Years ago when I worked in Hollywood, naïve enough to imagine changing the world (or at least the film industry, if only a mere fleck of a change) I was given a screenwriter's dream opportunity: work as a name director's--better yet, a living legendary name director's--house writer. (House as in 'in-house'). I'd been kicking around the 'Hood for a few years, mostly getting by writing animation (see Gene Ayres on IMDB) when a tennis pal of mine, from an L.A. citywide singles-tennis dating club called, cleverly 'Tennis Match', gave me an introduction to a client of his. My buddy, whose name was one of my all time favorites—Christopher Street-- was a dead-ringer for Michael Caine's younger brother, and looking back, knowing both of them were orphans, it was probably true. Anyway, Chris was the kind of entrepreneur who is very successful serving the byways and back alleys of the 'Wood, in his case running a window-washing operation. He was, like Michael Caine, a very charming street-wise Brit, a good talker, and had, as a personal favor to me (or perhaps just a payback for a tennis bet, who knows) managed to land the legendary and original 3D film director, Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, The Incredible Shrinking Man) as a client, at Jack's longtime home in Woodland Hills, which had a lot of windows, and some pretty good views that needed frequent clarification.
Chris had somehow managed to find a way to tell Jack all about me, his tennis buddy, and what a great screenwriter I allegedly was. And as it just so happened, Jack was trying to work his way back, after a near fatal on set stroke that had cost him one of his legs, a few years earlier. Jack's last movie had been a comedy classic starring Peter Sellers in three roles, The Mouse that Roared. Then, based on the fact that this was the advent of the Age of Television, and Jack had previously been a television producer/director including of Robert Wagner in It Takes a Thief and as partner of Blake Edwards in the still-classic series Peter Gunn, and Peter had gone on to considerable fame and fortune with The Pink Panther series, Jack was, I suppose, starting to feel left behind.
What Jack Arnold wanted, and needed, was a blockbuster comeback feature, and he had just the project: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's classic novel, The Lost World. Michael Chrichton hadn't gotten around to expropriating that title yet with his dinosaur knockoffs, and Jack had an ace in the hole: special effects artist Albert Whitlock, long a legend for his Alfred Hitchcock backdrops. Albert was another Brit: like Hitchcock, and for that matter Christopher Street. He was also the highest paid staff employee at Universal Studios (directors, actors and screenwriters were contract employees, not staff employees). His salary, and we're talking 1981 dollars, was more than $1 million a year.
Anyway Jack and Albert needed a writer, and I'd just written a spec screenplay about a rogue warlord in Kazakhstan who'd gotten hold of a nuclear weapon (it's long since been lost, but to make a long story much shorter, it got me the job).
So there I was, with my own office next door to Jack's in Building C on the Universal lot, right under the shadow of the Tower that E.T. Built. Across the hall was David Lynch, working on his version of Dune starring Sting. Just down the hall was Rafaella de Laurentis, working on another blockbuster (or maybe the same one). Joe Dante, John Landis (huge Jack Arnold fans and devotees) dropped by regularly. Spielberg had just set up shop next door for the next Indiana Jones adventure.
I wrote, I must modestly insist, a gem of an adaptation. Even Albert Whitlock, after warning me over a cup of tea that “there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip” (how prophetic, or just knowledgeable he was!) loved it. He even invited me to his Santa Barbara estate for the weekend to talk shop (which my then fiance fatally vetoed, insisting I owed her a trip to Hawaii to celebrate).
When I got back, I got a call from Jack: I'd been replaced. I should have known better, and was too naïve to know, that in Hollywood, the first writer is always replaced. It's industry policy. Even if he wrote the book, which I certainly hadn't.
Jack got his own comeuppance, I'm sad to say, a year or so later, when the next version got turned down by Universal to make room for a Dan Ackroyd movie that bombed historically, but never mind. Jack gave the script to his son in law no less, who happened to be President of another studio, 20th Century Fox, at the time. His son in law, who shall remain nameless here, gave it to a reader (only readers—Hollywood's equivalent to interns—ever read anything) who duly reported its merits, upon which son in law said, bluntly: “Who the fuck cares about dinosaurs?”
Apparently nobody but Steven Spielberg. Oh, and Michael Crichton, who apparently got busy...
So my vote for Best Unproduced Screenplay in the dramatic sci fi Avatar category would have to be: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World. By Gene Ayres. The man who cared about dinosaurs.
(This is an excerpt from my forthcoming memoir: Sixties to 60: A Hipster's Journey)