“I talked to my agents,” said director Hideo Nakata over the telephone. “And I talked to the studio. And I told them if they fire you then I would have to leave the movie.”
“Thanks, Hideo,” I said, relieved to the point of no longer feeling the need to vomit. “I’m sorry this has been so difficult.”
“I’m wearing my steel jock strap,” joked the Japanese scare-meister. “I think I even sleep with it now.”
I laughed without reserve. I’d grown to so appreciate this filmmaker. Hideo was huge talent. But it was encased in an even bigger heart.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “Why they would want to fire you? You and I work so well together. And I will need you on this movie.”
We’d spent nearly a year together. We’d worked through the script until it was a tightly wound bundle of thrills and chills. We’d weathered content assaults by the studio, fought off potential financial partners who wanted to radically change the movie, and more recently, adjusted to the addition of a new producer-slash-studio stooge who we’d not-so-lovingly nicknamed Voldemort.
“I appreciate you defending me to the studio,” I told Hideo. “But you might want to express your feelings directly to (Voldemort).”
“I don’t understand (Voldemort),” said Hideo. “He’s been so generous to me when it comes to answering production problems. Why would he have problems with the writer who’s so helpful to me?”
I knew the answer all too well. That and the grapevine had been very active with chatter about our upcoming film, True Believers.
“He thinks that when it comes to the script,” I said, “That you’re my puppet.”
“That is not true,” said Hideo, insult rising in his voice. “We are collaborators.”
“You know that and I know that,” I said. “But in Hollywood, many look at writers as second-class citizens to directors. Very disposable. And easily replaced.”
“How can you be replaced? It’s based on your novel. You wrote the screenplay.”
I reminded Hideo that he and I’d already had versions of this discussion many times over. How Hollywood does not run on logical business decisions nearly as much as it does on money, ego, and bad blood.
“Should I also tell (Voldemort) that when we shoot the picture that I’m going to want you on the set with me?” asked Hideo.
“I’m flattered. And you should tell him,” I answered. “But you might want to videotape it. It’ll be like that scene in Scanners.”
“Is that the awful Cronenberg film where all the heads explode?”
“As David Wally would say,” I joked. “Excaaaaactly.”
Hideo and I both laughed openly and loudly as we had so many times before. Humor is the salvation to the insane circumstances which pretty much surround most of the movie making process. Onward, I told him. We have a picture to make.
Then as if an Arkansas twister had touched down in the middle of the night, we woke up the next day to find our world turned utterly upside-down.
“We’ve been traded,” said David Wally in an early morning phone call.
“What do you mean ‘traded?’ I asked.
“A trade,” said David flatly. “Like in baseball. MGM traded us to Dimension.”
“Traded,” I repeated, as if saying it would make me actually believe it. “Can they do that?”
See if you can follow this. About a month or so earlier, around the time Dimension Films announced that they were going to make a film called The Amityville Nightmare, MGM decided they were going to resurrect their own Amityville franchise. In a clichéd this-town-ain’t-big-enough-for-two-Amityville-movies motif, lawyers on both sides began launching broadsides against the competing studio via the big mouth entertainment press. But while loud volleys were being publicly traded, the studios were actually negotiating to co-mingle their assets in order to produce a single and harmonious Amityville film from which they would share both the liability and spoils.
So what does this have to do with True Believers and Hideo Nakata? Apparently, moments before the Amityville agreement was to be finalized, the Weinstein Brothers demanded that MGM hand over the “Hideo Nakata picture” as some kind of a deal-closing scalp.
MGM said yes.
Of course there were all sorts of ugly caveats and penalties attached with the trade. I promise more on that later. Still, the damage was done. It was as if Hideo and I were a pitcher and catcher duo, both called into the front office only moments before we were expected to sprint from the bull pen to open the big game, only to be told that we’d been dealt to a completely different team.
As I expected, Hideo was crushed beyond words. Just like David Wally and myself, we had absolutely no clue what to expect from Dimension or what Dimension would expect from us. The only positives we’d heard were that MGM had imposed some extraordinary financial penalties on Dimension if they didn’t make True Believers into a movie within a year’s time. So if in that few months they had to give us a green light, how badly could the new owners screw up our movie?
Please. Don’t get ahead of me. At least not before this second silver lining I’d so gratefully discovered.
My truest hope was, as a result of the surprise trade, our not-so-dear producer, Sir Voldemort of Lion House, would be kicked off the team bus. But when I expressed my dreamy hopes to David Wally, he cocked and laid the wood to me.
“Off the movie?” said David. “This whole deal has (Voldemort’s) fingerprints all over it!” David went on to remind me of Voldemort’s long-standing relationship with the Miramax side of the Weinstein business. “How the hell else would they have known to trade for our movie?”
Because my children and extended family sometime read this blog I won’t directly quote the string of unholy curse words which so loudly wretched from my innards. I was totally aghast. Lost for a thought in my skull. Every way I looked at it felt as if I’d just stepped in front of an oncoming train.
Then came a light. Less than a sliver but bigger than a pinhole. Yet it allowed for some hope just the same. The two-year option on my underlying literary property was coming due in a matter days. If Dimension and MGM wanted to proceed they would have to cut me a gargantuan check. It was for such a prohibitive amount that, were I to kindly extend the option agreement for free, that might give us the time and leverage to sit down with the new owners and work things out until we were all on the same Hideo Nakata movie page.
And that’s just what I did. For a month at a time, I allowed both Dimension and MGM to iron out the wrinkles in their Amityville deal without the threat of me withdrawing the book rights to True Believers. And if Dimension didn’t play nice, I’d simply seize my property and let the lawyers sort the rest out.
My plan appeared to be working just fine until my agent called.
“Somewhere somehow, Dimension has come to the conclusion that Hideo Nakata is your little Japanese puppet,” said my agent.
“That’s absurd,” I told him. “If anything, it’s the other way around.”
“You’re a Japanese puppet?”
“Seriously. I’ve done everything I could to protect his vision of the movie. Screw any more with the script and Hideo will be on a plane back to Japan.”
“Someone has convinced Dimension otherwise,” said my agent. “Are you certain Hideo will cut and walk if you’re removed from the equation?”
I was. And it wasn’t because I possessed such a lofty opinion of myself. My faith in Hideo came entirely from the year I’d spent with him in service of his vision. Gladly following him, learning how he processed the scene work, and reassembled it back onto the screen page. In my entrenched point of view, the only reason Hideo had hung on so long is because David Wally and I had continuously and so fiercely fought all comers to defend his first American film.
After some twelve weeks of one option extension after the next, a True Believers meeting was finally set at Dimension Films. Here we go again, I reckoned. Time for the three amigos—Hideo, David Wally, and myself—to strap on our steel jockstraps and, once again, step into the breech.
Then came word from my attorney. He’d just received a preposterously large check in the name of Velvet Elvis Entertainment, my personal loan-out company. MGM and Dimension, without a star or a start date or even a director they were certain was going to helm the film, had outright and fully purchased the pre-negotiated literary rights to True Believers.
Whoops. There went all my leverage. Oh. And guess what? That’s right. They fired me.
Next week, the final chapter of TURNING JAPANESE.