The call from Disney Studios came last August, just after the writers strike ended.
Producer Michael Engleberg had read Terry Black’s screenplay for “Dead Heat,” a 1988 horror-detective film starring Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo, and was calling the Costa Mesa writer to see if Black would be interested in writing the screenplays for two film projects he was developing.
Black wasn’t interested in the first project Engleberg mentioned and was just about to hang up when the producer said the other one he had in mind was called “A Princess of Mars.”
Black did a double take.
“Do you mean the classic novel of Edgar Rice Burroughs, written in 1911, about John Carter going to Mars, meeting the gorgeous princess, exploring the fantastic lost cities, and fighting giant, four-armed green barbarians?”
“Oh, so you’ve heard of it then,” Engleberg said.
Black, a lifelong science-fiction devotee who read all 10 of Burroughs’ “Mars” books in junior high school, said with a grin: “I just couldn’t turn it down. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime to write something like this.”
Black, 34, recently turned in his completed “A Princess of Mars” screenplay and the studio is now considering revisions.
Although Burroughs is best known for his 26 Tarzan books, the Chicago-born author wrote many science-fiction novels about life on other planets. His first “Mars” book, “A Princess of Mars,” was originally published in 1912 as a magazine serial titled “Under the Moons of Mars.”
John Carter, the hero of Burroughs’ story, is a former Confederate Army captain who mysteriously finds himself transported to Mars in 1865. As Burroughs envisioned it, the red planet is the home of a once-great civilization whose technology was vastly superior to Earth’s. But as the sun steadily cooled, Mars became increasingly uninhabitable--to the point that it is now virtually a dead world except for the last remaining great cities and roving bands of ferocious, warring barbarians.
“Three-quarters of a century and the book is still popular, which says something,” Black said. “Even at that, the studio wanted to change the whole story around. At one point, they wanted me to throw out the whole book--which I thought was foolish advice.”
With characteristically wry humor delivered in a rich baritone voice, Black added: “Not everything they said was stupid. They wanted the story to be more dramatic. Basically, the book has kind of a leisurely pace, especially in the beginning, and if you’re going to tell the story in 2 hours, you have to heighten, exaggerate and make it bigger than life.”
In writing his screenplay, Black said he had to condense the number of events portrayed in the book. “You don’t have time for an elaborate back story,” he said. “The audience won’t sit still for that.”
As an example of the condensing involved in translating “A Princess of Mars” to the screen, Black said that in the book John Carter learns the Martian language over a period of several months. “In the movie we just made up this time machine that instantly re-educates his speech centers so he can talk Martian.”
Black said, however, that he has remained fairly faithful to the book, which he describes as essentially an adventure romance: the story of star-crossed lovers from different worlds.
Although the four-armed green Martians in Burroughs’ story have tusks and large, bulging eyes, the red Martians are more human-like. John Carter’s love interest, Princess Dejah Thoris, is a red Martian.
“At the end of this book, they get married; she becomes pregnant and lays an egg with his child in it,” says Black with a laugh. “I don’t think we can do that in the movie because it will not be taken seriously.”
Black said he had to throw out most of Burroughs’ dialogue, which is written in a florid, Victorian style. He said, however, that he used much of the dialogue between Carter and the Martian princess because it did not seem dated. Black commented: “The sad fact is that men and women have been misunderstanding each other for centuries.”
Surprisingly, although Hollywood has made a string of movies based on Burroughs’ Tarzan series, none of the author’s “Mars” books has ever been made into movies.
“The stories are good enough, the only reason (they haven’t been made) is because it would be so fantastically expensive to animate all the creatures and do the special effects,” Black said. Without the phenomenal success of “Star Wars,” Black believes, Disney would not be willing to invest in a movie based on “A Princess of Mars.”
In fact, he said, “they want this to be the next ‘Star Wars.’ ” Black, however, did not feel intimidated by having to write the screenplay for a film that is expected to compete with one of the biggest blockbusters of all time.
“All you can think about is whatever you’re working on and do the best job you can with this individual project,” he said. “You can’t make comparisons because it’s foolish to do that. But they always do.”
Black said the studio is debating whether the movie will be released as a traditional family-oriented Disney film or under the studio’s more adult Touchstone banner.
Either way is fine with him. “The advantage of releasing it under Touchstone is that we might be able to deal with more mature scenes, more gruesome fight scenes, more mayhem. But the story has such a sense of childlike fun throughout the book that I’d like to capture, which is exactly what you’d expect from a Disney picture.”
Black did not began writing his screenplay until October and had it completed in 4 weeks. If that sounds impressively swift, consider that he wrote the screenplay for “Dead Heat” in 3 weeks in 1985.
“It doesn’t take long to write a screenplay,” insists Black, who teaches a screenwriting class at Irvine Valley College. “A 21-day screenplay is perfectly reasonable, especially if you have thought out the story in advance. You should have a fairly detailed outline of the story before you start. Otherwise, you kind of flounder around.”
In 1985, Black was working days as a computer programmer and taking an evening screenwriting class at Orange Coast College when his younger brother, Shane, fresh out of UCLA, sold his first screenplay, “Lethal Weapon,” for $250,000.
Spurred by his brother’s success, Black decided to give up trying to write scripts for television and instead write a screenplay. He had a 3-week vacation in December and he was determined that he wasn’t going to return to work until he had finished his script.
“Dead Heat,” in which a police detective is killed and turned into a zombie in order to solve a case in which a scientific syndicate revives corpses to do its criminal dirty work, died at the box office when it was released earlier this year. It also received a critical lambasting, best summarized by The Times’ Michael Wilmington, who described it as “a repulsive potpourri of the bloodily obvious . . . shish-kebabed on an empty high concept.” Black commented: “I don’t agree with that, but I kind of like the way it sounds.”
Despite the critical drubbing, Black said there is nothing to compare to the experience of seeing his own story on the silver screen.
“I could die tomorrow and they can’t take that away,” he said. “Just the fact that I wrote a movie seen by thousands, if not millions. It’s essentially made a career for me.”
Black, a member of Fictionaires, the Orange County writers critique group, has been writing “seriously” since he was in high school, he said. Before “Dead Heat,” he had sold eight short stories to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine and had two “sexy” Westerns to his credit. (He describes a “sexy” Western as an action Western with three obligatory sex scenes).
Black finds that his experience writing books and short stories has benefitted his screenwriting.
“I find many of the people writing screenplays in Hollywood don’t read,” he said. “They don’t like words and don’t understand books. If you have a literary background and have kind of a prose style, that gives you an incredible advantage over these yay-hoos.”
Although he now makes his living as a screenwriter, Black has other writing projects in mind.
“I’d like to break into comic books,” he said. “I hope to write a nonfiction book about ‘The Fugitive’ television series. And I’ve always loved short stories. I just wrote a bunch of 100-word short stories for someone who is doing an anthology. I used up about a week when I should have been working on something else.”
He’s currently doing a rewrite of an earlier script he wrote. It sounds like vintage Terry Black: “It’s about a machine that accelerates the process of evolution and changes an ordinary ferret into a human-like creature with fantastic reflexes and a vicious killer instinct--so he becomes a private eye.”