It’s said that hindsight is 20/20. Not sure about that as an absolute. This one still eats at me.
I’d just wrapped Bad Boys on which I’d spent a sweaty summer in Miami. Now, don’t get me wrong. I hardly want to start off by complaining about the weather. I’d nearly become as accustomed to three shirt changes a day as I had to Michael Bay finding another car or building he wanted to attach pyrotechnics to just so he could hit the detonate button. But I’m a seventh generation Southern Californian. Before the revolution, my family used to own a big chunk of Baja California. Seriously. I dare you to stick a strand of my DNA under a microscope. If you look hard enough you can make out a one-man taco stand at the southwest corner of Dry Heat and Desert Highway.
I’d barely slipped back into my Los Angeles lifestyle when my CAA agent called with a golden offer. Another production rewrite. This one was from the good folks at Disney. The movie was called Operation Dumbo Drop.
Disney? Dumbo? Really?
“I know it sounds like a cartoon,” my agent said. “But it takes place in Vietnam. Based on a true story. Director is another client. Australian guy. Simon Wincer. You know him?”
“Quigley Down Under, right?”
“And Free Willy. But yeah. That’s our guy. Danny Glover and Ray Liotta are both pay-or-play.”
“Sure,” I said. “Send it over. I’ll read it.”
“Read it tonight. This is a firm offer. They need to know yes or no first thing in the morning.”
“What’s the offer?” I asked, curious how truly firm Disney was.
“Thirteen weeks. I got ’em to agree to a hundred grand per. That’s one point three million dollars. Guaranteed.”
Gulp. That was a fat stack of green being dangled in front of me. I’d hopped onto Bad Boys for the paycheck. I had been halfway through my first novel and was looking for some padding to get me through to the end. For the kind of dough Disney was serving up, I could buy a warehouse of cushion.
The script arrived within the hour. I read it once, made my initial notes, then read it again before turning the light out. I woke, revisited my scrawls, and felt pretty sanguine about what the movie needed.
I phoned my agent.
“Read it twice,” I began. “I see why they need help.”
“Yeah. Vietnam,” I said. “The story, if it really happened, is wonderfully absurd.”
The true tale of Operation Dumbo Drop involved a pair of Green Berets who were tasked with delivering an elephant to a remote Vietnamese village. The inhabitants would monitor the enemy activity of the Viet Cong in return.
“My problem is that it doesn’t feel at all dangerous,” I said. “Vietnam was a scary place and I don’t feel the script respects that. The movie needs a bit more edge to feel authentic.”
“Oh…” said my agent, his voice slightly deflated. “My impression is that the studio thinks the movie should be funnier.”
“Funnier?” I repeated, wondering if I’d heard him correctly.
“Yeah. A lot funnier.”
“Vietnam isn’t funny.”
“It was funny in Good Morning, Vietnam.”
“No. Vietnam was never funny in that movie. Robin Williams was funny because he played a character whose job it was to be funny.”
“Okay,” he said. “I see your point. Let me have another conversation with the studio.”
Fifteen minutes later, we resumed the conversation.
“Okay,” said my agent. “The studio wants the movie to be funny. Thinks the script needs to be funnier. And they’re offering it to you because they’ve heard you made Bad Boys funnier.”
“Maybe I did. But I had Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.”
“So they’re funny. It’s one thing writing for people who are funny. It’s another——”
“C’mon. Danny Glover and Ray Liotta can be funny.”
“Danny Glover was funny in Lethal Weapon.”
“In Lethal Weapon he was straight man to Mel Gibson.”
“At least that’s something.”
“Okay. So in this Dumbo thing, let’s say Danny Glover plays straight man to Ray Liotta,” I argued. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big Ray Liotta fan. Great actor. But I can pretty much bet you your commission that he’s not funny.”
“Right,” said my agent. “Lemme get back to you.”
Ten minutes later, we’re on the phone again. I hadn’t talked to my agent this often since he’d tried to convince me to drive up to Santa Barbara and co-write Under Siege 2 with Hapkido-instructor-turned-megalomaniacal-movie-star-Steven Seagal. Sure, I’d sniffed the sack of cash I’d been teased with. But I’d already heard enough quality intel about the actor. Inside the movie ropes, Seagal had already become wellknown for carrying a 9th degree black belt in Tai Kwan Psycho.
“Talked to the studio,” said my agent. “Just so you know, they don’t have any illusions about Glover or Liotta being funny.”
“Okay,” I said, feeling my instincts had been nearly vindicated.
“They think the elephant will be funny.”
That thud my agent heard was me picking the phone up off the floor.
I speed-searched my entire motion picture and television memory bank. I couldn’t think of a single cinematic moment I’d ever laughed at — or with — an elephant.
“Gotta ask. Just between me and you,” I began. “Do you think elephants are funny?”
“Can’t say for sure,” he answered.
“Well, I can say for sure that I wouldn’t have the first clue how to make an elephant funny.”
“It’s a lot of money,” pressed my agent. “Go to Thailand. Do your best. Cash the check.”
“Didn’t I tell you? That’s where the production is. They’re already in prep so you’d have to stay with the movie.”
“I just got back from a summer in Miami,” I said. “Nothing I own is dry yet.”
That’s when I ran out of words. My practical brain was in a death match with my heart.
“Hundred G’s a week, Doug,” said my agent. “Twice what you got on Bad Boys.”
“But this movie will never be any good.”
“So what if it’s a dog? You won’t get the blame. Movie flames out it’ll be pegged on the studio and the director.”
“Poor Simon Wincer,” I said out loud.
“I thought you didn’t know him,” said my agent.
“I don’t. But I’ve got half a mind to call him and suggest he runs for the nearest pub, drinks himself into a stupor, then quits.”
“He’s not gonna quit.”
“The movie’s gonna bomb. Maybe somebody should inform him.”
“It’s not gonna be me.”
“So gimme his number.” I was only half joking.
“I don’t think so.”
“Thought you wanted me to talk to him.”
“Not anymore. I can tell you’re not feeling it. Lemme call the studio and tell ’em you’re a pass.”
“A crap-load of money I’m turning down,” I said, a hint of regret bleeding into my voice.
“Not too late,” he said. “I can still agree to the offer.
“Ugh,” I said. “Thailand.”
To date, I’m still not entirely certain why I declined. I’d like to think that it was on the simple principal of whether I could deliver something worthy of all the scratch I was being offered. That my concern was more for the quality of my self worth rather than on the quantity of my net worth.
Or maybe it was because I just didn’t want to spend three months in subtropical Thailand.
In the end, Operation Dumbo Drop made just under twenty-five million bucks, a loser by nearly all standards. As for Simon Wincer, he nabbed his next directing gig before Dumbo even limped into theaters. It was a lucky move for him, I reckon, considering he followed Operation Dumbo Drop with The Phantom, an even bigger turd and nearly the final nail in the Aussie’s theatrical directing career.
Lord knows we talk of living a regret-free life. And there’s a huge part of me that’s relieved I didn’t accept the cash, as my instincts were right about the picture ending up in history’s stink bin. Still, I’m realist enough to know I have a pair of kids in private school, a mortgage, and retirement to manage. And I may have been caught looking a gift-elephant in the mouth.
- And You Call Yourself a Writer?
- Behind the Lines: Rewrite and the Actor, Part 2
- Get a New Story: Adjust Your Attitude About Rewrites
Tools to Help:
- The Dreaded Rewrite: Step-by-Step Instructions on Tackling a Rewrite
- Rewrite by Paul Chitlik
- Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger