Aaron Sorkin’s play of A Few Good Men quickly had its movie rights snapped up – but originally, Hollywood executives wanted to take the film in a slightly different direction.
Come the end of 1992, and the movie star of the moment – once again – was Jack Nicholson. The Christmas schedule that year featured two big studio movies featuring the actor, and there were Oscar hopes for the pair of them.
Danny DeVito’s Hoffa was perhaps the most awards-likely, a biopic of the infamous Jimmy Hoffa whose story has recently being covered in part by Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. Nicholson took the title role in DeVito’s film, which proved to be ambitious, if not entirely successful.
And then there was A Few Good Men, an expensive box office hope laden with star power. Alongside Nicholson on the poster stood Demi Moore and Tom Cruise, and Kevin Bacon had a supporting role too. Furthermore, the film was directed by Rob Reiner, in the midst of his hot streak that began with This Is Spinal Tap and continued through movies such as The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally and Stand By Me.
Reiner’s growing stature afforded him the opportunity to start a relatively high profile production company by the name of Castle Rock Entertainment in the 1980s, to give him independence from studio meddling. As it happened, that would prove pretty important when it came to A Few Good Men.
Whilst Reiner went from 1987’s The Princess Bride to 1989’s When Harry Met Sally, though, a-then in his late 20s writer by the name of Aaron Sorkin penned a draft of a play called A Few Good Men. He’d taken inspiration from his sister, who was serving in the navy, and she told him a story of an unofficial measure known as a ‘Code Red’. If you’ve not seen the movie, I won’t spoil it: just to say that a Code Red lies at the heart of the case the courtroom drama explores.
Sorkin’s script was turned into a play, and it became a substantial hit on Broadway. Which is what brought Sorkin into Rob Reiner’s world.
Sorkin had been trying to break into movies, and the text of the play was sent to the Castle Rock office as an example of his writing. That writing sample, as it were, landed Sorkin screenwriting work on a project called Damages, that would take a few years to get to the movies. By then, it had changed its name to Malice, with Harold Becker directing. It was a solid hit too.
With word on that project underway, the Castle Rock team asked the question as to what was happening with A Few Good Men as a feature project. As it happened, courtesy of its success on Broadway, a studio had moved in quickly to take an option on the production. That studio was TriStar, part of the Sony empire. An enquiry was thus made about the project. But it shot up Castle Rock’s agenda when Reiner went to see the play himself, and absolutely loved it. At that point, he wanted it, and wanted it to direct too.
That got things moving, and also – as it turns out – saved the project from a slightly different fate. For the involvement of Reiner, a prolific, commercially savvy and quality director, pretty much ensured the movie would get made and thus no studio was going to turn that down. A deal was thus struck with TriStar.
For Sorkin, this came as a relief, as it transpired that TriStar had been ‘suggesting’ some changes for the story. Changes that weren’t particularly palatable to him. As he recalled to Empire magazine at the start of 1992, “I wasn’t happy with certain demands that were being made”.
Specifically, demands with relation to the characters of Daniel Kaffee (played by Tom Cruise) and JoAnne Galloway (played by Demi Moore). That TriStar executives were pushing for the two to have, well, a moment in the sack. “Nobody at TriStar was talking about a romance, by the way”, Sorkin added. “We were just talking about these two people going to bed”.
New to the Hollywood business, Sorkin was adapting his own play but having to take notes and make changes as per the instructions from the studio. And that included having to weave in a, well, ‘thorough examination of mattress springs’ as part of the rewrites.
The turning point, as you’ve probably guessed, was when Reiner officially got involved. Castle Rock contacted TriStar to see if there was interest in selling the project on, and the two ended up teaming up on the film. But what Castle Rock and Reiner brought as a significant added bonus to the film was the insulation it needed from the studio system. Reiner had the clout to unwind the changes TriStar had been making, and that’s exactly what he did. “When Rob got involved, he let me throw out the screenplay and start all over again”, Sorkin recalled.
It’d be a tough process (“I have to admit it was a rough first week”, recalled Sorkin) – as we’ll come to in a future Film Stories podcast episode on the movie – but between Reiner and Sorkin, they worked and worked and worked the material to get it to where they needed it to be. And the characters of Tom Cruise and Demi Moore were both able to keep their clothes on, and not be required to test out the products of their local Dreams store.
The resultant film would be the hit of the season, not just eclipsing the other Jack Nicholson movie it found itself up against, but pretty much all of the competition too. A best picture Oscar nomination was amongst the award nods it received.
Sorkin and Reiner would collaborate again too, this time on a film that did include a bedroom scene. That’d be The American President, and you can listen to our podcast on that movie below these words…
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