James W. Hall

james w hallThe filming of his novel Mystic River made Dennis Lehane that Hollywood rarity—a happy writer. But 99 times out of 100, our author reveals, events take a very different turn...

James W. Hall

When Dennis Lehane got the call from Clint, his fairy tale began. Major stars assembled, an excellent script evolved, Eastwood held it all together with calm and inspiration, and Mystic River went from the inky page to the glittering screen in a magical transformation that every writer fantasizes about. Oscar night and the whole megillah. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it doesn’t happen that way. Not even close. Here’s one story from that other 99.

Ten years ago, my third novel Bones of Coral was optioned by a well-known producer. It was the third time that had happened for me, so I was both thrilled and wary. Already working on a good case of cynicism about Hollywood, I had joined the school of writers who rush that option check to the bank, hope it clears, and then sit back to wait and see how badly things screw up from there.

MGM signed on to make the movie and I was hired to write the script. So far so good. I’d already had this dubious honor before with my first novel, Under Cover of Daylight, and knew full well that my script-writing abilities were meager. Transforming 400 pages of carefully crafted prose into a hundred pages of mostly blank space was not exactly my idea of a good time. So I invited my friend and fellow thriller writer Les Standiford to help in that project. Les had done a stint at AFI (American Film Institute) in Hollywood and had a good handle on the script form. The two of us were summoned to Hollywood to meet with the producer and the studio executives, or the “development people” as they are called.

In Hollywood parlance, we “took a meeting.” A phrase that fittingly echoes “took a bullet.” We sat in a room with four young, smart, casually dressed folks whose only knowledge of Bones of Coral was the three page summary they’d read. But such flimsy familiarity with the story line didn’t deter them from making major suggestions about how it should be reshaped for film.

Get rid of Dougie Barnes was their first order. But wait. Dougie Barnes is the bad guy, a colorful wacko who has no pain threshold and no empathy for his victims and is fond of spouting rhyming couplets as he does his gruesome work. A kind of Rain Man with a .357. Without a bad guy, what do you have? But they were clear. Dougie Barnes had to go.

Later, upon reflection, I’ve assigned this Hollywood tendency a label. I call it “The Brad Pitt Effect.” It works like this: In order to get a major star involved in a film project, you have to assure the star that he’ll have the juiciest lines, the meatiest part. That he’ll outshine all the other characters and his adoring fans will adore him all the more. Unfortunately in Bones of Coral my bad guy, Dougie Barnes, had the best lines. Either he had to go, or be transformed into a character so bland he wouldn’t threaten Brad.

They made other major suggestions in that initial meeting, then pronounced it finished. Les and I staggered out in a daze. They’d optioned my novel, then for some reason decided they wanted us to create a brand new story. New characters, new actions, just the barest connection with the original.

We wrote the script, trying to do as we were told but somehow stay faithful to the story, too. When we turned in the finished product we were promptly fired. “Too close to the novel,” the MGM representative said. Huh?

I wondered what it was exactly that drew them to the story in the first place if they wanted me to write a completely different one for the screen.

Just so it’s clear, here’s a quickie summary of the three main threads of Bones of Coral. A young man who hasn’t seen his father in 30 years finds him murdered and sets out to discover who did it, and what his father has been doing during all those missing years. In the course of the story, the son accomplishes both of those things and in the process is reconciled to the abusive deserter that he thought his father was. Another thread goes like this: There is an unnaturally high incidence of multiple sclerosis in Key West. That same young man investigates possible causes of that high disease rate and finds links between it and a military testing program in which innocent civilian populations were used as unwitting experimental subjects. And finally, a young woman suffering from multiple sclerosis joins forces with our hero to discover the possible environmental triggers for her disease.

The new writer that MGM hired wrote a script that everyone at the studio loved. They wound up hiring a director, Hugh Hudson, who had won an Oscar for Chariots of Fire. Back in Florida as I heard each new move that MGM was making, I dropped my guard a little. Oh, my god, this is going to work. They’ve got a script, they’ve got a big-time director. They’re looking for major stars.

Alas, after spending a few million dollars on the project, the development people finally showed the script to Alan Ladd Jr., who was then the head of the studio. He promptly put the movie in “turnaround.” Turnaround is the Hollywood term for “graveyard.” Ladd’s comment was this: “It’s not the same story I remember buying.” Oh, really?

Turns out that Alan Ladd liked the one thread in the story that somehow got left out of the script. The plot line that focused on a son coming to peace with his father’s abusive behavior. It just so happens that this story had a close connection with Alan Ladd’s relationship with his own father. Whether he knew this consciously or not, I don’t know, but clearly on some level he wanted to make a movie that told his own story. The other two threads, the woman who fights bravely against her multiple sclerosis and the devious military testing that may have compromised the health of unsuspecting civilians appealed to the producer and the director for personal reasons as well. The producer had a sister with MS and the director believed the American military was deeply corrupt and wanted to make a movie that put forward that view.

So, as I discovered, all the principals were attracted to the project because it gave each of them a chance to tell a story they felt a personal connection with. But because they left out the boss’s story, the whole project was put on the shelf where it remains to this day. Didn’t anybody think to ask him, ‘Hey, Alan, which of these story lines do you like the best?”

Now when the movie people call, my heart still skips a beat. But it settles down a little more quickly than it used to and I find myself observing with detached amusement just how this latest Hollywood misadventure will play out.

Mystic River is that one out of a hundred. But as a veteran of the other 99 percent, I can say with some certainty that watching how a bunch of smart, creative, well-heeled people screw up is also first-rate entertainment.

James W. Hall’s latest novel is the Thorn mystery Going Dark.

This article first appeared in Mystery Scene Winter Issue #88.