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How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You--for Better or Worse
"Get a Life"
Gladiator David Franzoni
With the possible exception of showbiz legacies like Jason Reitman and Sofia Coppola, everyone starts out in the movie business at the bottom of the same mountain. We look up at the summit and start trudging, daydreaming all the way about the view from the top.
Pretty much all of us imagine ourselves at a podium, statuette in hand, thanking the Academy, but other than that, we may well disagree about what, exactly, the top of the mountain is. Some daydream of making a film for the ages, like Citizen Kane; others of having millions flock to their movies at the multiplex. Some want fame, some crave respect, others just want money.
Whatever the screenwriting mountain is, by the mid-1990s David Franzoni had set up camp pretty darn near the summit. He was an established writer with money in the bank and a staff to help him. He'd been nominated for an Emmy and was the sole credited screenwriter on Steven Spielberg's slavery saga Amistad, so he had not just credibility, but cachet. And he was on a first-name basis with Spielberg, too—ideally positioned to pitch a movie. So well positioned, in fact, that when he pitched a big-bud-get gladiator movie, he barely had to open his mouth to sell it.
How many people have dreamed of being in just such a spot? But the story of Franzoni and Gladiator, while generally a happy tale, is a warning that in movies—as in mountaineering—the weather at the summit can turn very, very suddenly, for betteror for worse.
I met Franzoni at the bar at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, steps away from the movie business's epicenter of excess, the I. M. Peidesigned headquarters of the Creative Artists Agency. Not coincidentally, CAA repped Franzoni. He doesn't carry himself like an ink-stained wretch; he arrived in a sport coat and slacks, not worn jeans, looking less like a writer than a producer—which, as it happens, he is. He was credited as a producer on Gladiator; a few months later, that credit would put a Best Picture Oscar in his trophy case.
Nor is Franzoni the classic tortured, introverted writer. He is raw and enthusiastic. He tells gripping, funny stories. He can talk for an hour and leave you wanting more. If ever a man was born to pitch, it's Franzoni. He also, as it turns out, is a self-described "bad boy" and not one to take an insult lying down. All these qualities serve him well in the movie business.
It was May 2000 when we met, and Franzoni was fifty-two, a twenty-four-year vet of the movie business. Gladiator had premiered to generally positive reviews. He'd sent me several drafts of the screenplay, but they turned out to be so different from the movie that I just let him tell me where the whole project started.
Thereby, not surprisingly, hangs a tale.
"Honestly," he said, "the idea originated when I was twenty-two and I was bumming around the world on a motorcycle. I was in Baghdad, and I traded a really good book on the Irish Revolution for a book on the Colosseum. It was a very tawdry, exploitative book about the Roman games. It was a book by Daniel P. Mannix, who has written tons of stuff. He was a sword swallower at one time; he became a writer. He wrote the book that The Fox and the Hound is based on.
"He took a lot of ancient sources and pieced together the story of an animal trainer in the Colosseum. He explored the provincial arenas and modern-day sort of spinoffs, but what he really did was connect in my head gladiators and O. J. Simpson, or any great athlete, and the worship of athletes.
"From that point on, even though I didn't know I'd end up being a screenwriter, I was trying to find a way into the Colosseum, to the gladiator."
Franzoni may not have known he wanted to be a screenwriter, but he'd always loved film and wanted to get involved in the film business. Somehow, he ended up being a geology major in college and still didn't have a career when he set out on that motorcycle trip.
"When I was driving to Lahore, India [sic], on my motorcycle, I had an especially difficult night getting to Lahore, because the roads went out in the jungle and they ended, and the signs were wrong, and I got diesel fuel instead of gasoline in my bike, and the water was bad. But I remember the sun came up and I was in Lahore. And I thought, You know what? If I can do that, I can do anything. And this is still easier than that.
"So I figured, okay, I'm over the hump that I can do that. The second hump was that you have to make a decision to do it or die trying. So once I got that organized in my head, I decided I wanted to do it. I wanted to be in film more than anything else in the world. And since this is my life, why can't I have that? Why settle for second best when even the best isn't enough?"
His family had a business, and he had the chance to join it, but his get-into-film-or-die-trying resolve was reinforced when he actually got shot back in his Los Angeles apartment.
"I decided, fuck it, I want to do this. Because what difference does it make? I'm dead anyway."
So he spent five years writing on his own. "I remember the day I broke through," he said. "I had a meeting with Sissy Spacek and I come out and I've got a flat tire. And my spare's flat. I've got twenty-six bucks. I take the spare and roll it down the street. For twelve bucks they patch it for me and I roll it back. I get home. I don't really have an agent, I have a girl at CAA who's representing me on the side. I get home and there's a message. 'Sissy wants to hire you, and we sold the spec script.' " He was twenty-eight.Screen Plays
How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You--for Better or Worse. Copyright © by David Cohen. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.