Saturday, June 09, 2012

A True Hollywood Horror Story: The Sequel


In part one of this tragedy, I explained how my friend Steve and I had begun working on a screenplay in 1998 that recast Snow White as an action heroine. Unlike Snow White and the Huntsmen, our story was set in the present.

We were showing it around and getting some good feedback on it...in early September of 2001. And of course I mentioned that Steve lived on South End Ave, directly in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

The story didn't end there, though. Even though Steven initiated the project as a kind of Matrix-type sci-fi mindgame thriller, I suggested we incorporate those mind-control elements into a more conventional action thriller based on films like La Femme Nikita, which we were both fans of at the time. I felt the best way to pursue the project was to do it as a graphic novel and take that to the studios and so started looking for artists.

I finally met one I liked at San Diego in 2003 and started getting things together to pitch. Unfortunately the artist didn't work out and I was back where I had started. I decided to lay the story out myself (meaning do all the basic drawings and panel arrangements) while I looked for another artist.*

Finding a good artist to work on spec is a lot harder than you might think. Given the choice, artists would much rather work on their own projects. But I did write up a pitch for a Snow graphic novel based on the treatment and a major reworking of my first graphic novel, which I was very unhappy with. I thought the best thing to do to find an artist was to get a deal, so I set out to pitch some publishers. And then I did something really god-damned stupid.


I put the Snow treatment online.

Not for long, only long enough to send to a guy named Jamie Rich, who was running Oni Press (later home of Scott Pilgrim). I don't remember why I put it online- it might have been just a courtesy, since clicking on a link was easier than dealing with an attachment. Or maybe he asked me to, I don't remember. I don't even remember exactly why I was pitching him (this was eight years ago**) and I didn't think enough of it to keep track of any of this when I shut down my old email account.


I spent the past couple days trying to track this all down. I emailed Jamie, I called Oni; they were very friendly and helpful but neither keep records going that far back. I seemed to keep records of everything but the email in which I sent Jamie the link to the Snow treatment.

Why should I? It was just a failed pitch to an indie publisher who were hardly on the map back then. I didn't realize that nothing flies under the radar in the Age of Google. Unfortunately, it flew under the radar of the Internet Archive, along with 80% of my old website.

But it was while I was wracking my brains trying to figure out how all of the main plot points from Snow showed up in Hanna then I remembered what I thought at the time was a nonevent. How long it stayed archived on Google after I took it off my server (which I did after Jamie shot me down) is anyone's guess, but maybe it stayed up just long enough.

The timeline here is perfect- Hanna's writer (Seth Lochhead) was in Vancouver Film School apparently working on his script at the same time I was pitching Snow to Oni.

Either way, I read the spec script and the shooting script for Hanna (both of which are easily found online) and rented the movie. The following are the similarities between the Snow treatment (I've posted it online again- read it here) and Hanna- I think you'll agree they're pretty substantial.

Like pretty god-damned, kick-me-in-the-side-of-the-head substantial.

Do I think that this writer stumbled on our treatment and consciously or unconsciously took the basic architecture of the story (Hanna plays like a budgeted-down version of Snow, which we intentionally made as over-the-top as we could), grafted his travel diaries onto it and sold it?

I'll tell you what- I'll keep my own counsel on that matter. In the meantime, you can judge for yourself....

Snow is about a teenaged girl who who was raised from birth to be the perfect intelligence agent and eventually comes into conflict with the woman who made her the supersoldier that she is.

Hanna is about a teenaged girl who was raised from birth to be a master assassin and eventually comes into conflict with the woman who made her the supersoldier that she is.

Snow has a genius IQ and is master in the arts of killing. Her skills are a combination of science and relentless training.

Hanna has a genius IQ and is master in the arts of killing. Her skills are a combination of science and relentless training.

The first scene of Snow pictures the heroine running through the forest in archaic clothes.

The first scene of Hanna pictures the heroine running through the forest in archaic clothes (plus, snow).


Snow is an action thriller that makes extensive use of imagery and themes from Grimm's Fairy Tales, which we learn have personal importance to the heroine.

Hanna is an action thriller that makes extensive use of imagery and themes from Grimm's Fairy Tales, which we learn have personal importance to the heroine.


Snow
draws repeated parallels to fairy tales, arguing that stories like La Femme Nikita and Alias were our modern fairy tales.

Hanna draws repeated parallels to fairy tales, arguing ...?


The original pitch for Snow called for a Techno soundtrack, citing British artists Underworld and Fatboy Slim, who were popular in the late 90s when the script was originally written.

Hanna features a Techno soundtrack by British artists Chemical Brothers, who were popular in the late 90s when Snow was originally written.

Snow is a super-intelligent killing machine who has been engineered to be the perfect human since birth.

Hanna is a super-intelligent killing machine who has been engineered to be the perfect human since birth.

Snow's nemesis, Ubela Konigen was cited as an agent for East German intelligence before launching the supersoldier program.

Hanna's nemesis, Marissa Wiegler (a German name) is an intelligence agent who had extensive links to East Germany before launching the supersoldier program.


In Snow, the supersoldier program operates in a grey area and could get Ubela in serious trouble with Washington.

In Hanna, the supersoldier program operates in a grey area and could get Ubela in serious trouble with Washington.

In Snow, Ubela was married to Snow's father, which we based on the "evil stepmother" trope from fairy tales.

In Hanna, Marissa was Hanna's father's handler, and tells Hanna she's the closest thing the girl has to a mother.


The main plot of Snow deals with the heroine's quest to rendezvous with a intelligence agent of European extraction while being pursued by her Evil Queen/Wicked Witch nemesis.

The main plot of Hanna deals with the heroine's quest to rendezvous with a intelligence agent of European extraction while being pursued by her Evil Queen/Wicked Witch nemesis.


The heroic European agent in Snow is named Harrison ("Prince", roughly).

The heroic European agent in Hanna is named Erik ("Prince", roughly).


Snow is imprisoned in a underground intelligence facility where she is closely monitored and which she escapes by snapping the neck of a captor (following intimate contact) and killing a large number of security personnel.

Hanna is imprisoned in a underground intelligence facility where she is closely monitored and which she escapes by snapping the neck of a captor (following intimate contact) and killing a large number of security personnel.


Snow's escape features a long slide down the side of a dam.

In the spec script, Hanna's escape features a long slide down an air vent.


Following her escape, Snow wanders through the Arizona desert, dodging her pursuers.

Following her escape, Hanna wanders through the Moroccan desert, dodging her pursuers.


Ubela personally assigns Hunter, an unpleasant agent of European extraction, the task of tracking down Snow.

Marissa personally assigns Isaacs, an unpleasant agent of European extraction, the task of tracking down Hanna.


After wandering through the desert, Snow encounters a strange band of fugitive Bohemians living in a beat-up Winnebago camper.

After wandering through the desert, Hanna encounters a strange family of vacationing Bohemians living out of a beat-up Volkswagen camper.

While being pursued by Hunter and his men, Snow stows away in the Winnebago, in a storage compartment beneath the floor.

While being pursued by Issacs and his men, Hanna stows away in the VW bus, in a storage compartment beneath the floor.

Snow eventually befriends the Bohemians and earns their trust.

Hanna eventually befriends the Bohemians and earns their trust.


Just how deadly Snow is is shown when she puts a friendly character in a sophisticated martial arts grapple following a misunderstanding.

Just how deadly Hanna is is shown when she puts a friendly character in a sophisticated martial arts grapple following a misunderstanding.

In Snow, the Winnebago is pulled over to the side of the road by Snow's pursuers. She leaps out and kills two of the pursuers with her bare hands, horrifying her new friends.

In Hanna, the Volkswagen is pulled over to the side of the road by Hanna's pursuers. She leaps out and kills one of the pursuers with her bare hands, horrifying her new friends.


Outnumbered, Snow drives into a river to escape her enemies.

Outnumbered, Hanna dives into a river to escape her enemies.

Even after Snow reaches her objective and reunites with Harrison, her troubles with Ubela are not over.

Even after Hanna reaches her objective and reunites with Erik, her troubles with Marissa are not over.


Snow
ends with a battle between Snow and Ubela.

Hanna ends with a battle between Hanna and Marissa.

Snow, still in recovery from being poisoned by Ubela, runs up the stairs to confront her nemesis on the roof.

Hanna, who's been wounded by Marissa, runs up a ladder and a stairway to confront her nemesis as she tries to escape to the roof.


That's all I could pick out for now. I was going to rewatch
Hanna but I literally felt physically ill when I tried to do so. A shame, it seems like it would be a very nice movie if I didn't feel like I was being ass-raped while watching it.

Allegedly.

More on this as the situation develops.

UPDATE 6/11: Have a lead on the posting of the Snow treatment and some background information. Will keep you guys posted as the situation develops.


* I have most of it laid out in some level of finish, but kept having to abandon the project when freelance work came in. After a while I couldn't hold on. It was heartbreaking, really. I actually put up a sample from Snow here back in 2010, since I kept working on the project even after I gave up trying to find an artist, but couldn't get my style to work with the story.

**
Note: 2005 was when archive CD with file was burned. Treatment was actually posted in 2003, I now realize.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Fairest of Them All: A True Hollywood Horror Story


Sketch from 1999 Snow pitch

I was watching the revisionist Snow White boomlet (Mirror, Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman), having a somewhat vested interest in the phenomenon. But as happens so often on this blog, I started looking under rocks on the trail and discovered a deeper story behind the story, something that I will definitely have to look into.

But first, let me walk you through all of this backwards, since this is probably hitting you completely out of the blue. It all started when I read this news item, just a couple weeks ago:
Walt Disney Pictures, fresh from the billion-dollar success of "The Avengers," has canceled "Order of the Seven," a revisionist take on Snow White...Deadline tells us the reason is its way-out-of-control budget in the $150 million range or higher! Saoirse Ronan was attached to star as the female lead and the movie was supposed to be set in Asia with a Samurai theme.
This was a surprise to many people since this project was greenlit at the beginning of the year.
Walt Disney Pictures began work on a Kung Fu action-adventure flavored cinematic retelling of the Snow White fairy tale over a decade ago...

The Disney flick – long known as Snow and the Seven – was eventually re-named The Order of the Seven in Summer 2011, based on the logic that the project (back then) was only slated to contain a handful of allusions to the original Brothers Grimm story.Now, the title has been truncated to just Order of Seven, with all direct references to the tale of Snow White having reportedly been exorcised from the film’s current script draft.
Over a decade ago. Ah yes indeed. What else happened over a decade ago, actually just a couple months before Disney announced this revisionist Snow White project (that obviously had no script)?

Your humble host submitted a treatment to Disney and other Hollywood studios featuring-- you guessed it, Mable-- a revisionist, action-oriented take on the Snow White fable!

Now, this wasn't just me Hail Marying pitch letters around Tinseltown. My cowriter's sister-in-law worked for a big production house and wanted to strike out on her own as an agent. After my previous experience with the movie racket, I wasn't really interested in trying it again, but with an ambitious young go-getter looking for scripts, what did I have to lose?

She had the connections to get things read and I know for a fact that one of the connections she had was at Disney (I believe there's a fax of a coverage somewhere I'll try to track down). Since our pitch had to do with an iconic Disney character, she thought it would be right up their alley. Everything seemed to be going well, we got some good feedback and our aspiring agent was excited about the project's prospects.

But did I mention this was all going down in early September of 2001? Yeah.


My co-writer lived across the street from the World Trade Center--this project is indelibly linked to Lower Manhattan in my mind, since we did most of brainstorming sessions in his apartment overlooking the Statue of Liberty and the rest of it. He and his family were on the street that day and retreated to their summer house for sometime afterward to recover from an incredibly harrowing experience. Needless to say, no one was thinking much about movies.

The next thing I knew Disney was announcing their own revisionist Snow White project.

Disney apparently hopes to boost the international appeal of the film by casting well-known stars from China, Russia and Japan as the ancient warriors. Studio executives have already begun talks with local talent in those countries.

The project - which has been in development since 2002 - was originally written by Michael Chabon and called Snow And The Seven.

Yeah, Michael Chabon is interested in revisionist fairy tales and Samurais like I'm interested in Jane Austen costume dramas. I'm sure that was his baby. Never mind the title of our project was simply Snow.

I'd been down this road with my previous project--one minute I was being told my script was the talk of the Christmas party circuit and then all of a sudden everyone is rushing their own angel movies into production. But wait- there's more!


The following is from the Snow treatment that we sent out in 2001. You can read the whole thing online here. In our story, Snow escapes from a secret school in which children are trained to become the perfect agents- assassins, spies, you name it. Methods range from rigorous training and chemical and cybernetic enhancement to hideous forms of mind control (which Snow is subjected to before she escapes).
The time is the early 21st century and Snow is a student at a very unique institution known as the Academy. Its students are children, trained in the arts of espionage and covert warfare from a very early age. We are nearing graduation time, when graduates will be auctioned off to the highest bidders. The school is run by UBELA KONIGEN, formerly the East German Stasi's most legendary agent. The exercises Snow just performed were part of her final exams. Her specialty is infiltration and escape. Like all students at the Academy, she is well versed in all of the killing arts and weaponry and has an above genius IQ.
The Academy, the product of an alliance of Americans and former Communist adversaries. An escaped female super-soldier who was subjected to hideous mind control experiments. Any of this sound familiar? Browncoats?
It was at this point that she was sent to a government learning facility known only as "The Academy". While her parents and Simon believed the Academy was a private school meant to nurture the gifts of the most academically talented children in the Alliance (the uniting governmental force over all inhabited galactic planets), it was in fact a cover for a government experiment in creating the perfect assassin. While in the hands of the Alliance doctors and scientists, River was secretly and extensively experimented on, including surgery that in some way damaged her amygdala.
OK, maybe a coincidence. Maybe the same X-Men influence somewhere in the unconscious. I'll let it slide, given the context (plus I love Firefly).

But this Saoirse Ronan project got me thinking of a review I'd read of her previous film, Hanna. I haven't seen the film as of this writing (it's not on any of the streaming services I subscribe to) but what I've read (allegedly) alarms me.

It hits so many of the bullet points from the Snow treatment I've been wracking my brains trying to figure how a Vancouver film student could have possibly have gotten a hold of a treatment (the friend of a friend network can work miracles) making the rounds a decade before his film was released. That is, if this isn't all some insane coincidence, which I specialize in.


Reviewers praised Hanna for its "originality" (I could strangle somebody), combining fairy tale themes and visuals with action-adventure dynamics, understandably not realizing that we had done that ten years before.

Snow was peppered with idyllic fairy tale scenes, which were the dissociative fantasies Snow escaped to when she was under extreme stress. We later learn that she associates these stories with a happier time in her life:

BEAR
Yeah, but now you can go back to
your family.

SNOW
I don’t have one. The Academy’s the
only family I’ve ever known.

BEAR
Are you an orphan or something?

SNOW
That’s what I’ve been told, but I
seem to remember things and people
from when I was very young. I don’t
know if they’re real or just a
fantasy.

BEAR
Like what kind of things?

SNOW
I remember someone reading me
stories, fairy tales, when I was
young. It was a woman that I
imagined was my mother. I don’t
really remember what the story was
or what the woman looked like. It was
so long ago.



And from a review of Hanna:
Despite this bleak setting Hanna still has an innocence about her. Seeing a plane in the sky causes her to burst out with laughter. When her father reads to her the account of Laika, the first dog in space, she wishes somehow the animal wasn’t left to die in orbit. Later before bed, she pages through a book of, what else, fairy tales.
Hanna also made use of a driving score by The Chemical Brothers, a rather anachronistic conceit given the film's release date and the Brothers long-expired sell-by date. From the first paragraph of the Snow pitch:
SNOW is the sound of Jerry Goldsmith filtered through the Underworld and re-mixed by Fatboy Slim.
In other words, we were pitching a British techno soundtrack for the film back when such a thing was (relatively) relevant.


There's also the issue of the "Evil Queen" being an elite intelligence agent in charge of the program that created our heroine. We named her Ubela Konigen (pidgin German for evil queen) and the parallels were not lost on the New York Times reviewer:
And so, after the once upon a Finland time, Hanna and Erik part ways, embarking on an intrigue involving a C.I.A. operative named Marissa Wiegler and played with witty menace by Cate Blanchett. She isn’t the fairest in the land, but she seems the maddest and like the queen in “Snow White” sets her huntsmen (two skinheads and their requisite mincing boss) on Hanna, who pursues Marissa in turn.

Our seven dwarfs were a pack of luckless hippie hackers holed up in a broken-down Winnebago that Snow discovers after a harrowing escape through the desert. From the Hanna wiki:
She finds herself on the run in the Morrocan desert, where Hanna meets Sebastian (Jason Flemyng) and Rachel (Olivia Williams), a bohemian British couple on a camper-van holiday with their teenage daughter, Sophie (Jessica Barden), and their younger son, Miles (Aldo Maland). She sneaks into the family's camper-van and hitches a ferry ride to Spain, with the goal of reaching Germany.
There's much more, and I'll have more to say about all of this after I see Hanna in full. But let this be a word of caution to any aspiring screenwriters out there. Now, let me just say this could all be another wacky coincidence, the apparent writer of this film was apparently just a film student in Vancouver when he apparently wrote this script. Stranger things have happened and I've written about them on this blog.

But guess what else happens? People get ripped off. I remember reading an article in a screenwriters' trade magazine I subscribed to about how producers were secretly taping pitch meetings and using them to stripmine ideas for free.

Script-readers at studios are all aspiring writers themselves and have aspiring writer friends. They talk to their friends about scripts they've read. They probably rifle through slushpiles of pitches for ideas to steal. They have friends they pass ideas onto and make under-the-table deals so there's no paper trail.

Allegedly.

And those "hot unproduced screenplays" always end up getting completely rewritten by the Hollywood machine, as anyone who's read the original scripts for films like Jacob's Ladder and Hancock will tell you.

More to come.

NOTE: Before you comment, please understand there are plenty of films and cartoons and comic books that explored the same superficial themes we did in Snow; that was exactly the point.

The unique idea we were putting forward was marrying those themes to their thematic opposite-- the fairy tale of the lost maiden. We were constructing a commentary within the narrative, about the modern mythology that was developing around the super-girl.

This was the distinguishing characteristic of the script--the 'high concept'-- upon which its marketability was based. With Snow the elevator pitch was "Snow White as an action hero."