WOULD YOU HAVE TURNED DOWN A $150,000 HOLLYWOOD PAYDAY?

Carolyn V. Murray

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It used to be said that everyone had a book in them. Nowadays, that story in you is much more likely to strike you as a great film idea. What would it feel like if your project ever made it to the big screen? Perhaps I can shed some light on that. I almost got there.

Great expectations

About three years ago, I was in about as enviable a position as any aspiring Hollywood screenwriter could hope for. My screenplay Jane by the Sea, which had been on the market for over ten years and optioned on four separate occasions, finally had a solid financing production company behind it and a director attached. A dream come true. At long last.

A brief word about the script: I often pitched it as a Shakespeare in Love style period romantic comedy featuring a 25-year-old Jane Austen and the people, places, and events that inspired her greatest works.

Even if you’re not a big Jane Austen enthusiast, you can’t have failed to have noticed that Austen-themed films pop up with greater frequency than Jurassic Park sequels. It’s hard to overestimate their ongoing popularity.

I once met with a TV studio executive who confessed that she and her friends meet every New Year’s Day for a 12-hour Jane Austen movie marathon, which always includes the six-hour BBC Pride and Prejudice. Some of them attend in period costume. And a new Emma just came out for a 2020 release— the umpteenth remake. The audience is there — you’ll have to trust me on that.

So… finally. A real deal. Real money. With a director in place. Everything in readiness for Tinseltown glory. Too soon to be thinking about what I should wear to the Oscars? Just a bit.

At the risk of sounding crass and greedy

Let me first say a word about that $150,000. Sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? I’m not saying that it wouldn’t have been life-changing. But it’s not enough. Not for a film that is likely to have a fifteen-million-dollar budget.

I don’t say this only about my own work, but something that pertains to all writers and their original scripts. The screenplay is the story. The screenplay is the project. The screenplay attracts the acting talent, the directing talent, and the financing. Allotting only one percent of the budget to the project’s creator feels a bit…

Well, how’s this for an analogy? You want to invest $60,000 in acquiring and rehabbing a property and then to sell it for a nice profit. But you’re only willing to spend….$600 on the property and to save the remaining $59,400 for the rehab expenses.

The writer’s contribution to the quality of the final product should be valued at more than 1%. That’s all I’m sayin’. But Hollywood has a long history of devaluing its writers. And they have a long history of getting away with it.

Getting down to work

Our creative team consisted of my longtime producer (who had been tirelessly and passionately attached to the project for over ten years) her production partner, two big-money financiers, and the director they chose. Everyone seemed thrilled to have this director attached… although I had some reservations.

My script was a period romantic comedy and he had no experience with either period films, romances, or comedies. His claim to fame was a dark indie film about chronic pain and drug abuse, with a big Hollywood star. But weighing in on the director was way out of my pay grade, and I could only hope for the best.

I was hired to do a rewrite. At least, I should have been paid Writer’s Guild rates for a rewrite, but instead, they finagled things to pay me as little as possible, by calling it a polish and promising to pay the difference when the film actually started shooting. I seriously could have used that money upfront, but there was a lot of pressure to take the deal or to risk losing everything. So, I took it.

It was challenging to take into account the input of five different people, and then to incorporate my own opinions. The first draft was bursting to the seams, trying to accommodate all preferences. The second, by mutual consensus, was significantly paired down and got the thumbs-up to move on to the next stage.

The Hollywood auteur

The director would revise it to put his own personal stamp on it. I was a little worried. There were points on which we hadn’t agreed, that he would certainly try to change to suit himself.

And I was just going to have to take a few deep breaths and deal with it. Collaboration. Being rewritten. It’s something that all screenwriters have to be prepared for.

At least there’s one thing I could be sure of. He wasn’t going to mess with my dialogue. In all its many years of being shopped around, the dialogue had been the most admired asset of my script. At the risk of bragging, I can do witty 18th-century banter about as well as any seasoned Hollywood professional. And it’s just not a common talent. It’s not an assignment you can hand to someone who is used to writing contemporary stories and dialogue.

What did I know? Not only did he liberally replace my dialogue, but vital character and plot elements as well. He changed the heart of the story. Or more to the point — he removed the heart. The wit. The romance. He effed up my story…to the point where it was no longer my story.

Which, I suppose, was his major goal. He wanted it to be his story. He wanted to be the auteur. Quick definition of an auteur — “a filmmaker whose personal influence and artistic control over a movie are so great that the filmmaker is regarded as the author of the movie.”

He wanted ownership of the film. So much so that he needed to change the title — from Jane by the Sea, to By A Lady.

Is that title not knocking your socks off? Because it didn’t knock off mine.

By A Lady is a reference to the fact that Jane Austen published her books anonymously. But that has nothing to do with her during the period of her life covered by this story. This story ends a decade before Jane starts publishing.

Why name the story after a publishing detail (that only scholars and hardcore fans will have any awareness of?) This story is about love, and imagination, and eccentricity, and wit. It can’t be given a title that describes a chapter of her life that happens long after our story is over.

But it would have achieved its purpose, which was to help the director declare to himself and to the world — this project is my creation.

The auteur can’t write

Another of his other contributions — there is a huge finale scene in my original script that takes place in a chapel, where Jane falls asleep. In an exhausted, half-dreaming state, she awakens to find herself confronted by angry and heartbroken characters who don’t appreciate the bitter and cynical endings that she has written for them. It’s a big moment. It’s the perfect moment and…He got rid of it. He got rid of the chapel scene! I think I probably screamed out loud.

One last example — Frederick, the love interest whom Jane has taken a strong disliking to, is thrilled to hear Jane declare that she has no talent of any kind. Because gentlemen are required to spend so much of their time admiring the embroidery, artwork, and musical performances of the ladies — he is excited to hear that her lack of talent will free him from those kinds of demands on his time.

To which Jane responds, “To look at you, one would never suspect such a peculiarity of mind.”

Frederic shoots back to the eccentric, abrasive Jane:

My version: “You have the appearance of normalcy, yourself.”

The director’s version: “I believe neither of us perform to strangers.”

The line he used is straight out of Pride and Prejudice, pulled out from a scene where Mr. Darcy is chatting with Elizabeth Bennet after she has just played the pianoforte.

Now, a central conceit of my story is that all the major characters and elements of Jane Austen’s great works were inspired by her own real life. That doesn’t mean that lines from her books can be squeezed anywhere into the script and make sense. It didn’t fit here, and it booted out a really good line!

(I realize I have no objectivity here — but sometimes, you know when you’ve nailed it.)

And on it went. I was horrified. I couldn’t recognize my story.

I won’t go into any great detail about how the opinions of three women (myself and two creative producers) were disregarded to accommodate the opinions of two male financiers and a male director — this at a time when the marginalization of women in the workplace was becoming a central topic of conversation in the media. So, seriously…this tired pattern was repeating itself in a project surrounding a story about Jane freakin’ Austen?

If all that wasn’t bad enough, before they showed his script to me, and before I had a chance to offer any type of feedback on it, they sent his script to the actress who was our top choice for the role, and a big Austen fan herself.

She passed on By A Lady. (Surprise, surprise.) And that door was closed forever.

Walk, don’t run, to the nearest exit

So, it had taken him close to six months to mutilate the script. We were approaching the end of the initial 18-month option, which they expected me to renew for peanuts. But I wouldn’t even have renewed it for caviar. I was disinclined to acquiesce to their request. (Pirates fans… Anyone… Anyone?)

Because I hadn’t the slightest doubt, that if that film had been made — his version of it — that I would’ve watched it one day, in a dark theater, with tears streaming down my face, knowing that my story would never have a chance to exist. And $150,000 dollars would have been a shabby and tragic compensation.

Yes, I refused the extension. I walked away. From the ruin of my story. From this wannabe auteur. From the $150,000 dollar payday. And no one saw it coming.

The finance company was in disbelief. Then, the howls of outrage could be heard all the way from LA to Cleveland. They got a lawyer threatening to sue me to reimburse all of their development costs. Which was of course, BS. No such thing was ever specified in our option agreement. They thought they would terrify me. They thought I could be manipulated.

They thought wrong.

Are you sure?

Everyone kept asking it. Even those with my best interests at heart. My producers. My lawyer. Did I know how hard it would be to find financing again? And was I mindful of the unspoken threat — the power of the angry financiers to badmouth me and ruin my budding career.

You’ll never work in this town again.

Is that a promise? Between my misadventures in the TV realm, my useless agent, my bizarre and mercifully brief partnership with a theater guy who wanted to cast 70-something Dame Judi Dench on stage as a 25-year-old Jane, and the latest dysfunctional team, I was kind of done. Collectively, they managed to sap the desire for a screenwriting career right out of me.

(Okay, not completely. Jane by the Sea in both script form and the novel adaptation I self-published on Amazon is the best writing that I’ve ever done, and possibly ever will do. No, I can’t entirely let go of the dream of one day seeing my story brought to life on the big screen. But fifteen years after I first wrote it, I am most certainly back at square one.)

Was it a mistake?

I recounted this debacle several months ago to a fellow writer. “Yeah,” he said. “I made that same mistake once. When I should’ve taken the money, gotten the screen credit, and used the professional momentum to build a career.”

I understood his rationale and his misgivings. But for me, they just didn’t resonate. And it’s not because I’m not capable of recognizing the bad decisions that I make. I’ve made so many in the past two years, I’ve lost count. But this wasn’t one of them, and I’m being as honest as I know how. Regret has an unmistakable feel to it. So does relief.

So does certainty.

An incredible weight fell off my shoulders when I made that decision. Though I’m well aware that the most likely outcome for original scripts like mine is to be dead in the water. Maybe yes, maybe no. I dare to have faith in an alternative future — one that has me sitting in that dark movie theater as my film fills the screen.

There may very well be tears streaming down my face, but they will be cascading over a grin plastered on so hard that nothing could scrape it off.

Coming not so soon to a theater near you.

Wish me luck.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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