Congressman’s Screenplay: Will It Fly? : Movies: Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s ‘The French Doctoresse’ has come under some sharp criticism as amateurish, but his agent says a contract is near.
When Rep. Dana Rohrabacher ran for office in 1988, one of his emblematic campaign statements was: “I gave my 30s to the White House. I want to contribute my 40s to the Congress.”
Now that the former Reagan Administration staffer represents the 42nd Congressional District, which straddles Orange and Los Angeles counties, he wants to spend his 50s on the beach, a pen in one hand and a drink in the other.
“I’m going to stay here 10 or 12 years at the max,” the conservative Republican said from Washington last week. “I’ve always told everybody my goal is to bodysurf and drink tequila. To me, the ultimate Nirvana is to be a creative writer and live at the beach.”
Rohrabacher, a 41-year-old bachelor, may already have a leg up on that goal.
His Hollywood agent, Rob Rule, said last week that he is negotiating the sale of one of Rohrabacher’s screenplays to a newly formed production company, Many Brileys Entertainment, which hopes to turn the screenplay into a $15-million movie.
“In the next few days, we are sitting down to a contract,” said Rule, who served as Rohrabacher’s congressional campaign press secretary.
Rule said the sale of the screenplay--a World War II melodrama titled “The French Doctoresse"--would bring the congressman an upfront fee “in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $100,000" and a percentage of the movie’s net profits, as well as potential income from merchandising tie-ins such as a paperback-book spinoff.
Rohrabacher would get “an original story or screenplay credit,” Rule added, although he conceded that the script is unmakeable as written and will be treated strictly as a first draft and must be reworked. “Dana’s not a polished screenwriter,” he said.
Rule claimed that a complete rewrite of “The French Doctoresse” will be done either by Academy Award-winning screenwriter John Briley, who is one of the principals in Many Brileys Entertainment, or by an unspecified writer under Briley’s supervision.
Briley won an Oscar in 1982 for his original screenplay of “Gandhi.” He has written more than a dozen other movies, including “The Children of the Damned” (1964), “The Medusa Touch” (1979) and “Cry Freedom” (1987).
Neither Briley nor the production company could be reached for comment. But Rule asserted that James Briley, another principal (and John’s brother), had scouted filming locations in France a month ago and that “The French Doctoresse” would be made in Europe.
Rule, who said he is a consultant to Many Brileys Entertainment in addition to being Rohrabacher’s agent, expects the deal to be an outright purchase of the screenplay, bypassing a preliminary option. “We’re looking for a shooting date in 1990,” he said.
Rohrabacher, who said he has met several times with the Brileys, was more cautious about the negotiations: “You know Hollywood. Until you put the check in the bank and transfer it to assets they can’t touch, you never know you’ve got a deal.”
The screenplay, which he wrote in 1979, has been optioned and dropped three times over the past decade, according to Rohrabacher’s longtime friend, Bernard Strober, a Century City-based attorney and movie executive.
In the early ‘80s--after Rohrabacher became a junior speechwriter for former President Reagan--Procter & Gamble purchased an option on the story at “a nominal fee” in the low four figures for a two-part TV movie, Strober said. When that production failed to materialize, he himself optioned the property for Marshall Films at a slightly higher fee. TV producer John Furia also took an option in 1986, Strober said.
“The French Doctoresse,” a copy of which Rohrabacher provided to The Times, tells the story of a wealthy, German-educated, French physician who is unjustly accused of collaborating with the Nazis in her efforts to save the man she loves. He is a French fighter pilot captured by the Gestapo and condemned to death for Resistance activities in occupied France.
Rohrabacher said the screenplay is based on a true story and a celebrated trial that took place in France during the late ‘40s. He learned of it in 1978, when the heroine’s son, Jean Varagnat--credited as the screenplay’s co-writer--approached him at a Rotary Club in Palos Verdes, where Rohrabacher had been invited to speak.
“The guy who introduced me to the audience said I’d written a script called ‘Baja,’ which is an action-adventure that never sold,” Rohrabacher recounted. “So I gave my little talk and this guy with a French accent comes up to me afterward and says: ‘Ah, Dana, you are zee one to do zee story of my muh-thair.’ I thought it was the most dramatic story of a woman I’d ever heard.”
Why has “The French Doctoresse” kicked around Hollywood for so long with no takers? Any number of reasons, including the high cost of making a World War II period piece. But chief among them, in the opinion of a veteran Hollywood story-analyst, is that the screenplay “is an amateur effort which fails to exploit a potentially interesting premise.”
So writes Sara Meric, who has worked as a staff analyst in the story departments at Paramount, MGM, Columbia, Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox and is now an independent consultant. She was commissioned by The Times last week to analyze the screenplay without knowing its past track record or the identity of its author. (See box on this page.)
“The only possible way this property could ever receive consideration would be if a bankable female star fell in love with it and arranged for a complete rewrite,” said Meric, who has analyzed movie and television screenplays ranging from “Chariots of Fire” and “Smiley’s People” to “Fort Apache, The Bronx” and “Gotcha!”
Bruce Lister, another veteran story analyst (“Fatal Attraction,” “Gorillas in the Mist,” “10"’) who was asked by The Times to assess “The French Doctoresse,” also advised a major overhaul from beginning to end. “A tremendous amount of work will have to be done to this script,” he wrote.
“If it were, the heroine could be transformed into a great role,” he added. His recommendations, designed to salvage the screenplay, nevertheless reflected an underlying critique that dovetailed with Meric’s.
“The plotting, writing, character development and structure are so unprofessional that with the best of good-will, it’s tough to find paydirt,” Meric reported. All the characters “are one-dimensional” and inconsistent. “One itches to slash at least a third” of the length, “which is basically talk, talk, talk.” As for the story structure, it suffers from “the fatal ‘and then, and then, and then’ syndrome.”
What Meric did not single out is the screenplay’s oddly adoring treatment of Adolf Hitler. The Fuhrer “really isn’t the monster everyone says he is,” a Berlin socialite pointedly tells the heroine. And, in a climactic scene that follows, the screenplay proves her point. Hitler makes a cameo appearance that clearly depicts him as a man of mercy, honor and gallantry. (See excerpt on this page.)
“To me, it was just another in a long series of indefensible contrivances, which the author uses to shove the plot ahead by main force,” Meric said. “It’s just as unbelievable as everything else in the script, but no more so.”
Lister objected strongly, however: “He puts Hitler in much too good a light. It’s absolutely distasteful. Nobody will ever make it that way.”
Rohrabacher denied that his favorable portrayal of Hitler reflects any pro-Nazi sentiment on his part. “I think all Nazis are bad guys and should be portrayed as bad guys,” he maintained. “That’s just the way Jean told me the (Hitler) story. Frankly, I’m not sure it’s true. But sometimes people like to put those things in movies. The producers should have the alternative of leaving it in or taking it out.”
Rohrabacher acknowledged that his screenplay had major problems, though. “If I were to write it today,” he said, “I would make it a lot tighter. Scripts are basically blueprints, anyway. I do think I’m a better congressman than I am a screenwriter. If I were a better screenwriter, I might not be a congressman.”
In the meantime, Rohrabacher hasn’t given up completely on “Baja,” which he described as sort of Indiana-Jones-meets-the-drug-cartel-in-Mexico type of story. That screenplay has had the advantage of suggested improvements by Reagan.
“Not only did he read it,” Rohrabacher said, “but he sent me back a nice letter with helpful hints on how to fix it. I’d like to see that one made just for the fun of it.”
In recent weeks, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, an Orange County Republican, has been a sharp critic of the National Endowment for the Arts because it has financed artworks and exhibitions that he finds offensive. His unrelenting attack in the House has helped precipitate the worst crisis in the federal agency’s 24-year history. Rohrabacher also is the author of a screenplay, “The French Doctoresse,” which has been attacked in the House over its own poor taste, and which is up for sale in Hollywood.
‘THE FRENCH DOCTORESSE’: A Professional’s Analysis GENERAL COMMENT: This screenplay cannot be recommended for submission to a film or television studio. It is an amateur effort which fails to exploit a potentially interesting premise. The only possible way this property could ever receive consideration would be if a bankable female star fell in love with it and arranged for a complete rewrite.
THE PREMISE: There is a potentially interesting premise in the plight of a woman who, to save the man she loves, has to commit politically compromising acts in wartime. However, the plotting, writing, character development and structure are so unprofessional that with the best of good-will, it’s tough to find paydirt.
CHARACTERS: All are one-dimensional. ... There is no consistent character development. John (the man loved by “the French doctoresse”), is a total cipher, a stick figure who disappears a third of the way through the script. . . . There was potential for character
development among the good-guy/bad-guy German officers, but again, writer simply does not demonstrate the requisite skill. The same is true of the various Resistance figures, good and bad.
STRUCTURE: One itches to slash at least a third of the useless footage and substitute both character development and a clearer, less rambling plot which gets to the money faster. Time after time, writer has people announce what they are going to do, do it, and then talk about it. ... no amount of cutting could salvage a property which is basically talk, talk, talk. (Incidentally, all sorts of details throughout the script are inauthentic, reflecting some very slipshod research.) The pretentious use of doctoresse is offputting. It subtly echoes Negress and Jewess ,” both carrying pejorative nuances.
CONCLUSION: It is unfortunately all too easy to find fault with an amateur script which has basically nothing to offer. But in good conscience, it cannot be recommended.
Sara Meric, International Story Consultants EXCERPT FROM THE SCRIPT H itler stands in a hallway, talking to an aide. The sound of music and people talking can be heard. HITLER: Is it the usual guest list this evening?
AIDE: With one exception. Your sculptor . . . has invited a friend. She is a doctor who is married to a French pilot. She has an interesting story. Her husband was arrested as a terrorist. She, on the other hand, became a doctor for the German air force last year and recently saved the lives of a number of our airmen.
HITLER: Where is her husband now?
AIDE: In one of the camps.
In the reception room. Jeanne addresses Hitler in a rush. JEANNE: Mein Herr. I came to remind you of your decree that for everyone who saved a German life, a life could be expected in return. My husband is a prisoner.
HITLER: Ah. The French doctoresse. (pause). Madame, I have just this moment given the order to locate your husband, clothe him and surrender him to your care. Coincidentally, tonight we are having a French-style dinner. So, let us come to the table. You may consider this evening in your honor.
JEANNE: I am just so happy.
Sara Meric, International Story Consultants