Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Friday, July 13, 2012

RIP: Richard D. Zanuck



The famous producer Richard Zanuck died and I want to express my condolences.

He was one of the most successful producers in modern Hollywood.  His credits include The Sting, Jaws, The Verdict and Driving Miss Daisy. 

I never met him, but he was very helpful to my career.  My agent, Stu Robinson, who is now also deceased, sent him my script "The Fourth Mrs. Jones" and, although he didn't buy it, Dick sent a very nice rejection letter back praising my ear for dialogue.  Stu sent me the letter.  It hung on my wall for years.  Whenever I sent out a pitch letter, I would always use his quote.  It opened doors for me.

Thanks.

"The Fourth Mrs. Jones" was the biggest near miss of my early career as a screenwriter.  It was to be sold to the producers of "Dead Poets' Society."  It was to be their follow-up film.  The deal was negotiated.  I was going to make a great deal of money.  The papers were to be signed on a certain Friday, but the deal fell apart at the last second.  Never heard why.

The script was one of my favorites.  I am currently undertaking a page-one rewrite.

I am sorry Dick Zanuck won't be there to read the rewrite.

Rest in Peace.

And thanks for the boost and the encouragement.




Thursday, July 12, 2012

"Sarah's Choice," Part 2, The Writing



Soon after Tim and I were unceremoniously fired off "In the Blink of An Eye," we got an email from our glorious leader David A.R. White.  They wanted to produce a pro-life film.  And they wanted us to write it.

The initial producer, Jeff Peterson, a very successful LA restauranteur, had just seen a famous actress on CNN talking on the subject of abortion.  Jeff was infuriated because he felt she was making factually inaccurate statements and no one on the show questioned her words.  Jeff wanted to produce a film on the subject.

I, strangely, had always wanted to write a film on the subject as well.  I had another idea about a local priest who is given a parish where the previous priest had increased attendance by revving up a tremendously passionate pro-life movement.  Unfortunately, a series of clinic bombings began in the wake of the movement.  Everyone, the police and diocese itself, suspect that the bomber(s) are part of the parish.  The bishop gives the new priest the assignment of defusing the situation and convincing the bomber(s) to surrender themselves to the police -- or at least stop.  Despite the controversial subject matter, the film was would fall in the priest as detective mystery genre.  The film would have given me the opportunity to discuss the pros-and-cons of the pro-life movement, and what I believe is the proper Christian perspective.  All while telling an exciting, suspenseful story.

Abortion is a very passionate subject, and I must admit that I always approached it philosophically, rather than religiously.  Granted, I am a product of twelve years of parochial schools.  (Shout out to my homeboys at St. D., and Archbishop Curley!)  However, despite my post-Roe-v-Wade education, I don't ever remember hearing the subject of abortion ever discussed in religion classes.  Or any classes for that matter.  Granted, I might not have been paying attention.  As the photograph below would indicate, there was very little prospect of me getting a girl pregnant, intentionally or unintentionally, during that period.  My study of abortion began as a result of my German language classes.

The Curley Boy

I took three years of German.  Sadly, my school didn't offer Italian or Latin.  Just French, Spanish and German.  Everyone said Spanish was easier but boring.  The manhood of everyone who took French was suspect.  That left German, which was said to be the hardest but coolest language.  Naturally, I went for the coolest.  (See photo above.)  Plus, both of my grandmothers were half-German.  My grandmother Margaret's family, the Fabers and Engels, came from Allenbach, Prussia.   My grandmother Rita's family, the Rosenbergers and Fleckensteins, came from Krombach, Bavaria.  This was a chance to learn a little something about my roots.

German class was cool until the third year.  Then we started dealing with the Holocaust.  We watched all those depressing documentaries and films.  I lost my taste for the German language, but I became quite obsessed with the Holocaust.  I couldn't believe that a civilized, educated society could perpetrate such a horror.  My interest became focused on German medical ethics, and how the Nazis turned doctors from healers into executioners.  It was a horrifying progression.  To me, the error came in giving the government, or individuals, the right to decide what lives had value.  I believe that all human life has inherent value.  No government or organization or individual had the right to declare one person more valuable than another.  A Mozart or Einstein might have more to offer society than a person with Downs Syndrome, but they are no more human.  No more valuable.  No more worthy of life.  To quote Thomas Jefferson, that hypocrite slave-owner, "All men are created equal."  To me, abortion was the first step on the slippery slope of assigning comparative value to human life.  Does this mean I think abortion is the American Holocaust?  No, that's a bad analogy.

My understanding of abortion remained somewhat philosophical until I actually began to meet women who had had abortions.  Some of whom were people I would have never suspected of having one.  Some of these women were heavily burdened with guilt. Others didn't regret their decision, but were none the less haunted one way or another by the decision.  I knew one thing for sure.  I wasn't going to put myself in a position where I demonized these women as heartless or killers -- either in my personal life or my work.

Jeff Peterson had written the original treatment for the film, which dealt with two journalists, a man and a woman, on a Point/Counterpoint-style opinion program.  The producer of the show wanted them to discuss the subject of abortion.  He assigned the woman to take the pro-life perspective.  She, of course, would have preferred the pro-choice position, but, she learns the evils of abortion as she studies the pro-life position. 

That was certainly a serviceable enough plot.  However, Tim and I didn't feel it would grab the heart of the viewer.  We immediately proposed a counter-story, one in which a woman has a series of three visions of the her unborn child and herself through the years, ala, Dickens' A Christmas Carol. We felt that would have more emotional impact.  Also, the mood in the country concerning the abortion debate had changed dramatically in recent years, especially among women.  The majority has gone from pro-choice to pro-life.  Most people are crediting ultra-sound technology.  Women have a hard time aborting something they can see and identify as being alive and human.  Therefore, Tim and I wanted our hero to see and interact with her child.  However, unlike the Dickens' story, each of the visions originally had two parts.  In the first part, we would see Sarah with her child.  In the second part, we would see Sarah's life without the child.  In the those parts, we tracked her growing success in business, but the increasing emptiness in her life.

Tim and I were quickly given approval to follow our instincts.  Quickly was the operative word.  It was already around Thanksgiving and they wanted to shoot the film in early January.  And, since Hollywood tends to close down during the last two weeks of December, we had to be casting within two weeks.  This was the quickest first draft Tim and I ever produced.   The notes came back equally quickly.  The second half of the visions were deleted.  The miraculous Christmas card was added.  Sarah was put under more financial pressure in order to justify her contemplation of aborting the child.  (Even more heavy-handed financial pressure was placed on her in revisions made without Tim and I.)

Before we had completed the revisions, we heard Rebecca St. James had been cast as Sarah.  I was familiar with her work as a singer, but not really as an actress.  I had seen her in Rich Christiano's film "Unidentified," but she didn't have enough to do in that movie to gauge her as an actress.  However, I watched all of her videos I could find and she seemed to be able to comport herself very well on film.  I was glad we got her.

Tim and I also heard that Brad Stine was cast as Uncle Clay.  We were both happy about that.  We were very familiar with his work and knew he would make the most of the role.  In fact, Tim and I had nearly written a starring vehicle for him the previous year, but it didn't work out.  We were later hired to write another starring vehicle for him which has yet to be produced.  A pity.  It's a great script.

The big question that remained was who was going to direct.

Tim and I met with producer David A.R. White, as well as Michael Scott, Cary Scott and Kevin Downes, in Washington, DC., at the Vietnam Memorial Wall while they were filming the ending of the still unreleased film "To The Wall."  Tim took his camera and shot some stills for the film.

David A.R. White, yours truly, Cary Scott, Kevin Downes,
Tim Ratajczak and our 16th President Abraham Lincoln.

Under direct questioning, David hemmed and hawed about who would be directing the film.  Tim and I feared it would be Chad Kapper.  We weren't happy about it since we had been fired off the last film we had worked together on.  To throw us off the scent, David actually intimated that he was going to direct "Sarah's Choice" himself.  However, when he mentioned that we would be shooting the exteriors in Canton, Ohio, we knew Chad would be directing the film since that's where he lived.  And sure enough.  Soon it was announced that Chad was on the project.

Chad read the script and wanted ten changes.  I had to laugh.  Eight of the things he wanted to change were things Pureflix partner Byron Jones had added to the script.  Good luck getting rid of them.  We only found ourselves in conflict with Chad concerning the visions.  Tim and I wanted the visions to begin with Sarah's child being old enough to speak.  Tim wanted each of the visions to end with the daughter, Daisy, about to say "I love you," but never finishing the words.  Chad wanted to the visions to begin with Daisy as a newborn, which ruined that theme.  The decision ultimately went Chad's way.

Actually, despite our initial misgivings, Chad wasn't very difficult to work with at all.  Chad was an experienced commercial director.  He was more opinionated and sought more control than any of the other directors Tim and I had worked with at PureFlix.  I had a very frank discussion with him prior to the shoot, explaining the roles of the previous directors we had worked with.

In film school, they teach something called the auteur theory which argues that the director is the author of a film and has more control over the end product than anyone else.  That's hardly the case in the real world.  PureFlix is a producer-oriented company.  The producers call the shots.  I explained that to Chad, and told him that he could expect the film to be taken away from him in post.  That comment would prove to be very prophetic indeed.

To be continued.

"Sarah's Choice," Part Three, The Shoot

Previous Installment:

"Sarah's Choice," Part One, "In The Blink Of An Eye"

Read about the making of my other features:

21 Eyes
Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.