Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder.Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
After flying some six-thousand miles and going thirty-six hours without a lick of sleep, I’d just told famed con man, Christophe Rocancourt, that he was full of shit. (read Con Job, Part 1) His self-penned biography, written during his incarceration in a federal penitentiary, didn’t jibe at all with his criminal record, witness statements, or much of his own self-spun mythology.
“Which book did you read?” asked Chris.
“The book Florent sent me,” was all I could answer, hoping to grease my director into joining the conversation.
“But there is a second book,” said Chris, inviting producer Thomas Langmann to contribute.
“It is not published yet,” said Langmann, “But yes. There is another book.”
“A book with more facts,” added Chris. “That first book was a matter for my defense against lawsuits.”
“There’s another book?” I pressed. “One that tells the truth?”
“Everything is in the new book,” said Chris. “Thomas will get that book to you. Yes?”
“It is not yet translated,” admitted Langmann. “Soon as it is available.”
I looked to Florent, who shrugged with an eez what eet eez sort of guise.
“Fine,” I said. “I look forward to reading it.”
“But you are here for the week, yes?” grinned Chris. “We will have plenty of time to get to know each other. I will answer all your questions. And you will know the truth of me.”
Chris was animated and winning in all manner of expression. Yet from the jump, I knew I was in the presence of a master con artist—a man who lived somewhere between veritable genius and congenital liar. I was going to be worked over by him. In fact, I was already being played. And hell if I didn’t know it. I might as well buckle up and get ready for the ride… or to be ridden.
After an early evening of cocktails, I retired to my hotel and whatever sleep I could manage. The next morning began with a visit to Thomas Langmann’s impressive Paris office. This was where the current King of the French Box Office floated his big idea: to have Christophe Rocancourt play himself in the movie of his life.
In the realm of bad ideas, this was something south of appalling. I watched Florent uncomfortably shift in his chair while looking to me to be the harbinger of bad news—something akin to our good cop/bad cop routine on Hostage. And though I tried to be politic in my reply, I could tell it still came off a bit as a rebuke by the American writer-without-a-deal.
On the way to the hotel where we were to spend the afternoon with Christophe, Florent informed me that Langmann wasn’t keen on hiring an American script-jockey. European screenwriters were known to be far more subservient to their director and producer masters—victims (in my opinion) of the fallacious auteur system. As well, Langmann had been seriously screwed over by the one Yankee screenwriter he’d previously engaged.
“You need to assure him I’m not that guy,” I reminded Florent.
Florent promised he would. Then we turned our attention to our movie subject.
My second meeting with Christophe was a beautiful reminder of what had hooked me on the story: his early youth. This dirt-poor boy from Honfleur, France—the child of a prostitute and a drunk pugilist of a father—learned early in life that lying about who he was, his ugly circumstances, and how he got there would pay in survivalist dividends. By fifteen-years-old, Christophe had achieved his doctorate in deception.
The childhood, as it worked out, was easily documented. After his exploits and subsequent arrests in the States, Christophe’s relatives crawled from the woodwork to testify to the con man’s hardscrabble upbringing. In France, Christophe had become an actual folk hero. Since his recent return from incarceration, he’d been treated like a true celebrity with magazine covers and invitations to red-carpet premieres—revealing a character Chris was not yet comfortable playing. Himself.
Langmann treated me to dinner that night at a restaurant overstuffed with luminaries from the Paris hoi polloi. Luc Besson swung by our table. And so many French actresses and supermodels their names merged in my jetlagged brain. Again, he suggested I consider tailoring my screenplay as something for Christophe to star in.
“You want to make an American movie,” I tried to confirm. “Which is why you flew me all the way over here to meet you and Chris.”
“Yes,” replied Langmann. “An American movie because Christophe’s story eez an American story. But eet weel still be an American story made by zee French.”
“That’s all well and good,” I continued. “But to star Chris as himself? I’d like you to show me the successful American film where the infamous character played himself in a way where it was successful, let alone believable to an audience.”
“I know eet would work in France,” he insisted.
“It doesn’t work for me,” I shrugged. “Plain and simple. It becomes Chris Rocancourt’s vanity tale of his fantasy. I don’t believe it. I don’t want to write it.”
“I trus’ Dooog,” Florent insisted. “’Eees the writer for thees movie. Let us do what we do.”
I couldn’t quite figure where Langmann was coming from. Had Christophe played him into thinking because he was the world’s greatest con man it would qualify him to be the world’s greatest actor?
“Christophe might be France’s most famous con man,” I argued. “Which might make him the world’s greatest con man actor. But once the cameras roll, who would you rather have playing Chris. Christophe Rocancourt? Or Johnny Depp?”
“Johnny Depp?” Langmann’s eyes lit with excitement. “Do you theenk we could get Johnny Depp to play Christophe?”
“Why not?” I spun. “He’s an actor who likes being the chameleon. What better part than to play the ultimate con man and chameleon?”
That was the last time Langmann ever mentioned Rocancourt playing himself. The subject was abandoned in lieu of other conflicts more natural to movie making. Such as money, trust, lies, friendship, and even more money. But wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.
For the next three afternoons and one evening, I met with Christophe and listened to his explanations-slash-tales about life in Los Angeles and New York, his scams, the methods by which he chose his marks, the characters populating his pretend universe, and the women—one Playmate or supermodel after the other, on his arm, in his bed, bearing his children, one even marrying him after he’d fleeced her for all her savings.
All the while, I’m making timelines, having him retell events, and doing what I can to strip away at his brilliant bullshit in order to get to the earth of who Chris really was… or is. Mind you, I was neither interrogating nor hoping to retry his crimes on film—or more accurately—the screenplay for which I hadn’t yet even been engaged to write.
“Tell me about the mob again,” I pressed Chris on our last afternoon together.
“I tol’ you,” Chris replied, annoyed. “Eet was jus’ a fantasy of the F.B.I. They interrogated me for days. Convinced I have zee mob connection. But I never. I don’t even like Italians.”
“Well, I’m not at all convinced you weren’t connected,” I pushed on. “L.A. New York. Honk Kong. Anyone with half-a-brain who considers the number and size of the scores you took down—without retaliation no less… Kinda hard to believe you weren’t paying for protection. And don’t tell me it was gang bangers from South Central doing security for you. That shit defies all laws of physics.”
Chris showed that charming grin of his, all while his stare tried to pin me to the chair.
Had I finally cornered Chris? Me, the shallow word-stringer from Lalaland best known for writing silly action flicks?
Next week, Part 3 of CON JOB.
- Read more articles by Doug Richardson
- 11 Ways to Develop Your Screenwriting Hustle
- Get Your FREE Webinar with Doug Richardson Discussing Structure!
Get Doug's volume of Hollywood war stories in his new book
The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood's Screenwriting Trenches