We’d battled and beat MGM’s lousy, last-minute notes. And after four months in a bunch of unnecessary language lessons at UCLA, Japanese scare-master Hideo Nakata had graduated magna cum laude in Shove-Your-English-Classes-Up-That-Lion’s-Ass.
Then we got word that MGM was looking to Lakeshore Entertainment, a mini-studio with hits like Million Dollar Baby under their belt, for a financial partnership.
And Lakeshore had script notes.
“I don’t understand,” Hideo said to me. “They say they’re excited to produce my first American movie. Then they see the script that I want to film and they want to change it.”
“Welcome to my world,” I told him. “But first we need to hear the notes. We can’t say no without sitting down with them.”
“Put on my steel jockstrap,” joked Hideo, having learned well from David Wally and myself.
So with our galvanized underwear polished and secured, we marched our True Believer’s act into Lakeshore’s Beverly Hills office. The conference room was duly stuffed with executives and producers. The three of us sat, hands in our laps like good little schoolboys, listening to Lakeshore’s thoughts on our movie. If the déjà vu of the moment was lost on us at the start, it certainly wasn’t by the time the main course was served. To our ears, it was MGM group-think all over again. Carving the edges off what was intended to chill and replacing story points with scare-free logic. With every passing moment, David Wally and I could both sense a swell of righteous rancor building inside Hideo.
We chose not to respond to the notes. At least not in the room, explaining that we’d need some time to marinate in them. In truth, the move was a strategic retreat to Santa Monica and the Cheyenne offices. If we were going to cut off this newest attack, we would have to be quick and surgical. We chose to jump on a late-in-the-day conference call with Gary Lucchesi, Lakeshore’s president.
“We’ve fought this battle more than once,” I recall saying at one point. “Hideo has been here for six months, getting the script just the way he wants it.”
“This is the movie I want to make,” added Hideo. “The movie I must make otherwise I will have to go back to Japan.”
Gary Lucchesi politely and respectfully understood. He would inform MGM that they wouldn’t partner with them on True Believers.
But what would MGM do? Would they throw up their hands and flush the movie or would they continue seeking another financial partner? We imagined all the other co-financiers who’d set up shop around town, advertising fat, foreign checkbooks. How many more would we have to battle? We held our collective breath and waited.
At the time, most of MGM’s major motion picture decisions were made by either the language-sensitive CEO or by their very friendly production president. Somehow, the choice whether to seek a new money partner or dump True Believers altogether was moved upstairs to the chairman’s office—the very top of the lion’s corporate ladder.
The following is grossly simplified paraphrasing of how the internal studio conversation transpired.
“What’s the budget on this thing?” asked the Chairman. “Twenty-five million? Is that all? What the hell are we looking for a partner for? I love this movie. Why would I want to share any of the profits?”
So there it was. As if from the MGM mountain peak came a booming voice of unconditional support. The script was adored. So was our Japanese director. If only the voice had finished talking.
“Who did you say the producer was?” asked the Chairman. “Arnold Rifkin? You kiddin’ me? Arnold Mother-Fuckin’-Rifkin? Jesus H. Christ! Why didn’t you tell me?”
As it turned out, Arnold Rifkin’s recent history with MGM hadn’t been so rosy. His last two movies with Bruce Willis, Hart’s War and Bandits, were MGM pictures. Neither had made any real noise for the studio. And the MGM chair, looking for somebody to blame other than himself, had long ago decided to lay the box-office defeat at the pointy tips of Arnold Rifkin’s designer cowboy boots.
But the MGM boss didn’t make it to the chairman’s office by cutting off his nose to spite his face. So this was his edict. He would commit to making True Believers with one, simple qualifier. Because of his distrust for Arnold Rifkin, the studio would require the production to take on another producer. One beholden only to the chair.
I fully expected the studio’s newest ploy to be wholly rejected by Arnold. It was, at this point in the game, an insult of glacial proportions. The next move would surely be for Arnold to go nuclear, blow up the whole deal only to later try and resurrect some shadow of a movie out of the ashes.
Well. I was wrong. Arnold either conceded for the sake of the film or caved due to his need to make a non-Bruce Willis movie. Whatever his actual motive, he agreed to take on the studio’s producer.
Enter Voldemort. Or at least that’s what David Wally and I eventually came to call him, named after the infamous Harry Potter villain. Only this man-who-shall-not-be-named came in the guise of a friendly journeyman who’d line-produced a few highly-decorated period dramas. He arrived with humility and handshakes. Implored us not to worry. Assured us that he was only on hand to assist us toward a start date.
He did, though, have a few “script issues.” Small, detailed items—a meeting would help him to better get underneath the material. Hideo, David Wally, and I assembled. Then, from the man who openly claimed to have “not a clue” how to make a movie like the one we’d been prepping, came a familiar song. His ideas might have well been titled Déjà Vu, Part 3D.
I don’t recall who was quicker to cut Voldemort off at the pass. David Wally or myself. And though we attempted to politely inform the new producer that we’ve been down that dead-end road twice before, I’m sure we came off as something less than gracious.
Hideo, in the meantime, was shut down and frustrated. He felt sandbagged. Once again he was being informed by a stakeholder how excited he was to be working with a filmmaker of such gargantuan talent, while at the same time our new partner was openly questioning his screenplay choices. Only Hideo’s de facto way of dealing with such a confrontation was to withdraw and consider his next maneuver. That left only me and David Wally to defend the script.
That first session ended with he-who-shall-not-be-named taking me aside.
“You know,” said Voldemort. “I’ve worked with a lot of great, great writers. Oscar nominees. And every one of them has been grateful for my input.”
“What are you getting at?” I asked. “That I’m not a ‘great’ writer if I disagree with your notes?”
“Just saying you could learn things from me,” said Voldemort. “This isn’t my first go ’round.”
“Look, pal. You might not think I’m much of a writer,” I said. “But I’m the writer of this movie. A Hideo Nakata kind of movie. The kind of movie you already copped to ‘not having a clue how to make.’”
“Hey, look,” relented Voldemort, hands in the air. “I’m not big on conflict. I’m all about getting along. So I’m just gonna back off.”
I might have thought that was it. Issue resolved. Our new producer had reached his moment of clarity.
Then came a meeting at CAA.
We’d been having some difficulty landing a proper leading man. Mark Wahlberg had said yes but his agent demanded something like seven million dollars. John Cusack said yes, then no, then after re-reading the script he said yes again, then as if flipping a coin changed his mind for the umpteenth time. And despite Robert Downey, Jr. wanting to do the movie for a bargain basement price, MGM didn’t want to pay the insurance required for casting one of America’s most gifted actors because he was barely a year out of rehab. It was Voldemort’s idea to do a round of big agency meetings with Hideo as a way of ginning up some assistance.
I recall picking up Hideo at his apartment and driving the short couple of miles to Beverly Hills. When we landed in the CAA conference room, Voldemort didn’t even try to mask his annoyance.
“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked me.
“I was told there was a meeting,” I innocently replied.
“Doug gave me a ride,” added Hideo.
“I wasn’t aware Doug was also producing the movie,” said Voldemort.
“I’m not,” I defended. “But I am the writer.”
“Well, writers don’t generally attend casting meetings.”
Whatever. I shrugged off the idiotic comment to producer Voldemort’s lack of residual discomfort with the command structure. I merely rolled my sleeves up for the meeting and pushed ahead.
Next came a late afternoon phone call from David Wally.
“Just a heads up, said David Wally. “There’s rumbling over at the studio that you’re gonna get fired.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Wonder whose big idea that was?”
“This guy’s gonna totally fuck up our movie,” groused David Wally.
“I’m not worried,” I said. “It’s still Hideo’s movie. As long as he’s on board, it’s gonna be his way or the highway.”
“I guarantee (Voldemort) is working over Hideo’s agents as we speak. They’re gonna try and convince Hideo that you’re why the movie’s not going forward.”
“So let ‘em,” I said. “If they get rid of me, my bet’s Hideo will walk.”
“You know that, and I know that,” said David Wally. ”But studio doesn’t know.”
“Well. Maybe it’s time he told ‘em.”
The real question was, when push came to shove, would he?
Next week, Part 4 of TURNING JAPANESE.
- More Behind the Lines with Doug Richardson
- Pitch, Learn and Network at Screenwriters World Conference West
- Writing Wrap Up: 3 Ways to Beat the Heat – Pitching Screenplays, Lists and Hashtags
- Wendy’s LA4HIRE: Essential Ingredients to Writing a Powerful Screenplay
- Balls of Steel: The Secret to Finding a Screenwriting Mentor
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