“Let’s Make a Movie!”
A few months after 9/11, I flew back to Columbia to drive with my girlfriend out to L.A. She was coming out to be an actress. For the second time in less than a year, I drove the almost 3,000-mile trip from Columbia to L.A., doing no sight-seeing (which I regret now) and driving on average about 14 hours a day.
We moved into a small apartment in Hollywood. She got a job at a video store (remember those?), and we worked to make ends meet and “live the dream.” It was stressful back then, with a lot of pressures on both of us. But we would still go out and have fun. It was L.A., after all. So much to do. Unfortunately we soon drifted apart and broke up. She moved to an apartment down the hall in the same building. Awkward.
To relax I’d often go exploring in the neighborhood and hiking in nearby Griffith Park. (The “Batcave” from the ‘60s “Batman” TV show wasn’t far and was a nice place to cool off.) On Saturdays I’d meet fellow Gamecock fans at sports bars like Hollywood Billiards and Dublin’s Irish Pub (both since closed). The victories were great, but also being so far from “home” meant that the losses didn’t sting so bad either.
One thing I learned the hard way: Summer nights at the beach in Southern California were not like summer nights in sticky South Carolina. I made the mistake of wearing a t-shirt and shorts to a campfire at Manhattan Beach one night and almost froze before someone was kind enough to lend me a sweater. The Pacific Ocean is cold, and summer nights can get downright chilly.
Business-wise, Gary Jones and I were still trying to get our horror movie “The Last Horror Picture Show” made. He’d written it with Gunnar (“Leatherface”) Hansen, and it had Gunnar, Robert Englund (“Freddy” from the “Nightmare on Elm Street” series), and Kane Hodder (“Jason” from the “Friday the 13th” series) attached, all playing family members in a “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”-type story. We thought it would be a slam-dunk to get made.
So of course it wasn’t.
A couple of kids who said they were rich and could get the movie financed optioned it. They’d never produced anything, but they were young and eager and dropped the right names. Their option lapsed. Next!
I’d made a connection with a distribution company called the Asylum. They are now famous for cranking out the “Sharknado” movies and for their multitude of “mockbusters,” movies with similar titles/artwork as big-budget studio movies so they could ride off those coattails and multi-million-dollar advertising campaigns. Genius, actually. They had made their own “War of the Worlds” (to compete with the Tom Cruise version) and subsequently made such “classics” as “Transmorphers,” “The DaVinci Curse,” and “Snakes on a Train” – you get the idea.
But at the time they weren’t the Asylum machine they are now. My first introduction to them was because they were making a foreign sale (Thailand) for a horror movie I’d made back in South Carolina called “Head Cheerleader, Dead Cheerleader.” They had tried briefly to raise money for “The Last Horror Picture Show” but couldn’t do it. But months later, one of the principals of the Asylum sent an email out to colleagues/friends saying they were gearing up for production. They wanted to make a slate of 10 smaller-budgeted genre features over the next year, with various monsters like vampires, werewolves, aliens, etc.
Meanwhile, I’d come up with an idea called “Jolly Roger” and pitched it to Gary. He’d responded positively, so we wrote it.
“Jolly Roger” was about an evil, wisecracking pirate who comes back from the dead to reclaim his gold and get revenge on the descendants of the mutinous crew who had killed him hundreds of years ago. It was “Leprachaun” but with a pirate, and it also had the feel of John Carpenter’s “The Fog,” which I’d always liked.
The Asylum responded and said they’d make it. They’d give us a whopping $2,500 for the script. Certainly not a lot, but hey, something! But they also said – and this should have given us ample warning – “if you can make it somewhere else, you should.” So we took it to a few other places, including legendary producer Roger Corman, who had produced “Piranha” and “Death Race 2000” and launched the careers of many talents, including Ron Howard, Francis Ford Coppola, Joe Dante, and James Cameron. One of the highlights of my first few years in Hollywood was Gary and I having a meeting with Corman. We were pitching him a couple projects, and meanwhile he was pitching his studios in Ireland! Needless to say, nothing ended up happening there.
So in late 2004, the Asylum got back in touch and said they wanted to shoot “Jolly Roger” in L.A. in December, right before and after Christmas. A pirate movie – supposed to take place around sunny beaches – filming at Christmastime? Well, okay, I’d guessed. It was L.A. Usually sunny and 75 degrees, even in the winter months.
So they said they would pay $2,000 for the script. And then we said, “You originally said $2,500.” And then they said, “Yeah, the budget’s lower now.” And they wouldn’t budge on this. I said at one point, “So you mean to tell me, you won’t make the movie because of $500?” And they said, “Welllll, maybe we’ll write our own pirate movie and call it “Blackbeard’s Revenge.” Uh-huh. So that’s how you want to roll. At that point, Gary and I had some long talks and finally agreed to sell it to them. We had no resources at the time to make it ourselves, and no one else was biting. Gary was going to direct it, so hopefully it would retain some dignity.
We were wrong.
Jeff Miller is a filmmaker from Columbia, S.C. who now lives in Los Angeles, Calif. and has produced and/or written 16 feature films to date, including the recently released “Kill ‘Em All,” starring Jean-Claude Van Damme; “ClownTown”; and “Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan.” “ClownTown” and “Axe Giant” can currently be streamed on Amazon Prime. Jeff can be reached at MillmanPrd@aol.com .