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Forget It Jake, It’s Cyber-Chinatown

Schadenfreude is a wonderful word meaning the pleasure we take from the misfortune of others. Who among us hasn’t felt it? I should be more interested in the Doomsday spectacle of the sinister Guardians of Peace bringing down an $8 billion dollar corporation like Sony. But my lowdown tabloid psyche loves reading all about the Amy Pascal/Scott Rudin/Seth Rogen/Kim Jong-un fiasco if only the back lot people weren’t also hurt by the terror-hackers. (Who, for all I know, may be a bunch of bright Chechen teenagers in the Caucusus mountains paid off by the North Koreans. You have a better idea?)

The saga is Hollywood at its normal best. What’s so outrageous about eavesdropping on studio executives negotiating to make a movie they all want? A thousand years ago I worked in the business end of the industry as a talent agent on Sunset Strip – and nothing has changed. Except the names and dollar amounts. Biopics of the living and recently dead have always been a snake pit.

Back in more flamboyant days all this sniping back and forth about which actor should play Apple’s Steve Jobs and at what fee, was conducted not electronically but at the top of our screaming, yelling, abusive voices for all the secretaries and janitors to hear and tip off the tabloids. And all the better for it. What really is so scandalous about a rich producer (Rudin) and rich executive (Pascal) sumo wrestling to get a movie made…on their mutually unexclusive terms?

I’ve scanned the available emails – sorry, lawyer Boies – and aside from a bit of casual racism about Obama’s choice of black films – I can’t see a moral problem. The leaked messages are a marvelous study in how pictures actually get made, with plenty of bile, frustration, cross purposes, doublecrosses, misunderstandings and second thoughts.

Follow the maze: Because he can’t get a “fix” on the role, Christian Bale bails on director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) and writer (Charlie Wilson’s War, Social Network) Aaron Sorkin. Leonardo di Caprio, a capricious magnet for movie cash, hops on and off the project. Sony boss Amy Pascal and producer Scott Rudin electronically tangle over perfectly legitimate issues of budget and whether to admit defeat by hiring a third rank star like Michael Fassbender. Somewhere down there among the writhing and hissing snakes is Angelina’s passion-project, the unfilmable Cleopatra, and “what about Matthew McConaughey as Jobs?”, tossed in to make a really rich compost heap.

As tempers fray and actors come and go, it becomes a kind of electronic tennis game played on keyboards. Sorkin glumly lobs in Tom Cruise. Rudin and director Boyle volley for Fassbender but Pascal, backhanding, isn’t willing to bet $33m on the Irish-German actor, but might plunge for a $25m. Pascal, nervous about money, backhands with a suggestion of suckering in billionaire investor Megan Ellison (producer of the pro-torture “Zero Dark Thirty” – what a recommendation!) to help bankroll, but Megan won’t return Boyle’s calls which is Hollywood code for “no thanks go eff yourself”.

For reasons they may both come to regret Pascal and Rudin hotly go head to head, mainly via email, over this mere difference of $8m – Hollywood lunch money at big studios. (Didn’t they know God invented agents precisely to avoid the heartache of such face to face brawls?) Pascal reluctantly forehands with a yes to Boyle over Fassbender but only for $25m, Rudin topspins that Boyle won’t do it for less than $33. With me so far? It’s not complicated. Rudin loses patience, aces and defaults, and picks up his ball and racket to go to Universal instead.

God knows what kind of Steve Jobs movie they’ll dream up over at Universal. Before cameras even roll I have all sorts of boring agent-type questions such as, since it’s a biopic is there what they call “underlying material” like a book or series of articles and who has copyright? What does Laurene the current widow think of all this, not to speak of Chrisann the ex-girlfriend with whom Jobs had a baby whose paternity he denied? Are Steve’s biological mum and dad, who gave him up for adoption, still alive and litigious? His foster parents? And Jobs’ three other children with Laurene, do they have a say or role…or lawyers? Are there hotly competing Jobs movie projects because, trust me, there always are.

I love (and have co-written) biopics. But you see the problem.

A pity Pascal and Rudin couldn’t get their tennis game together. Of their splashy movies, made in collaboration or singly, the one they did together I remember is Michael Bennett’s quietly terrific baseball story Moneyball. And when Rudin isn’t yelling and screaming he co-produced the valuable and little-seen Stop Loss about U.S. deserters.

I’m not much quoting from the emails because their dialogue frankly needs a polish, say by Aaron Sorkin. I mean, Pascal to Rudin “Why are you punishing me?” and Rudin to Pascal “We’re in crazy land here” are not exactly up there with “Frankly, my dear I don’t give a damn” and “I coulda been a contender.”

There are all sorts of fine books about how Hollywood makes pictures. Instantly to mind Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind; John Gregory Dunne’s Monster: Living Off The Big Screen; Cari Beauchamp’s Without Lying Down: Frances Marion And The Power of Women in Hollywood; and Patrick McGilligan’s excellent series of interviews with screenwriters, Backstory. Go read. Or, to relax, watch Altman’s hilarious takeoff The Player.

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Hemingway Lives.

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Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

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