This sucker is the toast of Hollywood – and then its bad joke. 1,951 words. Part One. Illustration by Mark Fearing.
It was Day 30 of a hundred day shoot. Today’s schedule called for the scene in which The Hack’s face is revealed; this is right after his monster is destroyed by The Screenwriter’s beast.
“Mr. Downey, I’m so glad you’re doing this. It’s an honor to have you here.” And it’s a big slap in the face to Marvel, lottery mega-millionaire turned filmmaker Zak thought.
“My pleasure. I like what you’re doing here, this allegory, especially in this era of alternative facts. Fiction comes to life, and it can be a good thing, like when something that would benefit humanity goes from being science fiction to science. Or it can be bad, like when a piece of fiction is given currency by the weak-minded so that it can be used by a bad political actor. Anything uttered by Kellyanne Conway would apply.” Both Robert Downey Jr. and Zak shared a laugh at that. “Really, I love my role, and it’s great to have even a small part in what I believe is a genius project that will get a lot of attention come awards time.”
“You mean it?” Zak asked.
“I do. I’m serious.” But Downey thought, of course I’m not serious, you idiot. This movie is shit and I’m only here because I’m getting $15 million of your Powerball windfall plus fifteen percent first-dollar gross before break even, all for being slotted in for one day of work. Bob Iger would never have made that deal!
On Day 77, Roger’s voice was stern and no nonsense. “Look, I don’t know what to tell you, we’ve gone over budget. We need more money.”
Zak wasn’t happy. He actually had spent all of his $312 million and there were still twenty days left before principal photography was complete; surely they would go overschedule as well. “Isn’t there anything we can do?”
“Well, if you want to bring the climax back to Earth a bit.”
“I can’t compromise that,” Zak resisted.
Of course you can’t, Roger thought. And I know exactly which visual FX company should get the contract. “I’ll see what I can do to minimize the impact, but do you have any financial flexibility at all?”
Zak thought hard before replying. “Yes, I do. It’ll hurt, but I do.”
“Listen, pal, I think you’re doing the right thing. This is a story all unto itself. They’ll be talking about it for years. I’ve seen the rushes. So has Amy. So have you. The Screenwriterman is turning out to be something special. It’s more than just a piece of entertainment — it speaks to me. It speaks to Amy. I know Depp is impressed. And now that we’re about to slot Bruce Willis in for a cameo, I think it’ll all be fine.”
Zak winced to himself when reminded that Willis came at a cost of $25 million plus first-dollar participation.
Roger continued: “Bruce thinks this is better than Unbreakable.” Mainly because he’s about to make more money from this film than from any of his Shyamalan collaborations, the producer mused. Talk about a twist. “The sky is the limit when The Screenwriterman is released. It’ll go super-wide for sure, and the domestic opening is certain to be near record-breaking, if not record-breaking.”
“You know what? Let’s do it,” Zak said. He liked Roger. And Roger liked Zak’s money.
Zak made a call to Emeril. Little did he know his friend was fucking his wife while the filmmaker was on location in Vancouver.
Two months later, Zak watched a rough cut of The Screenwriterman. He had to hold back tears; it had turned out better than he ever hoped. There were fixes to be made, but that always happened after the first pass. What he thought about most was how invigorating it was to be in the editing booth for nearly sixteen hours with one of the best professionals in the business. Their collaboration had gone smoothly, and Zak was happy to take many of her suggestions.
He would have called Cecily to let her know the good news, but by then she was long gone. Zak had found out about Emeril and her and, for some strange reason, he wasn’t too surprised; he’d had a sense that something like this was brewing. Now she was suing him for support and a percentage of any earnings from the movie, even though she was the one who cheated on him. Of course, he had gone back on a verbal agreement to place a segment of their lottery winnings in a lockbox. It was complicated, and TMZ was having a field day with it. Cecily had even made an appearance on the Howard Stern show to keep the circus going.
No matter. Zak’s focus was on his movie. The plan was to release it next summer. It would go up against the next Avengers spectacle. He felt it would offer comic book fans an intelligent alternative to the usual campy crap that occupied silver screens in July and August. And he was sure he was going to make a lot of money.
Amy and Roger weren’t counting on the film being successful; they did, however, have a ball counting the money they had reaped from Zak’s dream.
That February, Zak and his friends were gathered around a big television at a sports bar in Boston on Super Bowl Sunday. Everyone was pumped – the full trailer for The Screenwriterman would be on during the third quarter. It was going to be seen by even more people than originally expected because the game was close. Zak’s spirit wasn’t dampened in the least when the teaser trailer had debuted and wasn’t well received, or by the negative buzz brewing in the trades about how awful the finished feature was. Variety had a particularly brutal first look at it. And The Hollywood Reporter wrote about the behind-the-scenes troubles surrounding the picture, entitled “Screenwriterman or Just Hollywood Exploiting Another Sucker’s Lottery Winnings.” An inelegant title for the essay, perhaps, but many commented that the headline was accurate.
Later in the year, Zak was nervous at the premiere in Cannes. Not many people made the journey with him. Amy and Roger were absent, as were Downey, Depp and Willis. (Though they did tweet their support, along with regrets that they couldn’t make it.) Michael Keaton did make it, however, and stopped by briefly to lend his support before heading off to promote his new arthouse project. Zak thought it was awesome to cast Keaton in The Screenwriterman since the lottery winner considered the actor’s 1989 portrayal as the Caped Crusader the finest of the various onscreen iterations. But Keaton considered his paycheck from The Screenwriterman to be blood money. He privately wept for anyone who actually bought a ticket to see it.
In the end, The Screenwriterman cost over $360 million to make, and Zak had to liquidate everything and even borrow a little to finish financing it. Lionsgate ended up taking a chance on the film and put up the P&A. (There was an overweighting of social media promotion to keep costs down). Even with foreign-rights hedging protocols, the movie’s box office was a disaster. It opened over the July 4th period and grossed a mere $6 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
Disney/Marvel’s Avengers 4 had nothing to worry about. Even President Trump piled on, tweeting: “If I had been in The Screenwriterman, it would have been a huge hit. Someone should shoot this turkey! #Zaksucks.” That was a very popular hashtag during the summer.
In the face of all the criticism, Zak decided to make a YouTube video with his voiceover: “Hey everyone. Zak here. I just want to apologize for my movie, The Screenwriterman. Seriously, I’m sorry. If it is any consolation to you, I’ve lost everything. All my money. My wife of seven years. My house – I’m living with a friend of mine, for as long as he’ll have me – as well as my job. All of it, gone. As well as my dignity. I guess I should have seen it coming when Rotten Tomatoes, which is something I never followed and never understood, had me at zero, or maybe it was even a negative number. You younger people won’t remember but my bad press was worse than when Last Action Hero bombed. Much, much worse. I know everyone hates the movie. For that matter, everyone hates me.
“I’ve been schooled in how Hollywood works. No one cares about the outsider, they just want the outsider’s money. There’ve been many articles on that. I get it now. Everyone is laughing at me. There will be parody videos of this YouTube as soon as I post it. That’s what happens. It’s hard, because I can’t get away from it. I stay off the online world as much as I can. But you know how it is: eventually, you start going on again and reading the shit that’s being posted.
“I have no one to blame but myself. I have nothing profound to say about my experience. Just know that The Screenwriterman was written and made with the best of intentions, and that I still kind of like it. It really was my dream up there. It’s like George Clooney’s Leatherheads. Sorry if you guys won’t remember that pic – man, am I getting old – but he’s one of the coolest people on the planet and I liked that movie when I saw it on its first day of release back in April 2008. But it failed. I guess if he can fail, I can fail. Just wish I had a billion-dollar tequila brand to fall back on. Anyway, thanks for listening.”
The aftermath wasn’t all bad. A few people felt sympathy for Zak and set up a crowdfunding page where individuals so inclined could help him out. Like when a waitress receives an insult and no tip from a surly customer and then parlays it into a windfall. Well, Zak did quite a bit better than that. Over $2 million was raised. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how crowdfunding works out like that? Where does all the money come from? People complain about taxes all the time and argue for discounts at retail shops because the box was a little crushed, yet they have no compunction at all about handing over their hard-earned money to a stranger. At least, that’s what went through Zak’s mind when he got the check.
He wouldn’t keep it all; it didn’t seem right. He donated seventy-five percent of it to charity. Some of the remainder went to his ex-wife – begrudgingly on his part, although he kind of understood she deserved it considering what he had done. He kept the rest for himself.
He got an offer from Casey Neistat to be the subject of a documentary for CNN. The YouTube star felt Zak’s story would resonate with viewers; Neistat respected that Zak had gone for it and was willing to fail, something that anyone who subscribed to the famous vlogger’s channel would understand immediately.
Zak also shopped a script he wrote called Winning Powerball Or (The Unexpected Virtue Of Making A Terrible Film). It eventually made The Black List and sold to Disney once Bob Iger finally left. It was a fictional examination of Zak’s journey from nouveau riche to failed first-time filmmaker.
Everyone seemed to be high on Zak and his attempt at a comeback of sorts. It probably wouldn’t last long, but Americans do love someone who apologizes for a transgression and then moves on. The only notable exception was The Hollywood Reporter which published yet another negative column on Zak. That, and Johnny Depp sued Zak for $25 million… just because.