What: A college student, on a road trip to find himself, instead finds himself robbed of all possessions after an acid-laced rock concert and stranded in a small town in the middle of nowhere until he meets a mysterious girl who takes an intense interest in him.
Who: Guy Lawrence wakes up after a rock concert to find the field empty and all his possessions missing. Making his way to a neighboring town, Guy meets the beautiful Sue Ellen, waitress at the local café, who kindly feeds and beds him. He is entranced and decides to stay with Sue Ellen, abandoning the summer internship that had set up for him in Los Angeles prior to his return to Yale for his sophomore year. Receiving word of his change in schedule worries his parents in New York. Sue Ellen and Guy move to Seattle, where she begins to reveal her devotion to the "Temple of Grand Design" led by "Brother." Much of what Brother proselytizes makes a great deal of sense to Guy.
“There is no Grand Design – except the one you make of your own life.”
“There are no rules. They’re just observations. You either buy into them or you don’t. It’s a free country – more or less.”
Although admonished to stay away from Galateans (the uninitiated), Sue Ellen is smitten and explains more of Grand Design to Guy. Brother is known simply as Brother and Father, the leader, is known simply as Father; Grand Design is modeled on the idea of family.
Guy: This all sounds like…some kind of cult…
Sue Ellen: It’s a philosophy. Anyway, what’s the difference between a cult and a religion...? I’ll tell you: numbers. If twelve people believe something, they’re a cult; but if a hundred million believe the same thing, they’re a religion.
Guy: It just sounds so programmed…
Sue Ellen: We’re all programmed – from birth. The trick is to write you own program.
Guy looks at her; she’s spoken the truth.
Or at least what the truth looks like to a 19 year old. Recalled to NY on a ruse by his parents, Guy begins his year at Yale, but quits abruptly when he realizes that no one around him understands his new awareness. His friend Barry who, in Guy’s view, had abandoned him during the summer picks up Guy’s copy of The Grand Design and begins to read.
Barry: “Nothing is important unless you SAY it’s important.” What’s that supposed to mean?
Guy: You ever really watch TV? It’s like a big mirror of the whole country. We’re not citizens, we’re just consumers. Our only culture is POP culture. It’s all me-me-me-
Guy no longer sees himself in this Ivy League world and heads back to find Sue Ellen and join her at Grand Design. As he attempts to make his way through the levels of GD consciousness, Sue Ellen's rival, Karen, also has her eye on Guy; Brother turns on the charm and makes Guy a special project, advancing him quickly through several ranks. Guy is being drawn further and further into the labyrinth. Guy's brother Greg arrives to try to get him to return but their confrontation only serves to solidify Guy’s resolve even as he begins to have doubts.
No Meaner Place: “Orpheus” builds slowly, building character and background subtly and effectively. In its way it is much like the celebrated but long forgotten short story by James Clavell entitled “The Children’s Story” in which a young teacher sent by the new Soviet captors has replaced the old classroom teacher and slowly but methodically, in the course of a very short morning, wins the hearts of her students and disables all their previously held, but not entirely understood, beliefs. Vulnerability exists in all of us and within the right context our core beliefs can be shaken and sometimes dismantled. This is the setting and premise of “Orpheus,” a thinly disguised Scientology society, but one that could be at the heart of any orthodoxy.
Guy is the perfect foil as he is intelligent, well-raised, thoughtful and at a stage in life where he questions everything. Meyer has set the stage for a “Manchurian Candidate” style brainwashing as Guy initially finds himself hungry, disoriented, abandoned, alone and in a strange place where he is seemingly offered unconditional love and comfort by a beautiful stranger.
There are so many possibilities here that the stories can go off in multiple directions. The philosophical basis of religion as personified by a society claiming to be anything but a religion and the hypocrisy of the leaders of this society that mirrors so many of the scandals of present day religious organizations will be microscopically examined. Vulnerability, belief structure, rebellion, hypocrisy, roads taken and not taken – so many complex issues and so much to discover.
Alas, none of us will be able to discover any of these paths because this pilot was never picked up to series. The filmed version, whether because of casting choices, directing choices, or network notes, was bland. There was no edge, there was no sinister feeling, there was no tension; hence, there were no stakes and therefore very little story left. Certainly the topic was always risky and the network should never have been in doubt about what the premise and long range plans were. Something, however, happened along the way to make them lose faith in the intelligence of the project and the challenge to the audience – an audience that is almost always up for a challenge and hardly ever given one. Meyer is such a gifted writer with such a diverse literary background that it is a major loss to have been denied his voice and vision.
Life Lessons for Writers: As in polite society, stay away from religion and politics unless, of course, you’re writing a comedy, in which case stay away from religion and politics. "Let them eat static" - Khan ("Star Trek II")
Neely: I’ve been a big fan of your work since seeing “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution,” the most interesting take on Sherlock Holmes yet produced; and I don’t expect the new version to overtake it, no matter what the hook. You were the sole credited writer on your adaptation, with a director at the height of his career, Herbert Ross, and a cast that included Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall, Laurence Olivier, Vanessa Redgrave and Alan Arkin as Freud. I think there’s a good argument to be made that Nicol Williamson and Robert Duvall were the best pairing since Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Did your involvement end with handing over the script or were you able to participate in the project once it started production? Anyway you look at it, it was pretty heady stuff for someone so young.
Nick: It was like I was dreaming the whole time. When Herbert Ross asked “what do you think of Olivier as Moriarity?” I had to sit and look normal. Olivier was my hero. This is the only business where you get to shake hands with your dreams. Six months later at Pinewood it all came to be. I grew up idolizing him and seeing everything he had ever done. In 1971, when I first came out to LA to try and write for a living, I saw the film he made of Chekov’s “Three Sisters” and I wrote to him and told him how I much his work had meant to me over the years and to thank him for it. I offered to send him a copy of my forthcoming book (The Seven-Per-Cent Solution), quoting from The Taming of the Shrew, “too little payment for so great a debt.” I actually got a letter from him in return. I had the letter framed and still have it. When I met him on set I reminded him of the letter but he didn’t remember. I’ve found that it’s often more important to tell a person you admire them than for them to hear it.
I was invited to go to Pinewood and Vienna with the film. I knew I wanted to direct and thought I’d learn by watching the production take shape. Herb Ross was very courteous and gracious. Because the dialogue of the script was so stylized and of the period Ross wanted me there for tweaks. I watched everything and became a better screenwriter after I became a director. I saw that “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” movie had too many words and that, (to paraphrase Hilary Clinton, “knowing what I now know…”) I was in the editing room with Ross begging him to cut dialogue, which he wouldn’t do. Can you imagine the writer begging the director to trim his script??
This was a very different situation than when I was working on “The Human Stain.” I was completely shut out of the production. Robert Benton, the director, didn’t want me there as he later explained, because he didn’t want to fight with me since he was making a different movie than the one I envisioned.
Neely: Following in the footsteps of other writers who wanted more control over their scripts, you were able to parlay your success into a writing/directing gig on the Sci Fi/Fantasy classic “Time After Time,” following it up by writing and directing what most people, myself included, consider to be the best Star Trek movie ever – “Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan.” It’s another classic example of everything starts with a good script. Can you give us some memorable details from that experience? Actually, how did you get that assignment?
Nick: I’m really not a Sci/Fi fantasy guy but I have always been a fan of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Movies are eye candy that Sci Fi promotes and you have to remember that candy isn’t good for you so you need to provide some nourishment. I got assigned to direct Star Trek II after I met with Harve Bennett. Five different scripts had been turned in for a second Star Trek feature and none of them did the trick. After reading all five, I felt that there were some good elements in each and offered to try to cobble something together taking the best, most workable parts from each. Harve and his partner Bob Sallin were very enthusiastic but worried that unless we had a script within 12 days, ILM (George Lucas’ special FX house contracted to manufacture shots for the film) couldn’t guarantee delivery of said shots in time to for the film’s June opening. I was so naïve that I didn’t realize that movies that had yet to be produced might already have opening dates slotted. Somehow I got it done and we got started.
Working on that script I was inspired by the C.S. Forester Captain Hornblower novels, which chronicled the picaresque adventures of British navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars. This would be Hornblower in outer space. It was decided that Spock would be killed but when Paramount realized that there might actually be more life in this series, they made us change the ending in order to allow for Spock’s return. When it came time for “Star Trek III” I didn’t do it because I don’t know how to do resurrections. Harve came to me for help on “Star Trek IV” and they were my friends so I agreed. Again there were script problems and it was four weeks before prep was to start. It was going to have a “Time After Time” feel to it so Harve wrote the space parts and I wrote the earth parts. I was unavailable for “Star Trek V” but was willing to do VI, which remains my favorite. Because I had had a bad experience on my previous film, “Company Business,” I wanted to go where I liked everyone and get the bad taste out of my mouth. Besides, I was told VI was going to be the last they would ever produce with the original cast.
The Aero in Santa Monica recently showed “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and I was asked to speak. The theater was packed and you feel like you’re with kids who like to hear the same story told over and over. I joshed with them: – “I told you on the DVD! I told you on the Special Edition! I’ve told you on the Blu-Ray!” Like a prisoner under hot lights, the temptation to invent stories is enormous at that point. Because eye witnesses are the least reliable witnesses, (according to cops and lawyers), I’m always afraid I’m going to wander off into something like “Rashomon,” where the same event is embroidered from several differing points of view. After all those repetitions, the temptation to vary the facts as I recall them and start imagining things instead of remembering them is very great.
Neely: I’m especially intrigued by a Merchant Ivory picture that you directed entitled “The Deceivers,” one of Pierce Brosnan’s first post “Remington Steele” starring roles. I have to confess that I’d never heard of it and even more intriguing is that I was under the impression that the Merchant Ivory group kept everything in house – directing, writing and producing. How did that come about and what happened to that film?
Nick: Most of the time they kept everything in house but “The Deceivers” was intended to help them branch out from the drawing room films they were famous for. The book was by John Masters, considered the poet laureate of the Indian Army. Masters took historical events and incidents and turned them into a series of novels about Anglo-India, among them Bhowani Junction (also filmed) and The Nightrunners of Bengal. My agent got me the job and it was going to be India and a cavalry charge – how could I say no? It’s about a man who goes searching for the worst thing in the world and discovers he’s actually carrying it in his back pack. Pierce Brosnan gives a great self-effacing performance. He was fabulous. He played an Englishman trying to infiltrate the Thug (Deceiver) Cult. The film came and went. I don’t know why. Sometimes it’s the lack of money, like in the case of “Elegy,” and sometimes they just fail. It’s too easy to blame marketing every time your film tanks.
Neely: And of course those were some of your earliest films. You also have the distinction of writing and producing one of the last films starring the Governator, “Collateral Damage.”
Nick: This is an interesting story. My closest friend and editor, Ronald Roose, came up with the idea and wrote a script called “Prey” about a computer scientist who goes to the airport to pick up his wife and daughter, only to discover that their plane had been bombed by terrorists. When he realizes our government is going to do nothing, he turns himself from a mild computer geek (think Tom Hanks), into this lethal character and makes his way to Libya to avenge them. When we pitched it we said, “Remember, this isn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Five years later…it was.
Neely: I find it especially interesting that your career started by adapting your own novel and then writing several original screenplays. But throughout your career you have written some marvelous adaptations – “Sommersby” (from the French film “The Return of Martin Guerre”), and most recently “The Human Stain” and “Elegy” both based on Philip Roth novels. I’m intrigued that you seem to have become the go-to guy for Philip Roth adaptations. As a matter of fact, the evening before this interview (by phone while I was in New York), my husband and I were eating in a tiny Italian restaurant near our hotel and who should walk in but Philip Roth! I went to his booth (so uncool but irresistible since he was alone) and told him I was a fan and that I was interviewing you, the screenplay adapter of two of his more recent books, the next day. He was very polite and we shook hands and he didn’t flee the restaurant, so I guess it might come under the category of the fan needing to say it more than the artist needing to hear it. So how did these adaptations come up?
Nick: My former agent Gary Lucchesi is now at Lakeshore Entertainment and he thought of me when Tom Rosenberg, who owns Lakeshore, decided to do The Human Stain. They loved the original script which bears little resemblance to the finished product by the way. Tom also wanted to do The Dying Animal, which stayed much closer to the script. Using my “Saturday date night” gauge I was pretty sure we weren’t going to draw a lot of couples to a movie called The Dying Animal and suggested we change the title to “Elegy.”
Neely: I just read Roth’s Indignation and it’s right up your alley. It explores some of the same themes you explored in “Orpheus.” It’s an absolute natural for you. Is there a different skill set involved in adaptation? Do you have a preference?
Nick: It’s very rare that I get an original idea that I really like, although occasionally I do get one that’s a doozy. I’ve discovered that I’m a born recycler, not just of paper and garbage. I like working material like it’s a Rubik’s cube – reworking, rethinking, redoing. It’s what you owe to a great novel, story or play. It’s also interesting what you can do with a bad one where you owe much less. Handel was once accused of stealing someone’s tune and his answer was, “It’s true; he did not know what to do with it; I showed him.” Adapting material is a vastly different mental and aesthetic procedure. You need to end up with “cinema.” You want the viewer to understand it without having already read the book. Think of the first “Harry Potter” movie versus “The Manchurian Candidate.” The first Potter film doesn’t really make sense if you haven’t read the book but Manchurian Candidate thrills those who have never read the Condon novel on which it is based. It is the desideratum. I felt this way the first time I saw David Lean’s “Oliver Twist.” I loved it and it made me want to read the book.
Neely: You have quite a few interesting projects in development. Are they all in development hell or do some have a chance of being greenlit? Which of those projects is closest to your heart and what is it about?
Nick: “The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” – Taylor Hackford has indicated an interest in directing it; also “Crook Factory” which was written for Johnny Depp; and a film about George Washington. Unfortunately they’re about people and they’re dramas and the studios no longer do people and they don’t do dramas. The business changed in 1974 with “The Godfather” and “Jaws.” All of a sudden you could make huge profits from films and corporations began taking over the studios looking for those profits. As the late Senator Everett Dirksen said, “A million here, a million there, and all of a sudden you’re talking real money”!
Neely: You have worked sporadically in television over the years, having done some MOWs and mini-series, including the iconic “The Day After.” But within the last few years you have written several scripts for series television, two of which were written for Scott Free, Ridley and Tony Scott’s company. How did that collaboration come about?
Nick: I met David Zucker from Scott Free. He’s absolutely brilliant at developing for television and we started working together.
Neely: I also noticed that of your four prospective series, three were about lawyers and the fourth, “Orpheus” has lawyers in the background, notably the family from whom Guy is trying to distance himself. So what is it with all the lawyers?
Nick: Basically all one hour television is about cops, lawyers or doctors. I couldn’t even begin to write about medicine but I thought I might be able to fake lawyering.
Neely: Which brings us to the topic at hand – “Orpheus.” I fell in love with all the possibilities of what it could be, all the while recognizing how risky that would be. Since this was under the “Scott Free” banner, how did they feel about the story and series possibilities?
Nick: Well, they got it. We did a Bible of the story arcs and they commissioned me to write a second episode. “Orpheus” was supposed to get stranger and more angular; instead it ended up very flat when filmed. This was a cautionary tale of being careful of the directors you choose. Being a good director isn’t the same as being congruent with the material. I have enormous regard for the talent of Bruce Beresford, but like Benton, he didn’t get what I’d written (or intended).
Neely: Since Scott Free’s deal was with CBS, you were locked to that network. Was there ever any consideration for taking it to cable? Today it would seem to fit into what Showtime is trying to do. What kind of notes did you get from CBS?
Nick: David (Zucker) still believes in it and is trying to sell it overseas or trying to find someone who’s interested enough to have it redone. He’s never lost interest and still champions it. I have to say that CBS was very supportive at the writing stage. They saw it as a weird romantic story and they also wanted to do a story about a cult. You mentioned Scientology in your analysis but this wasn’t intended to be any specific group or ideology. I had read a book by Anthony Storr entitled Feet of Clay about gurus and guru worshippers and I was intrigued by the idea that when gurus end up leaving, it’s usually with a vengeance – think Freud and Jung or Jesus and Judas.
Neely: Do you think things would have turned out differently if you had directed it yourself?
Nick: I wanted to direct it but…would it have been more credible or successful? Who knows? I had stopped directing following the death of my wife in 1993. I had small children to raise and could no longer direct because of being responsible for them. When I was ready to go back, I’d been away too long.
Neely: As I said earlier, when I was reading the script again I was reminded of the recent Philip Roth novel entitled Indignation. It’s about the choices made by a young man, the same age as Guy, (the central figure in "Orpheus"), and the consequences of those choices. In some ways it’s also about the rigidity and righteousness of youth – something you hope your own kids will survive, as this rigidity, righteousness and the consequences are a rite of passage for all of us. Guy has placed himself in a quagmire, vacillating between the hardness of a true believer and the doubts of a rational man. What do you think happens to true believers who begin to doubt the organization that has “love bombed” them? Do you know where Guy was ultimately headed?
Nick: Well, at the end of the pilot, Guy is being chased through the jungle by men with guns!
Neely: Are you definitively through with this project or could you reimagine it in either feature film or novel format? It would make a hell of a read.
Nick: No, but I will now.
Neely: So what’s up next?
Nick: Six months from now? Right now I’m working with some writers on a series based on “Time After Time;” and I’m thinking about The 7% Solution as a series; and there are other movie projects.
Neely: Any more novels?
Nick: Novel writing doesn’t pay the bills. I wrote The Seven-Per-Cent Solution during the writers’ strike of 1972 and The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood” during the WGA strike in January of 2009.
Neely: I just finished reading The View From the Bridge: Memories of Star Trek and a Life in Hollywood and highly recommend it to anyone interested in the film making process, “Star Trek” and your own voyage. You’ve had a great career with more to come. Any other thoughts?
Nick: Perseverance counts for a lot. When people ask me for tips about penetrating this business I always tell them: Be prepared to put in a decade. I am also reminded of a great Napoleon quote. A general was once recommended to Napoleon who replied “I know he’s good, but is he lucky?” I’ve also been lucky.