Behind the Lines with DR: The Screenwriter and the Franchise

Ever heard of a film called Billy Jack? I’m sure some of you have. Meanwhile, the rest of you are asking Billy Who?

As it often starts, my agent phoned me. Asked me if I remembered the film. I had a mild recollection. More because of what I knew about the filmmaker-slash-star of the movie. Somewhere along the line I’d read about this early 70’s film about a half-breed Vietnam vet with both deadly skills and rage issues who learns to walk the way of the peaceful warrior. I fondly remembered a scene or two where Billy Jack employed his considerable martial arts skills to kick a lot of redneck ass. The film’s production had stops and starts, beginning with American International Releasing and ending at Warner Brothers for distribution which, in turn, botched the release. The filmmaker sued to have the rights returned, then with a truck-load of prints, dog-and-ponied his picture from territory to territory, buying all the ads and theater space on his own dime. From one side of America and back again he raked in multi-millions in homemade box office with a lot of sweat equity and a ton of marketing moxie.

‘Billy Jack’

The man’s name was Tom Laughlin.

The triple-hyphenate followed Billy Jack with a few less-than-stellar sequels, The Trial of Billy Jack, The Master Gunfighter, and let’s not forget Billy Jack Goes to Washington.

“I’m sitting here with Frank Laughlin,” my agent said. “He’s Tom Laughlin’s son. You remember him. He played–”

“Billy Jack,” I finished. Like I said, I knew the story.

“Frank’s representing the franchise rights,” my agent continued, “He wants to do a reboot of the film series. Start over with the character.”

“Frank Laughlin owns the rights to Billy Jack?” I asked.

“His family still owns it. But Frank’s the one in charge of the reboot.”

“So he’s the producer?” I asked, hearing my noob-alarm sound. But hell, everybody has to start somewhere.

“He’s the rights holder,” said my agent. “Which means he’s whatever he wants to be on the film.”

I was initially disinterested. But for nostalgia’s sake I agreed to watch the DVD of the original 1971 film. The package arrived the next day via William Morris messenger. I slipped the disc into my office DVD player, blazed up a cigar, poured a scotch and did my damnedest to stay awake. Through nearly the entirety of the film’s unspooling I asked myself why or where I’d developed a positive memory for Billy Jack. The picture was atrocious. Horribly written, photographed with barbaric skill, and with acting bettered by the average high school production of The Music Man. Not just that, Billy Jack is stuffed with endless speeches featuring new age proselytizing, only occasionally interrupted by some decently staged martial arts action or a gratuitous rape scene. Lordy. Had I ever actually seen the film? Or had my memory only recalled the cool ad campaign as it rolled through my one-stoplight town?

The movie was so God-awful that any remake was guaranteed to be an improvement. Part of me wanted to pass on principle. The other part wanted to take the title and the fuzzy feelings I possessed from a film I’d only imagined to have seen, and miraculously morph it into a three-picture phenomenon. I lay in bed and imagined an original story. Updated with a post 9/11 attitude. Centered on a half-breed warrior, broken by war and left with a Hulk-like rage, who seeks to find peace through retracing his Native American bloodline. Conflict ensues. Billy Jack is reborn to righteously kick some upgraded redneck ass.

But before I turned my re-imagining of Billy Jack into a marketable screenplay, I imagined it as a graphic novel. My agency had been attempting to get me involved in the comic biz. I’d had some pretty terrific meetings with publishers and artists.

The first meeting between Frank Laughlin and myself was in my agent’s office. Billy Jack, Jr. is a burly sort with a lot of hair and a weak grip. I clocked his age at around forty years old. I laid out my battle plan. He grinned and rubbed his hands together. He thought my new take on the franchise was the perfect way to carry on his father’s legacy.

“Is your father still alive?” I asked.

“Both he and my mom,” Frank said. “But they’re not involved at all in this.”

“So you’re the new keeper of the flame?” I asked.

“I am,” said Frank. “And I love what you want to do with the franchise.”

“Just so I can be clear about everything,” I began to ask. “You control the rights. They are yours to assign or sell. Yes?”

“All mine,” said Frank.

“You’re the final word. Not your mom or dad.”

“They’re out. It’s just me.”

My agent nodded. Just to be sure, though, I made a phone call on the drive home and confirmed with my agent that he’d seen papers. He assured me Frank Laughlin was the sole gatekeeper to the rights of Billy Jack.

The plan formed like so: I would work up a verbal pitch and a rough outline for a graphic novel and, before we went to movie studios, we’d present to graphic novel publishers. New as Frank was to the biz, he was the intellectual rights holder so he’d be in the meetings and serve as “a” producer. Not “the” producer, a role that I agreed to take on. Thus, Frank and I would be partners on the Billy Jack reboot.

After about a week or two of mental gymnastics, Frank drove out to my home office and listened to my verbal pitch. He soaked it in. Appeared pleased. But something about my approach was eating at him. We argued over a few character traits. But I could tell he was wrestling with something within himself. I encouraged Frank to be frank with me.

“I love everything,” he said. “I’m just not sure.”

“Not sure about what?” I asked.

“What my dad’s gonna think.”

“Your dad?”

“Yeah.”

“I thought it was all up to you.”

“It is,” said Frank. “But I still have to tell him what I’m doing.”

“And if dad doesn’t like what you’re doing?”

“Well, the trick is to make sure he’s gonna like it before I tell him.”

“Listen. Frank,” I began slowly. “I’m here, doing all this work, preparing to take this to publishers and studios, because you assured me that you are the last word on Billy Jack.”

“I am,” said Frank. “But I still have to tell my dad what I’m doing.”

“You said he wasn’t involved.”

“He’s not. But he’s still gonna want to know.”

“That means he’s still involved.”

“Not officially.”

“I don’t care if it’s official or not. I’m moving forward on something assuming you, my partner, have the rights. If I need to seek approval from your father, then why am I here with you?”

“Because I’m the producer.”

“And so far you’ve produced what?”

“I’m going to produce Billy Jack.”

“But not without your father’s permission.”

“Of course, not. He’s my dad.”

“So your dad is still in charge?”

“Only sort of.”

“Who owns the rights?”

“My family.”

“Which means you have power of attorney to sell those rights to whomever you choose.”

“Power of attorney?” he asked. “I don’t have that.

“Which means you have no authority to sell the rights.”

“My dad put me in charge.”

It was all I could do not to push my desk over. Instead, I politely walked Frank to the gate, promised to speak at a later time, then phoned my agent. He promised to look into it.

Two hours later the phone rang.

“All straightened out,” my agent said. “Frank is indeed the official rights holder. But don’t beat him up if he needs to clear a thing or two with his father. Tom Laughlin’s old and isn’t going to be around much longer.”

“Really?” I asked. “Let me tell you what I’ve been doing for the last coupla hours.”

After sending Frank on his way, I did a quick Google of Billy Jack and Tom Laughlin. A web site called Billy Jack dot.com appeared, run and operated by – guess who? – Tom Laughlin. On the site I discovered a Billy Jack store with Billy Jack merchandise. But even more terrifying were the up-to-date links to video diary after video diary of the far-from-dead Tom Laughlin babbling on about everything from the future of the Billy Jack franchise to a laundry list of government-hatched conspiracies.

“He’s a nutcase,” I told my agent. “But not just any old nutcase. A hands-on nutcase.”

“So what?” said my agent. “Frank has the rights.”

“Says Frank. Have you seen the papers?”

“I was told it had all been vetted.”

“Right now,” I continued. “Go to the website, read a bit, click on a few videos and tell me the guy I met in your office wouldn’t be terrified to take a piss without permission from his father.”

“Okay,” he promised.

“Go there and call me after. I want to hear you tell me, your client, that you trust that Billy Jack, Jr. is the sole proprietor of Billy Jack and you can’t wait for me or any other client to be in the Billy Jack business.”

“I will,” said my agent.

As you might expect, my agent finally did his own bit of eye-opening research. He called me, apologized for putting me in the room with a ne’er do well, and moved on to another bit of prospective business, hoping like hell I’d forget about the weeks I’d wasted.

Showbiz if full of pretenders and wannabes who find that with a little bit of hustle, it’s easy to get a sit-down with agency talent. Someone who calls himself a producer can be a joker who is only tangentially associated with a script or just a scrap of intellectual property. The fellow calling himself a film director could be just some dude who claims to have a vision, might have rolled a few frames of digital media in school, shot a regional Toyota commercial, and/or received a promise from a best friend and fellow coke-head movie actor that he’d love to star in the future auteur’s debut film. And that young mogul in search of next year’s Oscar for best picture? He might be little more than a black-card toting daddy’s boy in Armani who believes that his love of all things cinema qualifies him to green light your next movie

Sounds hokey. But it’s all true. Hollywood runs on perception. If they perceive you have value, the door opens. And agents can play things so fast and loose that they’re willing to lead their clients down paths to nowhere. My guess is I’m not the last writer who sat down and had a week or two wasted by Billy Jack, Jr.

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