piece by Richard Brooks, (Sunday Times, July 4,
And interview with Eric Leclere (October 1999)
Screenwriter hates his movie. So what’s new? With
The Lost Son - which stars the bankable Daniel Auteuil
- quite a bit. The movie, directed by Chris Menges,
was released last week. Screenwriter Eric Leclere
thinks it stinks. Mind you, so do quite a few of
Eight years ago, Leclere - French-born, but living in Britain -
wrote a short story about a detective’s search for a missing person.
It didn’t get anywhere, so he adapted it as a screenplay and sent
it to Menges. He, in turn, contacted Scala, one of the brightest
British film companies, and the cogs began to turn. But then Leclere’s
script was handed over to another writer Mark Mills, for further
“tweaking”. And this is where things began to turn ugly. Leclere
and his wife Margaret - who also worked on the original screenplay
- were both horrified by the changes. They felt the script had moved
from being a detective story into one that spent too much time exploitatively
toying with child abuse - an accusation rejected by Scala.
Whatever the case, the movie went into production. And in the meantime,
Leclere developed his original story as a novel. Not surprisingly,
his publishers Serpent’s Tail wanted to put details of the movie
on the front cover. But Leclere was having none of it, and brought
out the book at his own expense. So there are now two very different
Lost Sons, apparently by the same man. Because oddly the disgusted
screenwriter has allowed himself to remain named on the movie, not
just as screenwriter but also credited as “from an original idea
by Eric Leclere...”
following is what Leclere had to say about it in
an interview that took place back on October 7th
Question: So, how did you feel about the Sunday Times piece?
Leclere: It’s amazing how many inaccuracies can
fit in a confined space. And bad will.
Q: Bad will?
L: Perhaps bad will is not quite what I mean. But the “not surprisingly”
here, the “getting nowhere” there, and the way the story’s wrapped
up… The only thing the guy who wrote that thing seemed concerned
with is questioning my character. When you think of the people involved,
to do something about the story only to pick on the screenplay writer/first-time
novelist is, well… I mean, the publisher aside, did you see the
poster for the film? You should count the number of producers, executive
producers, companies and financial institutions who put their brains
together to bring you the film The Lost Son. From the Oscar winning
director to the Arts Council of England, it makes for quite a list.
But it seems more sporting to gun for the disenchanted writer. Huh.
I wish it had made me feel important or something, you know? As
if the film experience and leaving my publisher was not bad enough.
At the time I could have done with being left alone.
Q: Did you do anything about it?
L: Like what?
Q: Like contacting the journalist to complain?
Q: Why not?
L: For the same reason I’d ignored his calls before he wrote his
thing. Although, actually, I did get in touch with him. He’d emailed
me a few questions. Fluff not really worth answering. I emailed
back that as far as The Lost Son was concerned, it was my opinion
that the £2m the producers received from the Arts Council was used
to commit intellectual rape. Or something to that effect. Can’t
remember the exact wording. Anyway, he didn’t use it. He gets one
line from me and doesn’t use it. I wonder why? Waste of time.
Q: Is that why you didn’t complain? You thought it would be a waste
L: No. Not really. I’d just come out of hospital at the time. Bad
chest pain. I’d also just been put on pills. They didn’t know what
was wrong with me so anti-depressants seemed like a good idea. Anyway,
I was out of it. And it’s not as if I’d ever dealt with the press
before. Just couldn’t deal with it.
Q: Sorry to hear that. Are you better now?
L: No. Right now I’m on strong painkillers. And still don’t know
what’s wrong. But thank you for asking.
L: It’s all right. I don’t want to talk about it.
Q: Right. Well, what about the film then?
L: What about it?
Q: If what was written is inaccurate, what exactly happened?
L: It’s a very long a story.
Q: But it is fair to say that you disowned the film?
Q: Why? What went wrong? And why did you keep your name on it if
that's the case?
L: What went wrong is really not for me to say.
L: No. From the day Margaret and I signed away the option to the
original screenplay, we were never informed of anything at all to
do with the production. In fact, and this might be a first in the
history of British and French cinema, once work was in progress,
we were refused the right to meet anyone from the Anglo-French production
Q: I’m sorry? Are you saying that you actually never met the producers?
L: Apart from what could be described as a quick courtesy meeting
over a cup of coffee just after we signed with Scala, that’s right.
Q: How come?
L: You better ask them that. They never really explained. But I
guess, since we were alive and well, contracted to do two new drafts
and living within a couple of miles of Scala’s London offices, someone
somewhere must have decided there existed a very good reason not
to meet or discuss our work with us.
Q: So you actually never met anyone from Scala, IMA, the Film Consortium,
France 2 Cinema, er… Sarah Radclyffe Productions, le Studio Canal
+, the Arts Council, Film Four, France 3 Cinema or The European
L: Is that the full list of people credited on the poster?
Q: No. Not quite. But...
L: Well, as I said, we were granted a courtesy meeting just after
signing. It took place in a café one morning. Sarah Radclyffe and
the director were there. And one Amanda Posey who at that time was
employed by Scala. Everybody was in a hurry to get somewhere else.
As meetings go, this was no more than a “Hi-there-nice-to-meet-you-and-goodbye”
twenty minutes or so kind of affair. We’d gone to it thinking we’d
discuss the script, exchange some ideas about how to go about the
first rewrite. Team work, you know? We were just about to start
on the first rewrite, so keen and dumb. Instead, if I recall correctly,
we discussed how well Camden School Girls do in the world and were
handed a piece of paper with about ten lines listing five points
about the script and told to go home to edit down the original as
much as possible. The idea was we’d meet again once this was done.
It seemed fair enough. The script was much too long. We interpreted
their casual approach as a good sign. After all, during the negotiations,
I’d opened the door for Scala to buy the screenplay outright on
a couple of occasions. But they turned the offer down, saying they
wanted to work with us. We believed it, not least because the script
had found its way to Scala and Radclyffe through Menges. So we thought,
or we thought they thought, there existed a strong director-writer
Q: Wasn’t this the case?
L: All we knew was Menges told us he liked the script. And since
Scala had elected to buy an option on it and attach him as director,
it was fair to presume that they too liked it and all was well.
This seemed good enough at the time. But it’s not as if we had a
special relationship with Menges.
Q: You had never worked together before?
Q: So the screenplay Scala optioned was not a collaboration between
yourselves and the director...
L: No. Absolutely not. We’d never met the man until a week or so
after we sent him the script of The Lost Son.
Q: Sent… You sent him the script unsolicited by post?
L: Not quite. It was one of those things. We’d sent his agent another
script. Menges had liked it, called to let us know it wasn’t for
him but did we have anything else he could have a look at? As it
happened, we did. The Lost Son. Only, it wasn’t quite ready for
showing yet. When it was, a few weeks later, we sent it and within
a matter of days he came to see us. “I want to direct this as my
next film,” I remember him saying. It was strange but sweet. Having
just spent over a year writing the screenplay on faith alone, to
get this kind of reaction from its very first reader was like a
dream. There were problems of course. The script was a raw first
draft and 237 pages long, much too long by industry standards. But
we agreed it could be edited and shortened. We had no agent to negotiate
contracts. But with an Oscar winning director wanting to direct
our work, we believed that would quickly be remedied. The main thing
though was Chris Menges liked the script and wanted to direct it.
After years of struggling writing screenplays on spec in the wilderness,
the future suddenly looked bright.
Q: I see. So when did things go wrong?
L: I don’t know. With hindsight, I’d say almost immediately perhaps.
But maybe not.
Q: What happened?
L: Well, we - and not for lack of trying - failed to find an agent
and decided it couldn’t do any harm to let Menges take the script
around to producers. So we did nothing with it. Margaret had other
work to get on with and I set out to write the novel. Unlike what
was written or implied in The Sunday Times, I didn’t start the novel
because the script was getting nowhere. Far from it. To do the novel
had actually always been my original intention. I’d only done the
script because I thought the story which I’d already written as
a 70 page outline would make a good film and, were there any, I
could use the money to finance the writing of the book. The fact
is I’d been toying with this project for many years, first started
The Lost Son as a novel as long ago as the mid ‘80s, an endeavor
I’d abandoned only because I felt – and was told – that at that
time my English was not really up to it.
Q: You’re French and yet you wrote the novel in English?
L: Yes. I always felt it was the only way it would work. Don’t
ask why. It’s instinct. Probably because Lombard is French and living
in London and… Never mind.
Q: Okay. So, you started the novel?
L: Uh-huh. Some kind people lent us a cottage in North Wales, others
helped with money and moral support, and in about three months I
wrote three chapters which were sent to 10 agents and 10 publishers.
By then, Menges had gone silent, so it looked like things had either
gone wrong or he’d lost interest in the whole thing. It happens
a lot in the film world. It didn’t matter though. Of the 10 agents
who got my chapters, 10, or those who bothered to reply, turned
me down. Of the 10 publishers, two, Serpent’s Tail among them, eventually
got back to me positively. That was good. There I was, some French
guy writing a few chapters in a foreign language and... It felt
good. Looking back, I should have stayed up in the Welsh hills and
not talked to anyone until the book was finished. Instead, soon
afterwards I got back in touch with Menges to share my good news.
He’d liked the script, so, it was like… Well, perhaps I thought
he’d be pleased for me, you know? I never found out if he was but
that’s when, in the Sunday Times arts editor's words, the cogs began
to turn. All of a sudden, the phone started to ring. Menges’ agent
let us know there was a good script somewhere within the screenplay
of The Lost Son we’d sent her client. Sarah Radclyffe had to tell
us how great she thought the same script was. And before we knew
it, Scala productions called to say they wanted to option the screenplay
and get us to work on it. Strange time. All of a sudden, from nothing,
I was suddenly facing the possibility of signing a book and film
deal. The future looked bright all right. All that was needed was
an agent to deal with the usual negotiations and paperwork. This
turned out... Well, a few were tried again with the good news but
just like before, we failed to interest any of them in taking a
percentage of our potential future earnings.
Q: You approached agents to let them know you had publishers interested
in a book in progress and a film producer waiting to option your
screenplay and they turned you down?
L: Isn’t that funny?
Q: How many did you try?
L: Don’t know. Another ten perhaps. Fifteen? The thing was we’d
already been rejected by quite a few and there was no point in trying
them again. But we didn’t even make one single meeting. Even Menges’
agent passed. Later, it turned out, apart from Menges of course,
she would have two of her clients working on the screenplay. But
that was still in the future then. In the end, we negotiated the
film contract ourselves with the help of a solicitor. It took months,
but we got there. As far as the book was concerned, it was much
easier. I more or less signed what Serpent’s Tail wanted without
looking at it. I guess I could have gone with a bigger publisher,
but being inexperienced, I felt a small independent publisher would
look after me better than a big one, and I didn’t want to shake
the tree by arguing about contractual clauses. All I really wanted
was for my book to be published, you see. I cared about the film,
but the book was the real thing. In part that’s why I’d been prepared
to sell Scala the script outright, just so as not to be distracted
with the film, to work on the book while the going was good. In
any case, book and film weren’t connected at all. And one deal was
not dependent on the other. I was even using different names for
each. I was Eric Leclere for all the film stuff and Eric Reich for
the book, which was also the name I intended to get published under.
Reich was my father’s name, I very much wanted my first book to
bear his name. But to get back to the film, I only signed with Scala
and agreed to work with them because of their we want to work with
you and what I believed was Menges’ understanding of the script;
that is, apart from the fact he liked it, that in view of the subject
matter he understood the script was too fragile to be hacked through
or cut to less than 140-150 pages. I thought we had an understanding
about that. That it would be in everybody’s interest for the film
to be good rather than just conforming to industry standards. It
seems I misunderstood. Or is it a case of just being stupid? As
someone probably said somewhere sometime, “why struggle for the
stars when happiness and riches can be found sitting on your ass”.
L: If you could raise £6m on a writer’s creation by making a few
phone calls, filling out a few application forms and saying “yes,
sir” to everybody, would you let considerations for that writer
or his opinion of what should be done with his work stop you? What
if the only thing between you and making a film was its writers’
feelings and sense of responsibility? Would you, out of loyalty
or respect for the writer or his work, walk away from an easy deal?
Look for a better harder deal elsewhere, one where the conditions
were right for the writer?
L: That’s right : er... Some people call it the reality of the
film industry. The only reality in any industry is the people that
make that industry. It is not written in stone that a film script
should be no more than 120 pages long or should have its story completely
surrendered to the requirements of the first soup merchants who
turn up with ready cash. Just imagine entrusting say your car to
an auctioneer only to find out they sold it well below its value
to the first person to turn up. Ah, I hear you, but at least it
got sold... I think... I believe, if you like a script, if you are
intent on making a good film of it, you ought to fight for that
script. You ought to look after it. You ought to care. Like everything
else, good films don’t make themselves. It takes someone to care
somewhere along the line. Sure, compromises are often necessary
for the greater good. But there should be a line you should never
be prepared to cross; that is to sell the script and its author
or authors cheap in the name of expediency. What does that make
you? At best, it amounts to negligence. One of the problems with
most people in the film industry who don’t write but who play with
and profit from writers’ work is that, when they do happen to like
what they read, they also often have no idea why it is that they
like it. You can’t blame them. It’s perfectly normal. But still,
because they like it and think films, stars and big bucks, they
get confused and make that funny mental leap of thinking that they
really understand whatever it is they like, and then of course feel
free to mess around with it. Then, some other producers actually
look at screenplay writing as an exact science. Or if they don’t,
they make a good job of having you believe they do. It’s all about
3 acts / 90 to 120 pages good, everything else bad. The funny thing
is that if you try to argue with them that if what makes a good
screenplay could actually be explained and bottled film-making would
be a risk-free occupation, if you’re lucky they might just look
back at you with worryingly blank gazes. As my father used to say,
“You can’t argue with imbeciles”. As far as the people involved
in the decision process that accompanied the making of The Lost
Son are concerned, having never met any of them, it’s not for me
to comment on their intellectual faculties. Let just say that the
production team lacked passion, or on the evidence, saw the screenplay
firstly as a money raiser.
Q: What makes you say that?
L: When we completed the first rewrite, bringing the script down
to 169 pages, we were led to believe everyone was upbeat about the
project. In editing the original 237 pages to a more manageable
length we’d tried, and felt we succeeded, not to damage the overall
concept and feel of the piece. By this I mean we took great care
to preserve what we felt made the thing work, you know? What had
made people take notice and want to get involved with the script.
At first it really seemed the other folks involved shared our feelings
and enthusiasm. The news on the phone was good and as I said, upbeat.
But then, for reasons that were never explained, the producers and
director met without us and let us know they had no time to see
us. They’d decided we should get on with the next draft and even
tried to make us accept to do it for free - they called that writing
an “interim” draft. The only specific order we got; bring it down
to 120 pages or thereabouts. No discussion, no meeting, no concern
for the writers opinion or feelings. I think, even by the movie
industry’s standard, this is highly unusual. Whether they like it
or not, producers do usually meet the writers of works in progress.
Q: What did you do?
L: At first, wondered what to make of it all.
Q: The money question aside, couldn’t you have got on with what
they asked? Tried to bring your script down to something close to
what they required?
L: The problem was not the money. You see, with the first rewrite,
we’d sent a note addressing amongst other things the length problem.
We had our own ideas as to how to cut the screenplay and yet keep
it good. We suggested getting rid of one of the principal characters,
an American called Emily who Lombard met during his LA trip. She
worked for an agency looking after abused children. We weren’t that
keen to get rid of her, she was good if perhaps not very original
and she helped move the plot forward, but it was a matter of a tradeoff.
We wanted the film to be made and be good, so if losing her would
do it, well, it was for the greater good. Anyway, the suggestion
was dismissed out of hand on the phone by one of the producers'
assistants. Since none of the producers would meet us, we couldn’t
put the case for it and were left baffled by what was happening.
The sad thing is though, had we done what we wanted and gone ahead
with our idea, I reckon we might just have managed to get the script
down to their magic 120 page length without doing too much damage.
It would have been a different film, but I reckon still the same
story. Actually, when it came to the book, I did get rid of the
character. I wanted to see if... That’s a way in which I suppose
what happened with the film affected what I put in the book.
Q: There is no character called Emily in the American section of
the released version of the film. But there is an Emily in England.
L: I know. In our version the English character was called Rhian.
At some stage the producers must have got one of their hired hands
to do exactly what they’d prevented the original writers from doing.
They got rid of the Emily character. Giving her name to another
character was not our idea though. But nor was it our idea to turn
Lombard into a French Bruce Willis.
Q: Right. But I don’t understand. Did you not go on to write a second
L: We did.
Q. Oh. Then why didn’t you do what you thought best for your script?
Why didn’t you cut the character yourselves if...
L: Because it is when the producers refused to meet us to discuss
the work that the future stopped looking bright. It kind of began
to look as if all they really cared about was the property The Lost
Son. As if they couldn’t care less about its original writers or
the long term life of the project. I don’t know. But it didn’t feel
right. It sure wasn’t good for morale. In the end, in spite of our
repeated requests, we never got to meet them. What we got though,
and this only after we agreed to sign a document in which we agreed
to do more work for no more pay in the future if so required, is
their accepting to pay us for our contracted 2nd rewrite and a visit
from Menges who turned up with a list of suggestions for cuts. At
that point, I should have walked away. Only, I didn’t have what
it took. I thought about it, felt like it, but couldn’t do it. Desperate
men clutch at straws, they say. Well, I tried to convince myself
that maybe things would work out. I didn’t really believe it myself,
but it wasn’t too difficult to pretend I did. So what if they don’t
want to meet you to discuss your work. You know? Maybe it’s not
as bad as all that. Maybe those guys know what they’re doing. Maybe
there are things you don’t understand. Maybe, if you try to meet
their demands and deliver a great second rewrite all will change
for the better. I mean, they had to know that of all the parties
concerned we were the ones with the most to lose. To us this wasn’t
just another project in the factory line. To us this was our first
sold original screenplay. If things went well it would put us on
the map. And then, there was the book I’d interrupted to work on
the script. If the film turned out to be great, or let’s just say
turned out to be good, it wouldn’t hurt it at all. They had to know
that. They had to know how important this was to us. That we could
only want what was best for us and therefore for the script. It’s
just amazing the mind games you can start playing with yourself
when desperate. When those people made it abundantly clear that
they cared little if at all for our opinion about our own work,
I should just have walked away. Instead I played good boy and was
rewarded by being given the sack. I don’t like to say it, but maybe,
for behaving like such a coward, I deserved it.
Q: You were sacked?
L: Yes. After delivering the second rewrite. We still hadn’t met
anyone from the production side. Still had not been allowed to discuss
things. And, by the way, as yet, we'd never heard even one word
of complaint or criticism of our work.
Q: So why were you sacked?
L: We weren’t really told. I could tell you why I think we were
sacked, but it wouldn’t be a good idea. Maybe some other time.
Q: Could they have not liked your second rewrite?
L: I guess so...
Q: How long was it?
L: 138 pages. And it incorporated most of the director's suggestions
for cuts. And of course, the Emily character was still there.
Q: What about you? Were you happy with it?
L: All things considered, yes. And not just because it had been
Q: Did you get any feedback from it at all?
L: We did. From the director and his wife. They each left messages
on our answerphone leading us to believe things were good. “You
must be exhausted… You can pat yourselves on the back,” I recall
Menges saying. Huh. Woof woof...
Q: What about the producers?
L: The producers never shared their feelings with us.
Q: So what reasons were you given for your dismissal?
L: None. We were supposed to at long last meet everybody on a Tuesday.
On the Monday, Nik Powell of Scala called to let us know everybody
else had just met and it had been decided that our coming the following
day would just be a waste of our time.
Q: Didn’t you ask why?
L: Apparently the script was still too long.
L: And nothing. They’d decided we didn’t want to work on our own
project anymore. The reality of that particular section of the film
industry really hit home when an hour later Margaret called Menges
to tell him about Powell’s call and ask what was going on. Yes... Sorry about that, the man said.
Q: How did you feel?
L: Even criminals, no, serial killers, are given a chance to defend
themselves before being condemned. Or to look their judge in the
eye. I guess those people must have thought we were very thick-skinned
or something to behave like that. They must have thought we were
very tough. Or if not, that we really didn’t care about our very
own project. Or deserved the treatment.
Q: What happened after that?
L: Three of four months later I wrote to my publisher to let him
know things had not gone well with the film people and that I had
just returned to work on the book. I got a one line postcard: So
the film is no longer a racing certainty...
Q: So that was the end of your involvement with the film?
L: As its writer, yes. But it didn’t go away. There were many more
bad surprises still to come. Including the worst one of all, the
final shooting script .
Q: You didn’t like the shooting script?
L: I don’t think it properly reflects my work or intentions. Really,
it amounts to an easy if not morally questionable adaptation of
the original. But I guess everybody thinks I would say that. The
bitter scriptwriter, right...
Q: What did you find so bad about the shooting script?
L: Since I didn't see the film they released, I don’t know what
they ended up doing with the opening scene. But in the shooting
script I read, what happens is we meet Lombard busy spying on an
unfaithful wife begging her lover to Fuck me ‘til I fart. This remark
brings a smile to Lombard’s face and he feels compelled to repeat
the woman’s words. Next thing we know, he blackmails the same and
sells her his silence with an I just saved your marriage, lady punch
line. You see, that’s how we find out he's a private detective.
He was watching the woman on behalf of her jealous husband. And
now he’s doubling his income by saving the jealous husband from
the painful truth and the wife from... Well, I guess someone thought
that kind of twisted corrupted attitude would make him look cool,
smart, streetwise, dangerous and exciting all at once. Maybe every
woman who’s ever been or ever thought of being unfaithful to her
husband is supposed to immediately like him at this point. Never
mind what the film is about. Never mind anything really. As I wrote
to Menges after reading this, I don’t know if starting a story with
Fuck me ‘till I fart shows a lack of ambition, talent or is just
a clever stab at taking a short cut to immortality. What I know
though, is that whoever came up with this great opening clearly
did not understand the Lombard character or what the screenplay
was about. And to underline the point, just in case one is left
in any doubt, very soon after that, long before they make Lombard
teach kids to kill in the name of good triumphing over evil, he
is also made to wear nicotine patches... I mean, maybe they should
have gone all the way with the hard new man waiting to burst out
routine. I don’t know, he might have been made to contemplate joining
New Labour perhaps... As a French critic wrote in a review of the
film, La connerie bien pensante... Doesn’t Lombard go to a delicatessen
and buy a toy submarine for his fish at some point?
Q: You’re not responsible for that?
Q: The fish and delicatessen...
L: The fish, yes. The toy submarine and delicatessen, no. Huh.
As if… But I’d rather not talk about the script’s ins and outs.
You better read my book if you want to get an idea of what the original
screenplay was like. It’s a much better reflection of what we gave
Scala than the film they actually ended up making.
Q: What about Daniel Auteuil's performance? The critics generally
praised his portrayal of Lombard.
L: I read Mr. Auteuil came to England several months before shooting
began to learn English in order to play the part. Of all people,
I’d have thought that he at least would have got in touch with the
original writer. There you have a Frenchman who doesn’t speak English
coming to England to learn English in order to play an English-speaking
Frenchman who lives in England written by a Frenchman who also lives
in England and does speak English and... I think I don’t want to
talk about Mr. Auteuil.
Q: Okay… So, if you are so disgusted with the film, and went so
far as to disown it, why did you keep your name on it?
L: Huh. I tell you what, why don’t we go on speaking about Mr.
Auteuil after all, eh?
Q: No. You must realise people might wonder about this. It looks
odd. One could easily jump to the conclusion that you only really
disowned the film because you were sacked. In the circumstances,
you couldn’t really blame anyone for at least wondering if that
was the case, don’t you think?
L: Yes. I read the Sunday Times piece too...
L: Look, a year or so after sacking us the way they did, having
in the meantime ignored our letters and calls and kept us in the
dark about what was happening to our project, out of the blue the
producers called to invite us back. I said no.
Q: They called you back and you said no?
L: Uh-huh. It turned out the writer they’d replaced us with had
just either jumped or been given the push after concocting 6 or
7 drafts based on ours. The point is that I’m not upset and I did
not disown my work because I got the sack. I wish. And at that point
in time, since I had no way yet of knowing what they’d done or would
do to my work, I most definitely wasn’t yet thinking of disowning
the film. But I was indeed very upset about the way these people
had seen fit to get rid of us in the first place. Yes, sir. Angry.
Absolutely. And I still am today. I don’t know about you, but I
don’t know many people who enjoy being lied to and betrayed. Or
being treated with open contempt. Even writers.
Q: I don’t understand. If you cared about your screenplay, why didn’t
you go back to work on it when they gave you another chance to do
L: By then, I had no reason to trust those people. If they wanted
me back after what had happened, they should have tried to entice
me to return, indicated that things were going to be different this
time round. Or apologised even, you know? Like shown a little courtesy
perhaps. But no. They’d kicked the dog away, now needed it again,
whistled for it and I guess expected it to hurry back panting, tail
wagging and ever so grateful. Only, this dog wanted a bone. Some
kind of enticement. It goes like this. It’s one thing to allow someone
into your house only to find out that once in there alone with you
they try to rob you; it’s another altogether to let them in a second
time round on nothing but trust. As it happened, it’s questionable
whether their invitation was for real. There most definitely was
no apology or attempt to entice us. It was almost as if we were
supposed to have learnt our lesson and could now be openly told
what to do. Basically, we were told that the price to pay for coming
back was to agree to take on board some of the now departed writer’s
ideas, and, more significantly, for better or for worse, to wrap
up the story within the magic 120 pages. No, sorry, by then I think
it was 110 pages. This was unacceptable, not to say humiliating.
It also amounted to reducing writing and the sharing of ideas to
making sardine cans. By then, since it also turned out that they’d
secured their stars and most of the budget on the basis of our last
rewrite, you’d have thought the producers and director would have
given us some leeway rather than carrying on wanting to cut at the
thing any which way until it could be made to fit neatly into a
hole. But again, no. The saddest thing about this is... Well, for
a writer without scruples and a basic IQ, indiscriminately cutting
a screenplay without concern for its essence or soul is probably
one of the easiest thing to do. Especially when the people who pay
you to do it don’t care or don’t know the difference between a book
and a bus stop. It wasn’t easy to say no. But I think it would have
been much worse to have agreed to destroy my own work or jumped
onto the director’s and producer’s laps. But guess what. Some people
have called me stupid for thinking like this. Isn’t that funny?
Q: I see. Who exactly approached you with the invitation to go back
to work on your script? The director? Chris Menges?
L: Oh no. We’d never heard from him again after his sorry about
that. For all we knew he wasn’t involved with the project anymore.
It was Nik Powell from Scala who called. He who’d call a year earlier
to let us know we didn’t need to come to meet the team. You must
give the man one thing though, he does do some of his dirty work
himself. Oddly, after his invitation was turned down, perhaps as
if he’d somewhat expected it, he apparently made some kind of apology
for not having been very good up till then... What do you know,
Q: Right. You still haven’t... When you finally decided that you
would disown the film, why didn’t you take your name from the credits?
L: Huh…I wanted to remove my name from the credits. I would have
removed my name from the credits. I most definitely envisaged removing
my name from the credits. And so did Margaret. We would have liked
this film to come out without writers. You know Mel Brooks’ line
in the film The Producers: Next time I produce a play, no author!
In my opinion, The Lost Son’s author had been all but killed off
by the time the thing reached first day of photography, if that
makes any sense. Still, it couldn’t be done.
Q: Why not?
L: We... By the time it came to deciding on the matter, things
had happened or come to our attention which made it look like it
might be a bad move. It’s... There are such things as sequel rights,
etc. Whatever we felt, by then it seemed wise for us to keep our
names on the thing. And to fight with Scala’s lawyers for the “original
story by” credit mentioned by the Sunday Times’ man. They weren’t
even going to give us that, you know?
Q: You make it sound sinister.
L: No. There’s nothing sinister about it at all. It’s just that
it had become a choice between claiming what we felt was ours or
quietly walking away and letting other people possibly claim sole
authorship of our work. They’d - well in our opinion anyway - damaged
our property. There was nothing to be done about that. It’s standard
practice for producers to make scriptwriters waive their droit moral
over their work. This is non-negotiable, means your hands are tied
if changes which you might disapprove of are made to your story,
which really means that from the moment you entrust your project
to a producer you basically start living hoping you didn’t misplace
your trust. Anyway, since they’d also given co-authorship of our
work to another writer, we felt like we’d better keep a foot in
there, so to speak. I mean, I actually care about Xavier Lombard,
you know? It had come to feel like we weren’t going to do ourselves
any favours by removing our names from the thing. On the contrary.
Who knows? By then, right or wrong, I’d come to think that not many
people involved with The Lost Son would have been too sorry if we’d
taken our names off the film and quietly disappeared. After all,
they had their ready-made and willing writer to parade as the sole
Q: It still sounds sinister.
L: It shouldn’t. It’s just that by then the whole thing felt like
poison. There had... A week or so after declining Scala’s invitation
to return to work on the script, we’d opened Screen International
to read that one Ronnan Bennett claimed credit for The Lost Son.
He was the guy they’d replaced us with and who was now gone. No
mention of us. Then, when first day of photography came, no one
told us, but this may have had something to do with the fact that
we’d passed on Scala’s suggestion that we should accept a deferral
on what we would be owed that day. Huh, after what they’d... Later
still, this time in Variety, we’d come by chance on a piece now
crediting one Dan Weldon, son of Fay, with writing The Lost Son.
Again, no mention of us. Again, we protested, and again we were
told it was a mistake. Maybe so, but I wonder, where do journalists
get their information? I mean, they don’t just pick names from the
sky. Do they? Where was I...? Yes. And there had been Scala’s unilateral
decision to share our writers’ credit with Mark Mills and not give
us an “original story by” credit. To our amazement, making a mockery
of their role and giving themselves the right to overrule writers
contracts without even reading them, the Writers’ Guild of Great
Britain backed Scala all the way on this when we protested only
to have Scala tell us to take the matter to them if we were unhappy
about it. I resigned my membership of the Writers’ Guild. And then
it turned out, I can’t remember how we found out since no one was
talking to us and we weren’t being invited to previews of the film
which by then was being shown around, that the £2m given to Scala
via the Film Consortium by the Arts Council had been green-lighted
exactly two weeks after we’d turned down Scala’s offer to return
to work on the project. And in the course of those two weeks what
screenplay had been submitted to the Arts Council? One credited
to Eric and Margaret Leclere and Mark Mills. On finding that out,
I have to confess feeling somewhat suspicious. It certainly felt
Q: I don’t understand.
L: Well, having just lost a writer called Ronan Bennett who did
six drafts based on our original, the producers call us. Would you
like to etc. etc? We pass. Then, within the space of two weeks,
Scala has sought and hired a new writer who delivers a new draft
good enough to be read and assessed by the Arts Council who then
goes on to grant it £2m. We’re talking two weeks here. Mark Mills
is clearly a producers’ dream. Given the same opportunity, we sure
couldn’t - nor it appears could Ronnan Bennett - receive, read,
digest, substantially edit, proof-read and return a script ready
for a £2m grant in two weeks, let alone in the time he actually
had to do it in between being hired and the script landing on the
Arts Council desk with time left for them to read, discuss and accept
Q: Perhaps... Are you sure Mark Mills was hired only after you declined
L: Unless what I was told by the producers were lies, yes, I’m
Q: Then... Are you saying it is impossible to read, edit and deliver
a script in less than two weeks?
L: No. Of course not. I may have wondered about it for a while,
but clearly, it is possible. I guess a little pride might be involved
here. Or is it jealousy? I wouldn’t mind being able to... But then
again, looking at what was done. No, what was really disturbing
about this business was that the screenplay sent to the Arts Council
gave Mark Mills co-authorship of the work, that Scala had unilaterally
decided to share our credits with him. It didn’t smell right. I
don’t think they should have done this. In my opinion, since even
what they ended up shooting is obviously substantially based on
our original, an “edited by” or “adapted by” credit would have been
a much fairer reflection of Mr. Mills’ contribution to the project.
Also, at that time, The Lost Son was still legally our property.
Q: What do you mean? Had the producers not purchased it from you?
L: They had an option to do so but had not exercised it yet. When
original works are concerned, this is usually only done on first
day of photography. According to their lawyers, Scala acted honorably
and within the law, even if to all intents and purposes The Lost
Son was legally ours and our contract with them clearly stated that
in case of dispute over the credit the matter would have to be referred
to the Writers Guild for arbitration. Let me tell you, legal or
not legal, and artistic and courtesy questions aside, it was very
disturbing news to find out they had circulated and raised funds
on our work with another writer’s name as author on the title page
without even bothering to tell us about it. And not just because
it felt wrong. I mean, how could we even complain, eh? Refer the
matter for arbitration? And then, what about the Arts Council? How
come they’d okayed £2m to a project from which the owners and creators
had been sacked and treated in the way we had? Didn’t they ask any
questions? If they did, were they even told what had happened to
the writers and owners of the work? And did they care? I’d still
like to know. When we tried to find out, all we got was a letter
saying something like sorry but can’t divulge confidential information.
Hey. We aren’t just the artists here. We’re the owners of the damn
thing you put £2m in. Shouldn’t you want to hear from us? Well,
apparently not. Just like the European Script Fund. Or whatever
that lot calls themselves these days. And you ask me why in the
end I kept my name on the credits? With that kind of thing happening
with my name on the thing, just imagine what may happen if I took
Q: What’s that about the European Script Fund?
L: They too wrote me back a sorry-but-confidential-information
Q: What were you inquiring about?
L: Whether or not the producers had put in an application for development
funds for The Lost Son before we’d actually exchanged contracts.
Just wanted them to confirm the date. Again by accident, we’d just
learnt the producers had actually applied to them for money which
they subsequently received several weeks before we’d even completed
negotiations. We’d didn’t know about it. Nobody had ever told us
about it. So, for all I know, on the day we entrusted our project
to the producers, they had already raised money on what was really
our intellectual property.
Q: Is that legal?
L: Yes. According to Scala’s lawyers, it is. Anyway, it must be,
because when I brought the matter to the European Script Fund’s
attention they did nothing about it. No comment. Who are these guys,
huh? Whatever. This is the realm of soup merchants. To come back
to what matters here, the screenplay and what happened to it, perhaps
this little story helps shed some light on things. I think it clearly
illustrates that right from the beginning, indeed even before the
beginning, before we’d even exchanged contract with them, and in
spite of their we want to work with you, the producers and I guess
the director were keeping things from us, most certainly weren’t
working with us. They were already working with what was still our
property, but not with us. That is perhaps what really matters here.
You asked me earlier what went wrong with the film. Well, maybe
there is your answer.
Q: Yes… Earlier on, you mentioned the Writers’ Guild, said something
about them making a mockery of their role, overruling writers’ contracts
and you resigning your membership. Do you care to elaborate?
L: Sure. My advice to anyone who writes an original screenplay
and gets a producer interested in it is, whatever you do, don’t
sign anything incorporating the Writers’ Guild as arbitrators in
case of credit dispute.
Q: Isn’t that a little...
L: I don’t think so. No. If you want to look for extremes, have
a look at the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s arbitration guidelines.
This is year 2000 time. All over the place the movie industry is
huge. Screenplays, which are the foundation on which most films
are built, are written every day and, now we’ve got word processors,
by more and more people. Like everything else, sometimes they are
written for gain, sometimes to satisfy egos and sometimes out of
love. Scripts can also change hands for ridiculous amounts of money,
be fought over and, like The Lost Son did, become vehicles affording
a good living to a great many people for a given time. Sometimes,
once brought to the screen, they can also represent a source of
expression or pleasure for hundreds or thousands of people. Sometimes,
they’re commissioned by producers. Sometimes they come as the result
of a genuine collaborative process. And sometimes, they are the
end result of a lot of hard work and sacrifice by one single person
working on faith alone. Always though, the damn things have to be
written. And then, if a film gets made and is acclaimed, the director,
actors and producers get the credit. If it’s bad, then the script
is mentioned. Whatever, at the end of the day, the only thing a
writer has is his credit on the screen. And what is the Writers’
Guild’s attitude to screenplay writing? It appears that, unlike
a novel or a play, or even a magazine article for that matter, the
Writer’s Guild doesn’t think a screenplay, never mind its size or
merit, should be considered source material. That is to say that,
just like happened with The Lost Son, if you spend a year or two
or for that matter a couple of weeks developing an original idea
into a fully blown screenplay, according to the Writers’ Guild of
Great Britain’s guidelines, anyone can make a few changes or cuts
to your work and claim equal authorship. In other words, if Shakespeare’s
plays were called screenplays and I came along and say rewrote Romeo
and Juliet so that if fitted neatly into 90 pages, I could peddle
the result around as “Romeo and Juliette” by William Shakespeare
and Eric Leclere. In other words, screenplay writing is not really
recognized as a valid literary form by the very people supposed
to look after writers. Or, as far as screenplays are concerned,
there doesn’t really exist a distinction between adapting, editing
and actually writing an original story. As a guy trying to write,
I don’t know if this is ridiculous, sad or offensive. Everything
else you write, if someone comes along and messes with it, or as
the case may be improves upon it, a distinction is usually made
between the originator of the piece and the other party. Not in
the movies though. Write an original screenplay, let the producers
name the Writers Guild as arbitrators in case of credit dispute
in the contract you sign, and you better hope you chose the right
producers, or else, apart from the pain you might feel at what’s
being done to your story, you’ll probably also find yourself watching
your original credit dissapear and if you complain be told something
like Well, sorry, but your own guild thinks it’s all right. So what’s
the problem, eh? This is not just unpleasant and baffling. It can
have terrible consequences if your pay, as it often is, is linked
to whether or not you retain sole credit. It can also of course
be used to dissuade original writers from thinking of removing their
names from the final credits as a visible protest; do so and you’ll
just disappear while he or she who collaborated with the producers
will get the loot, so to speak. Let me say it again, if you’ve written
an original screenplay and someone puts a contract under your nose,
first try to get a clause securing sole screenplay writer in there,
and if you fail, whatever you do, if you care or are worried about
what might be done to your work and name, don’t rely on the Writers’
Guild of Great Britain to come and help you when things go wrong.
They won’t be there. As I found out, even producers’ lawyers can
hide behind them. That hurt. I don’t know. Possibly they’re great
at protecting the interests of mercenary writers with powerful agents
who parasite on other people’s work. Personally, having thought
about it a lot, I’ve come to wonder if what happened to The Lost
Son could have occurred had the producers not banked on the Writers’
Guild sanctioning their actions. It should have been made a little
more difficult for them to sack writers without ever even bothering
to meet them to discuss their work. When informed of this, the Writer’s
Guild expressed no opinion. It should have been made just that little
more difficult for the producers to give authorship of our work
to another writer while, aside from everything else, we were still
the screenplay’s legal owners. When informed of this, and of the
European Script Fund story, the Writers’ Guild expressed no opinion.
It should have been a little harder than it was for the producers
to share our credits when our contract specifically stated that
in the event of the film being substantially based on our work,
which it is, we should receive sole writing credit. The Writers’
Guild was not interested in our contract, clearly believes it has
the right to revoke of ignore writers’ contracts, and when told
of this clause, expressed no opinion. Rather, it simply stated that
its arbitration decisions are final and binding. And I think the
Writers’ Guild and its panels of invisible and unaccountable judges
should not give itself the right to refuse to meet or listen to
writers whose lives, livelihood and professional future they are
about to affect with their final and binding arbitration rulings.
As I said above, even psychopathic serial killers are given a day
in court. Many people, I have learnt, consider screenplay writers
to be writers for hire, or to put it another way, to be the whores
of the writing world. For my part, having seen first hand how fast
some so-called writers are willing to run when the movie people
call, I better keep my thoughts about this to myself. Anyway, this
is beside the point. The point is, I think, that by endorsing the
view that material written specifically for the screen does not
constitute source material, the Writers’ Guild, apart from indirectly
sanctioning what in my view amounts to intellectual theft, actually
actively encourages producers to treat the writers of original screenplays
as just that: whores for hire. And so what, you may ask? And you
might be right. Yes; so what? So this perhaps; whether film writers
should be called whores or not, to buy a willing prostitute’s service
does not give you the right to rape or kill that prostitute. Even
where prostitution is illegal. Well, it’s not illegal to write and
yet, it seems, it is perfectly all right to commit intellectual
rape on original script writers. Ask me again what went wrong the
movie The Lost Son and I might just say that I mistakenly signed
a contract which I thought afforded me some protection as a writer
because it incorporated the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. I guess,
we all learn from our mistakes.
Q: Well, that was interesting.
L: Was it?
Q: Yes. What about the book then? Why did you leave your publisher?
L: I don’t want to talk about the book. I especially don’t want
to talk about why I left my publisher.
Q: Why? Earlier on you said you were going to publish under another
name. Why didn’t you?
L: I don’t want to talk about it. It makes me ill.
Q: Right. What about the book itself. Would you like to talk about
the book of The Lost Son?
L: Aside from the fact that it is about a man called Xavier Lombard,
that I found it very hard to write and it’s a lot better than the
filmbased on my original screenplay, no, I wouldn’t like to talk
about the book.
Q: Okay. You’re writing a second book around the character Xavier
Lombard. Is that right?
Q: How is it going? Do you expect to finish it soon?
L: I don’t know. It’s going. Slowly. I’ve had to stop smoking and
miss it very much.
Q: Your health?
Q: Did you smoke as much as Lombard?
L: No. Not quite.
Q: Right. Is there anything else you’d like to say before going?
L: Yes. I’d like to read you the first few words of The Arts Council
lottery film funding guidelines. It goes like this: “The Arts Council
Of England’s Royal Charter gives it a responsibility to develop
and improve the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts...”
Etc. etc. Well, to be honest, I don’t come from an artistic background.
Nor could you really say that I come from a non-artistic background.
Really, I am from what most people would probably call bad stock.
So I might not be the best placed person to talk about the arts.
Only, I’d just like to say that in The Lost Son’s case, it is my
opinion that the £2m from the Arts Council did not help improve
the knowledge, understanding and practice of the arts, unless of
course treating artists and their work with disdain can be interpreted
as a step towards the advancement and improvement of the arts. I
would also like to add that I find it worrying that a state institution
backing the arts should become the main investor in a film venture
and yet show no concern for what happens to the writers of the screenplay
or for that matter appear to care about what is being produced.
The Lost Son is just a little story which was meant to make a good
film. It doesn’t really matter as such, nor do any of the people
involved in its production. They’ll soon enough all be forgotten
and in the end, most of us are in it for a living. State institutions
though, as the guidelines I just read indicate, should be motivated
by a sense of responsibility.
Q: Okay. That will do.
L: Yes. All the best to you too.
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