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Fight like cats and dogs

One screenwriter says her friend -- another screenwriter -- copied ideas from a script.

June 06, 2007|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

They were friends and neighbors. She remembers him calling her late at night to bum a cigarette and discuss their lives as struggling writers and actors in Hollywood. He remembers bonding over their love of animals and helping her search the hills when her cat disappeared.

But everything shattered after she wrote a screenplay about a woman obsessed with rescuing cats -- and he wrote a screenplay about a woman obsessed with rescuing dogs.

Now, Laura Kightlinger is suing Mike White in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming she gave him her script, "We're All Animals," to read only to discover he was making a film called "Year of the Dog," which the suit contends relied on the script about her life as a cat rescuer.

The White film, which stars "Saturday Night Live" alumna Molly Shannon, was released April 13 by Paramount Vantage to largely positive reviews -- it earned a 72% on the film website -- but has generated just $1.5 million in box office receipts.

White, who wrote and directed the film, vigorously denies the allegations, insisting that beyond a general thematic similarity, the two scripts have different plots, characters and dialogue.

"They are totally different scripts," he said in a telephone interview. " ... I know there is a similarity in the sense that [the female leads] both have pets that they care about, but beyond that, everything she is saying that is similar seems like a real stretch to me."

In a town where film and TV ideas are often discussed among friends over lattes and laptops, Kightlinger's lawsuit provides a cautionary tale for screenwriters: How far should writers go when discussing their ideas, especially with other writers?

Kightlinger is not alleging copyright infringement. Instead, the suit, which was filed in October and will soon enter the deposition phase, claims that because White is also a producer, there was an expectation that he would compensate her if he used her script in some way.

"Our claim is not a copyright claim but rather a breach of 'implied' contract claim," said Jennifer McGrath, Kightlinger's attorney. "Mike and Laura were friends, but he was also a writer-producer. There was an expectation that if she told him her idea and he was going to use it in some way, she would be paid and she would also be involved in the project."

White's attorney, Louis P. Petrich, said in an e-mail to The Times that what Kightlinger asked White to read was "not a list of ingredients, but rather a specific story with delineated characters and a detailed sequence of events. ... Mike's movie is not that story."

A survey of the two scripts shows some similarities in basic plot elements: In each, the lead character loses her pet -- one dies and one wanders off; each brings her animal rights activism to the workplace, where she is eventually fired; each begins hoarding animals; and each visits a farm. Most other key plot points and characters differ.

Eric Weissmann, a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer who is not a party to the lawsuit, said Kightlinger faces significant legal hurdles. "Anybody can do a movie about somebody who is obsessed with an animal ... but then the question is, 'Was there really an implied agreement? And was the agreement really about that?' "

Industry veterans

White and Kightlinger are seasoned writers and actors.

Kightlinger was a staff writer on "Will & Grace" and "Roseanne." She's also an actress and comedian, who appeared as Nurse Sheila on "Will & Grace" and was a featured player on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1990s [she impersonated O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark].

Kightlinger also created, produced and stars in the IFC cable network's comedy series "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman."

White drew Hollywood's attention when he wrote and starred in the quirky 2000 indie film "Chuck & Buck," portraying a young man who stalks his boyhood pal to reconnect with their past. He has written and acted in Jack Black's hit comedy, "School of Rock," the Jennifer Aniston vehicle "The Good Girl" and "Orange County." He also wrote and produced Black's Mexican-themed wrestling comedy "Nacho Libre."

Kightlinger said she first met White in 1996. He later was a frequent visitor in the home she shared with Black, who was her then-boyfriend. The two men later became producing partners, but today run separate production companies, although they continue to have joint projects.

She said that she based her screenplay on her experiences in the zany and often heart-rending world of cat rescues.

For example, while working at "Will & Grace," Kightlinger said she helped set up feeding stations for stray cats that roamed the grounds of CBS Studios on Radford Avenue in Studio City. Her work with strays became so well known, she said, that her co-workers even altered the name on her office door to read "Catlinger."

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