You can't throw a skim latte in L.A. without hitting a writer who has a screenplay that's been stuck in the system since grunge was breaking. But there are very few who can say that in the intervening years they've turned the same story into a well-reviewed novel, a German radio play and a potential Broadway musical.
Bill Fitzhugh and his writing partner, Matt Hansen, wrote a number of comic thriller screenplays in the early '90s, including an action-comedy hybrid called "Pest Control" about a mild-mannered, environmentally conscious exterminator who gets mistaken for the world's greatest assassin. Over the years, they pitched it to everyone from Ivan Reitman to Imagine Entertainment and Lauren Shuler Donner.
Producer Peter Samuelson ("Arlington Road") optioned it briefly. Mel Brooks liked the idea but wanted to change its entire execution. New Line flirted with making it as a National Lampoon movie. To amp up the script's exposure, Hansen used to slip a copy of it into the trunk of any Volvo that he sold at the dealership where he worked in the Valley.
But by the end of 1993, Fitzhugh decided to flesh it out into a novel after reading a newspaper article about a writer in a similar situation who ended up selling the publishing and film rights. (Hansen had moved away from writing by then.) One hundred and 30 publishing rejections and two years later, a book agent finally got Fitzhugh's novelized version to, of all places, a film company.
Spring Creek Productions ("Analyze This," "Blood Diamond") bought the film rights in perpetuity for $500,000, plus an additional $1 million if it goes into production. Not bad for a story that had struggled to break through as a screenplay and hadn't yet found a publisher in book form. Of course, once the sale of the film rights went public, the novel was quickly picked up and published by Avon Books.
Peter Tolan ("Guess Who") wrote a few drafts of the "Pest Control" adaptation for director Peter Segal ("50 First Dates," "Get Smart") and another writer was brought on after that in 1999, but the film version has never taken flight. In the meantime, Fitzhugh has published six other novels, with another due in May: "The Adventures of Slim and Howdy."
And now, new life has been breathed into the property: A Berlin company is producing a radio adaptation of the book and the Broadway musical rights have just been optioned. The remote possibility of a hit musical version has revived Fitzhugh's hopes of a film, but he's spent 16 years learning how to manage those expectations.
"People get excited about stuff and then they lose their enthusiasm," he says, while pointing out that writing the novel in the wake of the screenplay's "failure" led to a bigger payday and more complete version of the story than if the original script had just been sold and sat on a shelf all these years. "I'm aware enough that you've got no control over it, so that it's insane to sit there and worry about, 'Are they gonna do it?' If it happens, great. Meanwhile, be working on the next thing."
Fitzhugh, ever the optimist, has just finished writing that next thing: a new novel called "The Exterminators." Yep, it's the long-incubating post-9/11 sequel to "Pest Control." It does not yet have a publisher, but Fitzhugh sent a copy of the manuscript over to Spring Creek anyway -- just in case.
Motherly love on the picket line
"I needed my mommy," joked Lew Schneider two weeks ago about the strain of the writers strike.
A writer and producer on "Everybody Loves Raymond" for nine years, Schneider was indeed walking the Galaxy gate picket line outside 20th Century Fox studios with his mother, Paula.
Schneider mère had flown in from Boston and spent the last four days on the line with Lew. A homemade brisket awaited him after his shift.
"It's full service," said Lew, as his mom chuckled beside him. "[The picketing has] affected her to the point that I believe that she will now choose vacation spots based on what kind of labor action she can attend."
"I've been enjoying just being with Lew and his friends," said Paula, a longtime member of the National Assn. of Social Workers who once helped organize garment employees. "And I believe in them."
Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to email@example.com.