Start with a $100 million ! Part 3
The realization that the only way to get a $150,000,000 epic, historical love story movie made was to attach one of a handful of directors or actors that the studio, even though they would rather not make the film, had to carefully consider making, lest they piss off a serious revenue generator. I saw that first hand when Tom Cruise and Cameron Crowe wanted to remake the 1997 Spanish film ABRE LOS OJOS (OPEN YOUR EYES)… or as we know it, VANILLA SKY.
Back then the directors that could get a movie made was comprised of James Cameron, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, Roland Emmerich, David Fincher, Robert Zemeckis and Peter Jackson. At least, that was my take. I spoke to most of them, and a few more.
Several directors didn’t feel “right” for the film ( how pompous and arrogant can a VFX nerd get?), so I didn’t pursue them. George Lucas and I were not really on good terms, considering all that happened back at LucasFilm, so I didn’t approach him. I admired Fincher a great deal and since we had known each other for twenty years or so, I personally gave him the script to read. Not sure if he was being nice … ( he generally isn’t) but he said he liked it, yet as he said, it seemed “really really expensive”. And then there was Cameron. At the time, Jim and I were still partners, and while we had “disagreed” about many things, I talked to him about the project at lunch one day at Chaya Venice. He was talking about doing smaller art films in the wake of TITANIC’s incredible success. Something about a fellow with multiple personality disorders. I, of course, was really interested in Jim’s take on my Hiroshima bomb movie. I mean, it had all the elements for a Cameron film. A strong female lead, a repentent and reluctant male hero, a message film about world peace. A shitload of visual effects. Perfect. Right?
Cameron wasn’t biting… too bad, he would have made a great CRANES. Unfortunately Jim and I had a major public falling out. I had to stand up for what I believed was right and unfortunately Jim didn’t see it my way. If only one could turn back the hands of time, I would have handled it so very differently.
A few years after that lunch, I had noticed that Jim had hired some writers to do a “take” on something about Hiroshima and the bomb. Something about the grandkids of Japanese survivors wanting revenge on the USA and getting their hands on a Nuke. Then a little later there was the news that Cameron had optioned a book called “The Last Train From Hiroshima” written by Charles Pelligrino, a frequent collaborator of Jim’s. Recently the book has been pulled by the publishers as there where doubts about the authenticity of this “true” story.
I then had a crazy idea. Who was the director that I, given my druthers, would die to have direct CRANES?
Milos Foreman, while not a guaranteed green light director, would be able to attract world class talent that might get the film financed. Forman was old school. He had the same manager/agent for what seemed like an eternity. I must have spoken to this rather elderly New York gentlemen with a thick accent ( I can’t recall his name) for a year or more. And every time we spoke, he assured me that Milos was “very interested, but very busy”. This conversation became a monthly regimen. I would make the call, he would take the call, he would put me off. It took me awhile to understand that people in the movie business rarely say “No”. They usually say how much they like something, but, that it’s not right for them at this time. The Japanese have a very similar quality. They Japanese word for yes is “Hai”, the word for no is “Hai” (said while sucking air in between their teeth).
Having run through a directors who’s who, I turned my attentions to actors that could get a movie made. CRANES is a film that is limited in attracting international stars as most of the film takes place in Japan. In fact, most of the actors are Japanese. If you hadn’t noticed, there aren’t many major Japanese movie stars that are big box office draws. Maybe that’s why MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA starred Chinese actresses! The only leading role that would attract a major movie star would be the role of Nic, our male protagonist. Nic, is Russian by birth, though he grew up in the U.S.. Nic is supposed to be around 33 years old. When I started on this journey, back in 1998, there were a handful of actors that could play the role. There were even fewer that could play the role and qualify as a movie star that would get the movie made. In fact, there was only one that really fit the bill.
Getting the attention of a movie star is a lot more difficult than getting the attention of a major Hollywood director, at least for me. Going the typical route of contacting their agent, is, for the most part, a non starter. Agents make their money by commission. Agents are mostly interested in the highest possible price they can negotiate for their client. Agents don’t want to spin their wheels, Agents want a sure thing, especially for their highest grossing client. Agents of big stars will only talk to Producers that are well financed and famous. Agents have assistants that guard them with a vengeance. ”… and he would know you because?” “And he is expecting your call?” “I’m sorry but, he can’t speak to you now… or ever!”
I had heard through some friends, supposedly in the know, that Brad Pitt had a psychic. And that he consulted with this Psychic on all decisions regarding projects that he might get involved with. I must say, that I’m a New Yorker and most definitely not of the “woo woo” variety, but I set up an appointment with said Psychic. A fifty something charming Persian woman, nicely coiffed and affable answered the door. She was located in the mid Wilshire district in a nondescript two bedroom with lots of tchotchkis sprinkled throughout her apartment. She asked me all kinds of questions. She pulled out a deck of Tarot Cards. She recorded the session on a cassette player. I told her all about CRANES, but I didn’t want her to know that I had come for the specific purpose of getting my script to her client. At the end of the session, I handed her $150 and as I was walking out the door, I made mention that I thought Brad Pitt would be perfect for the starring role.
She thanked me and said ” Visualize Brad calling you on the phone, and accepting your offer”.
I did… for several months, but I guess Brad never got the vibration of my visualization.
The other two movie stars that could get CRANES made, though not quite perfect for the role were Tom Cruise and George Clooney. George had already passed because, according to his “people”, he didn’t want to do another WWII movie after THE GOOD GERMAN. So that left Tom. I had, over the years spoken to Paula Weinstein, Cruise’s producing partner. I rang her, I sent the script over, I never got a return call. So, I called, a lot, and was finally told that they really liked it but they too had a Japanese film, THE LAST SAMURAI.
Visual Effects production was looking very appealing.
I started to retrench. Maybe the screenplay wasn’t as good as I thought. Maybe, creative people of the caliber I was shooting for, didn’t actually read screenplays. Maybe I needed visual aides and a polish on the script. I hired a bright young Lebanese artist that proceeded to create renderings and illustrations of key scenes within the screenplay. We worked together as a team for a few months, me as creative director and my new friend drawing magnificent illustrations. At the end of three months we had put together a beautiful presentation.
At about the same time, I was developing several other projects as well. One was a supernatural thriller called INDIGO. The lead character was a 20 something female and I had thought that a young Scarlett Johansson, on the heels of her debut film, LOST IN TRANSLATION, would be perfect. I wound up contacting her manager, who, interestingly enough not only grew up in my neighborhood in Queens and was my age, but was also Scarlett’s mother! We met at DD and immediately hit it off. We seemed to hang in the same places back in the mid to late 60′s. We liked the same music, had the same sensibilities and loved the same movies. I asked her to read A THOUSAND CRANES, and she loved it, albeit with notes and changes that she wanted to make.
BTW, every person that reads your script, whether they are a professor of literature or a garbage man, a psychologist or a dishwasher… they ALL have notes! It is one of the only businesses that I know where everyone, I mean everyone, is an expert. Imagine if this was allowed in medicine.
“Excuse me Doctor, but are you actually going to enter this patients skull with an incision?”, the dishwasher asked the surgeon.
‘I think you should use leeches to extract the infection”, the garbage man added.
Scarlett’s mom invited me to a private dinner honoring Scarlett for winning the BAFTA for LOST IN TRANSLATION. It was at the home of a famous actress. Though I was on the verge of a divorce, I attended with my then wife. About 30 people were in attendance that evening, all of them world class actors, actresses, producers and directors. Meg Ryan, Sir Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts, Winona Ryder, etc…. you get the picture. In fact, everyone there was super famous, except my ex and yours truly. It was a heady evening for a VFX nerd like me.
The next day I got a call from Scarlett’s agent at William Morris. I was excited. This fellow begins to tell me that I need to move forward with Scarlett’s Mom as my producing partner on CRANES because after all, if I want to play in the major leagues, I’ll need the support of a major agency, like his. I’m stoked, “Damn, it looks like CRANES is back on track”, I say to myself.
Scarlett’s Mom sets up meetings with new writers, many of them quite famous, some of them with William Morris. Scarlett’s Mom brings another producer to the table, the wife of the William Morris agent and the daughter of one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. I’m liking all of this, finally, playing in Yankee Stadium with the crowd roaring. We collectively talk to a handful of writers and finally settle on Jeremy Leven ( THE LEGEND OF BAGGAR VANCE, THE NOTEBOOK, DON JUAN DEMARCO). Leven is a seasoned writer, a one time director and very expensive. A deal is cut, I whisk him and his wife off to Japan and he asks us to set up shop in NYC (where he lives). He needs an office (in his toney apartment building), a researcher and an assistant. All is put in place and we now have a new writer!
Scarlett’s Mom and I are really hitting it off. We start to develop other projects and wind up going to Cannes for the film festival. We take meetings with international distributors for CRANES. I stay at the Carlton Hotel in a very small windowless room on the first floor that is costing “un bras et une jambe” (an arm and a leg). Mom however, the manager of a star, is being put up by Sony Pictures on the 6th Floor in a suite. In addition, Sony has made a car and a driver available to Scarlett’s manager as well as tickets to every party and premiere that Cannes can throw at us. What a time! Scarlett’s mom and I walk arm in arm down the Croisette. How very French of us. We dine at fabulous restaurants, drink copious amounts of champagne and talk about Rimbaud.
One late evening, I got a call to come to Mom’s 6th Floor suite, to discuss our meetings for tomorrow. I rang the bell, and Mom opened the door with more than strategy on her mind! I made a hasty exit, explaining that I was just going through a messy divorce and that our business relationship was considerably more important than anything she had in mind.
A week later, now back in LA, I got a very nasty phone call from a certain Agent. It seems that there was a major misunderstanding about what was said about his wife. I explained that there is nothing as upset as a woman scorned. I sent a lovely basket of fruit. All was forgotten.