For the last several months, my friend Laurie has been working on an adaptation for a motivational speaker named Nathaniel Henry. He preaches a philosophy that he calls N.A.T.E.: “Never anything too easy.” This is also the title of his book, which from what I understand he has self-published to sell after giving his brand of motivational speeches. It’s essentially a jumbled, nonlinear autobiography about how he gradually learned not to be a junior thug and how his life experiences shaped the philosophy he extols today. The point of his lectures, and his books, seem to be, “Look, kids, I was just like you, and I rose above it to get to where I am today.”
And apparently he’s pretty high up, because he’s willing to personally bankroll a low-budget film based on his life (and the book). Of course, he may have cut some corners by, for example, hiring poor college students who are basically working for their name on the credits and a tiny, tiny, way-below-scale stipend. Which is cool for all involved: Nate gets a competent but cheap crew, and the students get their name on a movie that would hopefully turn out better than most graduate thesis films.
Laurie’s been struggling with the adaptation, and I’ve been helping her with story ideas, so really, we’re both struggling, because we have to do exactly what Nathaniel Henry wants, but what he wants is not entirely conducive to quality screenwriting. Not that I’m surprised, because the book isn’t exactly Dan Brown, but it’s a bit annoying because Laurie will come up with an idea like, for example, “What if, instead of flashing forward and back like the book, we just spend a single year or two in his life and concentrate the events and his point of view in that time?” I thought that was the best way of distilling the pertinent information, but Henry said, “That ain’t how it happened.” Which I suppose is the age-old problem with biopics, particularly when the subjects are personally involved, but you have to take dramatic license, especially with such a low budget. It’s not going to be easy to recreate the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s on a tiny budget.
I’m getting distracted from the main point, which is that she’s struggling with it, and it’s painful every time a reasonable idea gets shot down by Mr. Nathaniel Henry, motivational speaker extraordinaire. So it was exceptionally annoying when he brought a director into the mix. This director has never done a feature (or anything else that we’re aware of), but he’s well past being a student. I think “friend of Nate’s” is the highest credit he’s ever had. This is all right, since he’s not really throwing or concepts or insisting on changes to the difficult-to-manage script.
He is, however, working on somewhat of a contingency basis: his directing N.A.T.E.: The Movie depends on whether or not his own film comes to fruition. Nate agreed to kick in some money on this director’s own project, but until he gets more financing, it’s pretty much dead in the water. Unfortunately, it’s hard for him to lure potential backers when he doesn’t exactly have a script.
Enter Laurie. The first time she and the director met, he handed her some paper and said, “I got this script I wrote. I wondered if you could punch it up a little.” She was hesitant, but Nate (who is paying her) urged her to help him complete his script. And here’s where the movie business starts to suck: so many backs scratching so many others, and it’s inevitable somebody’s going to get screwed. Usually, it’s the writer, and this case was no exception: “Here, do a free rewrite of my script or I’ll see that you never get a film credit.” Not that these guys are particularly powerful, but you never know—Nate’s story could be the next Rocky, and Laurie’s in on the ground floor. She doesn’t want to fuck that up.
So Laurie took the script, read it, was baffled, and called me. “You wanna take a look at this script?” she asked. “I read it, but doesn’t make any sense.” Good thing she called me, the smartest man alive. The next time I saw her (this was a few months ago, back when I saw her multiple times a week), she had the script in tow.
This director’s screenplay reminded me a little too much of that Simpsons episode with Alec Baldwin, Ron Howard, and Kim Basinger. Homer writes that script about an evil robot driving instructor that travels through time for some reason, and they say, “Um, Homer, most movie scripts are 120 pages. Yours is 17, and most of them are just drawings of the time machine.” This script was 16 pages, and the last five were handwritten in a chickenscratch that makes my penmanship look neat. They say brevity is the source of wit, but I’m afraid this script wasn’t supposed to be funny.
Laurie was right about it not making much sense, but I attribute this to the fact that it just seemed incomplete, or that this was kind of a “scriptment” type of thing—the hybrid of the screenplay and the treatment, where you describe some scenes briefly but will occasionally write some brief dialogue exchanges to give a feel for what’s going on. Laurie kept insisting that the director believed that this was the actual script, 100% complete, no paraphrasing, but certain statements in the action blocks kept referring to previous events that happened, which is generally a no-no anyway, but even more of a no-no when the events to which you refer never happened.
On top of that, one of the characters comes back from the dead. This was in the handwritten pages, which say at the top “after page 11,” but it seems like all the disjointed scenes written by hand exist to fill in the many, many narrative gaps in the first eleven pages, which I suppose would explain the character’s resurrection, but the director didn’t exactly explain this.
What I got out of the plot was that it’s basically another one of those frenetic, borderline incoherent drug-dealer movies, full of dirty cops and explosions and two drug dealers (male and female) both literally and figuratively screwing one another, which eventually descends into a big, pseudo-romantic “are we in love or do we need to blow each other’s heads off?” kind of ending. Because of the poor writing, it was extremely difficult to follow, so maybe I’m wrong about what the story actually is. Of course, it didn’t matter too much, because…
“This director says he got Delroy Lindo to play a part,” Laurie announced when I was done reading. “He’s committed to 15 days of shooting a supporting role.”
“Who the hell is he gonna play?” I asked. I love Delroy Lindo and all, but there are three male roles: the young, studly drug dealer; the seemingly indestructible, terminator-type bounty hunter (Mario Van Peebles of Solo fame would be perfect!); and the dirty cop who ends up getting blown away in the middle of the movie before coming back to life for some reason. Now, he could play the dirty cop, except that he’s specifically intended to be a big fat white guy. Not that there are any hard or fast rules for characterization in a 16-page feature script, but it did seem like his whiteness and fatness were pretty important.
“He doesn’t have a character yet,” Laurie said, “but the director says he’s just going to ad lib everything, so it’s cool.” She laughed.
Good God. How’d she get involved in something this bad?
“Look, I don’t even know if I’m going to do this,” she said, reading my mind. “It’s a really, really bad script, and I don’t want to just write it for him because he’s not gonna give me credit and he’s not gonna pay me. I’ll do maybe 15 pages—a real 15 pages—and he can do the rest or find somebody else. I don’t like how he keeps hitting on me, anyway.”
I didn’t like how he kept hitting on her, either, though I had just found out about it.
She did end up quitting, she told me a few days ago. She didn’t feel obligated because, once this director got the Delroy Lindo ball rolling, apparently he no longer needed Nate or his movie. Ironically, shortly after quitting Nate’s film, Delroy Lindo and all the financing dropped out. I can’t really imagine why, especially if he showed him his well-planned script.
She told me she finished a draft of N.A.T.E.: The Movie, at long last, but she’s not sure how he’ll receive it. Her (logical) thought is to capture Nate’s philosophy through a series of largely fictional events, since there really is no cohesive narrative, and the few snippets of his life that are dramatically compelling (like the father who abandoned him as a child returning when he was a teenager) are mostly glossed over in the book, aside from a brief mention followed by pages of whining about being “hurt.”
So hey, good luck to Laurie. If this gets made and is even marginally successful, I can look forward to riding on her coattails.