These days, interns are suing producers for making them… well, intern… including reading scripts and writing script coverage when they’re not fetching coffee. People are in an uproar. If it’s not educational, and it doesn’t benefit the intern, then it’s involuntary servitude – or, illegal. But is reading screenplays educational? If so, how do the screenwriters feel about pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into a feature script only to have some unpaid intern read it and dismiss it out of hand?
I decided to sit down with Michael Gaylin, a USC Graduate who rewrote the script for the 1994 sci-fi thriller No Escape, and not ask him any of these questions.
Instead, I thought I’d see if Michael’s own story could illuminate something amid all the controversy; that no one ever said making it in the film business was easy.
TJB: Let’s get right to it and start this off with No Escape. That movie is unimpeachably awesome. First of all, it has Ray Liotta in it. And it’s about the future. On another planet. Which is a prison. I mean, come on. How did this happen for you?
MG: I am a huge science-fiction and action movie fan myself so not only did I have a kick writing this, but I also had a large mental library of genre elements and scenes that I could reference. Joel Gross wrote the first versions of the screenplay. I was hired to rewrite his script by Gale Anne Hurd’s Pacific Western production company.
At the time, Gale was unhappy with the way Richard Herley’s English novel was adapted. I went back to the novel and saw why it was a difficult task. Hurley’s novel was interesting, but it was a heavily philosophical, literary and at times talky story of banished prisoners who attempted to set up a kind of utopian society on a remote island. What it needed, I felt…was more action! I more or less started from scratch and the result was that very little was left of both the Joel Gross’s script or Mr. Hurley’s original novel, save the basic concept. Luckily Gale and the executive producer liked what I what done and the movie was given a green light.
TJB: Can you walk us through how you got there? Was there schooling, was there an agent, was there a pact with the devil? How many scripts do you write, if any, before No Escape?
MG: I’d gone to USC as a graduate student in the 1980’s. Shortly after graduating I started writing. My first project was to co-write a script with a friend from USC who had been hired by Disney. We’d worked together during school and he brought me in to pitch some ideas to the studio. They liked one of our ideas and we went to work. Unfortunately, when we were done with the project the studio decided (as if often the case) that they were not interested in going forward with the project and the script was shelved.
I was on my own and felt I had few options but to write a spec script. It took me more than a year to write the screenplay and quite a while after that to see anything came of it. Agents were distinctly cool to the story of “a crack investigative reporter who is forced into hiding in a small mid-western town when the mob puts a price on his head.” But, when a friend of mine who worked at Jon Davis’ production company at Fox read the script, she liked it. She gave it to her boss and he offered to option the script. Suddenly, now that a deal was on the table, the same agents who scoffed at the script were newly excited about its potential. (What foresight!)
From that point on, I was a working writer with an agent. But it was a difficult road. I wrote many, many drafts of The Cover for Paramount, but ultimately it too was shelved. I was at square one again and felt I had few prospects other than to write another spec script. I sat down for more than a year again to write a story. When it was finished I used the material to find a new agent that I thought would fight more aggressively for me. I was lucky and the script sold, in a bidding war, for a more than reasonable sum.
At this point, I think I was finally on the map. A small speck on the map and certainly not a household name, but nevertheless I had several offers for work. But, again as is often the case, after writing many different versions of my spec for MGM, who had bought the script, I was taken off the project and a new writer reassigned. I learned later the story was ultimately canned.
For the next several years I worked, as many writers in Hollywood do, as a rewriter. I was hired to write scripts based on original material, whether it was an idea from a producer, a novel, or an original screenplay. Most of these projects were in the action, action/comedy, or sci-fi genres. None of them went on to be produced.
At some point I met with Betsy Beers of Pacific Western where she asked if I was interested in looking at project they had called “The Colony,” a futuristic story of prisoners banished to a remote island to serve out their sentences. I was excited about the idea and set out to write the script. Many months later, over Thanksgiving holiday, I got a call from the producers, telling me that on the basis of my script the project was given a green light and was going into production.
TJB: What are you currently working on?
MG: Well…I’m no longer a screenwriter! As you can probably glean from the answers to your first questions, I was increasingly frustrated with the life of a screenwriter. Don’t get me wrong – I was happy and felt lucky to have the work. But for someone like me, who was always excited about the prospect of filmmaking, I felt a lot like a hamster on a spinning wheel – working hard but getting no closer to my ultimate goal of making films. Even after No Escape was released it was back to behind the scenes work rewriting stories that always seemed, at some point, to get shelved.
I eventually moved away from Hollywood back to the East Coast where I was raised. I founded a small video production studio called Aurora Video in upstate New York that is now thriving. And I’m much more satisfied. These days, nothing ends up on the shelf. And I’m still making short films, documentaries and am working on a script for a feature film that I hope one day to direct.
TJB: You live in Woodstock, NY, not far from where transcendentalists Thoreau and Emerson did their signature work. What is it about the area, then and now, which seems to draw creative thinkers?
MG: The area does have a rich history as a draw for artists of all types. Actors, painters, and especially musicians. It’s a beautiful area. And its proximity to New York means a lot of talented people who have made their careers in the city find their way here. In the early 20th century a lot of maverick, free thinkers came to this area and established artist’s colonies. And I think that spirit has survived.
TJB: What’s to become of us on Planet Earth? To tailor that question to suit the fact you wrote a movie about a prison-planet: What do you make of the prisoner-to-citizen ratio in the U.S.? Is the money-market a de facto system failure? Can we build a resource-based economy?
MG: As you may suspect, I am rather cynical about the direction we seem to be taking the planet these days. And as a father of a 12 year-old daughter, I’m extremely worried about all the challenges. But one of the reasons I was drawn to Woodstock is this is a very progressive, future-thinking community. I think it’s from this kind of local base, and others around the world, that the solutions to such existential problems as global warming, increasing income inequality, and the incarceration epidemic are to be found. And I think the will to follow through with these solutions will be forged here as well. Otherwise, we may find ourselves, like the inhabitants of a fictional future prison colony – with no escape.