Thursday, April 17, 2008

I Get the Full Treatment

As a freelance writer with an interest in film, I spent a pretty fruitless decade (late Sixties to late Seventies) trying to sell to Hollywood and/or the networks, first the idea for a grand documentary series devoted to the amazingly varied "Music of the South," then my script on Robert Johnson, then a host of other ventures--the subject of this post.

One of the directors at King Screen (which specialized in educational films when I was writing for the company in the early Seventies) was named Paul Preuss, who later enjoyed some success as a science fiction novelist. Paul and I teamed up to develop a few feature ideas, for which I then wrote treatments. Our Western was called Deadwood City--yes, the very place immortalized (trivialized?) by a raw and powerful series on cable TV nearly three decades later. The treatment I wrote had Calamity Jane as our scruffy and rowdy, in-need-of-a-bath heroine, residing in the sea-of-mud town of Deadwood trying to track down the killer of her (unrequited) love Wild Bill Hickok.

We also plotted out a Ross Macdonald-styled hardboiled mystery titled The Chinese Puzzle, with a disenchanted Vietnam vet who had stayed on in Southeast Asia to become a martial arts master (some bizarre combo of kung fu and Thai foot boxing!) and then returned to Seattle as a private detective; our case involved dark secrets in the past of a wealthy family, the pieces of the "puzzle" open to differing interpretations and wrong conclusions.

About then, Paul decided to move to the Bay Area, and we opted to split "ownership" of the treatments--he got Deadwood and I got The Puzzle, which I then had no luck selling anywhere. I hope Paul got something from the version of our gritty Western that finally made it to television, but probably not, since no one has a copyright on history. He'd have had to prove direct theft of our treatment somehow.

Anyway, I kept plugging away. With consulting input from a Black friend named David Carr, I wrote the pilot for a sit-com series, called something like The Arletha Jones Show, which had a pop/soul star as lead (sort of Diane Ross, Ella Fitzgerald, and Aretha Franklin combined), supported by her Phil Silvers-like manager; her backing-combo led by arranger/pianist boyfriend; and her richly varied, ghetto-but-cheerful extended family. It seemed promising as a concept, but I never managed to get it read by anyone important.

I also spent a long time researching and writing a full-length script I titled Union Maid, involving labor organizing in the Northwest logging industry circa 1920, by the I.W.W., with a firebrand woman--a "Wobbly" organizer from the Eastern coal country--as lead, accompanied by a Guthrie/Dylan folksinger guy as her (unwanted) sidekick. The first half had some fairly comic, character-driven stuff, sort of "tough, good-looking woman trying to persuade crude loggers to think," while the second got tragically serious, culminating in the notorious Everett Massacre and subsequent trial.

But Union Maid got put away before it ever circulated. I couldn't quite make the two halves work together effectively, with the late trial dragging the whole film down... (But I still believe today that the largely forgotten Everett Massacre would make a powerful feature, a saleable combination of action film, tragicomedy, and historical look back, with many visual horrors revealed.)

The last script I wrote back then was also promising, and it actually got produced. But almost no one's ever heard of, much less seen, the film titled Doubles--and that's a suitable review right there.

Here's the story: another wannabe director I knew named Bruce Something asked me to write the screenplay for an idea he had. A bored Seattle dentist decides to create a second life for himself, setting up another residence and dental practice north in the Skagit Valley; not yet satisfied, he then hires a hitman to "kill" that second persona. That was pretty much all Bruce offered, but I was intrigued, pretty confident I could make something out of it.

And I did, adding the plot twists and turns (how to put the killer on the trail without him realizing that he's to kill a guy who knows he's coming; how to manipulate the hitman through a series of near successes; etc.) as well as the character details, indeed adding several other characters to flesh out the bare bones idea. My biggest contribution was to make the hitman one of a pair of twins--second brother the by-telephone contact man who serves as go-between--doubling our idea of "doubles." So when the lead guy finally manages to turn the tables, killing the killer first as it were, he thinks he's avoided any repercussions, legal or otherwise. But he then finds that he is being stalked by someone else he doesn't know about and can't control.

The twin brother is no killer, however, so he tricks the dentist into a final deadly confrontation that he (the brother) expects to lose. Then he cleverly arranges for the local sheriff and others to arrive at the murder scene before the guilty dentist can escape, with all evidence pointing to him as cold-blooded murderer.

I've spent some time detailing this plot mostly to make the next point. I finished the script, Bruce loved it, and he set out to raise money for a small-budget feature shoot. But he circulated the script with only his name on it. And when I learned this some weeks later, he persuaded me that I'd get full credit eventually, but that his apparent sole ownership would make a production deal easier.

I guess anyone reading this can pretty much guess a lot of the rest. The film did get made, but Bruce chickened out on trusting the rather hardboiled script I'd written. Oh, he didn't change the plot or dialogue or my script writing at all, but he added a framing device, a stupid dinner party setting where the whole "doubles" plot was told merely as a story, with no visual attempt to make it seem true or real; the inner story's actors even wore the same clothing in every scene! So all suspense was lost and the new ending just lame.

When I did get to see the butchered film, I also learned that my credit had gone from "Screenplay by" to the meaningless "Script Consultant." But the film was so wretched I decided I was better off not connected with it. Rather than file a grievance with the Writers Guild, I just left Bruce to make what he could out of the mess. Which was nothing.

I pretty much gave up on the notion of a screenwriting career after that. Hooray for Hollywood and its hucksters, wherever they reside...

No comments: