How Does One Make A Million Dollars in the Movie Business? Part 2
The $1.7 million had been received and about $1.2 million already spent. Two writers, a trip to Japan, dozens of meetings and two years had transpired and so far, several disappointing drafts and not even a traffic light insight, let alone a green light.
Interestingly enough, the money had been wired directly into Digital Domain’s bank account, but there had been no contract or agreement governing the use of funds nor any obligations that DD would have regarding the money. The bubble in Japan, at least in the educational sector, had not yet burst. Tsuzuki Gaukonen had dozens of educational and vocational enterprises. From Hotel Management, Economics, Pharmaceutical Sciences, Digital Content to Flower Arranging… Tsuzuki Schools had extraordinary tax advantages (they paid none), and thousands upon thousands of students. The schools were run with military professionalism but when it came to entertainment business affairs, they were sorely lacking.
Try as we may to put an agreement in place, we just couldn’t come to any terms agreeable to both parties. They wanted ultimate creative control… approval of actors and director and final script approval. They however had no concern about DD using the funds for script development and never once asked for their money back. In fact, at one point, Tsuzuki had indicated that he was prepared to fund the entire film, all $150 million. He sent his beautiful daughter Asuka to Venice to discuss the possibility, but several months into negotiations, funds were diverted elsewhere. Tsuzuki-san decided to purchase one of the largest buildings in Fukuoka and open up StarBucks throughout Japan.
I continued to travel to Japan, lecturing at various Scott Ross Digital Schools. I gave press conferences, met with Tsuzuki –san to discuss actresses that might play the lead role of Keiko (Tsuzuki-san was very interested in beautiful actresses) and continued my conversations with resources that would give me further insight into what led up to that day in August 1945. I met with dozens of Hibakusha (survivors), professors, news archivists, military, and government officials. I built a friendship with Hiroshima’s mayor and had full support of the Peace Memorial Museum as well as the Hiroshima Film Commission.
But, I still had over a million dollar script(s) that I was unhappy with. I realized that I would never really be happy with a personal story that was written by writers that wrote in seclusion without my direct involvement. I had also learned that writers, at least scriptwriters were a strange lot, and rightly so. Hollywood had mistreated writers forever. While everyone in Hollywood will tell you that a script is the most important part of a movie, writers were, for the most part, treated like second-class citizens by Hollywood powerbrokers. Those at the top were paid extremely well, deservingly so at times… but most writers were often mistreated, and not compensated fairly. And so, over the years, the WGA, writers agents and writers themselves had developed their rules and regulations, their tough outer skin, to protect themselves. Unfortunately, like all of business, and most acutely the business of Hollywood, had become absolutely dysfunctional. Everyone expecting to get screwed by the other guy, and there for, defensively, trying to make sure that they did the screwing first.
I figured that if I were to be involved with the writer, I needed to be part of the writing team. I had conversations and meetings with several good writers but all of them refused to have the Producer be a part of the writing team. It seemed obvious to me that I needed to find an already existing writing team that would be open to allowing a third member (moi) to join the team. After more meetings and reading even more bad scripts, I stumbled upon two young guys that had written a pretty good sci-fi script. While the script wasn’t appropriate for CRANES, I was intrigued by the last name of one of the writers, Kebo.
This team was comprised of two young guys, an Argentinian, Rudi Liden and a Japanese American, Dave Kebo.
They showed up at DD, and I took an immediate liking to them. They were cool, excitable, eager and loved the story. And then I lowered the boom… I would only hire them if they allowed me to be part of the writing team. They wanted to think it over. I think that they didn’t want to embark on what they thought would be a cluster fuck. They came back with a no… sorry, but this won’t work, they thought. I thanked them and told them that I would have to move on. After a few days, they got back to me and said, yes, they would like to see if they could work under this rather strange arrangement. Personally, I think they really needed the money.
The next several months was to be one of the greatest creative experiences of my life. Everyday Kebo and Liden would show up to DD at about 10 AM. After sketching out characters and a rough outline, the three of us would talk through each scene. The guys would retire to their cubicle and get on with writing while I tended to being the CEO of a major visual effects facility. At about 6 PM we would reconvene and review the scene(s) that had been written that day. Comments, discussions, at times heated debate would ensue, yet at the end, we would craft a screenplay that we all would be proud of. This went on for several months. I believe both Dave and Rudi would say that the experiment was a great success and that the end product was everything that we had hoped for. At some point, Kebo got out of the business, but Rudi and I remain close friends to this day and have collaborated on several other projects.
With this new version of CRANES, it was time to attach the necessary “elements”, as those in the biz say. A project like A THOUSAND CRANES, a big budget film, chock full of visual effects, drama, romance, history, intrigue and character development (everything I like in a film) is a film that for the aforementioned reasons is neigh on impossible to get made. Again, I learned that a little too late. What I did learn was that to get a project like this off the ground, one needed “elements”. And in this case the elements needed to be as heavy as Uranium. Those heavyweights fell into two categories: directors and movie stars.
Over the years, while heading up VFX companies, I had the opportunity to meet some of the world’s biggest directors. I had also learned that most of those heavyweight directors had projects scheduled for years ahead and that unsolicited screenplays like CRANES were rarely, if ever accepted by their production companies. I was not your average solicitor, after all I had cut deals with most of these guys over the years, and many of them said “ Take care of me on this one Scott and I’ll take care of you guys in the future”. I also realized that CRANES would have to go through the necessary channels to ever make it to the desk of any of these directors.
The script would be submitted, wind up on the desk of some “20 something” reader, dressed in black, smoking Gauloise and still having nocturnal emissions over some darkly disturbed “Fincheresque” film noir piece. Assuming this reader even cared what happened fifty years ago in Hiroshima, I was pretty sure I would never get the coverage I needed to move to the next level, the director’s Producer.
Over the next few years or so, I submitted the screenplay to Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone, Ridley Scott, Peter Weir, George Clooney, Clint Eastwood and Mel Gibson. Interestingly enough I got responses from all of them. Oliver and I met a few times but he had a real problem that, even though there were many historically accurate elements, the main characters were fictional. I reminded him of JFK. Spielberg said that although he liked the script, he had a Japanese film already in production (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA). RSA ( Ridley’s production company) sent their Exec Producer to DD for a meeting but ultimately decided to pass. I called Peter Weir at home and explained the project. Peter had just finished MASTER AND COMMANDER and explained to me that after that experience he would never again direct a large visual effects laden movie. Clint’s producer Rob Lorenz and I discussed Cranes and while Rob thought the script good, said that Clint too had a Japanese film in the works (LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA). Rob recommended that I send the script on to Clooney’s production company which was located just next door to Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions on the Warners lot. Clooney’s people said that while the script was really great, that George was through making WWII movies after his experience on THE GOOD GERMAN.
The feedback I was getting on the script was very positive, particularly from women. With that info in hand, I started to look for a woman director. Unfortunately, the pickings were slim. At the time, there were very few female directors that a studio/financer would feel comfortable handing a $150 million epic war story to. I had fallen in love with Julie Taymor, the director of FRIEDA and felt that she would surely understand our heroine, Keiko. I spent a half an hour on the phone with Julie . She had read the script but felt that our heroine was not strong enough. I tried to explain that in 1945 Japan, Keiko was akin to Wonder Woman in today’s society. She wasn’t buying.
At some point, the writers and I through our research, became aware that the first Caucasian to witness the devastation of Hiroshima was an Australian reporter, who after seeing the remains of Hiroshima, telegraphed a story back to Sydney. He was immediately seized by the Japanese Authorities and detained. I thought maybe we could rewrite the intro, include the Australian as a bookend and now tell the story thru the eyes of this Australian reporter. I contacted Mel Gibson.
Bruce Davies, Mel’s partner wanted to pursue CRANES and it seemed that through Mel’s production company, their development execs prodding and this new twist, we had some serious interest. Bruce and Mel set up a meeting with Paramount’s then President of Production, Michelle Manning. Bruce and I met with Michelle armed with a tone poem DVD that Rob Legato had put together with images of Hiroshima cut to a track of Madame Butterfly. The meeting was relatively brief. Manning loved the script but felt that the ending was really sad. She wondered if it had to end with all those people dying, and our hero and heroine dying as well. I tried to explain that was the point of the screenplay.
“Couldn’t we have a happy ending?”, she asked.
“Well, over 90,000 people were killed as a result of the bomb”, I answered.
“Couldn’t Keiko and Nic live?”, she continued.
“Well, it seemed to work in TITANIC”, I responded.
“ Maybe at least one of them, like in TITANIC, should live on”, she said.
“How about ROMEO AND JULIET, that seemed to have worked…. for centuries…. internationally”, I said.
Paramount passed, and certain issues started to plague Mel. We moved on. I continued folding Cranes.