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 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.]