Wednesday, May 10, 2023

2002: Year Of The Treadmill (part two)

A rerun from over a decade ago, about something that happened around 21 years ago...

Monday night I had drinks with some fellow screenwriters, and one of the things we talked about was free writing. We all know that it’s a bad thing... but we all end up doing it. Some producer who actually gets films made wants you to write up a treatment to help get the financing for the film... or maybe wants you to write the whole script. What do you do? Because the producer actually gets films made, there’s this big carrot - a movie! A paycheck for the script! And probably that production bonus because this producer actually makes movies!

The most common place the free writing thing pops up is in rewrites. I’ve done a bunch of free rewrites because I would rather write for free and try to keep the script on course (oh, and the production bonus) than refuse to do the rewrites and have them hire someone else who will just screw everything up... and get half credit. And producers have a great way of pitching those free rewrites: Hey, I think with just a couple of minor changes, the studio will green light this. First, can the lead character be a cowboy? Second, can it take place in the moon... not *on* the moon, but inside it? And after hearing 10 notes like this you have to make that decision - keep going on this project or quit? And more often than not, you keep going... that carrot of production sure looks tasty!

In 2002 I wrote a treatment for actual pay for a producer at MGM... and then did “rewrites” on it for the rest of the year. I mean the whole year! This was a real producer, who had another project at MGM that was supposed to shoot in New Zealand. An MOW producer who had a huge lucky break when MGM decided his experience bringing in network MOWs on time and on budget was exactly what they needed after they took a big hit after releasing a string of expensive flops. If this producer could make them a string of $10 million genre films with second tier stars...

And I was the guy writing the movie! Well, writing a series of treatments that would become that movie. After writing a treatment for Jamie Lee Curtis as a school teacher whose son gets kidnapped in Mexico by bandits while they are on vacation... and she has to go all Rambo and get him back, the producer had some notes...

Could I make the lead character a 15-25 year old female, and instead of taking place in Mexico - 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 female leads that takes place in Portugal? Um, sure.

I came up with some ideas, the best of which was the one they liked - sort of a female version of GOTCHA about two college girls on vacation in Portugal, and one gets mixed up with a terrorist and ends up in trouble and on the run. One of the other ideas was a riff on THE PASSENGER about a woman with a ton of problems who trades identity with the woman in the room next door after she dies in a car accident... and inherits the other woman’s problems which are much worse than hers. No... the producer liked the GOTCHA one. So I wrote a 15 page single spaced treatment and turned it in - driving down to Santa Monica again - 101 to 405 to 10 to surface streets. Between driving there and back, it pretty much eats up the whole day.

We have a meeting after he read it (or his reader did - I’m not sure anyone in town actually reads anything other than coverage, and even that may be read to them). And he loves the treatment, but has a new idea. You see, he’d just had a meeting with this guy who was playing a villain in the next two MATRIX movies. A martial arts guy who was “the new Van Damme” named Daniel Bernhardt. This guy was sure to become a big star, but right now he was cheap. Hey, I knew who that was from the BLOODSPORT movies! He took over for Van Damme! Could I come up with some male lead ideas? Action stuff? With martial arts? Hell yes!

A week later I pitched him five male lead action ideas - he picked one and asked if I could work out the details by next week. We’d be shooting in Portugal.

Behind the scenes, here, I’m doing a bunch of research every time we switch locations and stories and leads. I didn’t even know where the Friendly Islands were on the first treatment - the reason why the story took place there is that he had another movie that as supposed to shoot in New Zealand and wanted to piggy back the production. Shoot two films back to back and save money on transportation and basic set up costs. When we changed to Mexico I had to find out what was available near his studio with the deal, plus learn how a school teacher might battle a bunch of kidnappers using her knowledge of high school science. I bought a bunch of books of experiments for school teachers and read them, looking for cool MacGyver possibilities. When we went to Portugal, I had to find out what was there (near the studio where he had his deal) and what we could do within our budget. And as this tale continues to unwind, every single change meant a pile of research on my part.

I came up with *Ten* new martial arts stories with a male lead that took place in Portugal, because I wanted him to have a good selection so that we could get this show on the road and go to script so that I could be paid again. Though at any time I could have just said “No more”, that would have stopped things from proceeding to script. Script is where the money is.

My ten ideas included one that I had pitched as a sequel to THE FUGITIVE called PICK UP TEAM about a Federal Agent who goes to pick up a fugitive being extradited from Portugal who loses the fugitive and must recapture him before he can assassinate the President who is coming to Portugal for a meeting... and since the Portuguese government isn’t going to help him, he must assemble a team of thieves and criminals with special talents to help him grab the guy. Another was an existing script of mine about a CIA courier who loses a briefcase full of... well, it ends up being germ warfare stuff... and must retrieve it before it’s unleashed on the world. A bunch of other good action story ideas - that I still have - but the winner was...

A story about a CIA agent who gets set up by his own agency in Portugal and must find out why they want him dead. Sort of like BOURNE IDENTITY - except he knows who he is but doesn’t know why everyone wants him dead. Why? instead of Who? We went over the idea at a meeting, then I wrote up a 15 page treatment... and actually got another check. A miracle.

BOURNE IDENTITY had just come out and I loved it, so did the producer. And that became our model - we were going to do the $10 million BOURNE knock off, shot in Portugal, and filled with as much action as we could. My treatment was cool, and I really liked the idea of a substituting *why* for *who* as the question driving the story. Instead of Bourne’s search for who he is and discovering the sins of his past, I would have my guy searching for why his own people were trying to kill him and uncover the sins of his past. I’d still have a great, conflicted lead character who gets to kick a whole lot of ass before Fade Out.

Oh, and when I was in London I had seen a commercial for Nike shoes that featured these strange guys who did this thing called “parkour” - they ran through urban areas and didn’t let anything get in their way, jumping and twisting and sliding over all sorts of obstacles. Never seen anything like that before. I thought this was really cool, and included it in a scene of the story. These guys were from France, and Portugal is just next door. This would be a cool way to get production value from something no one had ever seen before in our film.

But that treatment was thrown out, because the producer found a much better deal in Dubrovnik. I almost punch out the producer at the meeting. But I control my temper and mention that I thought we’d be shooting the damned film by now and hint that being paid for each treatment would help me focus on the new treatment. He noted that he had paid me for the last one, then sent me off to write the new 15 page treatment, could I have it done in a week?

So, I did some research into Dubrovnik, and discovered that it was the home to the United Nations Environmental Conferences. I read a stack of books and looked at maps and... well, took my time writing the treatment. I spent a month writing it. Just to piss him off.

Writing these treatments was sometimes difficult because I had speaking engagements. I taught that 2 day screenwriting seminar in Tahoe in April, went back to London in June, and did a 3 day Screenwriting Conference in Las Vegas in July. Oh, and I did a bunch of Barnes & Noble book signings - for a while I was at a different LA store every week signing my book. So even my spare time was filled by activities! Some of these “Can you deliver the treatment in a week?” actually ended up being two weeks with a week in London in between, but only a week to write the danged treatment. I’d come back from an event and have to crank out a stack of pages on whatever synopsis I was working on. I had little time for sleeping, and couldn’t wait for the producer to make up his mind about the story so that I could write the script and then take a vacation. I was working myself into the ground.

Anyway, I wrote a pretty good treatment about the head of UNESCO security who is framed for murder in Dubrovnik and must find out why... discovers a plan to assassinate a top global warming scientist and blame it on environmentalists. The story had a bunch of clever plot twists and some great character stuff and some really inventive action scenes. I really liked this treatment and wanted to see it go to script. I was tired of writing free treatments. I had written a stack of them by now. We needed to go to script and make a movie!

After another meeting with MGM, the producer’s New Zealand project was dumped and MY script was this producer’s big project for 2002. He set a start date in September in Dubrovnik. My contract paid for airfare, hotel, and expenses while they filmed in Dubrovnik - I was going to have a 2 month all expenses paid vacation while they filmed my movie! Cool! This also meant we would soon be going to script... and I would get more money.

The producer didn’t like the environmental thing - even though it was something that really happened in Dubrovnik. He didn’t think that was important enough. Could I come up with a different idea?

Meanwhile, the first of the two new MATRIX movies came out and no one remembered Daniel who was supposed to be the next big thing. Bummer. I liked him. (Note: he would continue to play secondary roles like "Key Face" in ATOMIC BLONDE.) We would probably have to find a new star even if this was just going to be one of those junky weekend #1 action movies. For that we might need a script. I’m seeing a script fee on the horizon!

But instead I write a brand new version of the treatment where the target was Kofi Annan, and many other details were different. I decide to really give this one my absolute best shot and make it fantastic. This is my favorite of the treatments - all of the great twists from before *plus* some new ones, and even though the producer gives me an incredible stupid element he wants shoe-horned into the script, I manage to make that work. I come up with some even better action scenes, and a really cool twist ending that I think will have people talking when they leave the cinema. It had a different parkour scene in it - where the hero escapes from a top floor hotel room by bouncing between balconies until he reaches the street - then runs across the tops of moving cars on the street. Also, I had talked to the producer about a car chase, and the guys who did the RONIN chase worked out of France, and he had a connection to them - so I wrote a car chase that would *rival* the BOURNE IDENTITY and RONIN chases. This was one amazing chase! This treatment *rocks*! I am sure that after reading this we will go to script, directly to script! I believe this story is *better* than BOURNE. I know that this is the one that will get the producer to pull the trigger. After all of these treatments, I was in need of that script fee. You can't live on treatment money...

But this is only part two...

Part Three next Wednesday!

- Bill


ObiDonWan said...

oy vey! and it's gonna get worse? help, get me outa here!

Carson Reeves said...

Mr. Martell, thank you for this. It's a great topic for debate and there's no easy answer. The problem is that ultimately, getting a movie credit will pay more than something that never makes it to the screen. If not on that project, on future projects (opportunities). So I can see why the decision was so difficult.

Martin_B said...

I am in awe of your work ethic.

The sheer quantity of scripts, treatments, concepts etc you produce is dumbfounding.

And the quality too. Those concepts you generate in such numbers seem to be winners all.

If that's what it takes to make it, well, I realise I have to considerably increase my output, both in terms of quantity and marketability.

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