The Other White Meat (Part III)

[Part I told the story of the origins of my screenplay Hell For Breakfast, and Part 2 detailed how it found its way to New Zealand.]

Anytime some novice screenwriter brags they just had a screenplay optioned, they expose the fact they are novices.  Fact is screenplays get optioned all the time; how many of those screenplays get produced is another story.  Someone, and I can’t remember who (so I’ll just claim it for myself), once described an option as being a casual first date, where a produced film is like twenty years of marriage; there’s no comparing the two.  I’ve had three screenplays optioned in the last 16 years.  To date only one has been produced.  This is the final chapter in that story.

Where we last left off, Joe and I had been fired off of Hell For Breakfast, a screenplay we drafted in 1996 (after coming up with the idea sometime late in 1994).  Actually, let’s back this up a bit.

The Gibson Group, the NZ-based production company that had optioned Hell For Breakfast, had an initial option period of two years, with two renewal periods of one year each.  The first option commenced in summer of 2003, and expired in 2005.  They renewed, and that second option expired in 2006.  They renewed a third and final time, and that option was due to expire in summer 2007.  After that third option period was up, the screenplay reverted back to Joe and myself.  We figured since it had been four years and the movie was no further along, the producers would just cut their losses, let it lapse and we’d take it back.

The only way it wouldn’t revert, was if the producers triggered what is known as a “buyout” clause in our contract.  Meaning, if they paid us the balance of script fees still owed (the “purchase” price), they owned the screenplay.  And again, given it had been four years since they’d optioned the screenplay and were no closer to filming it, we figured they’d just let it go.

If you’ve been following along, you know what happened next.  They didn’t let it go; they faxed us copies of the paperwork indicating they were triggering the buyout clause.  They wired payment to our respective bank accounts, and owned Hell For Breakfast.  And since it was now their script and not our script, our services were no longer required. We had, in essence, been fired off our own movie.

Not “fired” but “rewritten” which is industry speak for when they fire the writer.

Now, this wasn’t the first time Joe and I were “removed” from a film either. We were “removed” from that other one; the “Big Job” we were working on at the same time we were in rewrites on H4B.  I was rewritten pretty heavily on Stonehenge Apocalypse (easy way to tell; everything non-suck was me, the rest was the other guy). It’s pretty common in a business where the attitude is “better to hire a new writer than have the old one(s) keep working on it, which means we have to renegotiate their contract, and it’s easier and cheaper to hire someone else.” Fresh writers mean fresh ideas (and presumably, fresh meat).

So like I said, it happened before, and has happened since.  The difference in this case was Hell For Breakfast was our story, our characters, our ideas. It existed solely because 13 years before, Joe came to me with an idea for a movie about criminals and cannibals and we wrote that movie. It was our movie once, but now it was someone else’s.  And we weren’t happy about it.

Now this is right around the point where you point out that we did sign a contract, and we did cash the checks.  And we did; of course we did.  You would do the same.  That’s the nature of the film business.  And if we were only in this business for the money we would have been happy to take the money and bolt.  But we weren’t in it for just the money.  I think to have longevity in this business, to love this job, it can’t be about the money.  It has to be about you creating something unique and different and personal.  If it’s only about dollars and cents, you’re in it for the wrong reasons because there are much better ways to earn a living.

So yeah, at the time, I was pissed, and I’m sure Joe was too.

But over time and on reflection I came to realize that what happened was probably for the best.  I don’t know if there’s an “industry” term for it, but for me there’s always a point on any project, whether one you’ve initiated yourself, or one that’s a hired job, where you deliver The Draft, namely the one that represents the best work you’ll ever do on it.  The one that hits every story beat and character moment, and if it were filmed as i,s would make for an amazing movie.

We had reached that point on H4B, at least to our satisfaction, and we agreed even before we were replaced, that any subsequent revisions would be to increasingly diminished returns. So, when informed our services were no longer required, it was almost a relief.

So, we took the checks and cashed them and moved on.  By that point I was working on Stonehenge Apocalypse and Mixtape, and Joe had become a new dad, deciding to take time off to focus on raising his awesome daughter, while working on his personal projects [one of which, his writing-directing debut Devil’s Mile, looks incredible].  In a way I was glad the H4B chapter of my life was over.  It felt like old news. I no longer had an emotional connection to it.  It felt like something written by a completely different person.  Someone just learning the craft, making mistakes no professionals would make, and finding that those mistakes made the script different and weird and something that attracted people to it in the first place.

Over the next four years H4B (as I was still calling it) receded from memory.  Every so often I’d get an update on its progress, but by then I was busy on other projects.  I figured it would either go or it wouldn’t, but I figured if/when it happened it would at the precise moment I was looking the other way.

Jump-cut to May 2011, and I get an email from the producers telling us that Fresh Meat/H4B is filming in Autumn.  They need to sort out the credit situation, which we do after some back and forth, and on November 17, 2011, FM/H4B went before cameras.   As of this writing the film is pretty much done, with it premiering at the Hawaii International Film Festival on October 15, and hitting NZ cinemas on October 25th.

I wish the makers of Fresh Meat every success in the world.  I want it to become the biggets grossing New Zealand film of all time. I want it to be one of those rare non-US films that makes a big splash in the US market. I want it to become a cult classic.  But there’s always going to be a part of me that wishes we’d made that 16mm D.I.Y. movie in that house in Toronto all those years ago.  It would have been crude and amateurish, the acting would have been dodgy, the SFX would have been chezy, and the boom would have dropped into more shots than not, but it would have been ours.  But I’m okay with Fresh Meat belonging to someone else, and when it’s released on October 25th , it’ll belong to everyone, which is kind of the point.  It doesn’t become art until someone sees it, and when they do you can’t call it yours anymore.  And if having a screenplay survive the option and development process to become an actual movie is the worst thing that happens to me this year, I really can’t complain.  As I said; most optioned screenplays gather dust on the shelf and never see the inside of a theater.  Hell For Breakfast was one of those lucky few to escape that fate.

If you’re intertested in following future developments on Fresh Meat, you’ll find the official website here, and the FB page here, and they’re on Twitter as well.

If there’s any take-away from the experience, it’s this; when you’re there at your desk toiling away, after work or before leaving for work if you still hold a day job, you never know when a project is going to see the light of day, be it published, projected or televised.  The journey of H4B to Fresh Meat took 16 years, from the moment we finished the first draft, to its release. But the take-away is that you never know how long something is going to take to come to fruition.  RoboCop was written and filmed over 18 months, from January 99 to June 2000.  I wrote Stonehenge Apocalypse in 2008, it filmed in 2009 and was released in 2010.  Mixtape was conceived in October 2008, and issue #1 arrived in stores in April 2012. So you can see the earlier point – that in the movie biz, things move glacially when they’re not moving at a sprint – well illustrated.

You never know when something’s going to click, and you never know just how close you are to seeing that dream – whatever it may be — fulfilled. That’s the best part of it; who wants to go through life knowing how everything is going to turn out anyway?

[Oh, and if anyone in Hollywood snatches up the North American remake rights to FRESH MEAT and is looking for writers to adapt it, give me and Joe a call.  We have a script for it that would be PERFECT.]

 

The Other White Meat (Part II)

[In Part 1, I talked about my screenplay Hell For Breakfast, being released in New Zealand this October under the title Fresh Meat.]

Insanity is often defined as doing the same thing multiple times with the expectation of getting a different result.  Previously I detailed the origins of Hell For Breakfast, a screenplay I co-authored with Joe O’Brien. It was written as a low-budget calling card exercise with the idea of filming it ourselves. When the screenplay actually turned out to be good, Hollywood (North) came calling, and we optioned “H4B” out.  It came this close to getting off the ground with some pretty big names aboard, before it crashed back down to earth.  By then we had achieved some renown with RoboCop: Prime Directives, had landed an agent and a manager and were officially in “the biz”.  We decided to rewrite H4B with the idea of using our newfound cred to launch it with us calling the shots, same as before.

At least that was the plan …

In September 2002 I was in Ottawa on personal business, and me being me, asked my agent to see if there was anybody I could meet with.  Turns out there was opportunity, in the form of a film and TV producer who had read a vampire script I had written and wanted to meet.  He showed me around his studio, talked about movies, the usual, and finally got down to brass tacks.  He was in the process of signing a co-pro deal with a company in NZ and they were looking for a low-mid budget genre film to produce.  Turns out these Kiwis had some success with a horror film a few years prior and were interested in something along those lines.

Did I have anything that fit the bill?

Well … yeah, I did, I admitted, and when he asked what the pitch was, I paused.  Of course the script in question was H4B – but Joe and I were going to make that ourselves, right?  But as he was a producer with resources and I wasn’t, I figured, “what the hell,” and pitched it anyway, deciding it probably wouldn’t be his cuppa tea, but maybe with his resources and our intent, we could make the movie happen the way Joe and I wanted it to.

Turns out I was wrong; he loved the concept and the pitch – it had all the elements they were looking for.  He asked to see a copy of the script, which I promised to send when I got back home.  On returning I buzzed Joe, told him what the producer told me, and asked what we should do.

“Send it to him” said Joe. “We’ll see what happens.”

So we sent it and he read it and loved it, and with our permission (and us still interested to see what happened) forwarded it to NZ.  They in turn read it and loved it, and wanted our script to be their genre piece … assuming we wanted to play ball.

[I should add the above took place over six months.  Things in the film biz move glacially slow when they’re not running at full throttle, and vice versa.  Just how glacial the experience would be was yet to be discovered.]

So again we had a decision before us; these producers were willing to option the script and put us to work on rewrites, which meant money in the pocket and another project in development, both of which were positives.  The negative was it was a script we still wanted to film ourselves would once more be out of our hands.  We discussed it with our agent and manager among ourselves. Option A was to pass and try to get it off the ground ourselves (despite our still having limited resources to do so).  Option B was to option it out and see what happened.

We went with B.

Frankly it made more sense to us at the time; a project in active development gave us “heat”, which would only help our other projects along.  But the other reason was we’d landed a HUGE writing assignment at the same time, and knew it would be a good couple years before we were freed of that obligation anyway, so why not send H4B out into the world again and see if the timing was right to see it become a reality?

[Oh, that Big Project never happened in the end — at least not with our names in the credits. But that’s another story]

Anyway, that was the plan.  And over the next two years, we worked, constantly.  We did round after round of rewrites, met with the charming NZ producer on a swing through Toronto, and got the script to the point where we all (or at least the writers) felt we had finally found the right balance of horror and suspense and black, black comedy.  It looked like we were ready to roll full steam ahead into production, and expected an announcement to be made shorty thereafter.

We waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  For the longest time we didn’t hear anything about it.  2003 became 2005 which became 2006 and 2007 and nothing was happening.  Until something did happen;

Joe and I were fired off our own movie.

That story, and the thrilling conclusion of the saga, in Part 3

 

T.R.U.E.

Some background.

Last year I was approached by a Fanzine in Spain about talking a little about RoboCop: Prime Directives. Turns out Robo was a big deal in Europe.  So I talked to writer/artist David Buceta about movies and comic books, and figured that was that.

A few months later David contacted me again, to ask if I might be interested in writing a brief 2-page story for the final issue of their ‘zine, that he would illustrate.  It could be anything I wanted.

So I though about it, and decided “sure, why not?”  Then I spent the next month and a half trying to decide what I would right.  It was embarassing, frankly; mister big-shot professional writer stuck on two measly pages.

But, as it turns out I had a story; I just had to wait for it to happen to me.

And so, without futher ado …

The Other White Meat

If you look closely at the bottom left of this poster (third line of credits from the bottom) for the upcoming NZ horror comedy FRESH MEAT, you should just be able to make out the name of yours truly under “Story by”. That’s because I wrote this movie.  Sort of.

Story was mine, along with Joseph O’Brien. Sixteen years ago we wrote a screenplay called “Hell For Breakfast” that we intended to film by ourselves in the house I was renting in Toronto. We were going to shoot it in gritty black and white, cast a bunch of actor friends in it, and basically have an ultra low-budget horror film to shop around and show as an example of what we could do if people gave us actual money.

[Remember this was back in a period when it wasn’t unheard of for someone with some 16mm film stock and an idea could make a name for themselves — see Robert Rodriguez with EL MARIACHI, and THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT as the most obvious examples.]

HELL FOR BREAKFAST (or “H4B” as we came to call it) was a gritty crime thriller mashed together with a splatter film. The logline: a band of ruthless criminals on the run take a seemingly normal suburban family hostage, only to learn that it’s the family they need to worry about.  It was THE DESPERATE HOURS meets TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.  It was the second feature length screenplay I wrote, and the first written with a collaborator.

Anyway we wrote HELL FOR BREAKFAST, completing the first draft over Labor Day Weekend 1996. While everyone else was enjoying BBQ’s and fireworks, we were holed up at Joe’s office, compiling our longhand rough work into a master document, and rewriting, polishing, cutting and splicing, until we finally typed The End.

H4B was done.  We were proud of it, and began showing it to people, to get their feedback but also to hopefully raise some money and interest to get a film rolling.

And then a funny thing happened.

People actually read the script.  People liked it.

No, they loved it, and all of a sudden there was what we in the biz call “heat”, on it and on us. It turned out our no-budget DIY screenplay was actually really good. Soon enough people were calling us up and asking if it was “available”, meaning were we interested in optioning it to them under the guise of producing it as an actual movie, not a movie made by a bunch of idiot 20-somethings. And we were seduced by the idea of having actual professionals make our movie.

We were young. Young and stupid. But you can forgive the young for being stupid. When you’re a struggling filmmaker, you want someone to tap you on the shoulder, tell you you’re a great writer and say “we want to make this movie.”  You don’t want to struggle forever, or even another week, month or year.  Add the fact you’re working a shit day job. An opportunity comes along to leave that day job for your dream job, the temptation multiplies.

So we optioned it out. This seemed like a good idea at the time, because it was a good idea. Post-college we didn’t have any money to make a movie, so when people came around with the money and interest, we looked at our minimum wage jobs and minimum wage paychecks and saw an opportunity to leave both behind. Having a movie in development meant people would start taking us seriously, we thought. If someone somewhere put money on the table because of us and our work, it tells everyone else that we were good enough to be paid to do what we do.  It would make everything easier, at least we thought it would..

HELL FOR BREAKFAST, or “H4B” as we came to call it, almost went to production in 1997, with a cast that at one point included Judge Reinhold, Sheila McCarthy, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen, William Forsythe, Balthazar Getty and the late Corey Haim.  We were doing table reads with actors – including a very strange weekend with Judge and Corey — rewriting like crazy and waiting for the moment the movie went into production and we could quit our day jobs.

Of course that never happened, because in the film business what goes up inevitably crashes down.  Financing got delayed, people got tired of waiting and dropped out, and as quick as things looked to be finally coming together they fell apart.  The project died on the table and when the option rights lapsed a year or so they released the body bacj to us for burial.

There was still a happy ending to this part of the story – we were hired on the strength of H4B to write ROBOCOP: PRIME DIRECTIVES in ’99 and neither of us has had to work a day job ever since.  H4B had served its purpose with that hire, and we figured after our duties on Robo were completed, we’d return to the world of H4B to remove the “changes” thrust upon us by the previous rights holders, and use our new found RoboCred to get it off the ground again with us calling the shots.

And then someone else read it …

THAT story in Part 2