The first contact is often from out of the blue. Sitting on my sofa one afternoon, grading student writing, I answered the telephone and heard a secretary say, “I have Robert Altman on the line. Are you free to talk to him?” I was. But the film we talked about was never made. At a book-signing in San Francisco, an investor who owned the film rights to Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test handed me a copy of Atticus for my signature, and then asked, “Do you ever write screenplays?” I do, and I did. But that film wasn’t made either.
I fielded a number of inquiries about The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford since it was first published in hardback in 1983, but nothing came of the conversations, for as one studio executive put it, “We aren’t interested in horses and dust.” And then my agent phoned me in 2004 to say that Warner Bros. and Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company were interested in the novel, and Andrew Dominik was slated to direct from a screen adaptation he was already writing.
Because even with the elements of a script, a director, and a major actor, a movie is sometimes not made, studios hedge their bets in contracts for book rights: A final purchase price is agreed upon but is only due once principal photography has begun; until then, there is an option to purchase that holds the rights for a year or so and can be, in some instances, as little as 1 percent of the purchase price. Established actors block out their calendars months in advance and could miss out on one project while waiting for another to get to the photography phase, so they normally negotiate a “play or pay” contract, meaning they receive the same money whether the movie gets made or not.
Writers don’t get that insurance, so I found myself prowling the Internet for rumors about the upcoming film, and was pleasantly surprised when a television report on Pitt and his movie “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” ended with the notice that his next venture would be a starring role as Jesse James.
A confident chap, Dominik asked me to read and comment on his screenplay in its fine first draft, and I was stunned by how faithful he was to the book. Even action descriptions that no one but the actors and crew would ever read were whole paragraphs from my pages. “When something’s good,” Andrew said, “why mess with it?” Andrew was also auditioning scores of actors to play Bob Ford and asked me to rent videos in our hunt for the right guy, and some entrepreneurs were contacting me via phone and e-mail to explain why they were meant for the part. The role went to Ben Affleck’s younger brother, Casey. Each week seemed to carry news, some of it misinformed, of another supporting actor or actress signing on, and production managers were scanning the script in order to estimate a probable budget. A prospective crew numbering in the hundreds was gradually being assembled and locations in Canada were being scouted.
But we were still without the green light from the studio. I had heard of films that were canceled after the first day of shooting, and the screen adaptation of my novel Mariette in Ecstasy was finished but never released due to the production company’s bankruptcy. I could be no more than cautiously optimistic. And then in late May 2004, Andrew was given the go-ahead for a production that would commence in September and wrap the first week of December.
Writing is called the lonely art because work on a book is carried out over years in a hermit’s solitude. It’s invigorating now to have hundreds of people equally invested in a project, each of us sharing the same hope for its success.