This is a quote from the recently departed Dominick Dunne whose career in entertainment saw many highs and lows, some brought on by himself, others not.
No Meaner Place will highlight writers and writing that for one reason or another have been pushed aside, kicked to the curb, and abandoned; wonderful scripts that have never made it to the big screen or to the small screen in series form. Some of them were produced to pilot, poorly, some were entirely ignored, some were too original, some were, well who knows what they were…but all of them deserved better fates. During my years reading and recommending scripts, projects and writers to David Kelley, I read thousands of script submissions, books, short stories and plays, and among them were some truly terrific potential projects. I want to try to bring attention back to the excellent writers and writing that is already out there – recreate a buzz and a reminder of what still could be.
My source for writer credits, for the most part, will come from Baseline Studio System, an internet database available by subscription.
So let's get started...
Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas by Thomas Wheeler
What: The official atlas of Captain James Cook, the intrepid explorer who died in Hawaii at the hand of a not-so-friendly native, was donated to the British Royal Society. However, there was rumored to be a second, secret atlas that he dared not reveal detailing the extraordinary beings he discovered on his three voyages. This hidden atlas could be revealed only to a "chosen" few; explorers who, once in a generation, would be granted access to the extraordinary tales lying within in order that he or she try to unlock the unbelievable mysteries Cook documented - mysteries that no one else would believe.
Who: The Atlas chooses to reveal itself to Gwen Malloy, 13, who, with her family, has just moved to a new town. All of the Malloys are slightly out of sync with their chosen surroundings - Gwen, an eccentric middle schooler with a curious sense of fashion whose tastes run to stuffed badgers and pet tarantulas; her genius younger brother Phinneas Quayle Malloy Junior, 9, known as Finn, whose penchant for multisyllabic constructs is in direct contrast to his ongoing need for his Foo Foo Blanky; Phinneas Quayle Malloy Senior, an absentminded English professor, kind and accepting of his children’s quirks, whose new job at the local university has necessitated the family’s move; and Marion Malloy, mother and wife who sees her job as trying to normalize the family, perhaps even turning Gwen in to the cheerleader she once was.
Attending the first departmental family get-together at Dean Winter’s gothic mansion, Gwen discovers a secret stairway and it is there that the Atlas presents itself to her. Unknown to Gwen, not only was Dean Winters aware of her trespass, but he also appointed a reluctant guardian angel, with his own ulterior motives, to watch out for her –very serendipitously as the Atlas soon leads her on a dangerous "Dragon Safari."
Despite her early missteps, Dean Winters knows that the Atlas is in good hands and finally explains its greater meaning to Gwen.
"Within this binding you will find the whole of my efforts to chart the special world beside our own. Woe unto any man who uses these maps with indiscretion. For danger and deception lurk on every page. These maps represent the only way in - and most importantly - the only way out of the special world. ..and always remember the three rules: wear sensible shoes. Never travel at night. And never, ever, leave anything behind..for if you leave no mark nor trail then nothing can follow you out."
As discretion is not part of Gwen’s makeup, many of the ill-natured, dangerous and evil beings that make up the Atlas are soon on her trail, not the least of whom is her algebra teacher Mr. Boots who, like Snape in Harry Potter, is not on her side (in a big lizard-like way). It doesn’t look like Mrs. Malloy is going to have much success in turning Gwen into that cheerleader.
No Meaner Place: Developed for the 2008/2009 broadcast season and produced to pilot by Warner Brothers Television for ABC, “Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas” is surely among the very best pilot scripts to be produced and abandoned. Written by Thomas Wheeler, whose produced credits include the short-lived NBC series “Surface,” the ABC mini-series “Empire,” two feature films – “Supernova” and “To the Ends of Time,” several films currently in development, including the filmic adaptation of his novel, The Arcanum, “Captain Cook’s Extraordinary Atlas” is within his genre of fantasy/science fiction, but so much more than that. Wheeler has written a brilliant (albeit expensive) script that should appeal to audiences of all ages; ABC and its history of Disney family-oriented fare should have been the perfect launching pad for this multi-dimensional series. Advertisers should be hungering for a series that cuts across all demographic lines (with an especially strong showing from 8 to 49). All of the characters are 3-dimensional and very well-developed with the possibility of arcs for all, giving the Gwen-in-peril thru-line some breathing room. The exploration of square pegs trying to be fit into round holes (and the emphasis is in external forces trying to fit them into the holes because neither Gwen nor Finn seems eager to change their basic, quirky, oddball personalities) never gets old. Depth and breadth have been given to what, in the hands of others, would have been cliché and stereotype. The pacing of the pilot is fast and fresh even while going in multiple directions.
My initial feeling when reading the script had been that it was an ideal successor to the “Harry Potter” series. Fantasy, strong character, excellent story, thrills, terror and chilling villains (with a sly tip of the hat to smug algebra teachers and those cliquey cheerleader types with their Junior League mothers) – children and adults everywhere would love to curl up with this as a book series.
So…WHAT WENT WRONG?! Why was this “rolled over,” a standard euphemism for “dead”? If this were a feature film, it would be a tent-pole. If this had truly been championed as it should have been, then a poor pilot would be no excuse for its abandonment. Last season ABC chose to do a complete makeover (a recast, new location and reshoot with a rewrite of the rewrite of the original British series) on "Life on Mars," an expensive period piece whose mildly expensive cast became an extravagantly expensive cast. Certainly ABC could have been applauded for caring about a project so much that it was given a second life and a full midseason order, staying on air despite abysmal numbers. "Captain Cook" truly deserves such a second chance, despite the fact that the producing studio is Warner's and not ABC.
Was enough time initially spent on logistics and working out the special effects and casting difficulties? Since it is a given that casting a young teenage girl to "carry" a show is difficult, sometimes almost impossible, then ABC and the director should have waited until the right cast could have been put into place. There are child actors out there who can and do shine - Hayden Panettiere and Emmy Rossum at that age were such actresses. Please please do this one over and do it right. The writing is elegant, the story is rich, and finally, this would be a show for the whole family to watch together. If the answer to this is no, then I hope that Wheeler kept his separated rights and goes to book series; or, alternatively, that Warner's turns this over to the feature film division and produces a killer movie.
Life Lessons for Writers: Keep your separated rights. Consult your WGA Basic Agreement, but in general the studio producing your material has a certain amount of time to "exploit" your script in television, film, and interactive media, but usually not for stage or books. (Beware of the Upset Price!) Always try to keep what you can, even if eventually everything will come back to you.