“Just calm the fuck down,” said Arnold Rifkin in his usual, bulldog tone.
Rifkin was the producer for the picture we’d planned to make based on my novel, True Believers. To describe Arnold as sometimes abrasive is akin to describing road tar as black and sticky. He did, though, have knack for treating his projects like a rabid dog protects a bone. I liked that about him.
“Hideo’s our Goddamn director and I’m gonna get a deal done,” he continued. “We just gotta get creative about it.”
The Hideo he spoke of was Hideo Nakata. Japanese scare-meister responsible for films like Dark Water, Chaos, and Ringu, the original movie on which the box office blockbuster The Ring was so reverently based.
Producer-slash-development executive, David Wally, called me the following day with encouraging news.
“Problem solved,” said David Wally. “Hideo is going to return to Japan to finish up some personal business, then move back to L.A. and enroll in a semester of English classes at UCLA.”
“You’re serious?” I said.
“It works for us this way,” explained David Wally. “While Hideo is here he’ll be both working on the script with you and prepping the movie. All good.”
“Making him learn English is an insult to Hideo,” I said. “His English is just fine.”
“You know that and I know that. But Hideo’s a team player. He’s gonna do what he needs to do make his first American movie. That’s why we he’s our guy.”
Well, “our guy” proved true to both his word and his esteemed character. Once his directing deal was cemented, he leased an apartment on Wilshire Boulevard and began attending English classes at nearby UCLA. And on the occasional afternoon, he dutifully occupied a swiveling bar stool in my backyard office as I carefully retooled the screenplay to suit his vision.
To say it was an education is an understatement.
Not that Hideo tinkered that much with my script. He’s the antithesis of your typical micromanaging film maestro. And he very much left the writing to me. What Hideo would do so brilliantly was look at a sequence and suggest a change in the ordering of things. Moving this scene here. Slipping that shot over there. But in such a way that it would not only elevate the drama, but tighten the screws on the tension or fully dial up the paranoia to ten.
His flourishes were simple, but genius. I’d flat-out gone from admirer to fan. I’d decided that where Hideo led, I would willingly follow.
During this period, we also began casting. The studio wanted stars but didn’t want to pay full freight. With a budget target at around twenty-five million, that was no easy task. Mark Wahlberg loved the script but wanted something near seven million dollars. Meanwhile, Robert Downey Jr. was game to star for a much leaner slice, but because he’d just recently returned to work after a public excursion into rehab, MGM didn’t want to pony up the bond. So while Arnold went about seeking a leading man who wouldn’t break the bank, Hideo, David Wally, and I went about looking for “the girl.”
In fact, there were two strong women’s roles in the script. One for the pregnant Gwen. The other was Izzy, the femme-fatale nanny. For the latter part, it seemed that every hot young actress in Hollywood was queued up for the gig. The conga-line of women who sought the sexy role must’ve felt never-ending for Hideo. One after the next they sat down with us in the Cheyenne conference room for a chat about the part. Rosario Dawson, Mena Suvari, Kristanna Loken, Eva Mendes just to name a few. To describe Hideo as a kid in a candy store would be a gross understatement. The sweetest of directors and self-confessed bashful boy was sometimes paralyzed in the presence of so many high-wattage stunners. The coup-de-grace might’ve been Jessica Alba’s eye-lash batting charm attack. What she obviously lacked in acting prowess she more than made up for in some sexed-up eye contact.
“Jessica might not be such a good actress,” I recall Hideo confessing before a punch-line. “But she’s probably too beautiful to work with. I might be too distracted to make a good movie.”
“Too beautiful for you, is that it?” I laughed.
“I need to be focused,” he said. “As you could see when I was sitting with her, I couldn’t see past her face.”
“The face, the body, the whole package,” chimed David Wally.
“Oh, yes,” smiled Hideo.
Of course, Hideo’s comments were full of his usual good humor, most of which was humility-based and so self-deprecating. Still, we thought it a good idea to get Hideo used to interacting with American actresses. So we organized a series of scene reads from my script. The casual evening settings were populated by some serious acting talent. David Wally and I were both heartened to see our shy Hideo in his directing element. He took quick command of the cast, easily proving his mettle. Once again, I knew the right man was at the helm.
Then, from out of left field, came a set of shocking studio notes. Critique so radical to the movie we wondered if they’d ever actually read the earlier drafts. As we soon discovered, they hadn’t. Despite a tentative, yet fast-nearing production date, it appeared that my screenplay had only been vetted by the top brass. Suddenly, the company bosses wanted to know what their over-paid development team thought. Nothing like a little studio group-think to muck up the process with a fusillade of knee-jerk notes.
“I don’t know what to think of these,” said Hideo of the MGM notes. In his experience, once the director had been brought aboard, it was a refining process. What the studio was suggesting was rather deconstructive to say the least.
“A lot of the way we do things here is back-assward,” I told him.
“Figure of speech. From ass-backward which still probably doesn’t make sense to you. It’s just how bad movies get made.”
“I don’t want to make a bad movie,” said Hideo. “And we’ve worked very hard to get the script just right.”
“No worries,” encouraged David Wally. “It’s just about getting in the room with them and making the case. Point by point about how you intend to make this movie.”
Hideo took in a deep breath. The prospect of a group face-off with the authors of the asinine studio notes was hardly something to look forward to. Hideo looked as if he’d rather have his skin poached with battery acid.
“Gotta strap on the old steel jock-strap,” I told him. As a veteran screenwriter, I was quite familiarized with the equipment required for Hollywood survival.
“Exaaaaactly,” said David Wally with a confident smile.
Days later we were parked in an MGM conference room, facing off with the Vice Presidents of this and that who, through the inference of their notes, wanted to turn True Believers from a scary film in the vein of Jacob’s Ladder into a something closer to a puzzle picture where everything made such complete sense that all real undercurrents of fear and wonderment would’ve essentially been erased. Hideo, flanked by David Wally on one side, yours truly on the other, made his carefully crafted case for what truly makes a movie scary. Our resident bulldog, Arnold Rifkin, was there to close.
“Have you seen his movies?” asked Arnold, not holding back a lick of his patented incredulity. “We brought him over here from Japan because he obviously knows what he’s doing. Let him do his Goddamn job.”
The executives retired to discuss and (possibly after screening one of Hideo Nakata’s masterful films) they folded.
Though victory was ours, it was in true Hollywood fashion, totally short-lived. Because next came the studio’s newest twist.
“They want a partner,” said David Wally in a conference call.
“What kind of partner?” asked Hideo.
“Financial partner,” said David Wally. “They want to lay off some of the risk. Find somebody to come in with half the budget.”
“Any ideas?” I asked.
“They’re talking to Lakeshore,” said David Wally.
I could feel Hideo’s reticence over the phone.
“All positive,” I told him. “Studios lay off risk all the time. Sometimes it’s just a matter of splitting the domestic and foreign. Totally normal.”
“Good,” said Hideo. “So we are still moving forward.”
“Exaaaaactly,” said David Wally.
About a week later I received word via my agent that, sure enough, Lakeshore wanted into the True Believers deal. We were told they were thrilled at the prospect of being involved in Hideo Nakata’s first English language film.
“One slight hiccup,” said my agent. “Lakeshore has a bunch of notes.”
My stomach flipped. It felt as if we were in a muscle car, blazing down on a desert highway. But every time we were about to shift into the last gear, we discovered someone had littered the asphalt with spike strips.
“Hideo’s not gonna like that,” I said.
“Part of the game,” said my agent.
“He’s worked the script into a spot where he’s comfortable. And not two weeks ago we had to fight off MGM’s idiotic thoughts. Now we gotta tell Hideo that Lakeshore has notes?”
“How bad can their notes be?” asked my agent.
He hadn’t a bloody clue.
Next week, Part 3 of TURNING JAPANESE.