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Behind the Lines with DR: Producers Gone Wild

It’s been wisely coined nobody ever endeavors to make a bad movie. It’s also been said as much or more effort goes into making a bad movie as does a good movie. Not long ago, I wrote a screen adaptation of Carsten Stroud’s novel Black Water Transit. To this day it remains one of the best screenplays I’ve ever written. In Hollywood-development-speak, it’s a sort of Traffic meets Crash. Despite the heat on the script, because of its dark crime genre, it seemed destined for independent financing. The studio put the project in turnaround (movie parlance for when they allow the producers to shop it to other buyers). The property eventually landed at an indie company with big money backing.

A side note. Most business people in the indie world are obsessed with the title of producer. The sound of calling oneself a producer is probably easier on the ears of the actress he’s trying to bed. Despite serving no actual producer function on a picture, since they control a portion of the cash, a particular tax break, or represent a foreign territory with funding guarantees, a producer credit is their exalted expectation. In motion picture history never had so many who contributed so little demanded credit equal to that of the movie’s actual producer.


Back to subject du jour. Before we’d rolled a foot of film on Black Water Transit, a picture property that started with only one producer, we were already over-bloated with eight producers. And we weren’t finished yet.

Fast forward through two years, a freight train of cast changes, a super-hot commercial-shooter-slash first-time-movie-director, the shifting of filming locales from New York to Los Angeles back to New York and finally to New Orleans, the bankruptcy of the indie-company, the addition of even more damned producers, and last but not least, my eventual dismissal as sole writer. But hell. At that point? Why not sack the writer? The big-shot commercial director’s ego needed some semi-plausible denial for his constant casting snafus. Truthfully? I wasn’t that unhappy to hit the exit. I’d grown annoyed with the late night conversations, placating the insecure boob with crap dialogue like “Oh, no. It’s not you. You’re awesome. You’re gonna direct a great movie.”

Three months later I get a phone call from Black Water Transit producer number… I forget. Was it fifteen?

“Remember me?” he asked seconds after he repeated his name.

“Of course I remember.” My tone was polite. But I recalled this guy too well from my last movie. He worked for the company financing the picture. His title of “Executive in Charge of Production” was astonishing to many on the picture because of his considerable lack of production knowledge. Go figure.

As the new-and-improved producer of Black Water Transit, he explained the following: that the financing honchos behind the defunct indie company had decided to take over the production chores. That they were nine million in the hole without having shot a frame of film. Oh. And they’d just fired the hot-shot commercial director eight weeks shy of the start of principal photography and the entire crew was in New Orleans, awaiting new marching orders.

“Please come back on board,” the producer pleaded. “We’re going back to your original script. We just need to get you and our new director on the same page.

You’ve heard of music to a writer’s ears? This was an Italian aria piped-in from heaven. Writers never, ever get this good of news. Maybe this former-production-executive-turned-producer was a brighter bulb than my initial verdict.

“Who’s the new director,” I asked.

“Tony Kaye,” he said.

“You’re kidding me, right?”

“Not at all. He made my favorite movie of all time.”

American History X,” I confirmed. “That Tony Kaye?”

“I know he’s got a bit of a reputation.”

“Everybody’s got a rep,” I said. “This guy’s certifiable.”

“Have you met him?”

“No,” I conceded. “And the movie was great. But he didn’t cut the movie. He was fired. I worked with a few of the people from that movie. I’ve heard plenty.”

Rewind to 1998. New Line Cinema eventually exercised their editorial rights and brought in the movie’s uber-intelligent star, Edward Norton, to assist in a third and final re-cutting of America History X. It’s widely understood that it’s Edward’s final product that was eventually released into theaters. In protest, Tony Kaye took out a double-wide, full page ad in Variety to air his grievances. And if that wasn’t sufficient enough self-mutilation, Tony-the-Genius sued both New Line and the Director’s Guild of America for not allowing him to replace his own sullied name on the film with a nom de plume of “Humpty Dumpty.”

Yeah. That Tony Kaye.

But I’m the writer. It’s not my job to reject. It’s my job to turn dung into designer denim. I agreed to meet the new director. After all, the company’d fired the last guy. They were wisely returning to my original script.

They needed me.

The next morning, I was seated across a very corporate conference table from the new producer and two senior executives representing the financing consortium. They thanked me for being so agreeable, lauded my skills as a writer, then proceeded to bitch about the pickle they’d created for themselves. From of a thirty-five million dollar budget they’d already flushed nine big ones. And Samuel Jackson’s agent was holding them to the pay-or-play clause in his contract.

I was supposed to feel sorry for them. Why not? So I pretended that I did. Then before they brought in Tony Kaye, they asked me if there was anything I could possibly accomplish to return Bruce Willis to the ensemble role of Earl Pike.

“Move the picture back to New York,” I told them. That had been Bruce’s last demand on the matter. He wanted to play “Earl Pike, in the Plaza Hotel, in New York Mother F^*%ing City.”

At last Tony Kaye was invited in. He was cadaver-thin with a freshly shaved head, carrying multiple drafts of my screenplay atop a fat stack of notes. After the usual jibber about England and whatnot, we settled in to talking about Tony’s vision for the movie. I don’t really have the words to describe the following. But I can best describe it as me the writer, teeing up Tony Kaye for two hours of crazy. He was incoherent on the subject of cinematic storytelling, clueless about the movie I’d written, and obsessed with sound of African drums. Time flew by like a wounded pigeon. Tony and I shook hands, I bid him goodbye and good luck, and requested a moment with the new producer in his office.

“I’ve never uttered this before to anybody in our business. Ever…” is how I began my short speech. “… But are you OUT OF YOUR MOTHER F&*&ING MIND?”

“Really?” asked the producer. He appeared genuinely surprised.

“You’re about to commit how many millions of dollars to this lunatic? Did you hear him? All because his name is on a movie that you liked?”

“I love that movie,” reminded the producer.

“Here’s my advice. Go back to the last director. You know? The guy you fired? The same guy who fired me? Get on your knees and beg him to come back on the movie. Because that bozo will at least shoot the script and you’ll have something coherent to release.”

This is the sad part where the producer asked me if I’d agree to step in and direct the movie. That should’ve been a tempting offer. But the offer was as slipshod and moronically executed as everything else I’d witnessed that morning. A first-time director needs the support of professionals, not a posse of panicked clowns leaking gobs of cash.

If I’d been a bank robber I would’ve dynamited the vault and retired to an extradition-free country.

Instead, I said no thanks to both offers and left the meeting with this unsolicited advice: If they proceeded with Tony Kaye as director, they deserve everything that follows.

I’ve yet to see the finished product. Very few have. In one press clipping the owner of the company described the film as “unreleasable.” A few others involved have told me it’s “unwatchable” and “a God-awful mess.” For the sake of the inevitable credit arbitration, I had the unfortunate chance to get a look at Tony’s final shooting script. After, I double-dog-dared friends and colleagues to read it and tell me it read as if it was writtenon Peruvian hallucinogens. Though I succeeded in convincing the WGA arbiters to award me no writing credit, I failed in my argument that the blame – err – credit should be assigned to the director. Instead, the credit went to the last writer to the party, Matthew Chapman.

Because the finance company went belly up, the finished picture is stuck in the Never Never Land of receivership. Not too long ago, I was informed by an associate that Tony Kaye was still tinkering with the movie. That recently, on his own dime, he’d flown to Africa to record lots and lots of drums.