Straight to Ovidio:
A Screenwriter's Odyssey from L.A. to Sri Lanka
by Stormcrow Hayes
I had to get out of the hotel. After thirty hours in various planes and airports, I couldn't stand being cooped up any longer. Besides, I didn't fly halfway around the world to Sri Lanka, fabled homeland of Arthur C. Clarke, to sit in a hotel room. But that's where I was; sitting in a sanitary, air-conditioned environment, staring through the window. Outside, the calm waters of the Indian Ocean gently rippled, calling to me. Ovidio, my producer, wanted to break for lunch.
"What would you like to eat?" he asked, his eyes darting between me and Cristina, his blond girlfriend, who was less than half his age.
"I'm really not that hungry," I said. "Why don't you two go eat and I'll meet you back here in, say, ninety minutes?" I needed to get out. I needed to walk the streets, hear the sounds of the people, feel the pulse of Colombo, the country's capital.
"Fine," he agreed in his thick accent. "We'll meet back here at two."
I think I was out the door before they were out of their chairs. I ran back to my room to drop off my notes, grab some local currency, and hit the streets.
As soon as the sliding glass doors opened, I left the artificially cooled environment of the Galadari Hotel and felt the heat and humidity wash over me. I couldn't believe it was cold and raining back in L.A.; snowing in Cleveland and New York. Such weather seemed foreign to me here. But then, I was near the equator where every day was nearly twelve hours long and it was always warm.
As I walked along the streets, marveling at the culture and architecture, listening to the Sinhalese voices, and trying to ignore the stares I was getting as the only white man in a land of dark skinned people, I didn't once think about the strange series of events that led to my being there.
But it was a hell of a story.
Act I: Swimming to Sri Lanka
Big Trouble in Littleton
On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on students and teachers in their high school, killing thirteen people and wounding many more. The event grabbed the nation by the throat as people wondered why; the inevitable question after any tragedy.
Two days later, my phone rang. It was Evan, my friend and fellow screenwriter.
"I'm referring you for a job," he told me through the static of his cellphone. "They need it written fast and I told them you can do it. You're going to get a call from Jana, she's the VP of development. She'll probably want to read a writing sample, so get a script or two ready. There's a tight deadline on this, so they'll probably want to meet with you today."
"That's great. Why aren't you doing it?"
"Because it's about the Columbine incident. I told them I wasn't going to touch it. But I know you will. May god have mercy on your soul."
Evan knew my motto: "Whore to freedom." It meant writing anything for money to avoid a real job. It also meant taking any hack assignment available, writing it as fast as possible, and moving on, buying myself time to work on my own scripts. It's really just a variation of "Take the money and run," an adage as old as cinema. But as much as it pained me to admit, I needed a job. As long as there was money, I would take the assignment. No matter how despicable. Besides, I already had a nom de plume for such vile works. Freud Pachenko. I knew instantly that this was a Pachenko project.
As I drove North on Doheny that afternoon, I began to wonder what I was getting myself into. Specifically, what kind of person would be willing to exploit a tragedy so quickly after its occurrence? The answer: a very wretched person, indeed. But I wouldn't learn just how wretched until later. For the moment, I was a wide-eyed innocent looking for an assignment as I stepped into the lobby of 9000 Sunset Boulevard and took the elevator to the seventh floor. There, just to the side of the elevator bank, were the offices of Titan, Inc.
I opened the outer door and met Roxanne, the office manager, as she darted from one office to another. Every time I entered these offices, Roxanne was always busy juggling tasks and phone calls, yet she was never frantic or impatient. She managed to stay on top of a hundred different assignments with an air of cool professionalism, while taking just enough time to make any visitor welcome. That first day, she offered me a seat, some water, and the trades as she explained it would be a few minutes.
I didn't have to wait long before I was led into an office the size of a conference room. The entire outer wall was glass, from floor to ceiling. Outside, I could see the Hollywood Hills and the Sunset Strip. The room itself was nearly empty. A few paintings hung on the wall. Across the room was a large marble desk. Sitting behind it was the man who would be my primary source of pain and comedy for the next year. Roxanne introduced us.
"This is Sam Hayes. Sam, this is Ovidio Assonitis."
I know. It sounds fake. It sounds as if I'm making it up, changing his name to something silly and unbelievable. I'm not. It's his real name.
Ovidio G. Assonitis. Evan later informed me of his nickname, "Straight to Ovidio," because his movies skip the theatres and go straight to the shelves of video stores; always the sign of a bad movie.
He rose to shake my hand. He was a small, squat man, dressed well, but wearing a shirt half unbuttoned, exposing his chest which was covered with a thick coat of graying hair. He looked like a relic from the '70s. He spoke softly, and there were many times I had to ask him to repeat himself. Not because of his accent, which was thick, but because he muttered so quietly.
I don't remember much about that initial meeting, just that he kept asking me if I could write a script in a week. That's how quickly he needed it. He didn't think it could be done. I told him I'd written my last script in two weeks and, as long as we had a solid outline, I could do it. I had never written a script that fast before, but I was desperate for cash and he was offering five grand (more if the film was actually made). I needed the money, so hell yeah, I could write it in a week!
The reason it needed to be written so quickly was because he wanted to make this film in only six weeks. He wanted to cash in on the tragedy as fast as possible.
As we started talking about the plot, I asked, "This is going to be a fictionalization, right?"
Ovidio, or OGA as he often referred to himself, agreed with me.
That night, I came home and hacked out a very made-up treatment of events with the title "Trenchcoat Mafia" on top of it. Since it was fictional, I made it about two brothers who were picked on at school. I don't remember too many of the other details, but even though it shared qualities of the real events, it was definitely fictional. The following day I faxed my version into the office before coming in for my meeting. When I arrived, I could see Jana and Ovidio were unhappy.
The meeting didn't go well. After further debate, I was given a homework assignment. Learn everything I could about Columbine from the news and internet. They didn't want fiction. They wanted fact.
As hard as it may be to believe in this day and age, I still didn't have internet access at the time. I had e-mail, but only through an account that allowed me to download messages without allowing me to access websites. So I went to my friend John Kearns' apartment. We huddled over the computer, reading more and more grim descriptions of what had transpired the tragedy. We couldn't help but joke about how reprehensible Ovidio was for making a film about it. Of course, we also joked about my own participation. At one point, I stared out the window and asked, "Did you see that?" I was going to make a joke, but apparently a bird had just flown past and Kearns replied, "You mean that crow?" I nodded and said, "Yeah, I think that was my soul... flying away." I then ran to the window, looked after it and said, "Do you think I can get it back?"
My next meeting with Ovidio was on Saturday. Overnight, he had changed his mind. Again. He had teetered back to a fictional approach. We started developing a third version of the story, but when Jana heard about it on Sunday she disagreed with the approach. I soon found that Jana and Ovidio disagreed about nearly everything and, in most cases, Jana was right. I also learned from her that it was okay to yell at Ovidio; he didn't seem to mind. She would often shout at him or tell him he was wrong, and he would just quietly sit back and listen. In the end, he knew he would do whatever he wanted anyway.
Because the complexities of American high school culture were lost on Ovidio, who grew up in Egypt and Italy, Jana and I would often join forces and argue our points together. However, this didn't stop Ovidio from infecting the project with his own ideas. Or, at least, his own ideas as borrowed from other sources.
At one point, Ovidio told me that to write this script quickly, "We will need to borrow from other films."
In other words, steal.
Ovidio has a long history of stealing from other movies. After The Exorcist came out in 1973, he made a movie called Beyond the Door (1975) which ripped-off the Linda Blair head-spinning scene and earned him a lawsuit from Warner Brothers. (Warner Brothers lost because there is no copyright protection for visual effects). That same year, he decided to cash in on the success of Jaws with a film about a giant (stock footage) octopus entitled Tentacles (1977). What's amazing about this film, besides its nearly complete lack of story structure or cohesive plot, is the cast, which includes Bo Hopkins, Claude Akins, Shelley Winters, Henry Fonda, and John Huston!
Now, following the Columbine incident, Ovidio wanted to cash in on real events, but he still wanted to borrow from some recent successful films. For OGA, it doesn't matter if the scene or idea works within the context of the film, the fact that something is currently successful is enough. Shakespeare in Love had just won Best Picture the previous month and Titanic had taken the Oscar the year before. Ovidio wanted to incorporate the love story of these two films into our own. He wanted the two characters to be from upper and lower classes (Titanic) and, just as the characters in Shakespeare share a bond of poetry and theatre, he wanted our two high-schoolers to share a bond of -- opera!
Jana and I argued vehemently against this, and, though it took a really long time, Ovidio eventually won. He stubbornly beat us into submission. Actually, he beat Jana into submission since I was taking the path of least resistance. I just wanted to get the ordeal over with. I wanted to start the script and get my five grand as quickly as possible.
We finally agreed on a new fictional direction for the story, and I began writing the treatment for version number four. At the same time, I had Stuart Berton, my trusted entertainment attorney, begin negotiating a contract. Within a week, the treatment was complete. It took as long for OGA to get any paperwork to Stuart. As soon as Stuart looked over the contract, he said, "This is stupid."
Ovidio didn't want to pay anything up front. He preferred to compensate me with the five grand in three months time, if he couldn't make the film. If he could get financing, then I would be paid the full amount of $35,000. But I had to wait in either case. Stuart and I agreed this was moronic, and if he had to pay me the five thousand regardless, why not pay it now? For whatever reason, OGA was adamant about paying down the road and we took this as a warning sign that he had no intention of paying at all. (I later learned he was notorious for doing just that). Based on this information, I took Stuart's advice. I walked away.
It was painful to do, as they wasted a week of my time and I had written a full treatment that was worthless to me because it was so ridiculous*. Nevertheless, I trusted Stuart, and left. Another week was spent trying to reach an agreement, but none came. Eventually, negotiations fell apart. I thought I had heard the last of Ovidio. I was wrong.