Charles Cumming on Development Hell
“The pantheon of fictional British spies will welcome a fresh recruit when the team behind BBC One’s Spooks brings the duplicitous Alec Milius to the big screen.”
So began a story in The Times way back in August 2003 about the sale of the film rights to my debut novel, A Spy by Nature.
“‘The first film,” the article continued, “will be a tale of industrial espionage, as governments battle for control of the Caspian oilfields; in future adventures, Milius will battle organised crime and terrorism.”
As soon as the article hit the newsstands, my phone started ringing. Friends called to congratulate; journalists wanted to know who was going to play Alec Milius (I wanted Jude Law); my father joked that I’d finally be able to pay him back for "the astronomical cost of your education.”
There was just one problem: Alec Milius didn’t get to go to the oilfields of the Caspian Sea. Nor did he battle with terrorists and organized crime. I never got to pay my Dad back. Almost twelve years on, no film of A Spy by Nature has ever been made, nor of its sequel, The Spanish Game. The film rights have now passed to a different set of producers, with Milius still confidently lurking in the wings, waiting for a director to shout: “‘Action!”!’
In movie terms, my book has been caught in what is known as “‘development hell”. ’. Any artist who has sold rights to a film or television company will know the feeling. You take a relatively small annual fee from a producer, granting them the right to adapt your story into a screenplay – then twiddle your thumbs waiting for the black-tie premiere. Only when the film goes into production – on what is known as “‘the first day of principle photography” ’ – will you get the six-figure sum quoted for the “film rights” by the media. Once the movie is released, sales of your book should – in a just world – go through the roof. No wonder penniless authors get excited when Hollywood comes calling – Tinseltown has the financial power to change lives.
But film and television is a fickle business, dependent on the goodwill and generosity of well-heeled investors; on studio heads, who may be reluctant to take a risk on a picture that could end their careers; and on a screenwriter whose vision of a story may be radically different to that of the director hired to shoot it, or the star actor handed $50m to play the lead.
Most things in life are about power and status; the movie business is no different. If Jack O’Connell or Eddie Redmayne – two of the hottest young British actors of the moment – - want to play Alec Milius, chances are the movie would be shot this summer. If Steven Spielberg opted to direct the project, principle photography would begin in a matter of months. In simple terms, box office clout draws money to a movie. If George Clooney or James Cameron say ‘yes’ to a script, it will get ‘the green light’. If a lesser known actor or director is attached, the process of financing that film will be geologically slow. In some ways, it’s a miracle that any film ever gets made – - the planetary alignment of money and talent and timing and ego is so rare that it requires a hefty dose of luck just to get as far as renting a catering truck.
There are exceptions, of course. Novelists can occasionally wriggle free of development hell if they publish a bestseller. A studio will take a punt on financing film versions of 50 Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code simply because they believe that a ready-made international audience is out there, armed with popcorn, waiting to buy a ticket. For slightly different reasons, award-winning novels – Wolf Hall, Child 44 – almost always make it to the screen, largely because the best actors and filmmakers in the industry enjoy original storytelling and subtle characterisation, and don’t want to spend two years of their lives working on second-rate material.
The good news is that hard work, tenacity and talent will eventually win out, raising a project from the abyss of development hell. Great films adapted from lousy books will make millions at the box office. Terrible films adapted from wonderful novels will haemorrhage money and do lasting damage to reputations. The screen is a fickle mistress, but at least films get made.
My great hope is that my screenplay adaptation of The Trinity Six will go into production at some point in the next couple of years. Back in 2013, Colin Firth optioned the rights to A Foreign Country, my thriller about Thomas Kell, a disgraced MI6 officer on the trail of a missing spy. Firth is dream casting as Kell: he is an actor who can convey both great passion and great dignity, as well as superior intelligence, traits which are present in Kell’s personality. Come to think of it, Firth would also be perfect for the role of Sam Gaddis, the academic on the trail of a sixth member of the Cambridge spy ring, in The Trinity Six.
Kell reappears in A Colder War, my sequel to A Foreign Country. It’s fun to play the ‘dream casting’ game and I’ve always pictured Kristin Scott-Thomas as Amelia Levene, the female Chief of MI6 with whom Kell becomes professionally entangled in both novels. And who would play Rachel Wallinger, the daughter of a former colleague in ‘A Colder War’ with whom Kell has a passionate affair? Emily Blunt, perhaps? Sienna Miller? Emma Stone?
In the end, it will probably all come down to luck. If Firth’s schedule allows it, if the script of A Foreign Country is any good, and if the financiers believe in Thomas Kell as a character with the potential to become a spy franchise, chances are the film will be made. Then I can finally stop twiddling my thumbs, dust off the black tie and take a limousine to the premiere.