What: Thom O’Daniel has just been accepted as an associate in the powerful DC law firm of Rittenhouse & Clover LLP. All is not as it would appear.
Who: Fifteen years ago an innocent young man was sent to prison for a murder he didn’t commit. An outsider at a prep school catering to the rich and powerful, Andy Linus was framed in the death of a female classmate during a raucous party at which he passed out. By the time his case went to trial his alleged co-conspirator turned state’s evidence; Andy’s fingerprints and DNA were conspicuously at the scene of the crime; additional witnesses mysteriously appeared; his public defender gave up on him; and the judge sped through the trial eliminating most of Andy’s defense. Worse yet, as far as he was concerned, the letters he sent to his childhood sweetheart, Clara, all returned, unopened. Angry, helpless and without protection Andy falls prey to guards and wardens intent on keeping him within their walls; but he remains determined to escape and clear his name, or at least discover who ruined his life. Into his life and cell appears Milan Dotheo – a master of disguise and his future mentor. Learning of Andy’s situation, Milan proposes an escape plan, predicated on Andy’s education. Milan has kept a diary within his Bible, a diary that recounts his adventures and one that will reshape Andy into a brilliant man of the world.
Thom O’Daniel, Fulbright scholar, graduate of Stanford and Cambridge, with a three year stint in Paris at a law firm is the only associate candidate hired by Rittenhouse & Clover. Step One of Thom’s plan has been set in motion, as he informs Gia, his young sister, partner and confidante, an expert in surveillance. At the law firm Thom insinuates himself onto the legal defense team of Gibson Logan, U.S. Congressman on trial for assault against a young female intern by pointing out that Logan is being defended by childhood friends, men whose familiarity with him might cause them to miss details. Thom quickly impresses the others with his preparation and knowledge. Working with the others on the team, Rex Filkins and Hutch Rittenhouse, son of the named partner and grandson of the founder, he observes that they begin to line up false witnesses beginning with a bartender who will testify that the girl had drunk 7 glasses of wine that evening.
Thom: Seven glasses of wine?
Thom: I mean, at 110 pounds this girl would be unconscious. Maybe the bartender should testify she had three, maybe four. It’ll sound more plausible.
Rex thinks for a beat.
Rex: Re-interview the bartender. Have him testify the girl had four glasses of wine.
Thom and Gia’s carefully planted surveillance devices turn up the interesting detail that the law firm is on the Fed’s radar and that an FBI agent, Harold Jenkins, has been planted; more interesting is that the head of the firm is aware of it. In an “eerie” coincidence, Harold will later be killed in a convenience store robbery.
Relationships at the firm become more complicated when Preston Rittenhouse, name partner, anoints Rex as the next partner instead of his own son. Hutch had virtually guaranteed his beautiful wife that he was assured of this partnership. Not only will this be devastatingly embarrassing for him but will cast a pall over the black-tie charity event they will be hosting that evening.
Thom is nearly undone when he is caught with a stolen file on Logan revealing Logan as the co-conspirator turned prosecution witness in a murder long ago, the murder for which Andy Linus was convicted. Finessing the situation, Thom is able to use the file to uncover the nuances of the old case.
Thom: Andy Linus was convicted in a felony criminal case in which Gibson was originally included as a codefendant but later re-categorized a witness. So are you going to finally tell me what this is about?
Hutch: Andy Linus was a kid from school. He was the son of an administrator, a kid from the wrong side of the tracks who we barely knew and who never fit in. One night, I guess something snapped – jealousy, envy, resentment. Who knows what was going thru this guy’s head. He killed a fourteen year old girl and left her body under a bridge.
Thom: Did he confess to the crime?
Rex: He didn’t need to confess. His blood and fingerprints were all over the crime scene. He was convicted. He was sentenced. End of story.
Thom: Is there a chance this scumbag Linus might resurface? Because if he does, our defense will be blown to hell.
Rex: You don’t have to worry about Andy Linus showing up.
Thom: How can you be so sure?
Rex: Because Andy Linus is dead.
Moving ahead with the defense, Rex has located a security tape from the garage on the night the assault allegedly took place and plans on asking for a dismissal based on the tape. Hutch strenuously objects because it could backfire; they could win just on the elements. Rex, the new partner, disdainfully dismisses his friend’s concerns, further exacerbating their rift. Thom, however, discovers that Rex had been looking at the tape from a different floor and that the real tape reveals the assault in gory detail. He surreptitiously substitutes the tapes and assures jail time for the Congressman. Step Two has been accomplished, but there are still many more steps to go in his pursuit of justice and retribution. Step Three is set in motion on the night of the charity event when he “re”-introduces himself to the love of his life, Clara, now the wife of Hutch.
No Meaner Place: Legal shows are the fodder of TV land and this one breaks out by combining internal mystery and suspense with the legal workings of a law firm and the courtroom. The suspense is not whether Andy/Thom will be caught, because therein lies the 100 stories, but how he will achieve his goals and how elegantly he will be able to do it. This is surely not “convict a partner a week,” as we’d soon run out of stories, but it is a marvelous platform for unveiling and unraveling the corrupt practices of power in an extremely interesting venue – Washington.
An additional hook is in the flashback, a technique that I generally don’t enjoy, that would serve to fill in more of the interesting details of how Andy Linus became Thom O’Daniel – an “Educating Rita” with a sinister side. There is actually no limit to the back story with its shady mentor, Milan Dotheo. And think of the locations - prison, Switzerland, Paris, law school, Washington. Revenge, reward, adultery, closeted homosexuality, duplicity, family dysfunction, justice; what more could you ask for? Network or cable, it fills a lot of gaps. Once again – what am I missing here?
Life Lessons for Writers: If it was yours to sell in the first place, sell it again. Someone out there is just waiting for the opportunity to prove that the last regime made the wrong choices.
Mills: I hadn’t looked at this script in a really long time when I got word that you wanted to write about it. I think the dialogue could have been better and maybe I could have made it a bit less confusing, but overall I think there’s a great show in there. So thanks for making me revisit it and thanks for expressing such confidence in it.
Neely: How did this project come about?
Mills: I had pitched something to Fox Studios and they liked it; but when they took the pitch out it was passed on in record time by 3 networks. Fox gave me a blind script as part of their commitment and I wrote “The Associate” for them. It never got off the ground but it will come back to me in April.
Neely: Maybe they were worried about the 100 stories.
Mills: Don’t know. I only took it to the 4 broadcast networks. I should have taken it to cable. I sort of soured on the whole process and went back to the feature world that I understood better.
Neely: The bar for good legal shows (that was a terrible pun, wasn’t it?) is quite high and you jumped over it with this one. I saw the influence of traditional legal shows as well as films like “The Usual Suspects” and “Inside Man.” What inspired you to write this one?
Mills: I had done an adaptation of a non-legal John Grisham book – Bleachers – which, coincidentally had a character named Neely.
Neely: Let me guess. It was a boy and his full name was Cornelius.
Mills: Right! Anyway, I wanted to know more about Grisham’s writing, so I started reading his legal thrillers. I thought The Firm captured lightning in a bottle. Why not do The Firm for television? Around that time I was also considering doing The Count of Monte Cristo as a feature, and that became my primary influence. Structurally, “The Associate” is more like The Count of Monte Cristo than The Firm. It’s about someone who’s one person and then he’s wronged and comes back as a different person to take revenge. I also knew I had to add a procedural element.
Neely: Besides the partners, who else will Thom avenge? After all, he can’t always undermine the firm’s cases. I also loved the possibilities of uncovering the circumstances of the FBI agent’s death as well as the juicy details of what was being investigated.
Mills: Actually I had 70 people on a bulletin board that Andy had made while he was in prison – judges, DAs, cops, wardens, and then leading up to the clients of the firm in DC, all of whom were complicit in sending him up or keeping him there. This law firm has files on everyone, much like the mob controlled law firm in The Firm. Andy/Thom is a mole. But there is ambiguity because a lot of the people he thinks were wrong, weren’t. There are shades of gray. He’s judge and executioner and sometimes the lines aren’t so clear cut.
The “A” story would be about The Firm; the “B” story would be The Count of Monte Cristo.
Neely: Who was this written for? Did you get any good notes?
Mills: As I mentioned, this was part of a blind script deal. Their main edict was that it had to be procedural with soapy elements. I wasn’t comfortable with some of the soapy elements, like the father/son conflict; the closeted homosexual; the home life difficulties. I would like to make it a cable show and pull back on some of the soap.
Neely: How close did this come? Any thought on trying again with it or putting it into a different medium – mystery/thriller novel or even feature film (where the odds are just a slim if not more so than television)?
Mills: The networks passed on it very quickly. I didn’t understand the process. You just sit by the phone and wait to hear if they bought it; unlike in features where you have some interaction with the potential buyers. I have thought of making it a feature.
Neely: But if you made it a feature you’d have to tell the story linearly and that would take away one of the most interesting elements – the back and forth between Andy’s ongoing learning process and the present day with Thom. With a novel you could weave back and forth in time and be allowed a more expansive expository style.
Mills: That’s true, but I’d like to think I could sell it as a modern take on The Count of Monte Cristo. As for a novel, that would take at least three years, but, yes, there’s a lot I could do. One thing that really annoyed me about television was the 6 act structure. I was always being told that I needed to have a POW element before cutting to commercial. It seems so arbitrary.
Neely: How did you get started? I noticed that before this, your whole career had been in features, starting as Richard Donner’s assistant. Let’s talk a bit about your beginnings in the industry. What was the first job you got in the industry?
Mills: Working for Richard Donner was my first job. In college, I went on an overseas program called “Semester at Sea.” Chris Silbermann, now one of the heads of ICM, was a classmate and his dad, a senior marketing executive at Columbia, got me the interview. I didn’t know anything about anything and started as Donner’s third assistant, eventually graduating to producing some of his films. I left in 2000 because I had written and directed an Indie called “A Gentlemen’s Game.” Richard was very helpful to me and I had learned as much as I could. It was time for me to be my own man, which he encouraged.
Neely: Working as a director/producer’s assistant is usually more the path for a producer. What did you do for him and how did that lead you to writing.
Mills: Writing was always my chosen profession. Working with Richard brought me into contact with some really talented writers like Brian Helgeland, Channing Gibson, Al Gough and Miles Millar. Brian wrote “Conspiracy Theory” and I was a producer on it. Channing, Al and Miles wrote “Lethal Weapon 4.” I learned from them.
Neely: It was quite a long apprenticeship. How did that first screenplay assignment come about?
Mills: When I left Donner it was to direct a film, and the only way I would be allowed to direct was if I wrote the script. I found a wonderful novel called A Gentlemen’s Game and that was the start of my writing. It was financed through private equity. I raised the money and made the movie. Then I wrote a second script called “August and Everything After” that was supposed to be my second film. The script was very well received but I still haven’t found the funding. I just haven’t been able to put the whole thing together. Annette Benning and Pierce Brosnan were interested in starring. In any case it helped me get my agents. It’s also when I realized that I needed a career and was able to get some writing assignments. The Grisham book, Bleachers, was my first assignment and then I was well on my way making a living as a writer.
Neely: I noticed that you have quite a few scripts in development. How many are on the cusp of production and what is in development hell.
Mills: “Wonderful Tonight” is pretty active and so is “Playing for Pizza,” another Grisham adaptation. “Bleachers” is stalled because it was with Revolution Studios and it took quite a while to extricate it. Phoenix Pictures is now trying to put it together.
Neely: Are you still interested in developing for television?
Mills: Yes. I’ll just have to approach it differently. I’ll definitely jump in this year. I think my writing has definitely improved since I wrote that draft - or at least I'd like to think that my writing is taking that arc. I’m glad you prodded me into reading “The Associate” again. I know just how to do it better this time.
Neely: How do you view the writing process overall?
Mills: I’ve had a good run and I hope it will keep going. I have real hopes for getting “Wonderful Tonight” off the ground. Christine Jeffs has come on board to direct and we’ve had some great meetings. She did “Sunshine Cleaning.” I’ve written 14 or 15 drafts of “Wonderful Tonight.” There are some scenes I’ve gone over hundreds of times. I really love this piece.
Neely: So are you still in touch with Chris Silbermann?
Mills: We fell out of touch over the years but we’re going to reconnect soon. I just got an email from another friend from the “Semester at Sea” who has proposed a reunion. So it’s going to happen. I think of Chris’ father so often; he was such a talented and generous man.
Neely: Let me know how it goes. Maybe there’s a script in this reunion.
Tomorrow I will be posting an article on Baseline Studio System entitled "Women Can't Create and White Men Can't Jump." This year's pilot season has been horrible for women writers. Please read and let me know what you think.