Hideo Nakata wasn’t returning my call. This was a first. After more than a year of working together, developing and prepping the filmed version of my novel, True Believers, I’d come to depend on Hideo and he on me. There had to be a reason Hideo didn’t want to speak with me. My instinct was that he was angry. But angry at whom? Me? Why? Nobody was more loyal to him or his vision. Well, maybe producer David Wally. Together we were the three amigos, riding this movie into the sunset of success.
But that was all before MGM and Dimension wrote me a lottery-sized check, purchasing the contractual underlying rights to my novel and before sending me packing. All was part of an effort to drive a wedge between me and the movie director they were so desperate to be in business with.
Still. Hideo wouldn’t be ducking my calls if he wasn’t pissed. The only reason why he’d be so upset that he couldn’t bear speaking to me must have been because somewhere, somehow, somebody, deposited a lie into his ear. A falsehood, I might add, with some traction.
“I talked to him,” said David Wally. “You’re right. He’s mad at you. But I want him to tell you in his own words.”
“All the better,” I agreed.
The plan was to meet at Jerry’s Deli in Beverly Hills, conveniently across the street from Cedars Sinai Hospital. I wasn’t expecting a trip to the emergency room, but at that point, there’d been so many surprises on True Believers, anything was a possibility.
Hideo was last to arrive, joining David Wally and me in the extreme rear of the restaurant. His demeanor was unlike anything I’d witnessed in our year of pre-production starts and stops. He’d been through the Hollywood ringer, and I was pretty certain I’d experienced most of that good man’s moods. But this was different. He sat down. Somber, sad, and most clearly, hurt. Hideo didn’t know where to start.
“Hideo,” I began. “David has explained that you’re angry with me. I’m just here to say that whatever I did—or whatever you think I did—I’m sorry that you’re hurt by it.”
On the exterior, I was all apology. Yet on the inside I was twisting with rage. From the moment my director walked in, I knew it. The pained look of distrust on his face. Somebody had poisoned the well. And I had a pretty keen idea who was behind it.
“My agent tells me that this was all your doing,” began Hideo after a soliloquy about his disappointing time in the United States, the year of studio crap he’d been required to swallow, in what he’d begun to call his “American dream” of making a movie here.
“What was my doing?” I asked.
“The delays in the deal,” he said. “Between MGM and Dimension. Why it took so long was because you wanted them to pay you.”
“For the rights to your book.”
There it was. The lie. Laid out across the corner booth like a dead and stinking carcass.
“That’s not true,” I said. “In fact—and David will back me up here—it’s the polar opposite of the truth.”
David Wally was nodding.
I told Hideo about the months of extending the option on the property. All for free. One thirty-day period after the next, just to keep whatever leverage I had. The only leverage I had. That I had continued offering MGM and Dimension free rights to my book in order to give us time to convince them to green light the movie we’d worked so hard to develop.
“So you gave them the book for free?” confirmed Hideo.
“It was the only play I had,” I said. “If they paid me off, they could fire me. Which, in the end, is what they did.”
“So you didn’t hold the movie hostage?”
“Not a chance,” I said. “Somebody told you or your agent a lie in order to drive a wedge between us.”
“The thing you told me. They think I’m your Japanese puppet.”
“You’re my friend. And, as far as I’m concerned, the only director of my movie.”
This is where Hideo told us about his recent meeting at Dimension. The very first meeting on True Believers without David Wally or myself.
“They want changes to the script,” said Hideo. “I told them I’d worked a very long time on the script with you and I was very happy with the result. That as far as I was concerned the script was done.”
“How did you leave it?” David asked.
“They asked me to think about the changes,” said Hideo. “And I said that I would.”
“I wish I could help you, pal,” I said. “But they paid me off then fired my fat ass. It’s up to you.”
“And if I tell them no?” he asked.
Neither David Wally nor I had an answer. We’d been effectively sidelined, shown the door, and handed our hats all at once.
We hugged it out and moved on. It eventually got back to me that someone in Hideo’s camp had assured Dimension that once I was removed from the equation, Hideo would roll over and agree to whatever changes the new studio wanted to affect. Imagine their surprise when they found out that, all along, Hideo Nakata had backbone. That he wasn’t controlled by some over-opinionated writer. That he was motivated entirely by the movie he’d set out to direct. Whoops.
And with a succinct yet polite “no thank you,” Hideo withdrew from the movie.
I’d like to say the three amigos each went their separate ways. But while True Believers was being tossed back and forth between MGM and Dimension, Arnold Rifkin, Bruce Willis, and David Wally had roped me to work with another foreign director on the movie Hostage. Hideo later confessed that he was terribly miffed that I’d moved on to a green lit movie while he was left adrift in Los Angeles without a film project to anchor him.
As good or bad luck would have it, Dreamworks parted ways with their director only five weeks from photography on The Ring 2. Hideo was offered the job and said yes. Two years later, over lunch, Hideo confessed to me that it was a mistake jumping on to such a troubled production. As director he had even less control over the end product than anything he’d ever experienced.
“The studio would send me new pages overnight,” said Hideo. “I had no idea what I was shooting. It was an awful, terrible nightmare.”
“Like one of your Japanese horror films?” I asked.
“Worse,” Hideo laughed.
I had to ask him why, after all we’d been through with MGM and Dimension, why he’d agree to such an impossible situation.
“I was afraid I’d return to Japan without having made my American movie,” he said flatly, but dead honest. “I didn’t want my American dream to die.”
I eventually broached the subject of True Believers. Nothing had come of it and the rights had not just reverted back to MGM. But since the studio’s sale to Sony, my best guess was that the new management hadn’t a notion that they owned the property.
“Maybe we could resurrect it,” I offered. “We could get David Wally, walk into Sony, and tell ‘em a story. The three amigos ride again.”
Hideo laughed a little more. Then turned momentarily somber.
“True Believers… I love that script very much,” said Hideo. “But it’s like bad magic to me.”
“Yes. That’s it. Bad mojo. Too much bad luck for me with that movie. It would give me too much pain to return.”
I understood him. Respected him. But I was still sad that we couldn’t return to the script we’d so lovingly labored over.
“Never say never,” I said to Hideo.
“Okay,” he laughed. “Never say never. Maybe one day when the hurt is all gone.”
Because Dimension never produced a movie version of True Believers, per its agreement with MGM, they were forced to forfeit a significant portion of their profits on their Amityville coproduction. So maybe the Lion had the last roar after all.
Hideo Nakata has yet to make another American film. He does, though, continue to make excellent movies in his native language.
- More Behind the Lines with DR articles by Doug Richardson
- The Wide Margin: A Writer’s Rules, A Writer’s Tools
- Do-Over: Advice to My 18-Year-Old Self – Oscar-Winning Producer Edward Saxon
Tools to Help:
- Directors Tell the Story: Master the Craft of Television and Film Directing
- The Ultimate Directing Actors Kit
- On Directing Film by David Mamet