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When It Comes to Hits, Nobody Knows Anything

March 04, 2007|Thomas McKelvey Cleaver | Thomas McKelvey Cleaver says he is the only screenwriter his age "who never made the studios a bazillion dollars and still gets paid to write movies."

Nobody in movies knows what works until the "hot bodies" (industry-speak for "paying customers") decide. It's always a crapshoot. I learned this Hollywood truth in 1988.

I was writing for Roger Corman and had turned in The Best Script Ever, the last I'd do. The Deal That Would Make My Career was set. Then Roger called about another project. "We've finished a movie. We'll turn the house set into an underground lab. Call it 'The Terror Within.' I want post-apocalypse without nuclear war. Got anything?"

Not a clue! But I knew if I said "yes," I'd get money.

During the hour's drive to his office, I brainstormed: Terror Within. That's "Monster-in-a-Closed-Space." Alien. So, "Alien-in-an-Underground-Lab." No nuclear war. So, a deadly something escapes and disease decimates humanity? Chimps are 99% us. What's 99.5% us?

"'Alien' after a biological apocalypse, with a mutant."

I spent two weeks doing "Alien" without "doing 'Alien'"--harder than it sounds. In the midst of it, the writers strike of 1988 hit, no one knowing it would transform the lives of all screenwriters forever. The Deal That Would Make My Career was on hold.

Roger found that no distributor at American Film Market would buy his no-name/no-budget movies, so he set to work packaging "The Terror Within" for the marketplace. When he finished, the budget had been increased sixfold and Roger proudly said the director was young, French and a USC film-school grad.

"That's three strikes," I thought.

Roger had other good news. He said The Best Script Ever was so good that a young director from Spain wanted to invest a million of his own dollars in doing it.

Meanwhile, "The Terror Within" was shot on the 18 hottest days of 1988 in Roger's hot, noisy studio by Gold's Gym in Venice. George Kennedy--the "name star"--was so shy that he wouldn't stop backing away long enough to shake hands. The house set was replaced. And director Thierry Notz wasn't that young, was Swiss and shared my opinion of film school.

The writers strike ended. The Deal That Would Make My Career was canceled. Thierry invited me to watch "The Terror Within" in the editing room. Wow: What was "on the page" was "on the screen."

On a Sunday morning in January 1989, it screened for the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. Serious Fans. They laughed with it; they were scared with it. At the end, they applauded.

The next month, "The Terror Within" opened theatrically: a weekend in four small southeastern multiplexes. It did so well that it eventually went into wider release and received more good reviews. It was one of Roger's biggest commercial successes.

In L.A., it opened at the Egyptian; Thierry and I went. The capacity Friday night audience reacted with the same enthusiasm as the serious fans at the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. As we filed out past the long line waiting to get in, someone asked, "Is it any good?" A girl yelled, "It's great!!"

That affirmation from an actual "hot body" was a moment to treasure.

A year later, Roger and I saw the movie made from The Best Script Ever. It stunk. Bad. Roger apologized for wasting my script.

This past May, "The Terror Within" was on the Sci-Fi Channel. They called it "a cult classic." Even peppered with commercials 20 years later, it still works.

William Goldman said that the single most important fact of the movie industry is that "NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING." Truer words have never been spoken.

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