I’m a big Michael Douglas fan. Have been since I was a boy and he was playing Karl Malden’s sidekick in The Streets of San Francisco. So I thought it was pretty cool when my agent asked if I’d be interested in writing a movie for his company. At the time, Michael Douglas was producing as well as acting, having already scored an Oscar for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and turned sprocket holes into piles of greenbacks with Romancing the Stone and Jewel of the Nile.
Michael Douglas’ current producing partner was Steve Reuther, a silver-haired raconteur with plenty of his own success to brag about: Dirty Dancing, Pretty Woman, and Face/Off. Together they were a potent duo, housed in an equally impressive suite of offices on the Sony/Columbia lot. I recall the stairs leading up to the “producers’ sanctum” were flanked by a conga-line of framed movie one-sheets, trumpeting the duo’s successes with every step heavenward.
Steve greeted me with an open hand and a face tanned to desert perfection. He apologized that Michael couldn’t join us, muttering something about an out of town doctor’s visit. I didn’t mind, figuring the famed actor-slash-producer was first and foremost a movie star. Meaning the earth and its mortal inhabitants revolved around him and he hadn’t time for general sit-downs with lowly writers.
So, Steve and I sat, talked about the usual movies in the works, likes and annoyances about the present state of film, eventually turning the corner to discuss why I’d been invited to make the trek from the Valley to Culver City.
“Remember a picture called Flatliners?” asked Steve. “Was out a few years back.”
Sure I did. Keifer Sutherland. Julia Roberts. Oliver Platt as comic relief. They played med students who’d gotten caught up in near death experiments, resulting in strange and spooky side effects. Box office was moderate. I remember feeling it was a strong idea not fully realized.
“We’re making a sequel,” he said.
Really? I was surprised. Medium returns at the ticket booth usually didn’t warrant a movie part deux.
“Box office wasn’t bad,” answered Steve before I even asked the question. “But the video was huge. Columbia figures another chapter could go large.”
I had no reason to doubt that kind of wisdom. I’m just a writer. Not a studio bean counter. I did, though, have a pretty simple logistical question.
“So Keifer and Julia?” I asked. “They’ll come back for part two?”
Where it could’ve been argued that Keifer Sutherland’s career hadn’t gotten much wind in its sails (this was before 24), Julia Roberts had since blown up into one of the biggest actresses on the planet. I couldn’t see her returning for a second bite at Flatliners.
“They’ve both said no to a sequel,” said Steve. “Me, Michael, and the studio are thinking we carry on with Oliver Platt and a new cast.”
The gears in my brain seized. Sequel to quasi-box office success without the original two stars? Somewhere between puberty and the Rodney King beating I must’ve forgotten how to count. Because I couldn’t figure how this math problem was going to add up to anything more than another solid script that I’d never get off the launch pad.
That said, I humored my host, brainstormed a couple of ideas that might defy Newton’s Law of Successful Movie Sequels, then bid my adieu with this final thought:
“Thanks, man. But I still don’t see a movie I wanna do without Keifer or Julia.”
And that should’ve been the end to this tale. But no.
Three days later, the showbiz trade paper Daily Variety trumpeted Columbia Pictures announcement that they’d be making a sequel to Flatliners. And the writer attached to pen the second installment? Yup. Yours truly. El Dougo of Die Harder.
Whatever, I figured. It wasn’t the first time Variety had been wrong. I’d long stopped bitching to and about the daily trades once I’d discovered they were little more than error prone publicity rags.
I did call Steve Reuther in order to make certain we hadn’t parted with a misunderstanding. Steve kindly apologized, laying the blame on some faceless studio PR flak making less than minimum wage. The end.
Zip forward a few years. It must’ve been a slow news month because the headlines were all about the LAPD sensational bust of a ring of high-priced call girls. At the center of the scandal was a very young madam named Heidi Fleiss. And her client list was a rumored who’s who of Hollywood power players. For weeks, it seemed, there were daily leaks. Tales of a black book with names that made Hollywood husbands nervous and divorce attorneys drool with anticipation. Eventually, Charlie Sheen, among other name actors, was leaked by prosecutors as one of Heidi’s favored clients. Then came the names of businessmen, movie directors, and studio executives, and one screenwriter. Me.
My phone started ringing. At first, I thought it was a joke. Or an error. After all, mine’s a pretty common name. There was even a well-known banana farmer up in Ventura who shared my moniker. Anyway, those who knew me could instantly see any association I’d have with a prostitution ring was utter bunk. As for those who didn’t know me, I couldn’t have cared less.
Then the Los Angeles Times called. The journalist had barely introduced himself when I told him it was all a load of crap. I was nanoseconds from hanging up when the writer asked the following question:
“Are you the Doug Richardson that was assigned to write Flatliners 2 for Columbia Pictures?” asked the reporter.
“I had a meeting on it,” I said. “One meeting. I said, ‘no thank you.’ Variety screwed up and printed that I was attached. It was all an error.”
“So you never wrote Flatliners 2.”
“Not a word. And what does a script I never wrote have to do with high-priced hookers?”
The reporter went on to tell me that upon investigating the money trail from Heidi Fleiss to the movie business, the LAPD had uncovered that Columbia Pictures had been paying for prostitutes with dollars earmarked for the development of a Flatliners 2 screenplay. Of course, a screenplay needs a screenwriter and the only word-jockey publicly associated with the project was you know who.
I busted out laughing. It was as if the connecting of a mystery and a punch line sent an electric signal to my funny bone. The poor reporter at the other end of the phone line must’ve thought I suffered from some kind of hysterical laughing disorder.
More curious queries followed. The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly, and reams of other podunk posts found me, listened to my brief tale, and moved on to the next sleazy crumb.
Then my agent called.
“You realize,” my agent said, “That while the whole town is ducking for cover, hoping like hell none of this Heidi shit sticks to them, you’re the only one being quoted on the record.”
“So should I be worried?”
“I haven’t said anything out of school,” I assured him. “I don’t know Heidi. I don’t know her girls. And if anyone I know are her former clients, I have zero knowledge.”
“So, what are you telling the news people?”
“That it’s a non-story. That showbiz is chock-full-of powerful men with too much money, and beautiful women willing to sell their bodies to get ahead. Put the two groups together and what do you get? Transactional sex. Big whoop.”
“Imagine if you’d said yes.”
“Yes to what?”
“Writing Flatliners 2.”
“Then I’d have Heidi Fleiss to blame for another of my movies not getting made.”
My agent laughed. And I still am.
In the end, Heidi Fleiss spent 3 years in the federal pokey for income tax evasion. Her public notoriety finally peaked when Sopranos star Jamie Lynn Sigler eventually portrayed the young madame in made for TV movie. According to Wikipedia, in 2007 she opened a laundromat called Dirty Laundry in Pahrump, Nevada’s legal brothel community.
And Steve Reuther? A couple of years back I bumped into a mutual friend who’d informed me Steve’s string of luck and hit movies had run out, leaving him nearly destitute and living in a friend’s guest house. He died of cancer in 2010.
As for me, strangely enough, I’m still here.
Doug's thriller, "The Safety Expert," is available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.