Wednesday, April 08, 2020

2002: Year Of The Treadmill! (part one)

A rerun from 11 years ago at this time, about something that happened just over 18 years ago...

No, this isn’t about how I joined a gym and lost 30 pounds...
It’s about how I spent the entire year running as fast as I could and getting nowhere.
That statute of limitations has probably run out on this one, so why not share it?

It all started at the end of 2001 - I was on the jury of the Raindance Film Festival along with director Mike Figgis (LEAVING LAS VEGAS) and babe actress Saffron Burrows (DEEP BLUE SEA). It was a real high-point in my life... arguing with Saffron about a movie that she hated so much, she wanted to throw me out of a window because I liked it. I had a great time seeing movies for 14 hours a day for 10 days... and when I came home I had a meeting with a producer I had never worked with before.

My career happens by accident, and this was no different. I have no agent, no manager, and no gardener who also blows Tom Cruise’s leaves. Though I strongly advocate queries and cold calls, it’s a case of “Take my advice, I’m not using it.” I *do* query and cold call, but not very often. I used to send out query letters 3 times a year to a list of producers, but I’ve been kind of lax on that for a while. Usually once a year I send queries to the same producers - never anyone new. That’s a big mistake. When I go for a while without work, I get motivated. If there’s still money in the bank from the last deal, I am less motivated. So many of my gigs happen through no real effort on my part - no obvious cause and effect - by accident. Someone passes someone a script.

In this case, the producer had read something of mine a long time ago and remembered it, and when they saw some movie on cable I wrote, they decided to track me down and see what I was up to. So, I had a meeting, left a new script, pitched a potential project, and drove home. This producer had been making network MOWs for years, but had just snagged a deal with MGM - a studio without a studio - to make low budget theatrical genre films for them. Budgets $10 million or less. Now, that can get you a really nice movie with a low-end star in the lead that will play theatrical and make some money. Though the Jason Statham movies cost more than that today, back then you could make a film with someone like him as the star and have it be that kind of junky action film that opens at #1 over the weekend.

I was sure that this was just another wheel-spinning meeting that required me to drive to Santa Monica where MGM had its “campus” and then get stuck in rush hour traffic on the way home. But the producer liked my new script (or his reader did) and called me in for another meeting. The producer wanted a movie that could star Jamie Lee Curtis. A thriller. He wanted me to pitch five ideas and he’s select one.

Now, to you Jamie Lee Curtis may just be the actress who sells that yogurt that makes you poop on TV, but to me - well, she’s the star of HALLOWEEN and showed her boobies in TRADING PLACES and was Ah-nuld’s wife in TRUE LIES. She’s in a bunch of my favorite movies and her career has been part of my life. I’ve had a crush on her forever... I had just seen her in TAILOR OF PANAMA with Pierce Brosnan, and she looked great! I would have paid to write a script for her... but this looks like they’re going to pay me!

I came up with a bunch of ideas for Jamie, including a cool one called BREAKING NEWS about an overly ambitious news reporter who crosses the police tape and ends up being kidnapped by armed robbers who use her news van to escape... and now has to figure out how to stay alive when she is the center of the news story. But that’s not the one he liked...

He liked this cool story about newlyweds who dock their rented sailboat at the Friendly Islands, where the husband is kidnapped (the bad guys think the Husband and Wife own the sailboat and are wealthy), wife has no money so she must kick butt to rescue husband. Sort of BRIDE WORE BLACK meets RAMBO meets PROOF OF LIFE. The producer asked me to write a detailed 15 page treatment that he could take to Jamie Lee Curtis. And he paid me to write the treatment. I don’t remember what the treatment rate was then, but it was in the low 5 figures.

I wrote it, delivered it to the producer... and he wanted to meet with me because he had some notes on the treatment. Okay, maybe he didn’t like the scene where she flirts with the cop in order to get him to help her...


No. He had a new idea... a better idea! You see, he’d just met with a film studio in Mexico and could get a deal to film there. And he didn’t like the husband thing, what if it was a mother whose SON is kidnapped? Can I come back in a week with the mother/son version of this idea? Sure!

A week later I’m telling him this great story about a school teacher whose son gets in trouble so they rent a boat for a month to sail the coast of Mexico - so she can spend time with the kid and try to straighten him out. The producer said it sounded great - we went over a couple of details - he asked me if I could write up a 15 page synopsis so he could get it to Jamie Lee Curtis.

Of course, the relationship between a wife and her husband is a lot different than the relationship between a mother and her son, and a honeymoon cruise is very different than one that you would take with your kid... so all of those things that made it sound easy in the meeting - just search and replace! - were very difficult when I had to actually rewrite the treatment. It wasn't a rewrite as much as a start over. Changing a husband to a son turned it into a completely different story. Why the hell would a mother take her son on a romantic sailboat cruise? I had to find motivations that made complete sense... and then write a new treatment... in a week!

But one of the things that I have learned in my years as a professional screenwriter is that you need to be able to deliver great material on a tight deadline. Nobody wants it late, and nobody wants it on time but crappy.

I delivered the treatment a week later...

That treatment is here:
The Third Law

Note: Because I wasn't paid for THE THIRD LAW, that treatment is *mine*. The previous one with the newlyweds belongs to the production company.


But a strange thing had happened while I was writing the treatment. MGM had released a string of expensive flops - WINDTALKER and HART’S WAR and ROLLERBALL: THE AWFUL REMAKE - and had come up with a new company game plan... a good one... they were going to focus on lower budget films that would make their money back on video if they didn’t do well theatrically. Movies like those junky little $10 million action films that open at #1 over the weekend then drop off the charts... but continue to do well in the home video market. And *my producer* was the guy they were betting the studio’s future on!

So, a couple of weeks after turning in the treatment I had another meeting with the producer. Even though the synopsis was exactly what we talked about, the game had changed and now he thought that aiming at a younger audience was the way to go. Jamie Lee Curtis appeals to an older audience, and MGM was now looking for something that would work for that 15-25 demo that buys tickets every weekend. I said that I thought the Jamie Lee Curtis story we had might work for that because the kid is in that age range, and everyone has a mom. Having a mom as the lead means that old kids and young kids and people my age could identity with the story. Four quadrants.

But he wanted the *lead* to be 15-25 years old... could I come back in a week with 5 story ideas I could pitch with leads in that age range? Sure. No extra money - this is technically one of those evil free rewrites, but this is all leading to a screenplay that is all leading to a film production... and there is money on the horizon.

Oh, and the producer had found this great studio deal in Portugal of all places, could I come back in a week with 5 script ideas for 15-25 year old leads that takes place in Portugal? Um, sure.

Then, things got worse...

Part Two Next Wednesday.

- Bill


Anonymous said...

was your argument with Saffron about Mulholland Drive, because that is one I always clash with...

wcmartell said...

VISITOR Q... which makes necrophilia funny. Well, I thought it was funny.

- Bill

Patrick Downey said...

Thank you for sharing your treatment.

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