Having written posts for THE SH**TIEST SCRIPT EVER WRITTEN and THE WORST NOTE… EVER, I thought it was about time that I told of this far more positive encounter. This story goes back about seven years to a screenplay adaptation I’d written for a book called Black Water Transit. You might have read it when it was previously posted on this site. And you can still read the blog called SEND IN THE CLOWNS (BUT BEWARE OF THEIR FUNNY MONEY), a later tale about this infamous project.

The screenplay, initially written for Joe Roth’s Revolution Pictures, is a crime ensemble piece, often described in industry shorthand as something akin to Traffic meets Crash. When Revolution chose not to proceed to production, the script was quickly picked up by an independent company backed by deep pocket financing. Their plan was to make the movie for a magic number of around 35 million dollars, half of which would go towards paying for and scheduling the production around movie stars with foreign appeal. But first we needed to land a director. The indie company was looking for a helmer who was capable, cutting edge, and without an asking price that would break their business model.

In no time, the producers had landed on three potential helmers: Hot commercial and video director Samuel Bayer. Young Frankie Flowers, whose yet-to-be-released film Haven was generating some buzz. And lastly, Lexi Alexander, a German emigre and former kick-boxing world champion turned filmmaker. Her Oscar nominated short had led to her first feature gig, directing Elijah Wood and Charlie Hunnam in Green Street Hooligans.

Usually, a feature writer doesn’t have much say in the selection of the movie director. But in the case of BWT, the producers had faith enough to include me, not just soliciting my opinion of a director’s work, but encouraging me to meet with each of the candidates. So that’s what I did. I screened Frankie Flowers’ Haven and later broke bread with the young director, talking through how he’d execute my screenplay into a movie. The same went for Sam Bayer. Though he hadn’t a film to watch, he had hours of big budget commercials and a shelf full of VMA-winning videos to peruse. We traded stories and film references over cigars and whiskey. Sam promised me that if he scored the gig he’d be sure to make a kick-ass movie.

Then there was the weeknight evening I rolled into a Beverly Hills screening room to view Green Street Hooligans. I was met there by one of the indie company’s execs, a warm fellow I recalled from his former days at Warner Brothers. While waiting for the film to arrive, he shared with me a lone script note from Lexi Alexander, the director whose film I was about to audition. Without getting into the detail of the note itself, just follow the dialogue that transpired.

“You’re not serious,” I said, my voice already thick with incredulity.

“She (the director) thinks it’ll provide more tension, especially for the second half of the film,” voiced the executive.

“Maybe,” I said. “But it’s like dropping a big fat pink elephant into the middle of the movie.”

“Why?” asked the exec.

“Because it makes the movie about race.”

“I don’t necessarily think it does.”

“The hell it doesn’t. The second I take the racist cop and the angry black chick and put them together…”

“It’s combustible, yeah.”

“It’s an ensemble piece. Everything has to balance. Remember, there’s three other stories we’re tracking. The second we inject a race romance the scales go out of whack.”

“It’s not a romance, really.”

“Movie stars,” I reminded. “Hot guy. Hot girl. Stuff’s gotta happen. No. Bad idea.”

“Just think about it, okay?” encouraged the exec.

“Are you saying you like the note?”

“No. Just saying think about it.”

“Well, based on her one dumb-assed note. We shouldn’t hire her. End of argument.”

“Look. I’ve gotta be somewhere else. Watch her film. We’ll talk more tomorrow.”

The executive said so long and left me to stew. The film had yet to arrive at the venue so I had another half hour to be annoyed, pissed at this Teutonic twit who wanted to take my precious script and turn it into her personal polemic on race. Another Euro who couldn’t wait to lay a heavy hand on American culture. My stomach was grinding. I considered bolting, returning to my San Fernando fortress of solitude and putting my protests in a sizzling email. As far as I was concerned, why waste my own time when I was dead certain Sam Bayer had both my vote and the job?

I can’t say for sure why I stayed. I was still chewing on my decision when the film canisters arrived via messenger. Whatever, I said to myself before flopping into a plush chair three steps from the exit. Moments later, the room turned black. Green Street Hooligans unspooled. And, despite my mood, I thoroughly enjoyed the picture. I found Lexi Alexander’s work to be solid, moving in places where lesser directors would’ve relied on the action, and but for some self-limiting acting by Elijah Wood, the over-all performances were sterling.

Damn. There went my plan to torpedo the hiring of Lexi Alexander based on her obvious incompetence.

As an experienced Hollywood scribbler, I’ve learned to be pragmatic. So on the drive home, I pored over my options. One of which was the ultimate what if.

What if they actually hire her?

I gasped at the thought. Then again, stupider things have happened to me. And if Lexi Alexander ended up as the director of BWT, her lousy note would be her first order of business. Surely, I would put up a strong defense. But if push came to shove, and the company backed her, I’d have the inevitable choice of either walking… or finding some way of making the note work.

The night was calm. Traffic was nearly non-existent. In the quiet of my car, I secretly applied Lexi’s note to my complicated, ensemble story. What followed wasn’t quite cosmic. But it was a blinding moment of clarity. The note, as racially loaded as it initially appeared, not only fit with precision into the script but solved a problem I hadn’t yet fully fathomed. Suddenly, my blue collar heroes had character drives beyond their own personal agendas. Race, it turned out, was a chemical catalyst for greater purpose.

Damn.

Sometimes there’s no greater fan than a convert. I went from being a critic to a fan in the matter of five blocks. I dialed the executive’s cell and expressed my conversion.

“So you’re saying you were wrong about the note?” he asked.

“Completely,” I said. “It’s brilliant. It makes the movie so much better. I just didn’t see it. We have to hire her.”

“First we have to meet her,” said the exec.

I couldn’t wait. I called Lexi Alexander the next morning, introduced myself and invited her to dinner. Over the meal, I told her my entire arc – from cynic to zealot. She laughed back then and, sometimes when we revisit that initial period of our friendship, we still laugh.

Not that it was all wine and roses. In a fatal error to the production, the company engaged Samuel Bayer instead of the more deserving and talented Lexi Alexander (a reviling and sexist move that I’ll blog about at another date and time.) Nor was her experience a sunny bowl of jelly beans. Though we may still find amusement in the circumstances of our meeting, her brief dance with BWT was unpleasant as hell.

When I eventually sat down with Sam Bayer to begin further work on the script, I insisted on the execution of Lexi’s note as my first order of screenplay business. The result was pretty extraordinary. And, though that version of the script never made it to the big screen, I’m forever grateful for her brilliant contribution.

Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
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  • Lexi

    I still don’t buy that it was “the best note ever” because Doug has worked with some pretty amazing people. Nevertheless, this blog makes my heart sing of course.
    I should share that I gave Doug a bit of a heart attack this morning when I texted him that I don’t remember it going down like that and that I would post a rebuttal comment. Now that I see this statement in writing, I realize just how bad that must have sounded. Ha, ha… Sorry Doug.

    Of course it went down like that, fact wise. But what we hadn’t realized these past seven years that our deepest thoughts and fears during this whole process differed quite a bit. For example, I never ever thought that my note would get implemented, even if I’d end up directing the movie. It’s not only the writer who’s attached to a story “as is”, the producers and Executives are usually way too scared to CHANGE anything drastically. I was fully expecting for the team to shut down my suggestion, but that wouldn’t have been a deal breaker for me.

    At the time I was reading about 20 scripts a month, looking for my next movie. Black Water Transit stood out like a diamond in an otherwise big pile of s@#!. It was not good writing, it was great writing. And all the directing contenders were circling it like starving vultures. Some really ugly things went down which, if I’d had a pair (and honestly I don’t) I’d write about.

    But back to this wonderful story. If you’re interested in becoming a director, writer, producer or creative executive, I’d like you to do this little exercise. Go back to the beginning of this blog and read it again until right before the point when Doug sits down to watch my movie. Because that’s where the story would have ended for most (I’d say a good 90%) of players.

    What Doug did was not only unusual for Hollywood, it was extra-ordinaire. Hollywood breeds insecurity and insecure people do not keep an open mind or admit that somebody else’s idea is better and that their first reaction might have been a mistake.

    But please understand, all you aspiring filmmakers out there, this doesn’t usually happen. In most cases it would have turned ugly right at the point of the writer being told a note he doesn’t like. What would have followed is something known as “who’s got the biggest ….” during which I usually sit back wondering why these people don’t know that it’s not the size of the wand that matters, it’s the magician.

    When I heard about Doug’s complete 180 about my note, I decided then and there I’d work really hard to make him my friend. There’s a saying in Germany “privilege must come with great integrity”. Those who have found success in Hollywood are definitely privileged, yet few have integrity.

    Doug does. He’s quite an example of integrity and I’m not only referring to the above incident. I’ve been on conference calls (about a project he and I were working on together) when an agent (not Doug’s) suddenly switched gear to thank him for behaving so honorably during a writing arbitration that involved her client. So, he’s the real deal.

    Outside of my interactions with Doug Richardson, Black Water Transit was one of the nastiest Hollywood experiences I ever had, but if a crystal ball would have foreseen the whole disaster ahead of time and then asked me if I wanted to go through all this in order to meet Doug Richardson and his wonderful family, I would have screamed from the roof: “YES…and throw in some dragons too”.

    • Can’t say which is more informative. My blog or your “rebuttal.” Thanks Lex. And it was the best note I’ve ever received. And that’s the end of it.

      • Tim O’Connell

        Great article Doug and great to hear from you as well Lexi. Congratulations and thank you for Green Street Hooligans. I must have watched this movie six or eight times…maybe more. I was spellbound by the story and the performances of Charlie Hunnam and Elijah Wood. I’ve watched numerous other movies on the topic of football firms but none resonated with me like GSH did.

        Well done.

        Doug – reading this article my respect for you has grown. If there were a few more like you in Hollywood, it might actually have a good reputation.

  • You gotta love an idea that solves problems and improves the whole piece…but you must give it a chance first. When something doesn’t work for me I like to turn my characters upside down, shake them and see what ‘change’ falls out of their pockets.

    It took me a while to read BWT and the racist issue really does add a complex dimension.

    • Thanks Phyllis. Your trick sounds better than mine. I usually just check the seat cushions for loose change after my characters leave.

  • Great story. And the punchline is that the finished film is still sitting on a shelf somewhere after the ThinkFilm/Capitol/Bergstein disaster and may never be released… you dodged a bullet, Lexi.

  • James Hornsby

    Great read Doug. It never fails to amaze me how much I get to learn from masters.