Mark Gardiner: The slow No

Welcome today to CMG’s newest columnist, Mark Gardiner. Mark’s a proud Canadian who’s been hanging out in the United States for far too long. He’s also a former racer and the author of Riding Man, the story of his quest to ride in the Isle of Man TT races. He was also almost a famous movie inspiration, to be immortalized by Brad Pitt. Almost, but not quite.

Hollywood, someone once said, is the land of the slow ‘No’.

To which I’d only add, “No shit.”

About 18 years ago, my friend Peter Riddihough arrived on the Isle of Man to produce and direct a documentary film called ‘One Man’s Island’ about my effort to qualify for, and finish, in two TT races.

Mark on the Isle of Man, realizing his dream.

About 10 years ago, an independent producer in Hollywood saw Peter’s doc, and called him up. “Has Mark ever sold the feature rights to that story?” he asked.

Peter gave that guy — I’ll call him Tom, since that is his name — my contact information, and Tom called me. Could he make a feature film based on that story? My ‘Yes’ probably came out as a snort. After hanging up I called Peter who said, “Honestly Mark, I can’t see it as a feature”. I had to admit, that made two of us.

Tom, it turned out, had worked in the movie business for years but never actually produced a movie. He roped in another guy who had made a feature, and a pretty good one at that, starring Will Smith.  I sent them both copies of my memoir, ‘Riding Man’. As it happened, I had to make a trip to LA on other motorcycle business a couple of weeks later, so we met for lunch.

A Hollywood lunch, as seen in “The Player.” They keep strange hours in Hollywood.

Before we’d even ordered, the other guy told me, “I can’t see it as a feature film.”

“Me neither,” I said. “But since we still have lunch ahead of us, why don’t you tell me what’s wrong with it?”

Over the course of lunch, he laid out all the things wrong with ‘Riding Man’ as the basis for a narrative film. At that point I had nothing to lose, so I explained that some of the things he ‘needed’ to see in the story had happened to me; I’d just left them out of the book; or they’d happened to me but before or after my year on the Island; or they hadn’t happened to me but had happened to people I knew. By the end of lunch, we’d agreed that I’d go home and write a short treatment for a ‘Hollywood’ version of my story.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Peter Riddihough told me after reviewing my effort, “but maybe there is a feature in this.”

“If I’m going to sell this,” the senior producer said, “I’ll sell it by Thanksgiving.”

I should’ve asked, Thanksgiving of what year?

Mark and Peter Riddihough, preparing their smaller scale documentary on the Isle of Man.

At this point, there were a total of three producers attached, but none of them were willing to spend any money. A legit screenwriter — a guy who’d written one of the first Marvel movies — said he loved the idea of a TT movie and would write a script on spec. Meanwhile the producers had sold the concept up the chain to a much bigger production company, allied with Sony Pictures. It really felt as if the project was going somewhere, but the spec script never materialized.

As a book writer, and the author of the material to be adapted, I wasn’t the low man on the Hollywood totem pole, I was the part of the pole buried in the ground. So it never occurred to them to ask me to take a whack at a screen adaptation. Instead, they passed the project off to a Yale-educated playwright. He delivered a script in which the protagonist, out racing in the desert with his long blonde hair flowing in the wind, crashes and knocks himself out in the first scene. He wakes up 50 years later in the TT. I’m not making this up; it was so terrible that I was sure it would get greenlit. Luckily it wasn’t.

Mark and Peter, pausing for a break in filming to take full advantage of the refreshments trailer.

Then by coincidence, one of the producers mentioned his TT project to a screenwriter who was, momentarily, Hollywood’s flavour-of-the-day. The writer had no motorcycle history, but — long story short — he was familiar with the TT and immediately expressed interest.

There was a catch: the new writer would not touch the keyboard without a six-figure advance. Somehow, after being total penny pinchers for five or six years, the producers wrote him a cheque that greatly exceeded the sum total of all the money I’ve ever earned writing about motorcycles.

He delivered a screenplay that left me conflicted. On the one hand, it was ridiculous and needlessly sensational; I would have been embarrassed to admit that it was based on my story. On the other hand, if the movie got made, I’d pick up a life-changing fee. Columbia Pictures renewed its option. Brad Pitt gave the producers a wish list of directors. “Call me when one of them agrees to direct,” Pitt told them.

No one on Pitt’s list liked the script enough to commit to it. After a while, it got a ‘so-and-so’s already rejected it’ reputation.

A few months ago, the producers finally let their last option lapse. Tom, the first producer who’d fallen in love with the idea, has become a friend over the intervening decade. “It’s just run out of oxygen,” he admitted. I told him I never liked the hot screenwriter’s script anyway. I would’ve loved the money, but hated the movie. I was relieved that I’d never have to explain it to my motorcycle-riding friends.

“Funny thing, though,” I told Tom. “I was just researching this story on the Indian domestic motorcycle industry, and every Indian motojournalist I spoke to told me they loved Riding Man.”

“That’s it!” the producer exclaimed. “We’ll sell the story to Bollywood! It’ll be a cross between ‘Fast & Furious’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.”

I could immediately hear the crazy sitar soundtrack, behind the story of an Indian kid who grew up in love with the TT and gave everything he had to race in it. The best part of it all was, it wouldn’t really be about me at all, but since it’s still based on my story, I’d still get paid. My friend immediately told me that he knew someone who knew someone who was a big Bollywood producer.

I only hope that in India, the ‘No’ will come quickly.

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