Adapting “The Wedding Album” : A Story Heads South to Hollywood

In March 2006, New York Times Reviewer Dave Itzkoff had this to say about the short stories of Fairbanks-based David Marusek: Marusek’s short works of fiction have “so far proven to be as concentrated and potent as a dwarf star. In The Wedding Album, a story first published in 1999, he fashions an ominous and surprisingly moving tale about a bride and groom who repeatedly discover, forget and rediscover that they are merely computer-generated re-creations of a flesh-and-blood newlywed couple, fated to watch as their living counterparts, their marriage and civilization itself decay over the centuries.”

It’s a great story — recently re-issued in paperback, by the way. For Movie Week, I wanted to ask David about the Hollywood angle.

Tell me what’s happening with your story “The Wedding Album.” When/how was it optioned? Has a full screenplay been written? Is it heading toward production? And most importantly, what insights have you gained into the Hollywood Universe as your story continues along a path to the silver screen?

I wasn’t actively trying to sell an original screenplay or treatment to Hollywood. Film developers approached me about one of my published stories, and they found me by scouting the literary reviews. My novella, “The Wedding Album,” had just been mentioned in a review in the New York Times Book Review, and I started receiving unsolicited emails asking about the film rights. But even with pre-existing buyer interest, it still took about a year for my Hollywood representatives to strike an option deal with Focus Features, a subsidiary of Universal Pictures, and another eight months of negotiations to iron out the contract. And what a contract it is–35 pages long and covering every conceivable eventuality from sound-track albums to film-inspired calendars and action figures.

Film studios, I have learned, prefer to use the Disney model of rights acquisition. That is, to own everything for all time. Part of the back and forth in our contract negotiations was about how much of my novella I would still own the film rights to. There are particular characters in “TWA” that appear in other stories of mine, as well as words that I coined. I was able to save most of my characters names, but I had to give up several terms. The one I regretted losing the most was “free-range people.” This refers to persons who were NOT cloned or excessively augmented with genetic improvements. I can continue to use the term in my prose stories, but if I ever sell more film rights, “free-rangers” is already spoken for.

So, a year to strike the deal, eight months to negotiate it, and I signed the stack of papers in November 2007, just days before Hollywood writers walked off the job in a three-month union action. Focus Features purchased an option for 18 months, but the clock didn’t start ticking until the strike was over. I believe I was one of the few people in Alaska who woke up each morning looking for news about the Hollywood writer’s strike. Anyway, my option runs until August 2009.

Have you explained to your readers what an option is? It just means that the studio has purchased the exclusive right to buy the film rights to your work if they want to within a certain period of time. Now I know that there are many ways to structure a movie deal, but the purpose of the option period is to let the studio or development company see how many of the pieces of the film they can put together–script, director, talent, money–before actually spending the $100,000 to $500,000 to purchase the film (adaptation) rights. If they succeed in getting enough commitments, they may green light the project. The way I hear it, less than one percent of all options are ever exercised, and those that are may have to languish through several option extensions before everything is in place. In my case, my reps worked with an independent development company who hired a screenwriter, who pitched his treatment to Focus. As far as I know, we’re still at the screenplay stage, trying to come up with something the studio likes, with only six months of the option term left.

In my deal, once I signed the contract, I relinquished all control over my story. I have always heard about authors bemoaning how Hollywood ruined their stories, and my attitude has always been that as long as the money is good, I don’t care what they do to my story. The development company didn’t ask me for any input and had no plans to share the screenplay with me, but I asked my reps if I could see it anyway. Although I am not interested in writing screenplays, I have the unique perspective of watching one of my successful literary stories go through the process of being adapted from prose to screen, and I thought I could learn something by it. This was probably a mistake. When I read the screenplay and saw what they did to my story, I could only shake my head in wonder. My story, as it turns out, was merely the springboard for someone else’s completely different story, and my story did not survive the exercise. Oh, well, I’d been warned.

9 thoughts on “Adapting “The Wedding Album” : A Story Heads South to Hollywood”

  1. Thanks, David, for insight into the option process. Among the many mistaken assumptions about options, one truth stands out: as in all else in “standard” publishing, the author needs good representation to protect whatever rights he can. And the odds are horrendous, much as they are for pubbing a bestseller in the first place.

    Once a deal is struck, I share David’s view – there’s no sense fretting over control that’s been delegated to others through the process of negotiation. Your story isn’t your story any longer – at least not for potential viewers. But thinking about the possibility does make me more interested in learning more about screenwriting.

  2. The option-roller-coaster delivers all the thrills and let downs that writing has to offer — especially when you’re an Alaskan and you are naive and actually believe what people say. My initial foray into the foreign world of film delivered all the excitement of a blockbuster, followed by the bitter burn of someone who didn’t consider how I would feel when the ride arrived back where it started.

    Once I regrouped and understood to take an “option” like one of those fake Alaskan spring warm-ups, I was more than ready for the follow-up options that wouldn’t go anywhere. What an option does (other than perhaps give you a few bucks) is help build your confidence that people are interested in either your stories or your writing. I took that interest as fuel for the writing fire and turned that energy into screenplays that were eventually produced. Granted, they weren’t the Alaskan stories that I wanted to have made, or that I’m ridiculously proud of, but they were a start. The irony, for me, is that the initial script I optioned (three times) hasn’t been produced and probably won’t ever see the silver screen.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Don — thanks for weighing in! I love your comparison of a first option to a fake spring break-up. Having had my hopes raised by warm weather, and dashed later by March/April blizzards, that metaphor will stay with me.

    And just in case you check back — as one of our more experienced “screen voices,” what do you tell fellow Alaskans about breaking into screenwriting? Write in isolation? Take workshops here or in CA? Any other ideas? How important is networking?

  4. It’s clear that in this facet of writing, as in others, there’s much to be said about energy, attitude, and a sound-minded approach, all of which you allude to here, Don. If we can get on the roller coaster knowing, without cynicism, that some rides are longer than others, but all of them end one way or another, then we’ve positioned ourselves in a sane place. Easier said than done, of course. It’s interesting to me that the whole nation is tossing around these realities now as a result of a crazy economy. I guess we writers are well-equipped, our careers (and sanity)on the attitudes and energy the country is asked to adopt in this time of crisis. Maybe that means we walk willing into a crisis of sorts every time we put something out there, whether it’s a poem or a novel or a screenplay.

  5. David- Thanks for the post, I’m super intrigued to read about “free-range people” your story sounds like subtle sci-fi that I loved in Gabe Hudson’s collection, “Dear Mr. President”.

  6. Andromeda —
    Glad you appreciated my false spring metaphor!
    I’d be happy to share what little I know about breaking into screenwriting, and to do that I think I’ll break out another cheesy Alaskana metaphor. Those interested in screenwriting need to study the format, read sample scripts, and write compelling stories that people will want to read. I never write and expect the film to be made. The truth is, most films won’t be made. So I suggest prospective screenwriters write because they love the story and the characters.
    Because I could never imagine living in LA, I knew my only hope to get a script read was to find young producers, actors, or directors who were looking for material. The internet is a godsend for Alaskan writers trying to market their scripts. Early on I would email production companies and directors. Slowly I built up a network of people I could contact with each project. If they were interested they would help move my work along.
    Writing the script is the easy part. Getting people to read it is a whole other game. (One I don’t enjoy.) I was lucky and a director liked my work and later on contacted me and asked if I would write a script on speculation, and I was. The same luck held and the film was actually produced. As I was living in Bethel at the time I wrote it, I didn’t have access to workshops, so I had to rely on books and the web for advice.
    My best advice would be to always be writing a script while marketing the others.
    One site that I have used and I know works is (I had one short film made there and optioned a script through the site.)

  7. Whoops! I forgot my Alaskan screenwritng metaphor.

    Alaskan writers need to approach this screenwriting craft like a river covered with rotten ice. The odds are that you aren’t going to get across, so you have to brace yourself for the crash. You cross because you either have to or you like the rush. You try, then you try again, and you don’t give up until you get across or it kills you — because that’s what we Alaskans do…

  8. Great stuff, Don. Be sure to keep us posted on future developments with the films and novel.

  9. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Another great metaphor — especially since I’ve gotten into trouble on Alaska rivers before, and the memories are still icy and sharp. Thanks Don. And thanks a second time for chipping in with your experiences here. It always makes me happy when I discover a new Alaska writing colleague via this blog.

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