Tuesday, July 8, 2008

How to Break into Movies in Only 12 Years

Time article by Christopher Buckley.



Some time ago, the Wall Street Journal reported that Tom Clancy had gone as ballistic as a Red October submarine-launched missile because the director who was turning one of Clancy's novels into a movie placed a reef in the middle of the (reefless) Chesapeake Bay for plot reasons. Thinking back on the account of this Sturm und Drang in a teacup, I thought, Dude, count your blessings. The movie version of one of my novels had just run aground again, not in the Chesapeake but somewhere in the middle of that reef and wreck-strewn seascape known as Hollywood.

It was a book called Thank You for Smoking, a satire about a Washington tobacco lobbyist and his somehow weirdly valiant efforts to convince the world that smoking isn't conclusively unhealthy. Mel Gibson, or more accurately, "Mel's people" (as we movie folks say), optioned the rights to it in 1994, even before it was published. Mel's people couldn't have been nicer. They announced with conviction, "This will be Mel's next movie." That was extremely pleasing to hear. And, indeed, I would hear it many, many times over the ensuing decade.

I watched, from very distant sidelines, as Mel and his people dithered with inconsequential projects. Two of these, a movie called Braveheart andwhat was the name of the other one?The Passion of the Christ, bombed miserably at the box office. While I felt sorry for him, I thought, Well, Old Shoe, you really have only yourself to blame. You could have been a star. You could have been a player.

Those--to use a Gibsonian film metaphor--Stations of the Cross will be familiar to anyone who has ever sold a literary property to Hollywood. The stories are legion, and they've happened to writers way more eminent than me. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the late western novelist Louis L'Amour wrote more than 100 books and that nearly 50 of them--50!--were sold to the movies. One novel that got the treatment was published under the title The Broken Gun. By the time it came out as a movie, it was called Cancel My Reservation and starred Bob Hope and Eva Marie Saint.

Ernest Hemingway was so embittered by his experiences in Hollywood that he formulated what might be called Hemingway's Rule for Dealing with the Celluloid Bastards: Drive your car up to the California state line. Take your manuscript out of the car. Make them throw the money across first. Toss them the manuscript, get back in the car and drive back east as fast as you can.

My little saga might have gone the way of most of those little sagas. But then one day, as Smoking continued to languish in the ninth circle of Hollywood-development hell as Mel and his people occupied themselves with an obscure fracas set in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, I received a call from a 24-year-old named Jason Reitman.

He beguiled me with his opening sentence: "I'm the guy they hired to f___ up your book." He had read the book, written a screenplay on spec (i.e., without financial guarantees) and sent it to Mel over the transom. Mel read the script and called Jason from his private jet--presumably flying from one bankruptcy court to another--to say it was brilliant and exactly the script he had hoped for and he would absolutely make it. And that was the last Jason Reitman ever heard from Mel.

Sometime after that, an old friend of mine called. He said, "There's this guy I know from Stanford. He was chief operating officer of something called PayPal, which was sold to eBay for $1.4 billion. Now he wants to get into moviemaking and wants to make Thank You for Smoking." I told him my absolute rule is to accept phone calls from people worth $1.4 billion who want to make my novels into movies.

David Sacks called the next day. I told him he must call Mel's people. David spent the next year and a half negotiating back the rights. I congratulated him and went back to assuming that the usual--that is, nothing--would happen.

Then one day a few months later, I got an e-mail from a Washington friend who had moved to Park City, Utah, to become a masseuse. She wrote, "Hey, great news about Aaron Eckhart!" I wrote back, "What news about Aaron Eckhart?" She said, "He's been cast in the lead in your movie." I said, "He has?"

Two days later, I got an e-mail from David: "Pigs are flying, snowballs are forming in hell. Thank You for Smoking is finally in production!"

Great news for David and Jason, but it certainly put the kibosh on my plans for a novel called Thank You for Nothing.


Brian M Logan

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