Development Hell

I was inspired to write this post after reading K.B. Wagers’ post, “Kill the Buddha” and was reminded of a time and place I found myself a few years back. One of those ordeals a screenwriter goes through when mired in what we in the business of writing screenplays call “Development Hell.”

I had written a series of short stories built around the adventures of a French Canadian fur trapper, Marcel Le Voux, and his pack mule Marie, the offspring of a Spanish Jack and a beautiful thoroughbred mare from Tennessee. My grandchildren and their friends delighted in these tales. So I decided to adapt the overall story line into a screenplay entitled (what else?) MARCEL & MARIE. I had a great time writing and rewriting this story, and soon garnered the interest of a young British producer who fell in love with the story and characters.

This producer soon brought on board a group of Canadian investors. After all, the story did take place in 1800s Canada–who could come up with a more perfect union? Little did I know the seeds of “Development Hell” were planted that very day and had already started to grow…

Soon after the Canadian group became involved, they asked me to rewrite the story. Even though they loved the characters and the setting, they really thought the project would do better box-office if it appealed to adults rather than a family audience. So, being the good team player I am, I absorbed this rebuff and set to rewriting the story for an adult audience, all the while trying to retain the zany, good-natured tenor that had appealed to everyone who read MARCEL & MARIE before. Everyone seemed pleased with the finished product—for about two weeks. Then I got the call: “We have some new Canadian investors who’ve come on board,” the Brit producer told me. “They love the idea but would like another rewrite. They want a darker story.”

Again, as that good team player, I fought back the urge to beat my head against the desk and dove into my masterpiece once more. First, I changed the title. From this point on my opus would be called, HOMME DU NORD (MAN OF THE NORTH). My happy-go- lucky French Canadian fur trapper became a man who loses his wife and new-born child to a band of American outlaw brothers. My beautiful children’s story became an adult yarn of rape, murder, and revenge instead! I wiped my brow, felt good in what I had created—even though it was 180 degrees from where my vision had started.

I sent it off, thinking, “That’s it, I’m done! I’ve given them what they want. There can’t possibly be anything else they want to change.” WRONG! The Brit got back to me. They wanted yet more changes. They wondered if I could add some industry and commercial intrigue. It was right about then I hit the wall!

I told the Brit, in no way could I add something that wasn’t “there,” innate to the original concept. I would not sacrifice the integrity of the story. After all, it took place at a time when fur trapping was the industry in Canada–the only industry!! I was not about to invent anything else that would not ring true. I would let them change the genre or the tenor, but I would not betray the integrity of my story.

So I stuck to my guns. And, sadly, neither the MARCEL & MARIE screenplay nor the HOMME DU NORD version has been produced.

Yet the stories still ring true. For me, anyway. And who knows what Dreams may come?



8 responses to “Development Hell

  1. To thine own self ring true, Wally. Or something like that. Trying to write a story for someone who can’t write their own will drive you into the ground every time. You can bet your boots each change came about over a round of drinks with one investor saying to another, “I’ve always wanted to do a story about industrial intrigue.” To which his buddy responds, “I bet Wally could do it.”

    • You hit the nail on the head, Raymond. The Novelist writes a story, and may or may not get some notes for changes, but once he sells the work, he’s done. Not so in screenwriting. The “finished” screenplay is the beginning of the process of making a movie.
      The Director reads the screenplay and gets a vision of what it should look like. New investors ask for changes, the actors ask for changes… everyone has an idea. I some times wonder why I do this. 🙂

  2. I have heard some horror stories about script rewrites, Wally. At some point I think it does become a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation and it’s good (as a writer) to have an idea of where you’re going to draw the line going in.

    Looks like you did, and while it sucks you didn’t get the go ahead, it’s good to stick to your guns! 🙂


    • It’s all about the integrity of the story. Same as having a child, you do all you can to see it succeed—undamaged. There are writers out there that don’t believe that. They say it’s all about the money and only the money. Maybe that’s why there are so many bad movies.


  3. Good for you Wally for sticking to your ideals. I think it’s a hollow victory to compromise on something you’ve worked so hard for, just to be able to sell it.

    At the end of the day, you must feel good about the finished product.


  4. I know this story all too well. *bangs head on wall*

    You know what? Marcel and Marie sounds like a great family film to me, and now that animated films are all the rage…

    Oh, wait. The last thing you need is another suggestion. LOL.

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