EXACTLY WHERE WE'RE GOING WRONG

by Stephen Gallagher

 

Writers are paranoid, it comes with the territory. We all have suspicions about how we were once ripped off, our ideas stolen, our stories lifted and used to make someone else rich. It's mostly anecdotal and it's rarely provable... which means that when a producer does rip off, steal or otherwise lift another's intellectual property, he or she can usually get away with it. You know the kind of people I mean. They're the ones who think that hearing an idea and having an idea are roughly the same thing.

This, I hasten to point out, is not one of those stories.

Instead I suppose this is a story about a weird kind of prescience. Back in May 1990 I wrote a scene in a draft of a screenplay where a bunch of drunks in a pub talk about one of those stupid ideas that start to seem perfectly wonderful after a couple of beers. Here's how it went:

INT. COUNTRY PUB. NIGHT.
A quiet pub with an open fire; unspoilt traditional rather than contrivedly traditional. The group has a table near to the fire. All their wet coats are on the backs of their chairs.
FEDAK Did Terry tell you about the screenplay we're going to write?
KEITH You mean like that coffee table book you were supposed to be doing? What was that?
TERRY SACKS "One Hundred Famous People Naked, with Bags on their Heads".

FEDAK This is absolutely straight. I met this guy in the film business and told him the story. He reckons it's a winner and he says that if we write it for no money, he can sell it and then we'll all get paid out of the profits.
HARPER's looking at LINDA. She catches him doing it. He looks away quickly, embarrassed. No-one else notices.
HARPER Where did you meet this person?
TERRY SACKS In the fish shop.
FEDAK He was looking for locations.
TERRY SACKS He was looking for fish.
TERRY isn't taking this anything like as seriously as FEDAK is.
KIM PRYOR What's the story?
FEDAK There's this nine year old boy and he's got this dog, right? And he loves it more than anything and it loves him. And then it dies.
TERRY SACKS It's a feel-good movie.
FEDAK Shut up. That's only the beginning. The pre-credits sequence. Then we see the same kid grown up, he's about thirty. Nothing in his life's gone right. He's got all these problems and nobody loves him.
TERRY SACKS It's autobiographical.
FEDAK But what he doesn't know is, when he was a kid and his dog died, it was reincarnated and now she's grown up as this gorgeous blonde. She knows it but he doesn't. The movie's all about how they get together again.
TERRY SACKS And it gets complicated because of stuff like if someone throws a stick, she forgets what she's doing and runs after it.
KEITH What do you call this movie?
TERRY can't keep a straight face any longer.
TERRY SACKS "She's a dog."
All erupt. FEDAK stands. He's maybe 1% offended, and the rest is exaggeration.
FEDAK You can laugh. And when I'm stinking rich and too good to talk to the likes of you, I hope you'll remember how you pissed me off tonight and I still bought my round.

And that was basically it. The story gave the producer and director a smile, we joked about how perhaps we ought to be making that movie instead of the one we were working on, and then the scene promptly got cut from the next draft.

Fast forward to November 1995. A BBC documentary on magician Ricky Jay follows Jay and his business partner to the offices of Frank Marshall, producer of numerous Spielberg epics and director in his own right of ARACHNAPHOBIA, ALIVE and CONGO. One of Jay's professional specialities is to devise special effects for films that depend upon conjuring techniques rather than editing or image manipulation.

Marshall outlines the project that he's working on. It's about a dog whose consciousness gets transferred by some kind of voodoo into the body of a teenaged boy. The effect that he wants Jay to devise is one in which the boy, forgetting himself, runs after a flying frisbee and catches it in his mouth. Jay summarises the concept in a phrase; 'The Boy with the Soul of a Dog'.

Now, this isn't a ripoff story because there's no line of connectivity here. The whole point of my scene was that its subject was such a gloriously crap idea. Now, by the look of it, something very similar is set to make one of those gloriously crap big-budget Hollywood movies. I offer this information without comment, other than to wonder whether it may be a lesson to all in this business about where we're going wrong.

As for my movie... the script went through a couple more drafts and then the money ran out and we all went on to other things. The director went off and made Britain's most financially successful film ever. The producer is currently preparing a megabudget science fiction epic that will be occupying most of the sound stages at Pinewood for much of next summer.

And me? I'm working on One Hundred Famous People Naked, with Bags on their Heads.

 

Copyright Stephen Gallagher © 1995

 

 

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