In Interlude: The Astonishing History of “WESTERN LEGEND”

A Screenplay …  followed by the Hollywood Runaround … followed by eleven more drafts and a lot of headaches, heartaches, and stress … and ultimately followed by a Novel; which made the aforementioned look like a godd*mn picnic !

**

I had this idea in 1994, after I’d seen both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp, that I could create a story in the Western genre, with more adventure than anything I had previously seen in any western genre film.  I was younger then, and a tad more arrogant, and I was a screenwriter.  I had been reading about the Dodge City Peace Commission, and thought that incident, in a different context, would make for a great story.  I wrote up a full page synopsis — and then got distracted by other projects.  When I eventually came back to the western, in the summer of 2003, I was preparing to pitch projects at the Creative Screenwriting Expo.  I had three finished scripts; lined up; ready to pitch.  But I felt I needed a safety.  Something that would be off in left field.  I looked through my various journals and material, and found “Hey — a Western !”  Never see much of those.  The Expo was in November, and I only needed three weeks.  One week for a full treatment, and Two for a full first draft.

I further refined an original story about legendary, prominent figures of the west visiting a small town and telling stories to children about their adventures — to include in scope and structure a plot device involving cattle rustlers terrorizing the local citizens. Within days of contemplation, I had also added an anti-gun, anti-gang message buried within it.  When I finished, it was 110 pages that I was very proud of.

The very fist pitch at the Expo, I got a hit.  And “American Western” (the original title) was the script I pitched.  A development exec. at a company called Ascendant Pictures found the pitch interesting enough to warrant a full read and had me send it to her.  I took an extra two weeks after the Expo, went over the script with a fine tooth comb, revising it completely, and sent it over.  They asked to meet with me and have lunch at a restaurant in Beverly Hills.  It was a good meeting; they even had me spitball something else I might be working on, and mentioned that they were in good with Julia Roberts, and could get her a treatment very quick.  I pitched them something I had previously written up into 5 page treatment.  Something I thought an expectant mother and actress might find interesting.  [If my memory is correct, she was pregnant at that time.]

The story was about a pregnant woman who was very, very happy to be pregnant with her first child.  During her continuing preparations for the coming event, she discovered her high school annual and within it, found a list of things she intended to do before she died.  It was a long list, and the only thing on that list she could cross out, was having a baby.  Affected deeply by this, she changed her preparations completely.  She made sure car was fully stocked with everything she needed, made some phone calls, and set off across Country to do everything on her list.

It was untitled, but the people I met with liked it enough to encourage me to flesh it out into a full treatment, and they even gave it a title, “Maternity Leave.”

By the way, if this seems familiar to you, it is because a few years later, an “all-to-similar” idea showed up in a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman, called “The Bucket List.”  And yes, I am still suspicious that my idea was an influence on that production.   Development Execs pass around writer’s ideas between them, all the time.  And they legally get away with it.  This is one of the principal reasons Studios and Production Companies love having Development Execs on the payroll.

I continued further research for “American Western.”  Three issues came up.  All three each had a direct connection with my faulty research methods.

1. I came across a TV movie which had aired on TNT back in the 1990’s, called “Purgatory.”  This film is a type of science-fiction western, having to do with a band of bank robbers who after committing their latest crime, ride through a long tunnel, and emerge in a small town that exists in a netherworld, halfway between heaven and hell.  Residing in this town, happen to be Wild Bill Hickok (strangely dressed like one of the Earps,) Billy the Kid, Jesse James (who has clearly been mistaken for his brother Frank by the writers,) and Doc Holliday.  The plot similarity between my story and Purgatory regarding notable figures of the wild west vanquishing their own breed in a play for redemption, was something that gave me headaches and sleepless nights.  The fact that I had a minor antagonist in my story hit by lightning — and so did they — was too much for me, and the last draw.  So I made a list of what I suspected were similarities, and made revisions.

Now at this point, let me be specific about something — the airing of the Television movie Purgatory had not predated my writing of the synopsis of American Western.  There was no question of what came first, the chicken or the egg: Purgatory came first.  “None” of the similarities I found were present yet.  Purgatory very simply existed before my own project.  But that left a curious quandary.  How in the hell did I wind up with so many connected points-of-interest: character types, dynamics, little pieces of dialogue … they got Billy the Kid, they got ….. Uh, oh.  Something jogged in my memory.  I looked over my list of similarities and saw something both horrifying and hilarious, at the same time.  These similarities occurred within the Television film Purgatory, in the exact same order as they were in my script.

It was f*cking Yahoo.com !  I had used Yahoo as a search engine to find websites for quick research for the original draft of the script.  And quite obviously, so had the writers of Purgatory.   The Billy the Kid site, the first to come up when you typed his name into Yahoo, proved everything.  That was the key.  (Please Note, this is a bad habit many in Hollywood never grow out of)  In fact, the empirical probability that the writer (and probably Development Execs, too) had used Yahoo as a search engine, was almost a certainty.  The empirical probability that they hadn’t, was like a negative zero, or something.  Thus, I made as many changes as possible to both my script, and my research methods.  And fell under the mistaken assumption that no more nasty surprises lay ahead.  Wrong !

2. There once was a movie called The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.  And this, too, had a direct connection with Yahoo.  You see I searched for “old world language, circa 1800s,” using Yahoo, and came up with a list of sites, one of which led me to a very interesting white page lined with period colloquialisms.  Great stuff, had put lots of it into the script.  So had whoever had been responsible for the script for The Assassination of Jesse James.  And again, it was all in the same order in their movie, as it was in my f*cking script.  And around the time that movie went into script  development, I had just sent my script off to Scott Free (Ridley and Tony Scott,) the Producers who helped shepherd The Assassination of Jesse James into production.  As soon as I got a quarter way through that movie, I knew something smelled rotten.

I thought they had simply swiped dialogue out of my script, but a closer examination of that web page I had used for reference, remember that ?  A closer look at that page proved that someone had done their research using the same simple, easy method that I had.  And they went a step further by using phrases and words which I didn’t — which were also on that list on that web pageIt was a lesson I clearly needed to learn twice, so I went through the script, removed every word of that language, and moved on.  Here’s the kicker.  I only noticed once I was done, that the language on that web page was taken from the 1920’s, and not the 1890’s.  Something I still giggle about every time I come across The Assassination of Jesse James on cable.

3. The Shootist.  When I was about 6, this Don Siegle/John Wayne film aired on CBS; and I believe it was for the first time.  This would be ’77.  Dad pleaded with me to watch it; I demurred.  Dad watched it anyway; I fell asleep on the floor.  Biiiiiiig mistake.  I was literally finishing the final draft of my script when I happen to catch this movie on TV one afternoon in 2007.  There are differences, believe me, but the larger story structure is essentially the same, except in my story it’s four guys like John Wayne and four kids.  And in The Shootist, it’s John Wayne and a slightly older kid played by Ron Howard.  But the dynamic is the same.  This, I had to live with, and fast.  I thought I had seen enough of westerns to know what had and had not been done before.  I was dead wrong.  And I had been arrogant.  Lesson learned.

Thus, after all of this and eleven drafts … the western fell by the wayside, Ascendant Pictures lost interest in it, along with my treatment for Maternity Leave.  And this happened very abruptly, and without explanation.  I found out much later that Kevin Costner sued them over their defaulting on a hand-shake agreement, and that my script “American Western” had played some sort of role in this.  I had never gotten to meet Costner, and was never even informed that he’d read my script.

By September of 2007, I had finished the eleventh draft of what I now called “Western Legend.”  The reason for this title change is actually rather bizarre, but very funny, once you think about it.  Once contact with Ascendant Pictures had ceased, I had sent off a synopsis within the body-text of a query letter, to every production company, and actor or director I thought might would find the project interesting.  This synopsis included the title looking like this:

AMERICAN WESTERN

Times New Roman and underlined.  Within 1 year, I began seeing American this and American that on all sorts of movies — all of which went straight from a one-week stay in theaters, to an eternal life on home video. i.e. AMERICAN ZION, and AMERICAN HAUNTING.  And many of them utilized fonts similar to mine, and underlined.  I backtracked through my submission notes.  Every time I saw this, I could prove I had submitted to the same Production Company that had made that movie.   Now, it should be mentioned that filmmakers themselves are rarely responsible for something like this.  Mainly because they don’t sit around reading synopsis of scripts.  But again, Development Executives do.

So it was time for a title change.  And I went through all kinds of things.  Like Peter Benchly said regarding the long search for a title for his novel JAWS, said titles ranged from the pretentious to the mundane.  From Legends of the American West, to Dime Western.

After a long bout of going back and forth on some of these, I settled on “Western Legend.”  And for the record, I’m very happy with it.

In January of ’07, my fiance and I tore apart.  She had been working in role that had a  lot to do with construction coordination in the film and television industry (we met on the Warner Bros. lot,) and as I discovered on New Years Day ’07, she had also been doing something highly illegal on the side. Something which raised her annual income, and scared the total sh*t out of me.  So I gave her the ultimatum and she asked me to leave.  Her parting words: … And F*ck Western Legend !   *door slams in my face*  Nice girl, very pretty, very shapely, former stripper, great t*ts — she’ll probably read this.  Hey Sharon, I’m holding up three fingers; guess which one is for you.

September of ’07, I was trading emails with an entertainment law attorney that I had formed an acquaintance with, and he suggested in passing that I turn the western into a novel.  Now, I think he did this because he was getting annoyed with my running-in-place on top of this project.  Nothing was happening and his role had become nonexistent.  He hadn’t made any money off me, and really just wanted to preoccupy me for a while.  It worked.

I had been working through a staffing service for a company in Calabasas, California, for a few weeks.  Had something to do with insurance and worker’s comp.  Bout all I remember.  Anyway, I had been there for a brief amount of time when I began to notice that my work assignments had dried up.  (This was supposed to be a temporary to permanent assignment; what went wrong, I will never know; but I think due to the abrupt changes in the economy in late 2007, they got me in the building, then couldn’t get permission to hire me) They seemed unwilling to conclude my stay there as a temp, but they had very little for me to do and suggested I keep myself busy.  I had done some work for these people, duplicating Microsoft word documents, from other companies …   I still wonder about the legality of that, but eventually it went away.  And I began doing research on the net for typing up a novel in Word.  In no time, I was typing away the first chapter.  Though I would eventually re-write that initial chapter more than fifty times, it initially went smoothly.  My well-worked-out screenplay, my finely tuned instrument of pulp adventure, was my outline.  And a very good one.  It was only upon reaching passages wherein I would have to describe (thereby expanding upon) certain aspects of my story, which I myself knew nothing about — that I realized further research would have to take place.  Had I known then, what I know now, I would have projectile vomited instantly.

I began researching the net on where to obtain certain documents.  And from what State and State Agency.  I went through website after website, and book after book; searching for appropriate research materials which I could cite in a Bibliography.  And it took time and money, lemme tell ya.  Before it was done and the initial draft of the book was complete, I had spent approx. $600.00.  Much of it on mail-ordering copies of historical documents related to the Gunfight at the OK Corral, a bank raid by the James-Younger Gang in Northfield, MN, and Tom Horn.  I had also acquired several books on the various characters in the story and obtained permission to reference them.  There were web-sites, State and private.  In no time, I was exhausted with this project and needed to finish and move on.  I had expected a second draft of the book would be needed.  But I never, NEVER expected what came next.

If you’ve never had to mix fact with fiction in prose, let me tell you what you’re in for: a puzzle.  So if you hate puzzles … walk away.  And when you get around the corner and out of sight from it, run like motherf*****g hell.

A few things here:

1. Don’t design a story, wherein your principal characters have to tell “the truth behind the legend” about an actual historical incident.  You’re about to drive into a circular cul-de-sac, without an exit, and surrounded by a mine-field. If your character(s) is/are stationed at a good vantage point to well documented history, then you have to be as knowledgeable as the documentation.

2. Don’t try and solve the enigma of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  You won’t.  Others have tried and they didn’t figure it out, either.  Who gives a turkey whether or not Tom McLaury had a gun, if you have to down a whole bottle of Tylenol just to figure that out.

3. Giving a geography is one thing, but remember, when someone goes on vacation and just keeps talking about a place you know you will probably never visit, that can be annoying.

4. If you’re not having any fun telling this story, the reader won’t enjoy it, either.  It’s a story — it’s not suppose to be homework.  Never try and write above or beyond yourself.  Writing is talking on paper.  Stop trying to imitate Joseph Conrad, Theodore Dostoevsky, and Alexander Dumas.  Those guys haven’t spoken a word in a hundred years or more.  If you want to be inspired by these people, or in my case Michael Crichton and Robert Louise Stevenson, fine.  Just don’t let it slow down your process.  If you have to stop and re-write something 50 times, you’re screwed.

So … at this point, I’m lucky I have not turned into an alcoholic.

In any event, I got it done; finally.  Took long enough.  Then I began crafting a query letter for email.  Some companies still request that you snail mail, but the only reason they do, is because they just toss your submission into the garbage.  Which is much easier for them than OPENING AND DELETING HUNDREDS OF EMAILS A DAY !  If you don’t already have an agent or a literary attorney, don’t bother using snail mail unless you’re actually submitting short or non-fiction for potential payment in a standard magazine, or on-line publication.  Lesson learned.  I got several responses from email.  These were the only responses I had ever gotten-

[[Let me INTERJECT here, and this is a post-edited comment: There was ONE response. From JAWS and Driving Miss Daisy Producer, Richard Zanuck.  He loved the story, but felt the project would be too expensive; somewhere in the seventy-million range.  And he felt that a western should stay at the thirty million range.  This was one of those times when I had sent along a copy of the full script, with the query letter.  I was so upset at his letter that I tore it up and tossed it into the nearest garbage can.  Did I mention he signed it?  Ouch.]]

[[As I was saying,]] These were the only responses I had ever gotten after sending out tons of queries via snail mail from my days working at an Insurance Company. [I was the facilities coordinator, and this included mail room duty]

Then, the bottom fell out.  The responses, starting in 2008, all said the saaaaame thing.  Allow me to paraphrase:  “I found your query intriguing, but I just don’t think I can shop it in the current market.  I am scaling back my clientele.  Good luck, though.”  [This, no doubt was due to the economic down swing.  You’ve heard the phrase, ‘I heard it a thousand times’?  Well this was a song I actually heard repeated a thousand times over, for two years, while searching for either: A) an agent, or B)  a small press publisher.  I still have the email responses archived to prove it.]

Among the more … uncomfortable responses I got: a suggestion that I re-write my western with the help of a “paid editor.” … gimme a sec, that brings back a bad memory of my head exploding … okay, it has passed.  From that unkind experience, to a response from a supposed small time publisher, who turned out to be a writer who was trying to start his own publishing company, who had absolutely no clients, and was ridiculously picky about who he would publish, other than himself, of course.  Another bizarre experience: a guy had me work up a series of separate submissions, involving my ideas for a cover, marketing campaign, how I would promote the book, etc. etc.  And I worked on this stuff really hard before submitting it all and getting the response,

“Nah, not for me.”

Then, one day in 2010, I discovered something my mind had not wanted to previously accept.  Ebooks were quickly overtaking sales of books printed on paper.  No kidding.  I did research for maybe two afternoons, submitted to 9 e-book publishers, and went with the first one to respond and request the book — THAT’S RIGHT — SOMEONE REQUESTED TO READ MY BOOK ! In time, seven of the other e-book publishers responded favorably, but I had already signed with Whiskey Creek Press.

This book comes out July, 2011.  And finally, I’m almost done with Western Legend. I’ve been assigned an editor by WCP, who I will soon briefly correspond with over necessary changes.  Then I will be done changing the diapers, and Western Legend will be on its own.

Now I know what Leonard Nimoy meant when he said, just not long ago, “Finally !  I’m done with Star Trek!”  And laughed maniacally.

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3 responses

  1. Must feel great to be nearly finished! Looking forward to reading it!

    May 15, 2011 at 10:05 PM

  2. Anna-Maria Cool

    Amazing what you’ve been through, Jim.
    Your determination–and humility for lessons learned–is inspiring. Thanks for sharing your experience. This is just the beginning, man.

    May 15, 2011 at 10:50 PM

  3. Oh, what an epic … my head aches, just thinking about it. The problem of having another story out there which coincidentally (or not) has the exact same elements is what keeps me to doing ‘unknown stories’. Like, who needs another novel about the Donner Party? I’d rather explore the Stephens-Townsend Party, who crossed the Sierras two years before, under the same hardships. Or write about the Salado Creek fight, rather than the OK Corral. The field isn’t nearly as crowded and the chances for overlapping with another writer not nearly as high.

    May 17, 2011 at 11:32 AM

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