Screenwriter Herschel Weingrod knows how to write funny screenplays. He brought his expertise — and one of his hit movies — to an auditorium on the University of Oklahoma campus last week.
The public was invited to a screening of the 1983 hit “Trading Places” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, written by Weingrod and co-writer Timothy Harris.
The pair also wrote or rewrote screenplays for “Twins,” “Kindergarten Cop,” “Space Jam,” “My Stepmother is an Alien” and “Falling Down.”
The movie and question-and-answer session was part of the “Nature of Laughter” Presidential Dream Course hosted by professors Andrew Horton, OU College of Arts and Sciences Film and Media Studies Program and Joanna E. Rapf, OU College of Arts and Sciences English Department.
Before the screening began, Weingrod spoke to The Oklahoman about writing comedy and the creating of “Trading Places.”
“It was a happy accident,” Weingrod said. “We knew about brothers who were doctors and had a practice together. They liked to play tennis but no one liked to play against them and wouldn't play each other because they cheated.
“We talked about having brothers who didn't really like each other and who made bets on everything,” he explained. “There also was a lot of talk about ‘nature versus nurture,' heredity versus environment, and that was a great idea.”
The writer added the story of the Russians trying to corner the wheat market in the 1980s by changing the commodity to orange juice, and the frame of the script was done.
“Originally we wanted Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder for the movie,” Weingrod said. “The studio asked us if we had a second choice if they couldn't get Richard and I said I'd seen a guy on ‘Saturday Night Live' who would be good. I never thought he'd be a movie star though.”
Murphy was doing the movie “48 Hours” when he got the “Trading Places” script. He said he'd take the part.
“We wanted to make a social comedy, to explore themes that make people nervous — race, religion, sexual orientation,” Weingrod said. “We did it in ‘Trading Places,' and ‘Falling Down,' and those are the ones I'm the most proud of.”
Weingrod said another happy accident with “Trading Places” was it happened quickly. Director John Landis needed a movie to get the public's mind off his last movie, “Twilight Zone: The Movie,” and the accident in it that took actor Vic Morrow's life. He found “Trading Places” and jumped on it.
Weingrod and Harris did two drafts and a polish on the screenplay and it was approved to shoot.
“That's not happened to me since,” Weingrod said. “Also, 80 to 95 percent of the script made it on the screen.”
Weingrod watched “Trading Places” along with the audience, later admitting he's only seen the entire movie 10 times.
This time, while gratified the audience laughed, some of the parts that look dated made him cringe.
“Essentially, it still works,” he said.
The writer never stops working, but says the nature of his job has changed. When he started writing screenplays, he just had to write them and get a studio to make them. These days, he must come in with a complete product, including a marketing strategy and how to sell it globally.
Hollywood also has changed what it wants to see.
“Studios are now looking for a ‘tent pole' movie, one that can support sequels,” he said. “They also like remakes. The scripts are there and all they have to do is update them and film. Original material need not apply.
“Today's hits aren't about hearts and minds. They're about blood pressure.
“Every studio has people who do nothing but read scripts and it is so much easier for them to say ‘No,' when they have big stacks of scripts in front of them,” he explained. “Now, you've got to seduce that person who is reading. You want them to keep turning pages, to remember what you've written.
“You don't see remakes and blockbusters at the Oscars,” he said. “That's where you see movies with good screenplays.”
The Nature of Laughter Presidential Dream Course presentations are free and open to the public. For more information, contact Karl Schmidt at 325-3020 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.