I was on page 60 of my first draft of Shuffle when I got the bad news.
I was in a groove. The story was flowing out of me. My fingers could barely type fast enough, and I wanted nothing more than to get the whole thing down on paper. I was right in the middle of a major set piece when the phone rang. My managers, Aaron and Sean, were on the line.
“Got some bad news for you.”
“Chris Columbus just sold a screenplay about a guy who lives his life out of order to Warner Bros.”
I was two-thirds of the way through the first draft of my screenplay for Shuffle… about a man who begins experiencing his life out of order. “You’re kidding me,” I said. “How similar is it?”
The competition’s screenplay was more of a broad comedy/adventure, which bore little resemblance to what I was writing, at least in my mind. My script was something that might best be described as Frank Capra meets “Twilight Zone”: A desperately paced fever dream where circumstances terrify the film’s protagonist until he becomes aware that there is a pattern to his experience. He then works to uncover why this is happening and what (or who) is behind it. Its very concept demanded uprooting the structure of conventional storytelling, and one of my favorite things about it was that sequences taking place years apart were often juxtaposed right next to each other, leaving the audience to wonder not how things would turn out—that much was obvious—but, rather, how they got that way. What had happened during the intervening years to change the circumstances and disposition of the lead character? The narrative conceit gave me many delicious opportunities to reveal layers of character in an unusual way and have a character go on a detective odyssey whose subject was himself. I was excited to get this thing out the door and share it with everyone.
And now I was being told it would never see the light of day.
As different as the two scripts may have been, the loglines sounded exactly the same. There was no way around that one.
“You may as well put it down and move on to something else. Sorry ’bout that, man. I know you’ve been working hard.”
But I didn’t put it down. I wrote around the clock for two more days, powering through the climax of the film. The uselessness of what I was doing didn’t matter to me. I wanted to tell the story so badly that it had to come out of me and onto the page. I knew that if I didn’t seize the moment and write it right then and there, it would eventually unravel in my mind and I would lose it forever.
I showed it to my managers. Though they liked it, they reiterated that there was nothing they could do with it. I put it in a manila envelope, shoved it in the closet, sulked for a day or two and then moved on to other things.
A few months later, my friend Dan Austin asked: “Can I read that out-of-order thing you were working on?”
“If you want to, I guess,” I said. “It needs rewriting, but there’s no point. Nothing’s ever going to happen with it.”
A couple of months passed. I got busy writing a new script, shooting a documentary and making a short film. One afternoon, Dan called.
“Dude, I read Shuffle.”
“Oh, yeah—I forgot that I gave that to you. What did you think?”
“You were so down on it that I was expecting not to like it. Also, it just sounded like an experiment in form, which I’m not big on, so I was wary going in, but—dude, this is really good. I cried. I love the characters. I love the story surprises. You’re right, it needs rewriting. So rewrite it. You should do something with this.”
On Dan’s advice, I re-read it for the first time in over six month, and I fell in love with it all over again. I fell in love with the lead character, Lovell Milo, a man with a lifelong love of photography and “stopping time” whose very name sounds like it’s being said out of order. I loved the way the layers of the story peeled back bit by bit to reveal that it was, in fact, a love story and had been from the start. I did a rewrite in less than a week. Again, I gave it to my managers. Again, they liked it, but there was nothing they could do. The other sale was still too fresh. Again, I put it away and forgot about it.
The following summer, I directed my old friend TJ Thyne in a short film called Validation. While shooting the movie, it began to occur to me that Shuffle would be a great vehicle for TJ, of whom I’d been a fan since I first saw him perform at USC, where we had been classmates and neighbors. I got the crazy notion that perhaps Shuffle was small scale enough that we could make it together as a low budget feature. I handed the script to him at the wrap party for Validation. But a pilot he’d shot in the spring for a show called “Brennan”—its title was changed to “Bones” right before it went to broadcast—had just been picked up to go to series, and his life got crazy. He never read the script.
“Bones” became a runaway hit, TJ began to get recognized on the street every time we hung out, I made a couple of other short films and a documentary and, once again, I forgot about Shuffle. Validation began playing the festival circuit and turned into quite a success in its own right. TJ joined me at festivals when he had time, and we began to talk about doing another movie together. He asked me if I’d written a feature he would be right for.
“Yeah, I’ve got a few things. There’s one in particular I gave you a couple of years ago, but you never read it.”
“Send it to me again.”
At long last, he read Shuffle. He fell in love with it. He held readings of it with his repertory group, Theatre Junkies, and the whole group became enchanted with the story. As winter turned to spring that year, he said he wanted to produce it with me while on his hiatus from “Bones” that summer.
Three months later, we were shooting. TJ and our friend Chris Stone raised the money in less than two months. The perfect people to help us realize our vision appeared as if by magic. Shuffle’s cast, including a coterie of brilliant child actors, without whom the script had no chance of playing, materialized within a matter of weeks. One of Hollywood’s greatest make-up artists, Barney Burman (who would win an Academy Award for his work on Star Trek shortly after our shoot wrapped) came on board to realize our many age changes despite the fact that we couldn’t afford him. I will never forget the moment, on our second-to-last day of shooting, when Barney led TJ out of the make-up room after five hours of working on him. It was night as their silhouettes crossed the driveway, and as they entered the lit set, a hush fell over the entire crew. TJ was 92 years old. He was in character, and Barney helped him to his mark as if he were an infirm, elderly man. We all felt that we were in the presence of something truly special. You could hear a pin drop.
I was making final tweaks to the film’s edit when I got the good news.
Leonard Maltin had seen the trailer for Shuffle online and had invited me to screen it for his class of 300+ students at USC one week before its bi-coastal festival premieres at the Hollywood and Heartland Film Festivals. I had taken that class when I was a student at USC. Now I was returning with my old classmate to our alma mater to present our new film in the very theater where I’d studied so many years ago.
At 8:15 PM, the lights went down. The curtains opened. The main title appeared, then the screen went black. TJ’s voice rang out through the theater, saying the lines I had written 7 years prior:
“I’m 28. Yesterday, I was 15…”
And the film that I almost stopped writing on page 60 unfolded before its first audience. Never give up on something you believe in, no matter what the obstacles. MM
Shuffle premieres at the Hollywood Film Festival (www.HollywoodFilmFestival.com) on Friday, October 21st, with its first east coast screening taking place the following day at the Heartland Film Festival (www.HeartlandFilmFestival.com) in Indianapolis, where it is the closing night film. To purchase tickets, stay updated on future screenings and check out the trailer, visit www.ShuffleTheMovie.com.
Image courtesy of Last Name First LLC.