Monday, April 20, 2009

2002: Year Of The Treadmill (part three)

Our story so far...

A producer with a deal at MGM wanted me to write a script for him, so I began (as usual) by pitching 5 story ideas... for Jamie Lee Curtis as the lead, which could be shot as a piggy-back on another project he had going in New Zealand. He liked an idea about newlyweds on vacation, the husband is kidnaped and the wife has to get him back. I wrote a 15 page treatment, which he loved... but then he changed his mind and wanted to shoot in Mexico, so the treatment became about a mother and son whose yacht comes to port in Mexico, and the son is kidnaped and the mom has to go Rambo to get him back. He loved that treatment, too, but wanted to change the lead to a girl in her mid-20s, and shoot in Portugal. So I came up with 5 ideas, pitched them, and he picked one and we wrote up a treatment... and several treatments later we were doing a male lead martial arts film in Dubrovnik.

So far, I had only been paid to write the original treatment and the others were “free rewrites” - just with completely different stories and locations and lead characters. After doing a few more treatments I decided I’d had enough of this, and I was going to write a *great* treatment that would cause the producer to pull the trigger and go to script (where I would get another check) and maybe we’d be making a movie. This new treatment was better than BOURNE - it had all kinds of great action scene ideas you’ve never seen before and a cool story idea about an attempt to assassinate Kofi Annan. We need to get to scripts soon, because we’re shooting in September... But then we lost our star... when he didn’t become a star, after playing a pivotal role in both MATRIX sequels.

And someplace around here it became a bigger project - after reading the new treatment they wanted to spend the full $10 million on this film! It would be a big MGM theatrical release starring... Jean Claude Van Damme with action director Ringo Lam. Cool! My first big theatrical release! Ringo Lam is a Hong Kong action director, and I’m a big fan of his work. The female lead looked like it was going to be that French girl from MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and some other name actors were up for supporting roles.

I tell the producer I’m tired of writing treatments and would like to go to script. Maybe verbally pitch the next version, and if he likes it I’ll script it instead of treatment it. He’s not sure about that idea - what if something happens after we go to script and we need to do a page one? I tell him we need to make up our minds because September is right around the corner. We need a script. The producer writes me a check... for another treatment. Not the script check. I am happy, sort of. This is paying the bills but not even coming close to paying for the work.

The amazing this is that I have now been paid twice for the "same treatment" - even though it has really been dozens of treatments. Often producers don't want to pay you for the treatment at all, and often (subtext: usually) I'm okay with that. A treatment is the path to a script, and if doing a couple of days work gets me a script gig, that's a nice incentive. But I am also used to producers who are in the business of making movies. One of the reasons why I liked this producer is because he came from the world of MOWS (movies of the week) where you often get hired knowing that the movie will air at 9pm on September 17th on ABC, and everything is a race to get the script done so that they can start production. MOW producers don't endlessly develop like this... they make movies.

Many producers seem to be in the business of developing scripts, not making movies. I have no idea how they stay in business and keep their offices on the studio lots, but they almost never actually make a film. A few years back Sean Connery sued a producer because he didn't make movies - including a couple with Connery attached. These producers will have you read a stack of books to pitch your take on them... but never actually turn any of those books into scripts. Or they buy scripts and cycle through a half dozen writers doing rewrites on a script that will never be a movie. I don't understand these producers - who aspires to be the gelding at a stud farm?

For a writer, you can easily get trapped doing a year of reading books and giving your take, or reading scripts they've bought and pitching your rewrite, or just doing endless meetings where nothing ever comes of it. All of the money you've banked from the last script deal for that rainy day? Well, this is a rainy *year* - where you work your butt off on projects for some producer who doesn't actually make movies... they just develop scripts.

Only I've been paid *twice* for this treatment - a miracle!

Of course, the producer threw out the treatment that everybody loved - because he had a better idea. By now, the “better ideas” were all much worse than what had come before. In the next version the hero was just a bodyguard who wasn't really trying to stop the assassination - he just kind of stumbled around and eventually ended up stopping the assassination by accident... with many many many other weird changes. It was total crap, and I was afraid I’d be stuck writing the script version... we were running out of time.

The producer had MGM and Ringo Lam and Jean Claude Van Damme all waiting for the script... which I hadn't started because he kept throwing out treatments. Every couple of weeks I’d write a new 15 page treatment and then he’d throw it out and come up with a different idea and a different location and a different co-star and a different job for the hero and a different everything else! And September was right around the corner! Everybody wants to know where the script is - and I tell the producer we need to decide on a story so that I can start writing the script. Though I’m a fast writer, it’s still going to take a month. The producer postponed the film until October... and that was kind of the last possible month to start shooting before Dubrovnik became neck-deep in snow.

MGM was wondering where the script was. Jean Claude Van Damme was wondering where the script was. Ringo Lam was wondering where the script was. We needed to take a treatment to script if we were going to beat the snow.

I went to the next meeting with a copy of the best version of the Kofi Annan assassination treatment. Because we had to go to script RIGHT NOW to avoid the snow, I wanted to make sure we took the best story to script. I was prepared to fight for that version.

The producer said he didn’t like the Kofi Annan version, and he had some new ideas to “improve” the stumbling bodyguard version. I said we didn’t have time to do a new version and still film in Dubrovnik before it was neck-deep in snow. I thought the weather would end up being the thing that made the producer make up his mind so that we could go to script... no such luck! The producer said - we’ll move the story to South Africa, where weather isn’t a problem.

I wanted to jump across the desk and strangle him. It was time to get off the pot and go to script. I had a great treatment - the one that got us a cast and director onboard - and instead we keep throwing away treatments and changing them into crap and not getting any closer to script. Instead of strangling him, I lost my temper. Now, even when I lose my temper I’m still fairly calm and reasonable. I’m still interested in explaining why I am right and they are wrong. And I don’t make it all about my emotions - I make it about the *evidence*, the *reasons* why I believe one method is better than another. But one thing I have learned in my travels in Hollywood - most people don’t give a damn if you can prove they are completely wrong, because they’re “mommy” and that makes them always right - even if they are wrong. This big ego thing gets in the way of making rational decisions. The more you can show them that their method won’t work, the more they fight for it. So, I leave the meeting with a new meeting in a week where I am supposed to deliver a treatment that takes place in South Africa... and has to do with diamond smuggling.

So, we have no Jean-Claude Van Damme, no Ringo Lam... and my guess is that MGM might lower our budget unless we can find a new star and a new hot director. 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?

Well, you can find out in the last part on Wednesday...

- Bill
Classes On CD On Sale!
IMPORTANT UPDATE:

TODAY'S SCRIPT TIP: Split Screen * Chapters & CITY OF GOD.
Yesterday’s Dinner: Gilled Cheese sandwiches at the Standard downtown with a couple of attractive women, which are not nearly as good as the ones in the Library. A whole weekend of drinking and eating to excess at the Fango horror movoe convention.

Movies on TV...
Saturday, April 25th, M4M2 (UK) 13:50 - Black Thunder - When the world's most powerful stealth jet fighter falls into enemy hands, only one man can get it back. Starring Michael Dudikoff.

10 comments:

Grant said...

It's always cracked me up that all the Hong Kong directors fled to Hollywood after the handover to Red China, unsure if the government was going to put an end to all the decadence, only to return when they realized that Hollywood development was more oppressive than the Red Chinese.

The Moviequill said...

"Gilled Cheese sandwiches at the Standard downtown with a couple of attractive women, which are not nearly as good as the ones in the Library" yeah, those library chicks in their glasses and skirts are quite the... oh, you meant the sandwiches ha

wcmartell said...

There's a bar called The Library across the street from the real LA Central Library that has the *best* grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever eaten.

- Bill

laxel said...

This story itself would probably make a great script (screwball comedyish, with the writer uncovering an embezzlement scheme by the producer, writer being way over his head trying to uncover it), though probably a bit unbelievable for audiences, and maybe too close for comfort for Hollywood.

I'll go out on a limb and guess that the S.A. treatment was good...
-but Van Damme drops out
-you rewrite the part for Kevin Bacon playing an attorney
-then S.A. falls through, and the production gets moved to Warsaw
-where instead of diamond smuggling, it becomes a movie about intellectual property rights and the Polish mafia attempting to strongarm the cultural ministry into granting them permanent control over pierogi production
-at which point you reach across the desk and strangle the producer

LindaM said...

This so so friggin depressing. No wonder we all drink. Or whatever...

Racicot said...

I agree laxel...

Was Mel Brooks the producer - and were cameras, sound, and lighting grips present?

martinb said...

Well I for one hope it ends up in South Africa, and they get those bladdy diamond smugglers.

Martin B

Writing from Cape Town, South Africa.

wcmartell said...

If that had happened, I would have bought the beers, Martin! And put it on the producer's tab.

- Bill

michaeljamesmartin said...

Once you came up with that real good treatment that got you all that other stuff, why couldn't you write that script on the side, while the producer kept changing his mind, so when crunch time came around, you could show him this script, and say, "Here, see, this is what I got. This is what we got. Let's go to work". But in a more subtle way.

I havent sold anything so I don't know how the process works, but thats what I'd do. Sometimes when I get so frustrated waiting on other people, I just do the thing I'm waiting to do just to get it out of my system.

I'm sorry to hear about the troubles you're having. Sounds like a movie I'd pay to see, and I haven't even heard any real stuff about that BOURNE treatment!

wcmartell said...

Probably what I should have done... but I was too busy writing new treatments and coming up with 5 ideas for the next country.

- Bill

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