Wednesday, April 22, 2009

2002: Year Of The Treadmill (part last)

After writing a million treatments, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Ringo Lam have become tired of waiting for the script and are on their way out the door... I could pound out a script that could stop them, but the producer has instead decided to have me write a brand new treatment that takes place in South Africa. And after a stack of free treatments, this one will be for pay - hooray! Nice to have another treatment check, but we are no closer to going to script than we were when I started this project months and months ago. Will these treatments ever stop?

After reading a bunch of books on South Africa and watching some travel videos I did a version where he was a bodyguard in South Africa and the badguys were only stealing some diamonds instead of assassinating anybody. He was less involved in this story - still managing to run into the bad guys by accident over and over again.

This treatment was thrown away. Jean Claude Van Damme and Ringo Lam signed to do another movie... they’d still be interested in reading the script, if ever there was one. But now they were off on some other project and my guess is that MGM will lower our budget unless we can find a new star and a new hot director. Could Jamie Lee Curtis play a bodyguard in South Africa, I asked... the producer did not answer.

Every project has a certain amount of *momentum* - as long as it’s moving forward quickly, everyone is excited and that excitement can actually turn a script into a film. People want to make movies, and if your project is hurtling towards the screen like a juju-bee hurled by a twelve year old, everyone wants to be part of it. But when things begin to slow down, people start jumping ship... and no one really wants to replace them. The end result of slowing down is *stopping* - and no one wants to be attached to a stalled film. That’s a dead film.

I suspect my Hawaii film is completely dead at this point. It slowed down due to a possible actor’s strike - and because that strike kept dragging on without ever happening, the Hawaii project slowed to a crawl. Now that the actors are probably going to sign a contract (a year later) the economy sucks so bad I can’t imagine this thing ever happening. Another script of mine on some producer’s shelf forever. You have to strike while the iron is hot. There is a perfect time for the project, and if you miss that time because you are waiting for some other time, you lose momentum and things start to fall apart. The Hawaii thing waited too long, trying to play it safe... and now it’s over.

But back to 2002....

Even though I had some fresh cash in the bank on the never-ending treatment project, I wouldn’t get the nice big check for writing the script until the producer approves one of the treatments. And that was never going to happen if he kept throwing them away and coming up with new ideas (He’s an IRS agent in Latvia! He’s an ex-CIA assassin in Afghanistan! He’s a body builder in Bulgaria!). I wrote a new South Africa treatment with all of his crazy story-killing notes and now the protagonist had nothing to do with the story at all, he was just in scenes where things happened to other people. It had turned to dog-doo. I hated the treatment, but by this point I was a typing monkey and the producer wasn’t listening to anything I said in our story meetings.

That’s one of the things I will never understand about this business - you are hired because they have read a bunch of your scripts and like them... then they want you to write something that goes against everything they liked about those sample scripts. If they’d just let you do your job and keep out of your way, they’d probably end up with a much better script. But instead, the new treatment is basically dictation - nothing of me in there - and it has a completely passive protagonist and a complete non-sense plot and things that happen for no reason and massive plot holes and crazy coincidences and no conflict and zero emotional conflict...

One of the running battles I’ve been having with this producer - he wants to do something like BOURNE, just without the character stuff that made BOURNE more than just a bunch of cool action scenes. He *wants* a completely 2D character - not a complicated guy who worries that the more he discovers who he really is, the more he may not like himself much. Every treatment I am fighting to make sure the lead character has some character - and those elements are the first things he wants to remove on the next treatment. I am so masochistic, I don’t give up the fight. I want this to eventually go to script, and I want it to be a *good* script. Not just a bag-o-action. But after all of these treatments and losing our lead and director, I’m just keeping my mouth shut and doing what I’m told. Duane Haller in WHITE LINE FEVER was right - you cause trouble and all you get is trouble. So I crank out the treatment and turn it in and wait for the next meeting where it will be thrown out and I will be given a new random country and a new random occupation for the lead and a new random action event.

It was November by then, and I had spent almost the whole year writing treatment after treatment and never getting any closer to script

When the next meeting actually began with a new location, I quit. I tried to control my temper, but I may have failed a little. I complained that we were no closer to script than when I began and that I was getting tired of writing things that would never end up on screen. Part of my problem may be that I am “spoiled” - I actively seek out the people who actually make movies instead of just make deals, so lots of stuff ends up on screen. Hey, it may turn out crap by the time it gets to screen - but so do lots of big budget studio films... and the other 90% of the scripts the studio bought that year just get rewritten into crap and never make it to screen. I had done more that a fair number of free rewrites, and it was time to move on.

Looking back on it all, I think the problem was the producer couldn’t deal with the pressure of having MGM’s future on his shoulders. I think he choked. We all want to do our best work, but there’s a clever way of not ever failing by not ever finishing your work. Plenty of screenwriters do this - they write and rewrite and change things and never manage to get to FADE OUT. Because once they finish the script, the script can be read and judged and it might suck. But a script they are still working on? Always brilliant! I think this producer, whose history was a bunch of MOWs that were here this week, gone the next... just a way to sell laundry soap; was afraid that his first big theatrical would come out and flop big time, maybe even pull down the studio, and it would all be his fault. He couldn’t deal with that kind of pressure, so he postponed his failure (or success) by never having a project that could go to screen. The silly part about this is that when we had that treatment that actually attracted the talent required to make the movie, he should have pulled the trigger, gone to script, then made the sucker. At that point, the cast would have resulted in *some* box office, and would have been successful on DVD even if the film sucked. And there would have been other people who could have shared he blame if the film was a total stinker - you can blame the director or the star or even blame me.

There comes a time when the rewards outweigh the risks - or are at least equal - and it makes sense to just do it. You can’t succeed without the possibility of failure - and failure is not a bad thing. Failure is just a step on the road to success. In this case, the producer might have made a film for a major studio that would have been one of their big releases for the year. How many big studio films flop every year? MGM was coming off a string of flops - expensive flops - so this may have just been another MGM flop. Hey, it would be used in the same sentence as films that cost $100 million! That elevates the producer! Strange as it probably seems - being the producer of a $100 million film that flopped is better than being the producer of a $1 million film that does well for its budget. Same goes for writers, too. I wrote a film that made *five times* its production cost in profits! But I’m a footnote, and the writers of some big budget flop are popular because someone gambled $200 million on their last script.

This producer could not have failed even if he had failed - because he would move up a few rungs on the ladder. He would be making $10 million studio films instead of $2 million network MOWs. Um, the producer’s fee is much larger - even if the film tanks.

Before writing this blog entry I decided to look up the producer and see what happened to him. I had done this once before, but thought I’d check again. Well, he has disappeared from the face of the earth. His last credit was an MOW made before my association with him. His website is gone. His company is no longer listed anywhere (and hasn’t been for years). He is out of the business. MOWs were dying at the time we were working together, so he had to find a different kind of film to produce. Move forward because he could not move back. In a way, our project was the best way to keep his career as a producer - and it seems that he has lost that. Every time I search for him, I find nothing... not even a trace of him since our project.

Here’s the good news and bad news of it all: Hey, I paid rent and expenses for a year of freakin’ slave labor! And since the producer is MIA and our deal was for a treatment for Jamie Lee Curtis as a newlywed and one of the crappy treatments in Dubrovnik, I’m thinking the free treatments that I wrote are mine. I was not paid for them. How can anyone other than me own them? So the school teacher treatment is something I plan on developing - it was my idea and I think there may be a market for it. The great treatment I wrote that attracted the talent is also mine - written before the second treatment payment. The bad news on that - I was writing so many treatments on this project that somewhere along the line that one was saved over by another treatment. I *do* have a hard copy of that treatment... except for the last three pages of the 15! Somewhere along the line those pages fell off the original - damned Staples staples! - and I probably have the notes on how it ends somewhere.... Where did I put all of those 2002 notebooks? I only discovered the 3 missing pages over the holidays when I brought all of this stuff with me to clean it up and set it up as something I might write this year. Now, it looks like I’ll have to take some time to figure out what was on those last three pages - maybe I’ll script it next year.

I’m also looking at all of the other versions of the treatments for either scenes or storylines or characters that I can steal. The two college girls one I may completely re-treat and turn into a Hitchcock kind of thing in some country other than Portugal.

I call stuff like this my “Phantom Credits” - work you’ve done and were paid for that never ended up going to screen, so there’s nothing on IMDB about it. You look at 2002 and you think I did nothing that year - when the opposite is true. Many of those years without any IMDB credits were years where I worked my butt off and got paid for some project that never went to film. Maybe one out of ten of the scripts they pay for go to screen, which means for every credit you see on IMDB there are 9 more you do not see.

Because I write for production - I try not to write anything that will still take a number of steps before it can be made, or is impractical from a production point of view - I’ve managed to get a higher percentage of purchased projects on screen. But I still have a bunch of things on shelves all over town that will never get made. After five years, you can buy those scripts back at cost - what you were paid. I often wonder whether I should do that (I’ve bought back three scripts, and still own them). Usually I think the future scripts are better than the past scripts. The future scripts have *potential*.

- Bill

Classes On CD On Sale!

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Jargon & Slang & CLUELESS.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Tuna sandwich from Togos.

5 comments:

Joshua James said...

Great post ... invoking linkage apparatus as we speak ...

Jaded and Cynical said...

Fascinating.

Like most people outside the business I kind of assumed that someone would write a good script, a producer would buy it, some talent would be attached, and then the movie would get made.

I guess life's never quite that straightforward.

Pity the JCVD angle didn't work out - that would have been cool.

truegrit said...

Why didn't you just go over the producer's head straight to Ringo Lam and JCVD? Would that have been illegal or unethical?

Also, you market and sell your scripts without an agent, have you considered putting on a producer's hat?

The Moviequill said...

I am sad to see this series end, it has been quite enjoyable reading about your pain... wait a sec, that didn't quite come out the way I wanted ha

ObiDonWan said...

Following your (mis)adventures, I did keep thinking: at least he's got all these ideas and treatments, maybe they can pay off in another direction.

Other than that, it sounds like hell. Almost makes me *happy* that I'm an unknown scribbler.

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