PHILIP Anschutz made his first big splash in Hollywood five years ago when he cut a deal considered outlandish even by movie industry standards.
The Denver industrialist not only agreed to pay $10 million per book for rights to the best-selling Dirk Pitt adventure novels, he gave author Clive Cussler extraordinary creative control over “Sahara,” the movie starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz.
Cussler had final say over the director and lead actors (he boasted of turning down Tom Cruise for being too short) as well as wide discretion over the script (he disparaged writers as “hacks.”)
By ceding so much authority to a novelist, Anschutz broke a fundamental rule in the film business: Keep the author out of the screenwriting process. Now Anschutz finds himself cast in a movie mogul’s nightmare.
He has lost about $105 million to date on “Sahara,” was forced to abandon plans for several Dirk Pitt sequels and is fighting one of Hollywood’s most contentious lawsuits since humorist Art Buchwald battled Paramount Pictures over breach-of-contract charges. A jury trial is scheduled next month in Los Angeles.
Thousands of pages of legal documents -- including transcripts of sworn depositions, confidential memos and internal e-mails -- show exasperated studio executives, producers and directors scheming and back-stabbing over the $145-million production.
Cussler initially sued Anschutz’s company, Crusader Entertainment, claiming producers reneged on a contract that awarded him “sole and absolute” approval rights.
“They deceived me right from the beginning,” Cussler testified. “They kept lying to me ... and I just got fed up with it.”
Anschutz declined to be interviewed. But in his countersuit, he alleged that Cussler sought to blackmail his film company by withholding consent over the script unless it agreed to use the novelist’s own screenplay. The multibillionaire also has accused Cussler of inflating the number of Pitt books sold and slandering the movie before its April 2005 release.
“It is the height of arrogance for Cussler to take $10 million to make a movie and then torpedo the franchise,” said Alan Rader, Anschutz’s attorney.
Anschutz also alleges that Cussler made derogatory remarks about blacks and Jews while exercising his approvals.
Cussler has denied the accusations. His lawyer, Bertram Fields, said that Anschutz and his attorneys with the firm of O’Melveny & Myers are seeking to portray his client as a “crazed racist and anti-Semite” because they cannot win the case on the merits.
“They want to get these charges in front of a jury,” Fields said, “so blacks and Jews will hate him.”
CLIVE Cussler, 75, was born in Aurora, Ill., and raised in Southern California. A graduate of Alhambra High School, he spent two years at Pasadena City College before joining the Air Force during the Korean War.
He worked in advertising before taking a stab at fiction. “The Mediterranean Caper,” published in 1973, was the first of 19 novels starring Cussler’s alter ego, Dirk Pitt. The author and his swashbuckling hero both have deep, blue-green eyes and a passion for classic cars, shipwrecks and Don Julio tequila.
The third Pitt novel, “Raise the Titanic!”, was made into a 1980 film starring Jason Robards. It lost so much money that producer Lew Grade quipped, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic.”
At the time, Cussler vowed never to let Hollywood destroy another of his books.
Philip Anschutz, 66, has earned billions in oil and gas, railroads, telecommunications, real estate and entertainment. A conservative Christian, Anschutz controls Regal Entertainment Group, the nation’s largest chain of theaters. His Anschutz Film Group makes no R-rated films and focuses on projects that carry moral messages.
Unlike many production firms, his film company encourages authors to become involved in the development process. After collaborating with the stepson of novelist C.S. Lewis, Anschutz last year rolled out his biggest hit, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a biblical allegory based on the Resurrection. The film has taken in more than $1 billion in revenues, and a sequel is due in 2008.
Anschutz was a fan of Cussler’s novels and saw an opportunity for a hit franchise similar to the “Indiana Jones” series. Working with film executives Howard and Karen Baldwin, who already had reached a preliminary agreement with Cussler, Anschutz arranged to meet in his Denver office with the author in June 2000.
Anschutz obtained the movie rights by agreeing to give Cussler $10 million per book and substantial control over the initial picture. The deal meant that Cussler would score a huge payday if the Pitt novels developed into a franchise.
In negotiations that dragged on for a year, Cussler’s agent and an Anschutz attorney nailed down the finest details: Cussler had to be consulted on the cast, and the actor playing Pitt had to have black hair and green eyes. Substantial script revisions had to get Cussler’s written consent. Certain changes to the screenplay during filming in England, Morocco or Spain had to be called in to Cussler at his desert home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., or mountain retreat in Telluride, Colo.
PUBLISHED in 1992, “Sahara” centers on Pitt racing across the North African desert with sidekick Al Giordino and U.N. scientist Eva Rojas, his romantic interest, to save the planet from a deadly toxin.
Turning a 541-page book into a 110-page script would not be easy.
As a best-selling author, Cussler was used to getting his way. “Traditionally, all my editors have suggested changes and I have only followed them 20%,” he said in a deposition.
Cussler’s approval rights troubled the movie’s creative personnel, who were unaccustomed to catering to the whims of a novelist.
Studio officials at Paramount, the distributor of “Sahara,” resisted Cussler’s active participation in the script, according to Karen Baldwin, who served as executive vice president of creative affairs for Anschutz’s film company.
“Paramount has always been cagey in that respect -- urging us to keep you out of the loop and lie when necessary,” Baldwin wrote Cussler in July 2003. “Essentially, Paramount feels ... the author should not have much input when it comes to script.”
In all, Anschutz’s firm spent about $4 million on writers, many of whom produced scripts that Cussler deemed inferior. In one memo, the author wrote that the money producers have “thrown down the sewer with hack writers is a crime.”
GOING into negotiations with Anschutz, the Baldwins already had an adaptation in hand, written by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer, who had worked for the Baldwins adapting Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder.”
Cussler approved the initial script. “They came the closest, I guess, of anyone,” he testified.
But after the deal with Cussler was set and Paramount signed on, the screenplay turned into a drama all its own.
As often happens in Hollywood, the initial script was deemed inadequate by the producers and the studio. Crusader, Anschutz’s company, paid David S. Ward (“The Milagro Beanfield War” and “Sleepless in Seattle”) $500,000 to upgrade the screenplay. In discussions with Cussler, Ward found him insistent but not overbearing.
“I think Clive had a basic distrust of Hollywood,” Ward said in an interview. “He felt if he wasn’t vigilant, things would be done that would repeat the experience he had on ‘Raise the Titanic’ ”
Ward, who won a 1973 Academy Award for “The Sting,” said he had never worked with a novelist who had so much control.
“As the screenwriter, you usually have the final say” on the script, Ward said. “This situation was completely reversed. You were basically the hired gun. You shot the bullets that Clive gave you.”
Cussler signed off on Ward’s screenplay in late 2000, but grew frustrated as the Baldwins brought in one writer after another to overhaul the script.
“I don’t know why they kept throwing out every screenplay,” he said in an interview.
KAREN Baldwin sent Cussler a note on April 24, 2001, saying “we are thrilled to tell you that Paramount wants to put their No. 1 ‘polish’ writer on the project. This is really exciting.”
James V. Hart (Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” and Francis Ford Coppola’s “Dracula”) was paid about $600,000. He found Cussler difficult, but not unlike many novelists -- protective of their material and unable to grasp the transition to cinema.
“I’ve worked with a lot of live authors,” Hart testified. “The dead ones are easier to deal with.”
Hart’s early draft failed to impress Cussler. “It was terrible,” the author testified. “He had all these psychedelic scenes of sunsets and whales and dolphins ... it was wild stuff.”
The script veered so far from the book that Cussler thought he had no choice but to fix it himself.
“I began to see another ‘Raise the Titanic’ in the making and couldn’t stand by, never dreaming I’d have to do so much rewriting,” he wrote the Baldwins.
Cussler cut out some of Hart’s scenes and inserted sections from earlier drafts.
“You’ve done a wonderful job with your polish,” Karen Baldwin wrote Cussler on Sept. 13, 2001. “I think we have a real winner.”
Crusader rushed Cussler’s revision to studio executives and Anschutz. A few days later, Baldwin reported back to Cussler.
“Paramount LOVES the script we submitted,” she wrote.
Hart continued to work on the screenplay. Studio executives felt his revisions made the script “close to being perfect,” Baldwin informed Hart on Feb. 6, 2002. “Please know how much we appreciate everything you have done.”
Shortly thereafter, Baldwin fired Hart.
“I want you [to] know that the biggest problem is the fact that Clive is insisting on another writer,” Baldwin wrote Hart. “I wanted to be honest with you.... It is an ego thing with him.... Everyone thinks you did an excellent job for us.”
But Baldwin later told Cussler a different story.
“I think we really need to remember that we all thought the Jim Hart draft was mediocre,” she wrote. “That is why we brought on another writer.”
JOSH Friedman (“War of the Worlds” and “The Black Dahlia”) was paid about $500,000 to deliver a screenplay before the 2002 Memorial Day weekend.
Friedman cut several scenes that were important to Cussler, including an opening beach rescue and a romantic ending.
“This dialogue is so trite it defies comment,” Cussler scrawled on a cover page. “This Josh Friedman should have his keyboard shoved up his anal canal.”
Crusader executives were in a jam. The director, Rob Bowman, and Paramount wanted to shoot the Friedman screenplay, but the novelist whose approval they needed hated it.
“This will become the cancer that kills this movie,” Bowman wrote Karen Baldwin in a March 25, 2002, e-mail. “Either I make this movie the way I think it needs to be or goodbye.”
Bowman said in an interview that he did not know the extent of Cussler’s creative control. “We asked the Baldwins, but they would never tell us. It was crazy.”
The director resigned and was replaced by Breck Eisner, the oldest son of then-Walt Disney Co. chairman Michael Eisner. Cussler approved of Eisner, even though he had never directed a big-budget picture. But the novelist still insisted on writing the script.
“Clive is now hellbent on doing this next revision himself,” Baldwin told her husband in a June 28, 2002, e-mail. “This is a monster and we have a problem.... As we all know, Clive simply doesn’t know what he is doing.”
In an interview, Cussler said: “I tried to bring it back closer to the book, but my script went down the tube too.”
Recognizing the need to keep Cussler happy, Baldwin fired Friedman. “She said that I was forcing her to choose between me and Clive,” Friedman testified, “and in that case she would choose Clive every time.”
DESPERATE to get “Sahara” back on track, Crusader rehired Donnelly and Oppenheimer. They received about $250,000, but their new assignment was a prickly one: Blend the Friedman screenplay with elements from Cussler’s version.
The screenwriters liked the adventure and pacing in the Friedman script, but viewed Cussler’s work as misguided.
“I can safely say they’re probably the worst drafts I’ve ever read
In telephone conversations with the writers, Cussler made it clear that he wanted no part of the Friedman draft.
According to Donnelly’s deposition, Cussler used an ethnic slur when referring to Friedman. “You’ve got a lot of work to do to undo what that ... did,” Cussler said. It was not the only time Cussler was accused of insensitive remarks.
“When we met with Clive at first, he made a lot of Jewish comments -- ‘Jew lawyers’ and ‘Jew this’ and ‘Jew that,’ ” Donnelly said.
Cussler’s publicist of 18 years testified that the novelist used epithets while venting about the development of “Sahara.”
Carole Bartholomeaux, whose services were terminated by Cussler in 2004, said that when a casting director suggested that a black actor play Pitt’s sidekick, Cussler dismissed the idea, using a racial slur. “I’m not going to have some ... take the role of Giordino,” she reported him saying.
Cussler denied making any of the offensive statements.
“It is not true,” he said in an interview. “You go 40 years in publishing and never hear anything like this. Then this Hollywood case comes up and I’m suddenly like Mel Gibson.”
ON Feb. 4, 2003, Paramount Vice Chairman John Goldwyn and production chief Karen Rosenfelt arranged lunch with writers Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (“The Rock” and “Double Jeopardy”).
“We had the understanding that this was a process in trouble and
Cook and Weisberg, who were paid about $550,000 for a rewrite, met Cussler in Paradise Valley. The novelist’s wife of 47 years had died recently of breast cancer.
After listening to their pitch, which lasted about a half-hour, Cussler said, “Well, that’s very nice, but that’s not my book.”
Cussler became so upset that a vein in his forehead began to throb, Weisberg said. The novelist then abruptly tuned out the writers by humming aloud.
“I’d never seen that happen before among adults,” Weisberg testified.
The writers returned to Los Angeles and banged out a draft that did not take the movie in the direction Crusader envisioned.
“We did the work,” Weisberg said. “They paid the dough. They said, ‘See you later.’ ”
NEXT, the Baldwins brought in John Richards (“Nurse Betty”), who had worked with them on “Parent Wars,” a feature about three couples frantically racing to get their children into preschool. Richards went to Arizona in summer 2003 to present his outline to Cussler over a two-hour lunch.
“He liked it, with one exception,” Richards testified. Cussler wanted to keep a train scene at the end of the book.
In the end, the script by Richards, who was paid about $700,000, deleted too many scenes for Cussler’s taste. Eisner was put in charge of dealing with the script and became entangled in battles with Richards, Cussler and the Baldwins.
In e-mails to colleagues, Karen Baldwin called Eisner “spoiled and whining” and said he “wouldn’t know a good script if it bit him in the ass.”
The messages, Baldwin told The Times, were composed “in the heat of the moment that helped release the frustration I was experiencing.”
Eisner and Baldwin clashed with Cussler over the role of Melika, a vicious black female slave boss who is slain by Giordino. Though Cussler considered the dramatic revenge sequence important, producers worried that such graphic violence would offend family audiences and jeopardize the PG-13 rating that Anschutz demanded.
To mollify Cussler, Baldwin proposed a ruse in an e-mail to her husband: Put Melika in the script but don’t shoot the scene.
Baldwin denied trying to deceive Cussler, telling The Times that her e-mails did “not describe anything we ever considered actually doing.”
Either way, Cussler rejected the Richards script. He berated the screenwriter, according to Richards, saying, “That’s the worst dialogue I’ve ever read.”
Richards submitted three revisions but became upset with what he regarded as excessive tinkering by Eisner.
An entry in Richards’ diary recorded his fate: “Karen Baldwin called today to say my execution was Breck’s doing.”
FILMING began in London in November 2003 based on the latest script by Richards, who shared screenplay credits with Donnelly, Oppenheimer and Hart. Several writers also were hired to make on-set changes during overseas shooting.
By then, Cussler and the Baldwins had parted ways.
“You have both stroked me for the last time,” Cussler wrote. “And one more thing. I absolutely refuse to go to any more restaurants and sit with all those Tinseltown phonies.”
The author blasted “Sahara” during a national tour to promote a new Pitt novel. He predicted that the film would be a “disaster” and warned Pitt fans that the screenplay was “awful.”
Alarmed that his franchise was falling apart, Anschutz flew in his jet to meet Cussler at the Scottsdale airport in January 2004. Anschutz testified that Cussler threatened to sue. Within days, Cussler’s attorney filed the lawsuit.
“I had such high hopes,” Cussler said in an interview. “I felt like an artist who creates a picture and then someone else comes along and paints over it.”
“Sahara” opened last year with an $18-million weekend and earned $69 million in total U.S. box office receipts.
As the credits rolled during the premiere, Anschutz turned to Eisner and told him he should be proud of the picture.
“Congratulations, the movie’s incredible,” he said.
Times researcher Maloy Moore contributed to this story.