One strange aspect of writing a blog is recognizing that one’s online narrative doesn’t always match up very well with reality. There is a lag between when events happen and when you write about them.
Take for example Josh Friedman’s recent and scary brush with kidney cancer. As his real-life neighbor, I knew he was on the mend before anyone online knew there was anything wrong. Quite understandably, Josh didn’t blog about the situation while he was in the middle of it. But it was weird watching the two realities diverge. Josh’s readers would write in to me, asking why Josh hadn’t posted for so long. I knew, but it wasn’t my story to tell.
I’m just glad it has a happy ending.
In the dramedy of my own life, one story thread I’ve let drop is Ops, the one-hour drama Jordan Mechner and I developed for Fox.
For those who’ve tuned in late, Ops is an adventure-drama about two guys who run a private military corporation. They’re the sub-sub-contractors for a giant corporation like Halliburton, providing field operations in really dangerous parts of the world, such as Iraq, Afghanistan or Venezuela. Week-to-week, our heroes could be delivering a blood shipment, rescuing a kidnapped executive, or training a security force. Tonally, it’s probably closest to Three Kings. You could also think of it as a modern-day Western.
Ops was originally Jordan’s idea. He’d been researching private military corporations, with the intention of writing a feature. As he described the world to me, I felt it was really more of a TV drama. Much like the detective shows of the 80’s, you were following two guys. You didn’t just want to see them on one mission. You wanted to see them in a new predicament each week.
Jordan agreed, and we decided to write it together.
Our first hero would be THEO VANOWEN, the experienced soldier who is not only the brawn but the tactical brains — he could tell you exactly how many men you needed to guard an airstrip. His partner JOE McGINTY would be the business side of the equation: the salesman, the negotiator and problem-solver. While there would be other supporting characters, the show really falls on their backs.
We pitched the show to our agents at a hotel bar. (Since I’m represented at UTA, and Jordan’s at ICM, it was helpful to have a neutral location.) The agents loved the idea, and suggested we pitch the show to Fox. Two days later, we did. Fox (the studio) quickly bought it, and set it up for Fox (the network) as a put pilot. That was the end of September, 2004.
There was an article in Variety about the show a few days later.
FULL SPEED AHEAD
While Jordan and I were writing the pilot, we met with the physical production department about location and budget strategies, since the show would no doubt be expensive. We also had preliminary meetings with actors the studio and/or network liked.
We turned in the pilot script in November, and were met with thunderous silence.
After a week or so, we got notes asking about the tone, and asking questions about certain plot points. We addressed those concerns as well as we could, but there was no question we’d lost mojo. Something was bugging them, but what? It was only after a few drafts that we got our answer: they liked the characters, but weren’t crazy about the A-plot. At all.
For the pilot, we began with a teaser in Afghanistan, then segued into a kidnap-and-rescue in Venezuela. The studio liked the Afghanistan part, but was eager to speed up the story. We tried an Alias-like jump-ahead structure which was interesting but a little gimmicky. No one really liked it.
We met with Gail Berman, president of Fox (the network). She said that what she had really been hoping for was more literally Three Kings. Happy to oblige, we pitched a new pilot that had our heroes trying to deliver a shipment of human blood from Turkey to Kirkuk. Everyone loved it. Jordan and I went off to write our new pilot, which was tentatively slated to shoot mid-season.
Then Gail Berman left Fox, to take over as president of Paramount.
THE NEW GUY
She was replaced by Peter Liguori, who had mostly recently run FX. One of the shows he had developed at FX was “Over There,” an Iraq war drama that was not fairing well in the ratings. Concerned, we called our people at both Foxes, but were assured that the Iraq-ish-ness of our new pilot would be no problem.
Much happier with our new pilot, we turned it in. We got a lot of small notes about tone and comedy, which we tried to address. Everyone professed to love the pilot (several Fox folk called it their favorite), but we never got any word from Liguori about whether or not we would be shooting the pilot.
While we were waiting, I had a baby, and Jordan wrote Prince of Persia. So we were both busy enough.
Nearly a year after we’d set up the project, Jordan and I finally went in for a meeting with Liguori and approximately 10,000 Fox executives. (Okay, maybe just 11.) Peter Liguori, for the record, is friendly, polite and thoughtful. He explained that his reluctance to proceed with Ops was the subject matter, and the Iraq setting in particular. And yet he really admired the show, and wanted to find a way it could work.
Generally, I’m the eager-to-please guy, which explains why I wrote a whole new pilot for Gail Berman. But I wasn’t going to write a third pilot without some commitment from Liguori. He agreed we could start casting and looking for directors based on the current pilot script. Meanwhile, we’d be writing a brand-new pilot that would feature a new A-plot set somewhere other than Afghanistan and Iraq. (We chose Brazil and Uzbekistan.)
And this is where I last left the story, blog-wise. We were casting. When I mentioned that Alexis Denisof and James Marsters had come in, I got lots of gushing Buffy fan mail. In reality, we were pretty far down the road with two actors Fox loved: LL Cool J and Luke Mably. Those two weren’t the only choices; we were lucky to have a lot of interest from talented people.
Then something strange happened.
LL Cool J was “offer-only,” which means he wouldn’t come in to audition beforehand. That’s pretty common for a star at his level. Every day or two, I would get a call from LL’s agent asking if we were still interested in him, because Fox business affairs hadn’t called to start making a holding deal for him.
So, every day or two, I would call the powers-that-be at Fox and say, “Hey, let’s make that LL deal.” But it wouldn’t happen. And I could never get a clear answer on why it wasn’t happening.
Finally, I ended up just calling Liguori to ask why they weren’t making LL’s deal. Was Liguori having second thoughts about making the show?
In fact, he had decided he didn’t want the show after all.
And suddenly, just like that, Ops was dead.
Our phone conversation was at noon. We had another casting session scheduled in an hour. So my first call was to the casting director, telling him to cancel the session and send the 30 or so actors home. Then I called Jordan, who was bummed. He had just finished seven pages of the third pilot.
He sent them. I read them and gave notes, just for the hell of it. We sent a big basket of muffins to the casting agency to thank them for their hard work, and called it a day.
When a pilot is announced, it shows up in Variety. Everyone knows about it.
When a pilot dies, it dies quietly in the corner. So for the next week, I kept getting calls from agents about their writer/director/actor client who would be perfect for Ops. It was awkward to tell them that the show was kaput.
In reality, the show wasn’t fully dead, because Fox (the studio) still had the right to take the project to other networks. One of the reasons I didn’t blog about Ops’ demise earlier is that we were still under consideration at NBC and Showtime. They both ultimately passed, which is good, because I had mentally moved on about an hour after the phone call with Liguori.
One aspect of the Ops situation that might perplex some readers is that the show was announced as a “put pilot,” which means that when Fox made the original deal with Jordan and me, one of the conditions was that they basically promised to shoot the pilot. In reality, I’m not sure there is such a thing as a put pilot.
In the case of Ops, there was a substantial penalty that Fox agreed to pay in the event they didn’t end up shooting the pilot. In a few months, I’ll get a check with a few zeroes for my trouble. Given how much time and money it would have taken to shoot the pilot, it’s almost certainly for the best the train stopped where it did. There’s no sense producing a pilot if the network didn’t want the show.
To the degree there’s a silver lining, I can now offer a bunch of new stuff in the Downloads section. In the Ops category, you’ll find stuff from all three versions of the pilot, along with the sides we used for casting.
On the whole, I’m proud of the show that never was. It was my first experience writing with a partner, and Jordan was a great collaborator. While I probably wouldn’t choose to write with someone again, it was good to learn that I could if I had to.
I’m really not angry with Fox or Liguori. I understand his decision, although I wish he’d reached it a few months earlier. The various incarnations of Ops took about six months of my writing, and a sizable chunk of my brain space. The mental real estate can be reclaimed, but there’s a real opportunity cost to the time I lost. I could have written two features in that time.
Or blogged more.
Anyway, that’s the story of Ops. It feels good to have my real-life narrative a little closer to my online version.