It was a third-act plot twist straight out of some aspiring hack’s wildest reverie -- novice screenwriter meets celebrated script specialist in an Internet chat room, the two collaborate on a script via e-mail and go on to sell their romantic thriller to box office rainmaker Jerry Bruckheimer for $5 million.
But the true story of “Deja Vu” is stranger than screenwriting fiction.
The project took nearly a decade to come together, but within months of its sale last year, Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio’s spec script (written without any guarantee it would be produced, let alone bought) reeled in some of Hollywood’s biggest fish. Action blockbuster expert Tony Scott (“Top Gun”) signed on to direct the romantic thriller about an FBI agent who travels back in time to solve a woman’s murder. And Denzel Washington committed to star, rounding out a full complement of marquee names.
Since most of Marsilli’s previous projects have been consigned to development hell, the sale represented the culmination of an odyssey of false starts and near-misses, eureka moments and strange kismet.
For L.A.-based Rossio, the Oscar-nominated co-writer of “Shrek” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” the “Deja Vu” payoff was all in a day’s work. But if not for a chance pit stop on the information superhighway, their collaboration might never have been.
Bill and Terry’s Excellent Screenwriting Adventure began in an Internet chat room -- specifically, on an America Online bulletin board in 1992.
Marsilii, then a temp office drone at the New Yorker by day and an improv comedian by night, was sending his first screenplay, “The Invisible Choir” -- a thriller about a Vatican intelligence agent -- to literary agents from the magazine’s mailroom (and with cover letters written on New Yorker letterhead).
The initial response was enthusiastic, and he soon had offers for representation from several agents. Uncertain about how to proceed, he turned to the nascent AOL Writers’ Room, a screenwriters’ advice forum, where he encountered postings from Rossio."He was cool about answering dumb questions and was doing his best to be helpful,” Marsilii remembered.
Asked why he befriended Marsilii, 43, out of the faceless chat room crowd, Rossio, 44, maintains the choice was not only obvious but practical: “On a board like that, you get noted by how well you write, so with Bill, it was perceiving a shared sensibility.”
Not long after, Marsilii proposed they meet. Coincidentally, Rossio was coming to New York for a screening of the animated feature “Aladdin,” which he had co-written.
“That was the serendipity part,” Rossio added.
The eureka moment
The two hit it off. From their respective coasts, they kept in contact even as their careers took off in opposite directions.
For Marsilii, “The Invisible Choir” opened doors to various projects but failed to find financing. By 1997, his Christmas comedy script, “Jingle,” had been optioned and put into development purgatory -- twice. And he was forced to return to work as a temp.
Rossio and his partner, Ted Elliott, meanwhile, continued to sell screenplays and doctor scripts, landing a deal to produce features at DreamWorks.
“I was in a funk, depressed,” Marsilii said.
Rossio urged his Internet acquaintance to pick from among Rossio’s unfinished projects and flesh out whatever struck Marsilii’s fancy. Marsilii came across a one-page outline for “Prior Conviction,” about a detective who travels back in time to prevent his girlfriend’s murder.
Marsilii said he seized upon what he calls his “eureka moment” about the movie’s plot: “He should fall in love with her while he’s investigating her death.”
In Marsilii’s re-imagining, the FBI profiler first meets the woman of his dreams at her autopsy. Using a time machine, he retraces her final days and develops deep feelings for the doomed woman -- making his solving of the crime a matter of life, death and love.
“That’s one way you’ve never seen a couple meet,” the writer exclaimed.
But even with Rossio’s encouragement, new inspiration and a new title for the project -- “Deja Vu” -- Marsilii found himself suffering crippling writer’s block.
“The other films I had worked on were dying sad development deaths and if [‘Deja Vu’] ended up a doorstop in some office, I’d have to find something else to do,” he said.
“I didn’t get anything done for months, pushing into years,” Marsilii added.
Twists of fate
In the summer of 2001, Marsilii’s “Jingle” was sold to Disney, the third studio to own the script. That allowed him to resign from his temp job working the graveyard shift at Merrill Lynch in the World Financial Center -- a shift that ended at 9 a.m.
“If I hadn’t sold that script, I would most likely have been in the World Trade Center subway station on the morning of 9/11,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “ ‘Jingle’ saved my life.”
In 2002, he received another important call from Rossio, who had re-read the 45 pages of “Deja Vu” that Marsilii had completed.
“Terry said, ‘If I co-wrote it, could we finish it?’ ” Marsilii recalled. “He had been Oscar nominated, I was temping -- it was a no-brainer.”
They divided the script into segments. “Bill and I adopted a system that Ted and I use,” Rossio explained. “You divide the screenplay up into sequences -- usually about 26 per feature. It allows you to split up the work and treat each file as a separate task.”
Marsilii, newly galvanized by his daughter’s birth, threw himself into the work.
He and Rossio exchanged scenes via e-mail and talked on the phone three times a week for almost a year and a half, then started speaking daily, often into the early hours of morning as the script neared completion.
The script’s first stop: Bruckheimer’s production company, still in honeymoon mode with Rossio after the $650-million worldwide success of “Pirates of the Caribbean.”
“We gave him a 48-hour head start, which is a profound courtesy in this business -- it means nobody else gets to bid on the script,” Marsilii said of Bruckheimer.
The upshot: a $2.5-million offer to acquire. (Bruckheimer declined to comment for this article.)
Marsilii continued: “But then the offer kept coming in nice round numbers: $1 million when the movie gets green-lit, $1 million if I get sole writing credit, $500,000 for a shared credit. My agent said, ‘We can do better.’ ”
In the end, Bruckheimer agreed to pay $5 million, including bonuses (or $3 million if “Deja Vu” doesn’t get made), split evenly between Rossio and Marsilii.
Rossio feels gratified to share the wealth.
“It’s very cool to get to your dream spec script sale,” he said. “At those prices, you know it’s going to be produced. And Bill can work closely with the director -- which is what every writer hopes for.
“For Bill to do it at this level, with what is essentially his first movie,” he added, “it’s a great story.”