May your hands always be busy
May your feet always be swift
May you have a strong foundation
When the winds of changes shift
Forever Young lyrics by Bob Dylan
A few days ago The Wrap announced a deal between actor Michael Mosley and Brother’s Blood author Scott Cawelti that left out one screenwriter that was about as close as one can get to a project and still get legally left out of the loop. I know because that writer just happens to be me. (In 2011 Cawelti and I completed a script based on the events covered in his book—and I later sent the WGA registered script to Mosely on his request.)
But I’m fine with the deal, and hope there’s a lesson you can learn here. A few of my friends called and emailed me this week about the deal and I’ll pass on to you what I told them.
Once upon a time (2008 to be exact) I was living in Cedar Falls, Iowa and I started writing the Screenwriting from Iowa blog that went on to win a Upper Midwest Emmy that year. In 2009, I read a newspaper article about a 1975 quadruple homicide in Cedar Falls and that Cawelti was giving a talk about a book he was working on about the murders. I went to the talk and met Cawelti afterwards and asked him if he was interested in writing a screenplay together and he liked the idea.
At that point he had already been working on the non-fiction book for over five years and it didn’t sound to me that it was going to be completed or published anytime soon so what I proposed was we do is write a fictitious story that has the bones of the actual story. So that’s what we set out to do. The main reason I chose the fictitious angle was because the convicted murderer in the case (Jerry Mark) to this day professes his innocence. Many have said that if the trial was held today he would not be convicted based on the circumstantial evidence presented in the 1976 trial.
I was very interested in the facts as we knew them, but believed the story could be better served by exploring what could of happened if Jerry Mark (a trained lawyer himself) was just a little more clever. Could he get away with murder?(Mark, now in his early 70s, is serving his four life sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison where he uses his law expertise to help other inmates.)
I did not option Cawelti’s unpublished story—a mistake on my part—nor had I read anything he’d written on his work in progress book. What Cawelti and I did was meet at his house, a restaurant, or coffee house, and discuss as many things we could about the case. Then I would go home and continue writing the screenplay. It was agreed that we would spilt the screenplay credit. I never imagined the screenplay would take us three years to complete, but I was running my own production company at the time in Cedar Falls—and three years is just how long it took to complete the script Shadows in the Dark.
The single biggest decision I made was not to make it a story about the murderer, but about a young, small town cop who was investigating his first homicide. The unproven Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs was my main reference protagonist. Brad Pitt’s character in Se7en was another reference point.
Long time readers of this blog may recall on March 20, 2011 in a post called Marketing Your Script (Part 1) I actually asked readers to help me put together a longline for Shadows in the Dark. (Still to date the most comments I’ve ever received from a post here.) In June of 2011 in my post Query Letter Strikeout I walked readers though the process of WME Story editor Christopher Lockhart shredding my query letter. (All in the name of screenwriting science to help you in your own writing and marketing.)
I knew a period piece screenplay set in a small town in Iowa about a murder was not the most mainstream, Hollywood friendly, commercial concept, but had hopes that someone like actor Ben Foster (who got his start doing theater in small town Iowa) could get attached and help the screenplay get made.
In September of 2011, Cawelti’s book Brother’s Blood, finally got published and as a nice bit of trivia Cedar Falls-based artist Gary Kelley (who knew I wrote the screenplay with Cawelti) asked me to pose for the cover of Brother’s Blood—and I did (See the post. Do I look Like Ethan Hunt?)
Cawelti got a call from the actor Mosley (who was originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa) asking about doing a screenplay on Blood Brother. Cawelti told him there already was a screenplay based on the events in the book and Mosely contacted me and I sent him Shadows in the Dark. Mosley read the script and told me that it felt like a big budget Jeremy Renner-type script–and what he actually wanted to do was a small indie film where he played the convicted murderer. I believe his intent was to do more of a character-study movie.
In 2013 I moved back to my hometown of Orlando and have limited contact with Cawelti since that time. Fast forward to today and Mosely’s career is hotter than it was in 2011 with the success of USA program Sirens. This positioned Mosley to pick back up on his personal project on Brother’s Blood giving himself a a feature project to star in. And so the deal was made with Cawalti, and in the recent announcement it mentions that the script is being written my Cal Roberston.
Again, the intent is to use Cawelti’s book for the script, anything from the script I wrote with Cawelti would be an infringement. We’ll see if Mosely’s version makes it to the big screen, but I’d personally love to see how they tell the story from a convicted killers perspective—especially since, as I said, Mark has professed his innocence for almost 40 years. Meaning unless he makes a sudden confession and tells all, their script will also be largely fictitious.
I have talked to writer friends about my situation, and have been told that this stuff happens all the time. Though the Shadows in the Dark and Blood Brothers share DNA, and even a writer, they are different entities. If Brother’s Blood gets produced it’s because Mosely stuck with his passion and vision. Mosley both went to cedar Falls High School and was the class president as was the convicted murderer Jerry Marks (though decades a part).
The biggest lesson I learned all of this is to secure what rights you can and write an agreement between the others writers because, you know, stuff happens. I’m in the pre-production process of producing a feature documentary and along with writing a business plan I have talked with an entertainment lawyer about securing the rights to the story which ideally would include ancillary rights. That means if my work in launching the doc brings in additional revenue such as a book, feature film, TV program, clothing that I would get a piece of those deals. A happy ending to the Cedar Falls story—and a great bookend to the regional Emmy I received as well, as my time in Cedar Falls—would resulted in Shadows in the Dark being produced. But as you know, not all stories have happy endings.
Related links from this blog:
Marketing Your Script (Part 1) Query Letter Strikeout
‘I can’t keep handling this rejection.’ On the road to becoming an Oscar-winning screenwriter.
Related books: The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to) by Brooke Wharton Related
Podcasts: The Moment interview of filmmaker Edward Burns by screenwriter Brian Koppelman where Burns talks about lessons he learned about getting burned on the distribution deal he made on his film Purple Violets. In fact. starting Monday I’ll be doing several posts based on that interview with Burns.
Scriptnotes episode 193 where screenwriter John August and Craig main discuss How writing credits work. On another podcast they handled a Q&A where they answered the question, what happens to a script when c0-screenwriters break-up. (If you know what episode that was shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org so I can add the link here.)
P.S. Missed opportunities, like rejection, and highs and lows are a part of the film, video, and TV business. I’ve been fortunate enough over the years that working in production has allowed me to pay some bills, win some awards, work with many talented people, and to travel to all fifty states in the US and to five continents for which I’m thankful.
But here’s an actual email that I received last September that didn’t pan out: Are u available Sept 19-Oct 4 (ish)? I am DPing a new Nat Geo show and we need someone who can shoot/produce a segment w/ an Alaska bush pilot. You would be a one-man-band. That show, Dead End Express, debuts on TV May 7. And here’s a text message I received back in December: Wanted to to check and see if u were interested/available for a shoot the end of the month Tenative Dates: fly 12/27 Shoot 12/28-1/9 I know over New Years…it is in the Bahamas LMK. That opportunity didn’t pan out either because I was going through cancer treatment. So instead of shooting in Alaska and the Bahamas in 2014 I got to experience chemo and radiation. (Even spent Christmas Day in the hospital.) Like the country song states, “Sounds like life to me.”
I’m grateful to be healthy again and back on my feet and working again on projects. So hang in there and don’t let set-backs drag you down. Starting Monday we’ll hear from filmmaker Edward Burns on the importance of resilience in a lasting career.
Scott W. Smith
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