TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORIES
When Billy was a teenager, his father died of lung cancer. Billy’s mother was left to raise him and his two younger brothers on her own. Ever since she was a little girl, she had known she had a gift. She could see things that were happening someplace else, she could tell what people were thinking, she could look into next week or next year the way you or I might look out a window and see a tree. Even before the death of her husband, she’d been giving “readings” to friends and acquaintances. When she became a single mother, these readings were how she supported herself and her boys. It was illegal in Arkansas for “fortunetellers” to charge for their services, but they could accept donations. These didn’t always come in the form of money; sometimes Billy’s mother would get a sack of potatoes or a basket of peaches.
Word spread about Mrs. Thornton’s gift, and eventually people from all over were coming to the little brick house in Malvern, Arkansas. The living room was like a doctor’s waiting room. All kinds of people could be found there--lawyers in coats and ties, farmers in overalls, women from Little Rock in sleek business suits, pregnant unwed teenage girls in ragged jeans and T-shirts. They all had one thing in common though; all were hoping, in one way or another, that Mrs. Thornton could help them figure out at least a little bit the mystery of their own existence, the meaning of their often difficult lives.
Not all in town took a benign view of Billy’s mom. This was the Bible Belt, after all, and some saw any kind of psychic phenomenon as coming from the devil. There were occasions when she was threatened and called a witch.
After Billy and I had moved to Los Angeles and become screenwriters, we realized the story of Billy’s mom could make a heck of a movie, so we created a fictionalized version of it and began to pitch it around town. This was in the late 80s, when we were still struggling to hang on to the very lowest rung of the slippery Hollywood ladder. We were fortunate enough to get a meeting with Goldie Hawn. To our great delight, Goldie loved The Gift. She had a production deal with Warner Bros., so Billy and I and Goldie went to pitch it there.
I remember the President of Production as a short guy whose little feet barely touched the floor as he sat and fidgeted in his big chair, but it’s possible he was of average height and my memory has unjustly shrunk him. I remember with more confidence that he was wearing a dark, expensive three-piece suit, and he was eating something--candy? nuts?--that he never offered to share with his visitors. Billy was our designated pitcher, and Goldie’s beautiful big-eyed face was bright and hopeful as Billy began telling the President of Production the story of The Gift. But the President of Production seemed distracted; he kept squirming around in his chair as he ate his candy or nuts and every minute or two glanced at his watch. And so Warners passed, and that was the end of The Gift for a while.
In 1992, after One False Move came out, Billy and I suddenly became hot commodities. The director William Friedkin invited us to lunch, and wanted to know if we had any movie ideas. We told him briefly about The Gift. Billy (as everyone called him) was intrigued, and suggested that we meet with his wife, Sherry Lansing, who was one of the top producers at Paramount.
Full of excitement, Billy and I drove up a winding road in the hills of Beverly Hills to Billy and Sherry’s castle-like house. We sat down with them in perhaps the grandest room I’d ever been in, and Billy launched into his pitch. Billy Friedkin was enthralled; he leaned forward eagerly in his chair, and kept looking at his wife to see how she was reacting. But her face remained emotionless, unreadable. When Billy finished, all she said was: “I’ll call business affairs and have them make the deal.” Then Billy and I found ourselves out in the vast courtyard walking toward our car. Billy said very softly, as if afraid some jealous god of movies might overhear him and screw it all up: “I think we just sold The Gift.” “Yeah,” I said, also softly, “I think so.”
We started writing the script. The president of Paramount left, and Sherry was hired to replace him. Which was obviously great for us! I mean, our producer had become the president and was also married to the director! It was Green Light City, baby!
We turned the script in. Got the word back that everyone loved it. Friedkin was quoted as saying: “I wouldn’t change a word.” But Billy and I hadn’t just fallen off the turnip truck (that event had actually occurred several years earlier). We knew that fish love to swim, birds love to fly, and Hollywood folks just love to change scripts, so we went into our big meeting at Paramount ready for anything. We had devised what, in retrospect, seems to be a strange strategy. Rather than being combative from the get-go, we would do a kind of rope-a-dope thing where we would just nod and smile and seem to agree with everybody and make notes in our little notebooks; then, before the next meeting, we’d work out a very calm, logical, and persuasive response to their suggestions. Boy, did that not work.
We had the meeting at Paramount with Sherry and Billy Friedkin and two or three executives and Mark Johnson, who was to produce the movie. Some of their suggestions about the script were okay. Some weren’t. But it didn’t matter what they said, we just, per our plan, nodded and grinned and scribbled our notes. Then a few days later we had another meeting with just Friedkin and Mark Johnson. It didn’t take Friedkin long to realize Billy and I weren’t being quite as agreeable as at the first meeting. “Wait a minute,” he said. “Is this a defense of the first draft?” Well, yes. Things quickly went downhill. It became clear that the writers and the director didn’t want to make the same movie. Finally Friedkin said: “Okay. Just don’t make the changes then.” “But if we don’t do them,” I said, “you’ll just bring in other writers who will.” And then Friedkin surprised us. He said no, he’d never bring in other writers because he realized what a personal project this was for us. He would give us back The Gift. He’d have Paramount put it into turnaround, and we could set it up at another studio.
When Billy and I left the meeting, we were a little stunned at the unexpected turn of events, but basically pleased. We wouldn’t be faced with the unpleasant choice of doing a rewrite we didn’t believe in or being fired. We could make the movie elsewhere. But when I got home, Stefani, my girlfriend, told me I’d just gotten a frantic phone call from mine and Billy’s agent, Todd Harris, wanting to know what the hell had happened at the meeting. I called Todd, and told him Friedkin had given The Gift back to Billy and me. But it turned out that Paramount was in an uproar. Todd had gotten a furious, ranting, hysterical call from one of their top executives, saying Friedkin didn’t have the power to give The Gift back and Paramount was going to hold on to it forever and Billy and I weren’t making some little independent movie now but were playing ball with the big boys and--but you get the picture.
Billy and I figured we didn’t have any choice now but to make the best of it. Another meeting was scheduled with Friedkin. But at the last minute his office cancelled it. It was never rescheduled. Years passed. Nothing happened with The Gift. The project rested as quiescent within the legendary walls of the Paramount lot as a mummy in its tomb. Then, in 1996, Billy’s movie Sling Blade came out, to great success, which seemed to rekindle Paramount’s interest in The Gift. Billy acted in another Paramount project, A Simple Plan. Sam Raimi was the director. It turned out Sam had been a fan of The Gift for years, and wanted to direct it. It was made in Savannah, Georgia, in 2000. Cate Blanchett played the young small-town widow who knew things she couldn’t possibly know, bringing to the role her own incomparable gift.