Remaking “The Maltese Falcon”: Why My First Screenwriting Sale Was Not What I Expected
I elected to to take the plunge. I promised myself that by 11:59 PM, on June the 15th, I would make my final decision. I would either stay with the security of my 9–3 teaching job in reliable ol’ Brooklyn, or I would move to Los Angeles and pursue my passion as a writer.
By 12:14, I had reserved my plane tickets.
“So there you go,” I said to myself. “It’s too late to turn back now.”
My degree is in Special Education. I graduated from Brooklyn College in 1985. I was never truly happy during my teaching days. I was much more a fan of comic books, Famous Monsters magazine, and movies most of all. The old Universal monster flicks — Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy The Wolfman — were my everything. You can toss King Kong onto that list as well. I discovered The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Dawn of the Dead, Halloween, and Jaws later. And then, like so many others, Star Wars rocked my world. I was forever changed. I needed to create my own creatures, to write my own stories.
I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and that became an inevitability.
In June of 1989, I was on my way. I did not know a soul on the left coast, and it didn’t matter.
I had found a place to stay upon my arrival, courtesy of the recommendation of an ex-girlfriend whose cousin needed a boarder.
So far, so smooth.
I purchased the appropriate professional guide — The Hollywood Creative Directory — the late, lamented Yellow Pages-type bible that listed the contact information of all the notable film and television executives of the time (prior to the advent of imdb.com’s professional service, imdbpro.com).
The morning after my arrival in Los Angeles, I would set to work.
I had awakened at 8 sharp, ate, showered, and set to begin my Hollywood journey in earnest. The day began with cold call after cold call, dialing every number on every page of my treasured Directory. Predictably, my diligence bore little fruit.
Until three hours in.
The call went something like this:
“Hello, can I help you?”
”Hi. My name is Joel Eisenberg. I’m a writer. Can I speak to Mr. Pierce, please?” (Name changed to protect the guilty, though by the end of this it will be easy to look him up.)
(Well, that was a start. No one else transferred me without an inquisition first.)
“This is Pierce, can I help you?”
”Mr. Pierce? Thanks for taking my call. My name is — ”
”I know. I know. We have a busy office here. What do you want, Mr. Eisenberg?”
”Well … sir, I’m a writer, and — ”
”You want to write for me?”
”Are you a good writer?”
”Are you the best?”
”Well, I don’t know if I’m the best …”
”I’m sorry, I only work with the best.”
(Thing is, he didn’t hang up. It was as if he was waiting for something …)
”I’m the best.”
”Good, then maybe we could work together.”
(Right now, I’m thinking, This is so easy! There’s nothing to this breaking into Hollywood business. Wow, were those warnings overrated.)
”Perfect. I’m ready to work.”
”You ever see The Maltese Falcon?”
”You kidding? Only one of my favorite films ever!”
”Look kid, here it is. I have a dream to remake The Maltese Falcon.”
”Do you direct too?”
”No, just a writer.”
”Can you find me a director if I pay you?”
”I’m sure I can,” I bluffed.
“Good. Here’s my idea. We re-do this classic film … with eight gratuitous nude scenes for the foreign markets …” I didn’t hear some of the rest. My stomach dropped. My ears went numb. As sound again slowly coalesced: “I’ll pay $5000 for the film. Produce it too, hire the director, hire the set people, get whatever props and costumes you need … and whatever you have left is your writing fee. Do we have a deal?”
I didn’t know where else to turn. “Is this a porno?” I asked.
“No! We don’t do porn here!” Thank God. “It’s considered soft-core.”
“I didn’t say anything — ”
“Look kid. This is my business. I do this stuff for overseas and make a buck or two. You don’t like it, I guess a return trip to Brooklyn beckons ... We still have a deal?”
”We have a deal,” I responded, doing my level best to show some enthusiasm while convincing myself I was now officially paying my dues. “Just don’t tell my parents, okay?”
He laughed in response. ”Great, kid. Meet me Tuesday, 3:00. I’ll transfer you back to my assistant. She’ll give you the office address.“
”By the way, before I go. You know why I didn’t hang up on you earlier?”
”I hear the Brooklyn accent. Us New Yorkers have to stick together, you know.”
”You work with a lot of New Yorkers?”
He laughed, and simply said, “Hold on.” I was switched back over to his assistant.
I made the film. When we were in post, Mr. Pierce told me that he “couldn’t get the rights” to the original title, so we’d need change it to something exotic. We agreed on “The Gautama Sapphire.” Don’t ask. With fancy editing, the film now took place in India. The plot of course bore no resemblace to the original film, other than the main character owned a detective agency. We shot it on a barely-functioning video camera loaned to me by the company.
And I earned my first $500 as a now-professional screenwriter … with the assumed name of Steve Saunders.
The film was released straight out of post, on VHS, with the brand spanking new title, “Sweet Evil II: Sapphire” a sequel to Pierce’s biggest success to that point … “Sweet Evil.”
I know. They’ve both been on the tips of everyone’s tongue for the past three decades.
I guess I was on my way.
Afterword: I spent another 11 years hacking away in the business until my first legit independent film in 2000, then another 17 years before finally making it into the Writers Guild of America.
It’s been a hell of a ride so far. A major pain in the ass … but a hell of a ride.
Never give up is your cliched but well-meaning message of the day.
Thank you for reading.
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