(No, it’s not Summer, but I’m playing a few re-runs for the uninitiated while I am in heavy script mode on a feature. Here’s a favorite. Don’t forget to check the archive.)
(A true story)
It’s Wayne. Remember me? 1982. We both live in L.A. You’re just getting your feet wet as a director. I’m getting some good assignments as a screenwriter. We have the same agent … Gene L-. He’s got a one-room office on Beverly Blvd. His suit, shirt, shoes and shag carpet are still left over from the early ‘70s. He’s got no partners. No secretary. No class.
But he has us.
You are the art director on a Roger Corman sci-fi production called Battle Beyond the Stars, and you just directed your first feature called Piranha II.
I recently scripted a couple of features for National Lampoon at Universal Studios to follow up on the surprise success of their release, Animal House.
We are two rising stars.
Anyway, the reason I’m writing this blog is to apologize for costing you $100,000 at this time when you really needed it.
Gene L was an agent past his prime (in Hollywood, that’s around 28), but he did get us both a feature motion picture deal on the basis of my latest spec script, and on you’re being from Canada. A Toronto-based film company was going to get $1.5 million in matching funds from the Canadian Film Development Board toward the budget of the movie partly on the basis that the picture be shot there, and the director be from there.
The deal was built around my screenplay, M-PATH. You remember that script, don’t you? It was a pretty good one.
M-PATH, or Multi-Purpose Advisor for The Home, was a story about the development of a new computer that spoke to users in a completely natural voice. A voice with empathy. Thus, the dual meaning of the title.
The hero of the movie invented the computer and was beta-testing it in a small Colorado mining town that had gone bust after the local mines dried up. The locals were desperate … desperate enough to agree to be re-trained in new economic skills, as well as to receive emotional counseling and therapy from the same home computer; M-PATH.
And the experiment works. Eventually all the test subjects in the town begin to turn their lives around with the help of the M-PATH. HE teaches them new skills. HE listens to them. HE tells them he understands them. And HE solves their problems. M-PATH is always there for them. And they become emotionally dependent on HIS presence.
M-PATH’s creator, Brad, of course, realizes this is a DISASTER … Human beings becoming addicted to a machine to the point where their lives are no longer private, their minds are no longer free, and their time is no longer their own? That’s not at all what he intended. It’s diabolical. But M-PATH assures everyone this is all a good thing.
So Brad tries to pull the plug on this experiment he sees as gone astray. Naturally, M-PATH won’t let him, and begins manipulating its users to block his efforts. When one of users goes too far and puts Brad in the hospital, M-PATH is already there controlling the ER. The creation has HIS own creator’s life within control.
Let’s just cut to the chase and remember the hero escapes and lives. And M-PATH? HE wins, too, by analyzing data to uncover a rich new mining source that bails the town out of its economic crisis. All is forgiven amid the flush of financial success.
The end of the script finds M-PATH being delivered to nearly every home in America. And the hero realizes you can’t stop the march of technology … even when it’s sometimes trying to kill you.
The script sealed the deal, the producers were happy, and you were happy. You saw the story somewhat as a religious metaphor, and were eager to direct the picture and add your own original touches. We both had no doubt it was going to be a blockbuster.
But you were also going through a divorce and had ended up at an apartment in the exile land of cheaper rents known as San Fernando Valley, with NO furniture and mounting financial obligations.
You could really use $100,000.
And that’s what the deal was: $100,000 for you, the director, and $50,000 for me, the screenwriter. Decent money for a low budget (under $5 million) picture at the time. Less the 10% agent fee to Gene, of course. And I would also be splitting my earnings with a friend and computer professor from USC, Buzz, who I had brought into the project as a technical consultant, but wound up giving co-writing credit to on the basis of the valuable ideas he brought to the project. We thought we were on the cutting edge. And perhaps we were right. There’s STILL no computer like M-PATH to this day.
A date was set for production of the movie in Canada
One of my spec feature scripts was going to finally get produced. I was ecstatic.
But there was one small glitch.
The producers decided they needed a more spectacular ending. One with, you know, a lot of dead bodies.
“Couldn’t M-PATH start, like, zapping people through their keyboards? Electrocuting them … Like ‘Jaws,’ the computer?”
I took one look at my esteemed computer genius writing partner … and have never witnessed someone grow so pale with horror. “Who are these … imbeciles?” his expression screamed.
“Is THIS what screenwriting is all about? Sacrificing logic and principle and originality at the drop of dime (or, in this case, $25,000)? ‘Zapping’ people? Are you shitting me? The ending we have where the computer has psychologically enslaved everyone is ten times more horrifying. You can’t get any more creepy or insidious.”
Okay, maybe this wasn’t all Buzz’s doing. Those were undoubtedly my own thoughts while staring at Buzz’s incredulous face.
So, weeks into negotiation and pre-planning and you, Jim, probably already thinking about how you were going to spend that lovely $100,000, Buzz and I backed out of the deal and walked away with our script.
And, looking back now, I really feel bad about it.
I probably didn’t need the money as much as you did at the moment. I guess I didn’t think it through. I suppose I wasn’t … empathetic. Ironic, isn’t it?
And we had become good friends. We shared our hopes and ambitions, and stories about our budding careers in the business. We ate breakfast routinely at the Omelette Parlor in Santa Monica. We flirted with the waitresses. We talked about all our favorite movies and television programs. We had the same all-time favorite TV show; The Outer Limits. We were only two months apart in age. You were almost purely visual. I was all story. It was a collaborative match made in Hollywood Heaven.
And then, I fucked it up by giving our lottery ticket back.
I don’t know what came over me. Integrity? Ethics? Arrogance? Stupidity? All of the above? I guess it doesn’t matter.
What matters is that I’m sorry. I know it must have seemed like a betrayal at the time, but it had nothing to do with you. It was all me, being a little selfish, and trying to show a buddy and a budding writer that we writers don’t have to compromise our principles.
I’m not apologizing because I’m in “The 12-Step Program”, or, like the character in My Name Is Earl I have a list of people I need to mend fences with to restore my good karma. Well, okay, maybe it’s a little bit of that.
But I really do mean it.
And I really did like the script you showed me when we were hanging out as friends. You were a little unsure about the writing on the script, but you had total confidence in your ‘vision’ of the script. You carried around this drawing with the script of a half-machine, half man with the top of his head and an eye and his legs blown off, dragging himself across the floor relentlessly still in pursuit of someone to kill them. You called it, The Terminator.
Whatever happened to that script?
I got frustrated with life in Hollywood after about 50 scripts written, 12 sold, and none of the major studio ones produced, and took my beautiful wife and left Hollywood forever to start a family in a normal environment somewhere else and never looked back.
But I’m still sorry about the $100,000.
And I wonder. How did things work out for you?
– A. Wayne Carter