NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Whittier Finds a Director – Part 2

After years as a development executive, Manny Fonseca is now on the other side of the table as a full-time writer and Podcaster. Now living the life of a writer, Manny is navigating a whole different side of Hollywood. You can follow him on Twitter: @mannyfonseca

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If you need to catch up on Whittier Finds a Director – Part 1, you can find it HERE.

On our next call, Professor X brought up the reveal of the townspeople as cannibals. How I had it written wasn’t satisfactory to him. He wanted a different version. This would be the first time that I kind of started to push back. His version wasn’t the version that I had wanted to convert or had any desire to write.

When I had originally wrote conceived the reveal, I had wanted that moment that I had experienced when I saw From Dusk Till Dawn for the first time. I wanted that total shift in gears going from what the hells going on to HOLY FUCKING SHIT!


Script EXTRA: Get Real With Your Rewrites 


Professor X didn’t see it that way. He thought it should be more subdued. Toned down. Elevated.

Unfortunately, on this particular call, Barny was having Skype issues and fell off the call. Professor X and I continued without him and that’s, of course, when he threw a wrench into my original plan. After we wrapped the call, I expressed my concerns to Barny via email.

I wrote:

Professor X wants to turn the Feast scene into well…something more Catholic. I can do that, if he wants, but I really saw it as it being more native. More Bull sacrifice scene in Apocalypse Now… apocalypse-now
…not Ten Commandments party central. I also felt like it was a little too over the top. I wrote a movie about a town full of cannibals and I get that I set the stage. But I feel like if I need to tone down the “cartoony language” then he has to tone down the torture porn violence. Does that make sense? Cause if Jon Hamm and Carla Gugino ain’t gonna sign up for a script that has the line “Makes my dick hard” they sure as hell aren’t going to sign up for a script where people are drinking blood from goblets and getting skinned alive. Right?

It’s weird to say…but I want the violence to be more beautiful and (to use his own words against him) elegant rather than fucked up crazy.

BUT, look… I have no problems writing it either way. I can do either. I’m sure there’s a happy medium. This is hardly “line in the sand” shit.

Barny responded:

I’ll speak to Professor X today about the Catholic blood buffet. It would be great if you could find something in reality that your version was based on so I can point to that. I am pretty sure Catholics have not bathed in blood like that, but somehow I feel like a Native has in some way. Look into if you can.

I told him:

Have Professor X pitch you his vision for that scene. Maybe it’s my Catholic background that’s putting an extra layer onto it. If you dig it…then cool. We’ll go with it.

I trusted, and still do, Barny’s opinion. As I said from the beginning, I was going to follow his lead. He did speak to Professor X:

I wanted to understand the thinking behind making the blood ceremony Catholic. Is it specifically Catholic or Celtic or do you just want it to be Ancient and Ango?

Professor X responded:

For the Blood Ceremony i want to create atmosphere like Eyes Wide Shut

then it’s a Pagan ceremony when the Beef enters

The Beef is already hanging by is leg like on this pic

slaughtered-meat

Then they take the fur out to reveal man with the head of the beef over his head then Garett cut his throat like in a abattoir. Blood pour on a metal bucket like in a farm

They work on the body like in the countryside, they are doing it with a real cow. But here it’s with a human body

It’s the same in (my first film)

They collect the Blood first than they cut the Body

We have to justify how they practice it. Like in a real ceremony and give a logic to the way they kill cut and eat the body.

They are not crazy savages. Even Vicking were more civilized than the way it’s described in the script

I think it’s important to create a logic and a tradition to the way they eat a human being. We have to believe it and make it realistic

That’s gonna be very scary as hell

If it’s just a Blood bath, we will loose the audience

It’s why I was thinking about a Ceremony like a ritual. Then they open the Buffet. If they all come to eat like crazy it’s more like a zombie film and i think it’s not what we really establish from the beginning

Making them civilized with their tradition can be so fuckin scary

Let’s discuss when you want

Barny responded:

Excellent. Now I understand perfectly and I completely agree. I’ve always bumped a bit on the bloody feeding frenzy. Your approach is much better and more sophisticated. We don’t see them jump right into eating the freshly killed, raw meat. But instead, this should be more of a ceremony honoring the meat (human sacrifice), killing and prepping it to be cooked and eaten. I think this could be just as gruesome and shocking, without the over the top feeding frenzy.

He forwarded that entire convo to me and then emailed me his feeling on the reveal:

I like Professor X’s approach much better. It’s not that it is specifically Catholic, but he wants to lean into the ceremonial aspect more and ditch the feeding frenzy. He is right that it feels like zombies feeding. This is a little more sophisticated.

Professor X agreed:

It’s exactly that

it can be really unique

there is no movies in the market right now able to show this

it can be huge

SPOILER ALERT: Remember this conversation.

Then the next thing happened. I got an email from Barny, who had talked to Professor X without me. In that conversation, Professor X had suggested that we (Barny and myself) took a look at another flick. I have to imagine that Professor X was trying to get his head around making a movie about cannibals so he watched this one.

Professor X also had an idea for me to get into the head of the characters I had created.

Here’s what Barny sent me:

Two things:
1. Professor X suggested we watch a film called WE ARE WHAT WE ARE. For grounding the tone, he also made reference to films like 28 WEEKS LATER and 30 DAYS OF NIGHT.

(Remember what I said last time about there being new films every time we talked?)

Manny Fonseca and Cheryl Diffin's script Whittier, landed a top director. This is the finale of working with that director and what happened to Whittier. #scriptchat #screenwriting

We Are What We Are (2013)

2. He said it might be very useful if you write down on a separate document everything about this ceremony; the reason for the human sacrifice, the history of it, how the townsfolk feel about killing other humans and eating them, how they physically and emotionally feel after consuming human flesh, and how the town has been able to sustain it for so long.

Even though much of this will not make the movie, he (and I agree with this) believes that we need to know all of this in order to ground it. He wants them to be completely accepting of it, it is a fact of life for them, but we need to understand why and how that came to be.

So I think between now and our call it might be good for you to start thinking about this a bit.

I made their document, and We Are What We Are put me to fucking sleep. Least interesting cannibal movie ever. Especially when I wanted to make the Die Hard of cannibal movies. But, you know, it was elevated and that’s what Professor X wanted to make.


Script EXTRA: Cracking the High Concept Code


ENTER THE TERM ELEVATED…

Throughout this entire process, the term “elevated” kept creeping in. Professor X loved the script, but he wanted to make an “elevated” version of it.

Apparently, my tone was a little too “common man” and I was starting to take a little bit of offense to the idea of “elevating” my script. Too many “fucks” might offset a movie where we had people literally eating human flesh. Really?

After another conference call, I had a little bit of an artist melt down. I felt like, specifically with my vision of this reveal scene, but also with some other things, that Professor X was trying to quash my voice. Every little thing I thought gave the script a “touch of Manny,” it seemed that he wanted to change or take out.

I bitched, but NEVER to Professor X. I was dumb, not suicidal. Thankfully Big Dick Barny was my friend so I could lay all my bullshit out on him, and he took it in stride. He knew that I would remain professional with Professor X, but could say anything to him.

I tore into the next rewrite like child having a tantrum. I just started ripping out large chunks of the script. Every curse word, every line I loved, every scene I thought had any close representation of me.

It was absolutely ridiculous.

HINDSIGHT MOMENT:

They were all right. Every note was absolutely right. After I calmed down from my tantrum, I started to really pick apart the script. After taking out all of my bullshit and “elevating” it? The script was actually… well, kind of awesome.

During my meltdown with Barny, he had asked me one simple question that had put it all in perspective for me: “Do you want to write The Shining or Hotel Hell?”

the-shining hotel-hell

Duh. Of course I didn’t want to write some straight to DVD movie that no one was ever going to see. No Offense to the filmmakers of Hotel HelI, but I think we can all agree they’re in different classes of horror movies.

Plus, I had gotten annoyed with myself that I had become “THAT WRITER.” You know the one I’m talking about. The one that’s afraid to “kill their babies.” I knew the game and forgot the rules. That still bugs me to this day.

So after all of that, I finally GOT IT and Whittier became 1) elevated and 2) a pretty badass script.

Not just for me, but for Cheryl too…

CHERYL GETS A WIN…

Hey! Speaking of killing babies!

Before Cheryl’s incident, we were sitting at the bar of the Cat & Fiddle in Hollywood discussing ideas for Whittier. One of the ideas that was considered by Barny as “going too far” was an idea Cheryl had about a “baby factory” the town was running in the basement.

Think of it as a… ahem… veal farm. A sustainable food source constantly making food for the town.

I know, super gross. Even though I shot it down immediately, Cheryl still wanted me to pitch it to Barny so I texted him right then and there. We got the response I had expected: “NOPE!”

Cheryl was in the minority so the idea was voted down.

Cut to a couple of years later. I’m sitting on a conference call with Barny and Professor X when, unprompted by anyone and on his own accord, Professor X pitched an idea where:

“The town was impregnating women and taking the babies for a food source.”

I had to stifle a laugh and then added: “Yeah, no… that’s cool. I think I can do that.”

Needless to say, Cheryl was ecstatic. The stroke rendered her deaf and half blind in each eye. Luckily she can read lips, so I would read the entire script to her after every draft. It was pretty early into her recovery after waking up so I’m not entirely sure she followed everything to the letter, but at least she could participate in the process.


Script EXTRA: Conflicts and Obstacles


BRING ON THE MONEY…

Once the last draft was finished, we got it off to Professor X who had started shooting a movie in Romania. While we were waiting to hear from him, Barny went to work on trying to get financiers interested in putting this together.

getting-paid

The first company he sent it out to read the script, loved IT (it got great coverage) and loved that Professor X was on board.

They were in.

Once I heard that, things started to change for me. I was actually getting excited. I mean, at this point, it looked like this was going to go. Screw the paycheck (although the money was very much needed, thanks to Cheryl’s medical bills) this was going to be the start of my career.

More importantly, with Professor X and the cast he was talking about, it looked more and more like my first film would actually be a theatrically distributed flick!

Professor X was knee deep in his 6-day-a-week film shoot, so it took a few weeks for him to read the latest draft. Finally, on October 13, 2015, Barny got a response from him.

Yes I did read the new version and it sound much more elevated now
I would love to do some comment but the shooting is very demanding
12/14 hours day
6 days week
It’s very intense
I finish the 5 of November
I think it’s gonna better for me to do call at this date to talk with you about the next step
Could be good also to talk with (MY MANAGER) and (MY AGENT) about the project to let them know

Barny and I took his response as a good sign. He loved the new draft, I had finally cracked the “elevated” code, he had some comments before sending it off to talent AND he wanted to get his reps involved.

FINISHING THE PACKAGE…

The next step, once Professor X signed off, was to get the script out to Carla Cugino. She was his first choice and if we could get her to sign on, then Barny would take the entire package to The American Film Market (AFM) to find the project the rest of the money.

Barny, a solid and all-knowing producer, knew that there was no way Carla’s reps would ever take the script seriously unless there was a deal (a.k.a. money) attached to the script.


Script EXTRA: Rules of Attaching Actors


While we were waiting for Professor X to wrap his shoot, Barny tied things up with Highland to put money together to go out to talent. Highland was on board with the plan.

The good news, at least for me, was that neither Highland nor Barny could represent the project when going out to talent or at the AFM unless they had the rights.

Which meant they were going to have to make a deal with ME first.

All we needed was to have one final phone call with Professor X, do a quick clean up on the script and call it a day!

THE WAITING GAME…

It sucks, but it’s a fact you have to deal with in this business. On October 13th, Professor X said he wouldn’t be available for a phone call until after November 5th.

waiting-on-time

Barny reached out to him on the 9th. This was his response:

No I’m actually in Normandy for a week to have some rest with my family before to jump on editing
are you available next week to talk about WHITTIER?

That would have put us in the third week of November. The weekend before Thanksgiving, I still hadn’t heard anything. On Monday, November 23… I decided to stop pacing the floors and text Barny. Up to this point I had opted not to bother him… cause you know… just had to be patient and wait.

Patience is not my strong suit.


Script EXTRA: The Waiting Game


“Hey man, have you set that call with Professor X yet?” I texted him.

That’s when I got the worst response ever: “Calling you.”

THIS IS THE END…

Barny called me a couple of minutes later and I could hear it in his voice.

“So I have some bad news,” he started. “Professor X passed.”

Okay, so you remember that conversation I told you to remember? The one where Professor X said that Whittier was going to be unique? Also you should know that, along with the countless other films he wanted to have influences of, he also referenced his own work when giving notes. Okay, that being said… back to the story…

“Why?” I asked.

“Because he said it was too close to the films he’s already made.”

THAT. THAT was the biggest kick in the balls and I told Barny as much. He agreed with me because I had mentioned that concern before. After like the third time Professor X made a comment on the calls that started with the phrase, “like in my film…”

EPILOGUE…

So that was that. With Professor X pulling out, the financing and Highland went with him. The only thing we could do at this point, was take the elevated version of Whittier out to other directors and start putting the package back together, but with Thanksgiving just a couple of days away and Hollywood being pretty much shut down until 2016, there was no way that was going to happen any time soon.

Plus, to be fair, Barny and I were simply exhausted. Both of us had been hustling all year long and it was time to just call it quits until after New Year’s.

I sent Professor X a very polite email, thanking him for his time and his knowledge. I told him that working with him the past year was like a master’s class for me and I learned so much.

Which was all very honest and true. My writing is so much better now. My characters aren’t cartoonish and all of my scripts are elevated in MY voice.

He never responded. Fucking rude-ass Hollywood.

FINAL THOUGHTS IN HINDSIGHT…

For me, I think that I just took too long to get it. I was too stubborn and didn’t learn to do what I needed to do in order to hold Professor X’s interest. By the time he went off to film, he got a chance to focus on other stuff, had time to think, and realized Whittier wasn’t his bag.

forehead-slap

I could tell too… on that last call we had with him that he just wasn’t into it anymore. I told Barny that I thought he was done with the whole thing, but Barny felt I had ONE last shot with him. That I had to get that last draft right and I feel like I did.

Had I gotten my shit together, sent him a quality draft on the 3rd try, maybe we could have been off to the races BEFORE he got to shooting his next film. Sure, he still could have had his realization, but maybe we’d be further along before having the whole rug yanked out from under our feet.

Barny has a different opinion about what happened.

When I told him I was telling this story, he sent me this:

On Whittier; I would add that his reps clearly read it and, due the gruesome subject matter, didn’t think it could get a commercial audience…which means no distribution. The truth is, that genre is filled with so much shit, this would have easily fallen into that pile no matter how well it was executed. The biggest hurdle is that the core idea/cult is just too dark and not accessible to a wide audience.

The Purge is such a ridiculous idea/world, but it taps into a universal/wish fulfillment theme of letting out built-up aggression/anger/frustration without any legal consequence…the genius of that movie is that once the audience buys that crazy rule, you can do whatever you want.

The notion of a cult up in Alaska that has existed for so long without anyone noticing, stretches credibility. We would have been better off revealing that the main character is actually a cop/FBI agent who is there to find out why people keep disappearing and stumbles on to a fucked up group like this. I know that is Monday morning QB but that way into the story would be much more realistic because it addresses the issue of why head on.

Whatever the reason, it’s all moot now. It’s still something I want to see get made, but Barny and I have moved on to other stuff. Whittier comes up periodically when appropriate, but it’s not our main focus.

After Professor X passed, Barny went on to lock up the president of production position at a massive production company. Unfortunately, they don’t really do horror, so Whittier doesn’t fit their model.

As for me, well…

I did what any writer would do after spending a year busting his ass putting words to page.

I wrote a book.

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2 thoughts on “NAVIGATING HOLLYWOOD: Whittier Finds a Director – Part 2

  1. NealR

    “Because he said it was too close to the films he’s already made.”

    Whoa!! I did NOT see that coming!! (Despite your hint.)

    I had so many mixed feelings reading this, since I am not (to put it mildly) a horror fan. (At the suggestion of one of your and Cheryl’s podcast guests a couple years ago I did write a high-concept contained thriller [“Render Unto Drone”], but all deaths occur off-screen.)

    So naturally I prefer the elevated version (despite the massive irony that the elevations made it more similar to the directors previous films), but I’m so squeemish I’m not sure I could have even watched that. (Especially with the “veal” addition.) (Hey, despite how much I LOVED the original “Raiders”, I literally almost threw up during the “monkey brains” scene in the first sequel [which I hated].)

    So in the abstract I guess the most inspiring part of your two-part “Whittier Finds Director” essay is Big Dick Barney’s final thoughts regarding how the basic core of “Whittier” is just too dark for wide audiences, as for a while there I was worrried that the lesson was going to be that the only way to break in is with such extreme graphic elements as realistic (even if ritualistic) cannibal scenes. (I like “The Ten Commandments” a lot, but visually that scene is about as squeaky-clean as you can get [admittedly almost laughably so].)

    Of course I wish for the sake of you and Cheryl that the director had decided to make the movie!

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