Writers struggle to crack the Hollywood code

Category: Nim's Island News | Posted by: admin
Article Date: March 21, 2008 | Publication: The Courier-Mail | Author: Rodney Chester
Publication/Article Link:Courier Mail

YOU only have to look at the Oscars each year to realise how many great movies, like No Country for Old Men and Atonement, come from good books. But the relationship between those who write the stories and those who make the films is often a rocky one.

For some authors, selling their story is a dream come true. Clive Woodall was working as manager of a supermarket fruit and vegetable section in 2004 when Disney offered to pay him $1.3 million for his novel One for Sorrow: Two for Joy which began as a bedtime story for his children. It wasn't the $6 million Dan Brown reportedly got for The Da Vinci Code, but then again his tale inspired by magpies playing in the supermarket car park didn't have a conspiracy that went to the heart of the Christian church.

It changed his life, allowing him to switch to part-time work. Now, he writes for two days a week and dons his apron for the rest. But look at other people's experiences and it's, as perhaps Woodall would know, like comparing apples and oranges.

Sahara is probably best remembered as one of the collection of films on which actress Penelope Cruz fell in love with her leading man, but it was also the subject of a bitter legal dispute.

The first time a Clive Cussler book, Raise the Titanic!, was made into a movie, it was derided for its wooden acting and lame special effects. The author was keen to avoid another disaster and so, even when the Matthew McConaughey action flick Sahara was still in production, Cussler sued the filmmakers, claiming that they were using a script he hadn't approved.

Later, when the film suffered a $100 million loss, the filmmakers filed a counter action, claiming Cussler had inflated his book sales in selling the rights to the story. Both lost when the courts found each claim had merit.

Many authors have their own tales of woe when it comes to the murky area of film rights. Wilbur Smith has had several of his books made into movies, but others have frustratingly been stuck in the idea phase for years, passing from one would-be filmmaker to another.

LA life of Reilly

Australian author Matthew Reilly, currently in Los Angeles where he is working on the new TV show Literary Superstars based on his 28-page original screenplay, admits he's often told his books are cinematic and should be turned into movies.

"If only it were that easy," he says. "To turn one of my books into a movie would be expensive. We're talking $100 million-plus expensive. And your average studio only makes one or two such movies every year, so there's stiff competition, not least from tried-and-tested franchises like Spider-Man and the like."

Reilly understands success can often be self-motivation. He self-published his first novel, Contest, on borrowed money and distributed it to bookshops by spruiking door-to-door.

At one stage, Reilly was so keen to make it into the movies he shot his own movie trailer, but it's not an approach he would recommend to other authors.

"Movies and books are very different beasts. Just because you're good at one does not mean you'll be good at the other," he says.

"Filmmaking is tough, slow, expensive, and requires liaising with lots and lots of people; writing a novel, on the other hand, is very solitary, and many authors actually like the solitude.

"The biggest thing I learned in making my own trailer was this: don't make a science fiction film. Aliens are a pain in the butt to build and film, and are way too expensive."

With the success of Reilly's second book, Ice Station, it seemed only a matter of time before the exploits of the super soldier Scarecrow made it to the big screen. The picture looked even brighter when a Paramount executive contacted the author and optioned the story.

"The executive who optioned the book left Paramount and went to Fox, so the new guy who took over his job swept out all the previous guy's projects, including Ice Station," Reilly says.

"It was very sad, but that's also a fact of life in Hollywood you need your 'champion' in the studio to hold their job long enough to get your movie made."

Another one of his novels, Hover Car Racer, has a much better chance of getting made into a film, as Disney has purchased the movie rights outright, rather than taking out an option for a few years.

"But again, now the screenplay not being written by me; it's being done by Al Gough and Miles Millar (Spider-Man 2, Shanghai Noon) has to fight all the battles, since it's the screenplay that will be shot," Reilly says.

Even when you are the writer of a television show or movie, Reilly has realised that you still don't have much control. "I've actually, for the first time in my life, been rewritten on Literary Superstars by a seasoned Hollywood writer named Dottie Zicklin," he says. "It can be hard to see someone take over your 'baby', and certainly, they sometimes go in directions you wouldn't.

"But, hey, this is the big time, and you have to play the game. And if this show flies, then on my next show I'll get to call the shots.

"In Hollywood, you have to choose your battles and sometimes, you just have to eat humble pie. Patience, patience, patience."

The trouble for many authors hoping to see their stories adapted into a successful and lucrative film is that it's a medium that is a mystery to them.

Nim's Island

Wendy Orr, the Mornington Peninsula-based writer who published her children's book Nim's Island in 1993, had considered trying to sell film rights to her story before dismissing the idea.

"My agent and I had discussed it," Orr says. "I remember her saying once that they had never placed a book for film by doing it that way; usually books get turned into films because of some serendipity."

For Orr that serendipitous moment came when freelance film producer Paula Mazur contacted her in 2003. Mazur's seven-year-old son had borrowed the book from the local library and he, along with the rest of the family, were entranced by the tale of a girl who calls on the help of an author of adventure stories when her father goes missing.

When the film, starring Abigail Breslin and Jodie Foster, was shot on the Gold Coast last year, Orr discovered Mazur wasn't the only fan.

Foster loved the story because it had drawn in her reluctant-reader son. "Nim was the book that showed her son that he could love reading," Orr says. "That's the most powerful compliment you can pay an author."

While Cussler may not be heading to a film set any time soon, Orr says her own film experience has been "an almost unique" one and "amazingly positive" one.

Orr and Mazur communicated daily for four years, and developed a friendship which included the rest of the crew when shooting began and Orr visited the set. "I thought I would have to stay very much out of people's way. But at one point I was sitting in the director's chair and Mark (Levin) came back," she says.

"You're very aware and you've read about all the courtesy and rules but he's sitting at my feet."

Orr says one thing that helped her experience in handing over her story to someone else's hands was having realistic expectations. "A screenplay's first job is to be a good movie, and the secondary job is to follow the book," she says.

"There's no point in producing something that follows every page religiously and flops on the screen, because that really wasn't a very good visual metaphor.

"If I had written, produced and directed (Nim's Island) entirely on my own, there might have been a couple of minor things I would have done differently. But the total movie wouldn't have been as good."

Orr says that having her novel made into a film was not life-changing, but an experience that helps in paying the mortgage.

"The author is low down on the list of Hollywood expenses," she says. "I've heard some amazing theories about what I'm being paid but they're wrong."

Now that the movie is about to be released, Orr admits she's wondering if there will be a sequel. She has already published another story that follows Nim's Island and has a third story in her head. But, having seen her characters come to life in a specific form, she admits writing them will now present a new challenge.

"It will be very different writing it with those three faces in my head," she says.

Whether Nim's Island is a box office success or not, Orr says as the creator she already has had her special moment.

In the book, Nim's best friend is a sea lion called Selkie. On the set of the movie, Orr got up close with the two sea lions from Sea World which perform the role.

"They were solid and real and exactly how I had written them. That just tipped me over the edge and I just cried for three hours," she says.

Nim's Island opens April 3.