The Descendants — the Story So Far
I keep saying that I want to use this blog to talk about my experiences in the serious-business Hollywood machine. But so far what few I have had, I’ve kept to myself — mainly because they’re deals-in-progress and there’s nothing solid to announce yet. And I’m afraid I’ll jinx it by announcing it ahead of time.
But there’s one project that, with the beginning of a new year, I think it’s safe to talk about, and especially since it’s likely to be indicative of how things are going to be from here on — The Descendants. I’ve made oblique references to the project, and people following my YouTube page have probably seen the trailer. But I want to talk about the story of the project thus far.
Shortly after we put out RvD2 — nearly two years ago, gah — a creative executive from Dark Horse Entertainment contacted me and Ryan, interested in meeting and discussing our plans for the future, including future projects we might want to do.
I put together a number of pitches and we met Chris, the exec, for dinner at a bar near Dark Horse HQ (or the HQ at the time; they’ve since relocated to bigger and better). I told him some of the ideas, and he listened to them patiently before making a counter-pitch. They had a project that they’ve been developing from an independent comic book they’d acquired. It was an action-fantasy story about a monster-killing mercenary named Charlie Stone, and Ray Park was attached to star.
Given that the fight with Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace is what inspired me (and Ryan) to pick up some sticks and start making lightsaber fights, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that I have Ray Park to thank, to some degree, for RvD2 and all that came after.1 So the idea of working with him was very exciting.
(As an aside, I had actually met Ray once before, randomly, at an EZ-Lube. We both happened to be there for an oil change, and he recognized my shoes as martial arts shoes, which led to a brief conversation.2 When we met at Dark Horse to discuss the project some months later, and I mentioned we had met, he actually remembered. “Oh yeah, the shoes!”)
At the time, the comic was three issues (another issue has since been published). I had read them and felt very excited and interested in the ideas, although I thought it could benefit from some expansion and development in a film. We discussed what we wanted to do with the film, and the character, and we all seemed to be on the same page with what we wanted. We wanted funny, we wanted a little overconfident, a combination of Jackie Chan and Indiana Jones.
Our first plan was to produce a short film that took place in the Descendants world, but was not necessarily part of the story canon that we were planning. Joey (Andrade, the creator) and I wrote a ten minute script for the project, but given what we wanted to do with it, it was too expensive for a spec project.
I also started to feel leery of it, though I liked the script — since it didn’t represent the overall story of the project, people who didn’t like it would get the wrong impression. And people who did like it would also get the wrong impression. So it seemed lose-lose.
But as summer 2007 came up, a new opportunity arose: a company that will remain nameless3 wanted to develop Descendants as a possible web series. The decision was made to produce a 90-second teaser trailer for the project, which would first premiere at Comic-Con, and be some of the first content available on the new site.
The production of the teaser is a tale in itself. Summer 2007 I was in Florida shooting Sandrima Rising; we took a break in July for logistical reasons, which meant I couldn’t prep before July. Additionally, Ray was out of town until the weekend before Comic-Con, so we literally only had two non-consecutive days to shoot (the Friday and Monday preceding Comic-Con), and four days for post, to premiere it Saturday.
I don’t know how, but somehow we managed it, and the teaser is available on YouTube.
(It’s worth noting that when we made the trailer, we didn’t really know what this “web series” would be about, other than vague concepts we were kicking around; the RED camera also hadn’t been released yet. So although it was intended as a “proof of concept,” the teaser neither reflects the expected visual quality of the project, nor do any of the events in the trailer actually appear in any finished script.)
So the trailer appeared exclusively on the unnamed site for a time. But they began to dick us around regarding our continued deal with them, and it quickly became apparent that they didn’t have an actual plan to produce an ongoing Descendants series; they just wanted the traffic from the trailer. We pulled the teaser from their site and started thinking about other directions for the project.
We batted around web series, mini-series, TV pilot, and ultimately we decided that we needed a script, no matter what we did. Since we didn’t know what form it would take, we decided to write it as a feature film. Joey and I started working on a treatment for the project. It took multiple drafts, but we finally got a go-ahead on the script.
And then the WGA strike hit.
Now, I’m not WGA, and Dark Horse is apparently not a WGA signatory company. But I still didn’t want to risk my future ability to join the union by writing during the strike. So it was agreed that I would not be able to turn in any work that had been done until after the strike ended. And that took several months, as you may or may not recall.
In February 2008, the strike ended and I was able to finish off what I had done — more or less. The writing of the script had opened up holes that I hadn’t noticed at the treatment level, and the first draft was kind of a mess. I actually told Dark Horse that I didn’t want to show them this first draft, preferring instead to repair the damage first.
This was kind of unprofessional, and if I’d been hired by a big studio I would have had to turn in that draft and would have been promptly fired, and probably blacklisted. Fortunately, the relationship with Dark Horse is more relaxed (and less official), and they understood that this was my first time writing-to-order, so Chris was willing to wait for draft two.
Like the treatment, it took several drafts and rounds of notes to get Descendants to a place where we were all happy with it. There was a lot to juggle with the adaptation, in attempting to stay true to Joey’s original concept, while expanding it beyond the page and the first three issues, giving it a more cinematically-satisfying structure, and also giving us somewhere to go from there.
During this time, Dark Horse had signed a “first look” deal with Universal Studios. For those who haven’t heard the term before, this means Universal has dibs on anything and everything Dark Horse develops. Before Dark Horse can take a project anywhere else, they have to take it to Universal. If Universal passes (Hollywood-ese for “no, go away”), then we can take it anywhere else.
The script gets done and Dark Horse takes it to Universal; specifically, “Uni Digital,” their new media department. We are assured that UniDigi plans to read it right away — the Senior VP is going to take the script home with him and read it overnight, which we are told he never does with other projects.
This is Hollywood-ese for blowing smoke up your ass. When you start working in Hollywood, you’ll start to get this a lot. People will tell you how excited they are, how they will make your project/script their first priority, how they are taking it home this weekend, this VERY NIGHT, so that they can be sure to read it immediately and be ready to move.
Translation: don’t expect to hear back for several weeks. And at that point they’ll apologize, because they still won’t have read it, and they’ll sing you the same song then, too.
I’ve had the good fortune to have been involved with Dark Horse, who is a legitimate company and in Uni’s good graces. Can you imagine how slow the response would be if it was just me and a script? No matter how much “heat” the script had, it’d be months I’m sure.
It probably sounds like I’m bitter about this. I’m really not. I’ve read a lot of books on the industry that talked about exactly this, so I haven’t been taken by surprise. It’s annoying, and makes me impatient, but that’s how it works.
Anyway, they eventually passed.
So we’ve been taking it around to other places, and we’ve found a place that is interested in the project, based apparently only on a verbal pitch of the concept and the attachments (me to direct, Ray to star). It’s essentially a foreign presale deal — they give us the money to make the movie in exchange for the right to distribute the film overseas.
The catch: they’re willing to give us $4 million. The script, according to an experienced line producer Dark Horse brought in, is a $40 million project. I feel confident that we can make a film look like much more than it actually costs. I think we could make a $4 million movie that looks like a $10 million movie. But we can’t make $4M look like $40M. There are limits — as the line producer said, “You can get five pounds into a two pound bag, but you can’t get twenty pounds in.”
So we were faced with a choice that had to be made:
We could attempt to make our $40 million script for a tenth of the appropriate budget. Doing so, we felt, would hurt the project and everyone involved. There was no way we could do justice to the script, or the concept, by making a film that was too ambitious for its own good. So we decided not to go this route.
Another option was to see if we could find another taker for the script. But when the script is attached to a first-time director and a lead actor who, while a great guy with geek cred, is no Tom Cruise in terms of getting butts in seats. All things considered, we figured we weren’t likely to get more than $4 million anywhere we took the script.
So that left us with the third option: write yet another script, of a smaller scale, to make for $4 million. At first we thought it might be a smaller version of the existing script, but the concerns of doing it justice, as mentioned above, made us decide to develop and write a brand new script. Above and beyond any of the events in the story, what has always stood out has been Charlie Stone. His voice has been loudest and clearest and given the project its vitality. So we determined that if we wrote another story, as long as Charlie was in the center of it, we would be okay.
While I can’t go into either storyline, the new script basically functions as a lead-in to the too-expensive script — in other words, the IMDB trivia will say that the “sequel” was written before the “original.” Some adjustments will have to be made if Descendants is successful and we get the opportunity to do what is now likely to be Descendants 2 — people who in the current script are meeting for the first time will have met in the previous movie, stuff like that. I think it benefits the story in the long run, as the new script in part expands upon what was originally a side-story. Now it gets its own film, making the eventual “sequel” less crowded story-wise.
So that’s where Descendants has been over the last two years, and that’s where it is now. We’re working on ironing out the new treatment and I’ll be writing the new script, with the goal of finishing by Valentine’s Day, and hopefully we’ll have made a deal by my 26th birthday (end of March) for my first feature film.
And then, the real fun will start.
- Grudgingly, I suppose by extension that means I have George Lucas to thank for Phantom Menace. Perhaps a distasteful admission, but an undeniable one.↩
- When he introduced himself saying “I’m Ray,” I barely restrained myself from responding “I know.”↩
- They still exist, but I’m not interested in giving them any traffic by naming them. ↩