Behind the Lines with DR: Truth, Terrorists, and a Turnaround Deal

By Doug Richardson

This isn’t a sequel as much as it is a companion piece to last week’s A Funny Thing About Homage, where I recalled the late great John Frankenheimer’s brief attachment to a screenplay I’d developed with producer, Gary Foster. The script was initially titled Jackals. But maybe I should add a little context first.

the-assignment-2-1Gary Foster (Sleepless in Seattle, Ghostrider), had recently gone solo, having graduated from underneath his producer father’s tutelage to a full-fledged studio deal and an order to “bring us movies.” In an effort to add to his baby slate of development, Gary invited me to partner as a producer on selected projects in hopes I’d bring some added creative value. Soon, I was slammed with spec scripts and reading samples, plus tasked with the daily chore of cutting short the attention to my writing assignments in exchange for a commute over the hill to Gary’s Century City office.

Annoying? Maybe. But I was convinced that this was all a matter of upping my movie game. I’d matriculated from unproduced writer to unproduced writer-producer.

Then came the pitches. No. Not the usual Klieg-light-on-Doug-as-he-fastballs-his-stories-to-a-studio pitches. The shoe had temporarily shifted to the other foot. As a producer, I was now hearing pitches. Writers were appearing from all over LaLaLand, practically queuing up at Gary’s office door for a chance to tell the young producing duo their movie schemes.

Okay. So like most of the specs we were reading, much of which we’d heard in pitch form wer pretty ghastly. But then came veteran TV scribe Dan Gordon and his co-hort, Dr. Sabi Shabtai. The doc, an Israeli national with ties to the Mossad, came with some serious, anti-terrorism cred. The tale he unfolded was the compelling and secret story of how Israeli defense and intelligence forces captured and killed famed international terrorist, Carlos the Jackal. The McGuffin of the story revolved around an American naval officer and drop-dead doppelganger for Carlos. Recruited by the Mossad, the American was trained to look and act the part in order to make it appear that Carlos had switched teams and had been caught double-dealing on his Soviet handlers. It was the perfect gas-light job. In a matter of hours, the KGB moved in on Carlos’ East Berlin villa and – bang bang bang – it was adios Carlos, now the most dangerous dead terrorist in the world.

It was powerful, history-making stuff. Gary and I were desperate to buy it. We quickly assisted in developing a studio-ready pitch – which pretty much involved organizing how the duo would draft a script. Then we served up pitchmaster supreme, Dan Gordon. The experienced word wrangler must’ve smoked half a pack of cigarettes during his forty-five minute unfurling of the Jackals tale in front of the studio bosses. The burning tobacco added just the right amount of smoky atmosphere for the suits to say yes in the room. We had a deal. Jackals was ours.

It was Dan Gordon’s idea to have Dr. Sabi Shabtai deliver the initial drafts, stuffing the drama with fact and authenticity. What we received on paper was expectedly amateurish, short on veracity and pretty absent of skill. Not entirely unexpected. But instead of getting an early schematic heavy in Mossad secrets, tradecraft, and espionage, we were bushwhacked with a lot of bad John Le Carre moves and silly action heroics. When confronted with our issues, Dr. Sabi’s reasoning for his fact-lacking contribution was that he wanted Hollywood to recognize him as a writer. This movie was going to be his show business entrée. He said he had many more true Mossad stories to sell.

After wrestling through a few more drafts with Dr. Sabi, it was finally Dan Gordon’s turn to whip the script into shape. As an über-experienced television writer, Dan was fast. In fact, he was faster than fast. Lightning quick. In a matter of days we had his first pass. And though the story we’d sold was roughly intact, the script held little of the drama and gravitas of Gordon’s brilliant pitch to the studio.

Gary and I worked up our notes and served them to Dan. He pretty much nodded, disappeared, and barely a week or so later, presto-change-o we had a brand new draft. Improved. But still light years removed from the magic we’d been sold in the pitch.

So into the breach I forged. I’m not sure how the experienced Dan Gordon truly felt about this unproduced writer-producer giving him script notes. Probably not much better, if at all, than hearing them from a runny-nosed studio brat offering whatever story wisdom he or she had gleaned at that Ivy League college. Nonetheless, what I had on Dan was his brilliant pitch to which I kept returning, imploring him to make the screenplay as equally compelling.

“It’s not TV, Dan,” I recall saying. “It’s a movie. Maybe even a great movie. Give it the effort it deserves.”

I can’t say whether my words inspired Dan or insulted him, though I would bet on the latter. I mean, who the hell was I to explain the difference between writing for the box and the big screen? Nonetheless, the drafts improved with every pass and, soon enough, Dan’s writing finally lived up to his masterful performance.

At last, we had a screenplay for Jackals. Groundbreaking, we imagined, in that it was going to announce to the world what Israeli Intelligence had insisted on keeping under wraps – that the KGB hadn’t quietly eliminated Carlos the Jackal. The Mossad had. For Dr. Sabi Shabtai’s sake, we hoped our impending film would be a smash. Otherwise, he’d be cutting ties with the Mossad for nothing more than popcorn and some coin.

Soon we had John Frankenheimer on board as a director. But alas, if you read last week’s post, it was not meant to be. After that, the script seemed to barely tread water at the studio, losing traction as executives shuffled or left for greener pastures. The appetite for a headline-ripping terrorist thriller just wasn’t there.

As Jackals languished, my relationship with Gary soured over another project where I was both the writer and co-producer. But that was okay. I’d since penned a go movie in the sequel to Die Hard and was wrapped up with my million dollar script and an overall deal at Disney (see A Million Dollar View).

Then in a surprise backdoor move, Dan Gordon smartly engineered turnaround for Jackals, effectively removing the project from the studio in exchange for a promise to pay back the studio’s expenses plus interest. We’d heard he’d found financing in Canada. Bully for Dan, I thought.

“But what happens to us?” I recall asking Gary in a rare phone call. We hadn’t spoken in months.

“Nothin’,” he said. “We don’t have turnaround.”

“What do you mean we don’t have turnaround? I thought every producer had turnaround.”

“Not in my deal,” admitted Gary. “We’re screwed.”

Not in his deal, indeed. And because my first producing deal was attached to Gary’s solo producing deal, his contract was my contract. No turnaround meant Jackals could travel to another studio or financier without Gary or myself. All the work that we’d put in to sell it and develop it was for naught. The movie could and would set sail without us or our good names attached as the original producers.

Another hard lesson learned.

Jackals eventually began production under a new title, The Assignment. It filmed in Canada then moved on to Israel and Hungary. The indie-picture boasted Christian Duguay as director along with a stellar cast of Aidan Quinn, Donald Sutherland, and Ben Kingsley. The movie was eventually released by Sony/Columbia to a relative yawn. Hardly an earth shaker. Not a single headline. Hell, it wasn’t even advertised as a true story.

That’s because, as it turned out, the true terrorist tale wasn’t true at all.

In 1994, the French DST captured and arrested Carlos in a Sudanese hospital as he was being prepped for testicular surgery. He was tried, convicted, and is currently serving the rest of his terrorista days in solitary confinement at France’s Clairvaux Prison.

As for the picture, I can rightly say that it was pretty decent as a genre movie. I both enjoyed it and would not have been ashamed to have seen my name in the credits. But neither my name nor Gary Foster’s could be found on the print. I know this for certain because I paid four bucks to see my film as a bargain matinee at my neighborhood multiplex.

Read Doug’s new thriller, BLOOD MONEY. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

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