“I’ve got good news… and bad news,” said producer Mark Gordon over the telephone.
With Mark by my side, I’d sold my pitch for a prison melodrama to Paramount Pictures. It was outside of my action-slash-thriller box. After extensive research on the subject, including an inside look around Folsom Prison (read Part 1) I’d delivered a moving screenplay that we thought was ripe for two movie stars and an important director.
“The studio’s really high on the script,” continued Mark. “So high that they think it has Academy Award potential.”
But because Mark had already squared me up with the old good news/bad news qualifier, I was waiting for the gut punch to land. I’d already heard the set-up. Possible awards. Oscars. What artist doesn’t like to hear that his or her work inspired that kind of discussion? I’d aimed high and so far had hit my mark. What could go wrong?
Uh… Like everything?
“Anyhow,” said Mark, his voice an octave under his normal jovial tone, “they’re so serious about the script that they think it could use some help from somebody with Oscar experience.”
“Oscar experience?” I asked, already applying the brakes on my tendency to go from zero to incredulous faster than a Japanese bullet train.
“A writer who’s been there before,” said Mark.
“You mean somebody who’s already won an Oscar,” I concluded.
“As bait for the kind of stars and director they think the movie deserves,” said Mark. “They’re talking names like Steve Zaillian, Scott Frank. You know…”
“They love the script so much they want to fire me,” I said, making sure to ram the point home.
“I know. It’s bullshit.”
“Damn right it’s bullshit.”
I recalled a moment of mutual silence. Then I asked:
“So how do you feel about it? Do you agree with them?”
“Look,” said Mark. “I love the script. You know I do. It’s one of the best I’ve ever worked on. But I’m not the studio. They write the checks. And then there’s the whole awards thing. Each studio has its own theories of how to get through the nominations process and all that crap.”
“And Paramount’s is to dump the guy who delivered the maybe award-worthy script for somebody who’s already been to the dance.”
“You know what? Since the studio is insisting on this tact, I think they should explain it to you.
Good idea, I thought. That was before I recalled that the executive on the project had recently left Paramount to run a production company for the studio’s biggest star. The Senior VP who’d taken over my portion of his development was a young women with whom I’d had an unfortunate pitch meeting a couple of years prior. It was a suspense thriller with CSI’s William Petersen attached. After Billy and I’d completed our song and dance, her reaction was to place a hand on her abdomen and complain that our story had left her stomach tied in knots.
“Fantastic,” I said.
“Exactly the kind of movie we want to make,” Billy chimed in.
“But I hate this feeling,” she whined. “And I hate movies that make me feel this way. Like going up and down in a fast elevator.”
“You don’t like roller coasters?” I asked.
“Hate ’em,” she replied. “All amusement park rides make me nauseous.”
As Billy and I walked back to our cars, we were mystified as to how we’d succeeded at pitching the tale but so widely missed our target.
“Maybe we shoulda given her a Dramamine before we pitched,” lamented Billy, only half joking.
So here I was, just a couple years later, stuck with the amusement-park-ride-challenged Senior VP as my Paramount project executive and dialing her number. Lucky me, I didn’t have to wait for her to ring me back. She hopped on the call in a matter of moments.
“Love the script,” she said right off the bat. “It’s powerful and so, so moving. I really didn’t expect that from you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But what did you expect.”
“You know. More action. One liners. You know. Like Die Hard.”
“Well, now you know I’m more than that.”
“Yes I do. And so does the studio. But the kind of directors and stars that we need for this movie don’t know that you’re more than that. More importantly their agents don’t know.”
“I appreciate your candor,” I said. “But how the hell am I supposed to combat that kind of shallow thinking if the studio that loves my script wants to pitch me over for somebody like Scott Frank?”
“Not just Scott,” she said. “We’re sending it to Steve Zaillian, Paul Attanasio, and Eric Roth.”
“Look. I know you mean that to sound like a compliment. But if you’re firing me, no name added to my script is gonna make me feel better.”
“Look,” she said. “It’s not about you. It’s about pedigree. And it matters to actors when I say that we have this amazing script—by you—that this Academy Award winning writer just took a pass at.”
Arguing with her was useless. That’s because I could hear it in her voice. Just the mere prospect of working with big name “pedigreed” writers had her sounding like a drunken slut. It was clear to me that at least some of her plan was to use my screenplay to secure her position as Paramount’s Executive of Award-Worthy Movies.
This may sound crass, but there’s no better way to describe her lousy act as plain old star-fucking. Or in her case, star-writer-fucking.
I followed up with Mark. It was clear that the ship had sailed and there was no immediate way to turn it around.
“Maybe it’ll come back to you,” said Mark. “Seen it happen before. Who knows?”
Yeah. Who knows?
In the end, the Senior VP’s list of pedigreed writers were either unavailable for her immediate rewrite or turned off by her A-list lust. She ended settling on a recently nommed script jockey who’d just broken ranks with his writing partner. Eight months later the scribbler returned with a revision of my work that is best described as turgid and self-important.
Then snap! That quickly, the project lost its luster and began years of languishing aboard the Good Script Forget-me-Not.
Mark was right, though. The screenplay did come back to me. The lousy rewrite was eventually forgotten and the studio was suddenly open to turnaround deals that might make them forget the money they’d invested. Over time, actors and directors would become attached then unattached. As well as financiers.
Alas, the screenplay remains both untitled and unproduced. Though yearly, it never fails to gain someone’s interest in resurrecting it. And, as with most of my screenplay children, I remain hopeful that it may one day grow into an adult-aged film.
Since then, that certain Senior VP who was so profoundly interested in bedding down (if only metaphorically) with star talent has moved on to produce a number of hit movies. None have been award-worthy nor were they written or directed by any of those so-called “pedigreed” talent.
I do, though, have this fantasy. I imagine a day when that veep-turned-producer wants to become attached to my latest novel. She’ll call me and tell me how sublime it is. And that my prospects with her as producer would be nothing short of heavenly, not to mention the awards the picture might garner.
After her little speech, I’d tell her how much I agreed with her. But that in order to bait my book-to-film as something worthy of Oscars and Golden Globes, I might be better served going with a producer with a better pedigree.
Until that happy day…
Note. This is my last post for 2012. It’s been a fun year, sharing my true stories with you. So please check back in January for further tales from inside the Hollywood ropes. Until then, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and God Bless.
Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.