn't Heinlein.
Enter Jeffrey Katzenberg. He read the shooting script and didn't
like it. It
wasn't the same movie he'd given a green light to. Katzenberg ordered
photography moved back a month, and, in a rare move for a studio
the director to go back to a previous draft - the Goyer revision of
David Goyer was re-hired (at a properly re-negotiated salary) and he
worked to bring Heinlein's original story to the screen. And that's
that eventually got shot.
So it was that three years after our initial parking lot
Engelberg escorted us on a tour of the Puppet
Masters set, on the
Hollywood lot. We saw foam slugs being mass-produced. We saw Jarvis'
We saw the situation room of the Section. We saw Donald Sutherland,
hand, personifying the Old Man.
"Come look at the spaceship," Engelberg said.
We followed him into soundstage one. And there before us -
- was a slime-covered parking garage.
"That's not a spaceship," I said.
"Well," Engelberg said, a little defensive, "it's
calling the spaceship."
I looked again. It was a parking garage - cars and all - draped by
stuff. "Looks like they went with the look of the Aliens
"So there's no spaceship," I said.
"Stewart calls it the nest," Engelberg said.
to call it the brain coral. It's what the spaceship becomes. It's our
"It's not a spaceship. A spaceship takes off and lands.
here that can fly."
"Terry, now you're being mean," Ted observed.
"Okay," Engelberg admitted, glum. "There is no
I was greatly disappointed. Our original desire to do the novel
was based on
wanting to see seven great gangbusters sequences. For those who've
novel, they are:
- Investigating the fake spaceship and the fake news
- Sam gets taken by the slugs, goes over to their side.
- Sam sits down in Mary's place for the slug interview.
- Sam goes into slug-infested Kansas City.
- The President takes off his clothes in front of Congress.
- The ape, Satan, gets slug-ridden. And
- Sam and the Old Man go into the alien spaceship.
These are, for me, the essential sequences of the novel. The first
it into the film in some form, I think. The third got pared away by
development process, for no good reason that I can remember.
The fourth - Sam goes into Kansas City - takes place at night, and I
won't have the impact it should have had. The fifth was cut by
sixth was pared down due to budget. And the seventh -
No spaceship meant no spaceship for Sam and the Old Man to go
throat-tightening claustrophobia, no slugs swimming in fluid, no
in suspended animation. And that's a damn shame.
Of the seven sequences, we were able to get maybe two and a half
screen. Not a very impressive score, and it was a horrendous fight to
that. I've come to believe that making a film is like a massive
throwing a dinner party - you invite a lot of people and hope that it
good, but you can't really control it. And after everyone has left
got this big mess, you wonder if all the work was worth it, why you
went to all
I guess you have to think back on the highlights, and appreciate
successes. There will be a Puppet Masters
film. It will have real
in it and they will take over a good part of the United States. I got
to hold a
slug in my hand, feel it wriggle. Actress Julie Warner took my six
daughter by the hand and led her up onto the stage so she could see a
And Michael Engelberg, that long ago kid waiting by the mailbox
for the next
installment, actually got to be ridden by a 'Master' in one of the
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Heck, maybe it was a good
idea after all.
- Copyright 1995 by Terry Rossio.
All Rights Reserved.
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