I’ve written screenplays for all kinds of reasons. For love. For money. I’ve written them as favors. I’ve written them in order to get attention from the right people. Because I thought a particular script might get me to the next level. Because I had something to prove. I’ve written some screenplays because nobody else was available.
But this one was different. This was a deal I took just because I fancied the idea of it.
This project had the tentative title of Hard Promises. Great title, huh? Not that it was exactly mine. I’d cribbed it from a favorite Tom Petty record of the same name. It fit well with the story I wanted to pen, based loosely on some of the real life experiences of actor William Petersen. Back then, Billy was in his movie star phase. Hot off pictures like Manhunter and To Live and Die in L.A., Billy and his business partner-slash-manager, Cindy Chvatal, were looking to up their business game by producing some vehicles for the actor to star in. We’d batted around a few ideas, but nothing had clicked.
One frozen weekend in Billy’s hometown of Chicago, somewhere between a night at his Remains Theater Group and closing a few bars, Billy told me a story he had about a former football star turned wandering lothario who discovered that his first love—and now ex-wife—is about to remarry. The comedy and crying ensues when the local legend decides to return home to steal her back in a win-at-all-costs throw-down with the groom to be. I loved the idea. It was full of dirty tricks and family drama while maintaining a light touch. The character Billy described was so competitive that he was willing to use his own daughter as a foil.
Back in L.A., we worked up a presentable tale and took it out on the road. We flogged that pitch in and out of studio gates all over Lala Land. Despite what we thought was a marketable story, not to mention Billy’s charm in the room, we batted a fat .000, striking out everywhere.
One afternoon, while hanging out with Forest Gump producer Steve Tisch, he happened to ask me what I was working on. I told him about my project with Billy and Cindy.
“I love Billy Petersen,��� said Steve. “And I think I’ve met Cindy. She seems really sharp. What’s the take?”
I pitched the story to Steve, and he flipped. Flat-out loved it from beginning to end.
“Tisch wants in,” I said to Cindy over one of our regular lunches at Junior’s Deli. Cindy, a former actress, had kept her model looks despite the appetite of a normal human. That was one of the many character qualities I adored about her. She was pure Chi-town and couldn’t understand Hollywood’s female obsession with consuming a thimble full of greens when restaurants served hot, open-faced sandwiches with gravy and mash.
“Great,” said Cindy at the Tisch news. “But what’s he gonna bring to the party?”
“Money, connections,” I said. “Plus he’s much more established than us as producers. Might make buyers take a bit more notice.”
“Great. Let him have at it.”
Steve Tisch, a man made of equal parts good humor and full intentions, may or may not have nosed around for a deal. I don’t recall much happening with Hard Promises once he’d stepped aboard. At least not until the one day when I stopped by to visit him at his Warner Brothers office.
“Don’t stand around out there. Come on in!” shouted Steve once he’d heard my voice in the reception area.
When I entered the very plain, utilitarian production suite, I discovered that Steve was in the middle of an interview with a writer from Premiere magazine. I was introduced.
“Sit. Hang out,” said Steve. As you might’ve already gathered, Steve’s style was relaxed and oh-so-very social.
“You’re in the middle of an interview,” I told him. “I’ll call you later.”
“Why call when you’re right here?” he said. “Maya doesn’t mind. Right?”
In the interest of truth, I don’t really remember the writer’s name. She was young and pretty and wore fashionable frames. So why not call her Maya?
“No,” said the writer. “I’m here to see how Steve works.”
“Does Steve work?” I joked.
Tisch laughed openly. He came from a big pile of family money and made zero apologies for it. Everybody in showbiz pretty much knew Steve sprang from the lucky sperm club. And though it didn’t matter a lick as long as he got the job done as producer, he was pretty accustomed to some friendly ribbing.
“Ever get tired of people asking why you even work?” I asked him.
“I can’t,” he said. “Not when I ask myself the same thing every day.”
“If you had a dime for every time you or somebody else asked you why you work…”
“I’d be even richer!” Steve laughed loudly before switching gears. “So Doug and I are working on a project together. It’s a sharp little comedy called Hard Promises.”
“Great title,” said Maya.
“I stole it from Tom Petty,” I admitted.
“Oh, I love that record,” she said.
“It’s based on a true story from Billy Petersen,” Steve added. “You know him. From To Live and Die in L.A.”
“Love him,” said Maya. I was beginning to believe she “loved” a lot of things.
“But nobody wants to buy it,” I blurted.
“At least not yet,” said Steve. “We’re still figuring out how to sell it.”
The interview carried on for I don’t recall how long. We joked around a lot. All while Maya furiously scribbled on her notepad. Somewhere, somehow the subject of Steve’s vintage 1966 Corvette bubbled to the surface.
“How’s it runnin’?” I asked.
“It hums,” he said. “But I probably should take better care of it.”
“What do you mean you don’t take care of it?” I asked with a slight note of incredulity.
Maybe you’re wondering why would I be so bloody concerned over one of Steve’s many cars? Keep reading.
“I should keep it parked in the garage. But I keep forgetting to put it in the garage.”
“You don’t deserve that car,” I said.
“What’s the big deal about the car?” asked Maya.
“Because I knew the car before Steve did,” I said possessively. “See, my attorney and pal, Alan Wertheimer – aka The Werth – is a closet grease monkey. Which means he restores muscle cars as a hobby. Specializes in old Corvettes. Fixes ‘em up, shows ‘em, wins lotsa ribbons, then sells ‘em.”
“So you know this car?” asked Maya.
“Pretty much watched him rebuild it,” I said. Then I continued, only slightly serious, “Sky blue metallic. Work of art. And it shouldn’t be left outside in the rain and crappy L.A. air.”
“If you knew it before I did,” said Steve, “Then you shoulda bought it.”
“I should’ve. And I regret it to this day.”
“I should sell it to you.”
“You don’t need the money. You should give it to me.”
“I’m not gonna give it to you.”
“Okay, then,” I said. “How’s this? I’ll write Hard Promises for it.”
“You’ll write the script?” asked Steve. “For my Corvette?”
“Why not?” I queried. “We’re not making a deal for it anywhere. And I wanna write it.”
Sure. I was in the moment. As well was Steve. And we were partly performing for the pretty young writer from Premiere magazine. But there was truth in the sword play. We’d been trying to sell Hard Promises as a pitch for months. I was deeply invested. And there comes a certain point when I just want to write the damned movie. So I might as well do it for an hot-ass antique muscle car.
“I’m seriously considering the offer,” said Steve.
“Say yes, and it’s a deal,” I pressed.
“I’m saying yes.”
This is where Maya busted out with a huge case of the giggles.
“I can’t believe this just happened,” she said when she finally collected herself. “You’re really gonna write a script for Steve’s car?”
“Not just Steve’s car,” I said. “A 1966 Corvette Stingray.”
I was giddy. Not only had I finally pulled the trigger on a car I’d always wanted to own. But I was green-lit to write Fade In on a story I’d been jonesing to get on paper.
When I called my attorney, I thought he’d be thrilled. He was only half-so.
“The car’s not worth a quarter of your quote,” Werth told me.
“What’s a quote really?” I said. “I wanna write the damn picture.”
“Better clean out your garage, then,” warned Werth. “Not gonna let you park it in your driveway. Somebody’s sure to steal it in that shitty neighborhood.”
For the record, I don’t live in a lousy neighborhood. Werth just enjoyed tweaking me about the night his precious El Camino was once stolen by a couple of joyriding teens while parked in front of my house.
The news wasn’t so chipper when I informed my agent of my agreement with Steve Tisch.
“How the hell am I gonna commission ten percent of a fuckin’ car?” he barked. “Gonna give me all the chrome?”
“We’ll figure it out,” I laughed.
Sadly, we never got that far. While Steve and I both charged fully and fearlessly into the deal, the fly in the ointment turned out to be my partners Billy and Cindy. They couldn’t seem to come to an agreeable arrangement on a producing partnership. Steve, who was more than happy to part with one of his cars in exchange for a finished screenplay, wasn’t going to relinquish half of his hard-earned producer’s fee to the star and his comely manager.
Over their inability to play ball, I parted ways with Billy and Cindy. They were eventually able to parlay Billy’s cache and a little Sissy Spacek star power into a movie. Not quite the picture I planned to pen. But one that was called Hard Promises. So good on them.
As for me? Let’s just say my garage remains empty.
- More Behind the Lines with Doug Richardson
- Script Angel: The Screenwriter's Survival Guide to Production
- Script Angel: The Script Development Process
Tools to Help: