June 27th, 2013

Sold! “Tranquility Base” Goes Hollywood (Big Time)

Dan TurkewitzHow many different ways are there to say “Wow!”?

You know how I’ve written about my screenwriter brother a few times?

Like the time Justice Antonin Scalia gave him advice on a script? Like the time he took top prize in a screenwriting competition?

Well, breaking into Hollywood may be tough, but — you sittin’ down? — yesterday he sold his sci-fi space script, Tranquility Base,  which one writer describes as “Lord of the Flies in Space.” It is now owned by:

Sir Ridley Scott and 20th Century Fox.

You read that right. Sir. Ridley. Scott. As in Aliens, Thelma and Louise, Black Hawk Down, and Gladiator. And the legendary Apple Mcintosh commercial 1984, and a boatload of other things.

Yeah, that Sir Ridley Scott, whose name you can now write in the same sentence as my brother Dan Turkewitz, which I just did right now thank you very much.

Am I bragging about my kid brother? You’re damn right I am.

But not just because he wrote a great story, and not just because he has a desk full of other scripts ready to go, but because of his dogged perseverance in the face of frustration and adversity.

He knew no one in Hollywood when he dropped architecture and started writing in 2000. Not a soul. Want to know how tough it is to break into that tight circle when you don’t have an intro from someone else? Virtually impossible.

He sent out thousands of individualized pitch letters over the years — to directors, producers, actors, agents, lawyers and possibly a few doorman, just trying to get his stuff read.

The long, long road to Hollywood looked something like this:

It started with simple pitch letters. Wave after wave, which didn’t seem to get  him very far. The first script was a bank caper involving an architect designing an office tower with a bank as the main tenant, and who is blackmailed into designing a heist into the blueprints. After over a thousand letters sent to 250 companies, he got it optioned, but never made. That was the closest he came until yesterday.

For several scripts he created DVD boxes for the prospective movie, with whatever actor, producer or director he was pitching listed in the credits, and if actors, their pictures on the box.

For one script he created tee shirts. The script, a comedy, involved squirrels, so there was a cartoon squirrel on the shirt, and each shirt had a unique web address that would pitch to whoever was getting the shirt.

For one script with a female lead, he sent a pitch letter along with flowers to a few film actresses who were appearing on Broadway. Figuring out how to get past the wall of agents, managers, and assistants that surround actors is an extraordinary challenge, but he figured if someone was appearing on Broadway, he’d know exactly where she could be found.

It worked for the very first actress, as he got a script to Helen Hunt. Unfortunately that was the only time the flower trick worked. The one success with Hunt led to a wave of letters to TV studios. He found a website that listed talk show guests two weeks in advance, and sent letters to actors at the Letterman, Leno, and Oprah studios, among others, a few days in advance. None of those paid off.

HollywoodSignFor Tranquility Base, the script that finally broke through, there’s been quite a few twists and turns. The marketing began before the script was written. When it was just a 15 page treatment he reached out to the NASA community to see if he could get someone who’s actually flown in space to help out.

He was lucky enough to connect with Captain William Readdy, who flew three missions on the Space Shuttle and spent over 672 hours in space. Captain Readdy’s feedback helped steer the story in the right direction, and being able to say an actual astronaut helped as a story consultant helped get people’s attention.

My brother built a website, hired an artist to draw some concept art and, of course, made DVD boxes. After the script was finished and won a screenplay competition, he managed to get an active duty astronaut who can’t be named who lived in the Space Station to review the script and help him make it even better.

And then, finally, he entered the Launch Pad Competition, a first year contest run by industry website The Tracking Board. It had an impressive list of people who would be judging, if you made it to the Finals.

A couple weeks ago, Hollywood mucky-muck Brooklyn Weaver saw the script at Launch Pad, read it, loved it, pitched it, and got the deal done.

Rest assured, my brother didn’t get where he is these past 24 hours by sitting around eating Cheetos on the couch.

And so, to all those others out there banging on doors, just trying to pry one open and jam the foot in, let the lesson ring out loud and clear: It can be done. All you need are the two things that my brother has:

1. Talent

2. Dogged perseverance

‘Scuse me while I kvell.


March 7th, 2012

Congrats (Again) to my brother…

Dan Turkewitz, winner of the Vail Film Festival Screenwriting Competition

Long time readers may remember that my brother Dan is a screenwriter. And the reason you may remember is that two years ago I published a letter he recieved from Justice Antonin Scalia about the legality of secession. That script was a political farce about Maine seceding from the union. The letter went viral.

Congrats to my brother are once again in order. He just took the top screenwriting prize at the Vail Film Festival for his screenplay The Wright Stuff. A comedy, The Wright Stuff is a cautionary tale about the ambitious ghost of legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright leading a common draftsman to a long forgotten storage room filled with un-built Wright projects. The draftsman copies them and is hailed as the second coming of the master.

He can add this to his growing award collection that includes the gold prize for top sci-fi screenplay at the Page International Screenwriting Awards for Tranquility Base. That drama takes place in the International Space Station and our Moon Base. (I’ve always wondered if watching Apollo 15 blast off inspired him.)

Now all he needs is an agent to help get these scripts onto the big silver screen.



September 15th, 2010

A 9/11 Tribute Snares Migratory Birds

My screenwriter/filmmaker  brother Dan — the recipient of the now-famous letter from Justice Scalia saying “there is no right to secede” — made a one minute film on the annual memorial lights from the World Trade Center site.

And in filming, he noticed that the lights had captured thousands of migratory birds, and put that on film.

Wired Magazine has an article on it today along with the film, now on YouTube: 9/11 Memorial Lights Trap Thousands of Birds

Update (9/15): NPR now also has the video online (without attribution). The video has now been viewed almost 40,000 51,000 68,000+ times. And a direct link is here: Downtown NYC 9.11.10


February 23rd, 2010

How the Supreme Court Could Hear the Secession Issue (A Response to Justice Scalia)

In responding to my brother Dan’s letter regarding the legal plausibility of Maine seceding from the union to join Canada, Justice Antonin Scalia raised two points. First, he said that the Civil War settled the issue of the constitutional basis for secession. Second, he indicated that he didn’t see how such an issue could even reach this nation’s high court.

I’m here today to take issue with both points before turning this blog (hopefully) back toward the personal injury field that is my bailiwick. With respect to the first assertion, Scalia’s exact words were:

If there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede. 

There are no shortage of people willing to criticize such a position, because he simply states that might makes right. But the physically stronger side winning is not legal analysis, it is merely guns and tactics and doesn’t tell you squat about any legal basis. Many found that odd from a guy like Scalia who thrives on analysis.

It is this first part that garnered almost all of the media attention that I noted yesterday when I published the rejection letters of other justices, and which Chris Matthews discussed on Hardball (brief video segment below).

But this post is really dedicated to Justice Scalia’s second assertion regarding who the actual parties to such a suit would be. And despite many dozens of blog postings regarding The Letter, I haven’t seen any discussion of this second point. Justice Scalia wrote:

Secondly, I find it difficult to envision who the parties to this lawsuit might be. Is the State suing the United States for a declaratory judgment? But the United States cannot be sued without its consent, and it has not consented to this sort of suit. 

Well, let me take a crack at envisioning it: The United States is not party to the action for secession. Rather it is State v. State. Because if one state quits the union the others are saddled with the quitter’s share of the national debt. The other states, being unhappy about Maine (or Texas, Vermont, South Carolina, etc.) shirking its obligations, sue the departing state for its share.

And they bring that suit in the Supreme Court since the court has original jurisdiction to hear matters “between two or more states.” There isn’t any need for years worth of lower court legal wrangling, which is a nice bonus when writing a comedy for the big screen.

In fact, it’s this “It’s the money, stupid” plot line that my brother was using when he wrote to the justices, presaging the conservative Tea Party movement by three years. The set-up in the story, in a nutshell, has three University of Maine stoners in a midnight stupor in desperate need of a political science paper for the next day. They write up a manifesto on the vast sums of money that Mainers owe due to the rapidly escalating irresponsibility in Washington, and then urge Maine to join Canada. Manifesto, of course, is the charitable word for rant. The rant hits the college rag. The local paper picks it up on a slow news day, it strikes a chord with many and people press their state government to address the issue, which ultimately goes to a state-wide referendum as the political farce takes off. Our three heroes use their status as potential founding fathers to further the never-ending pursuit of weed and women.

A Supreme Court battle forms part of the script, albeit not a giant one because courts aren’t as funny as standard-issue politicians or stoners, with the other states insisting that if Maine leaves they take their part of the debt with them. It’s all about the money.

But wait!, I hear you say regarding the legalities. If a state has left the union then the suit is no longer “between two or more states.” A seceding state would most assuredly claim that the high court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the matter. Lack of jurisdiction is a common defense in suits, and a court must do an analysis to determine its merit when raised.

And therein lies the issue of how secession can land before the Supremes; the court must resolve a jurisdictional issue. In order for the court to resolve the merits of the money suit they must first decide whether or not the exiting state has legally left. If the state has legally left, the court can’t hear the case because it is not between “two or more states.”

This analysis seems backwards from the way jurisdiction is usually discussed. Merits generally come after jurisdiction has been established. But in this case the merits discussion has to do with money owed. And the issue of whether the court can even hear the case as a dispute between states must first be resolved, and that means looking at the issue of whether secession was legal.

How the case would be resolved in the real world is, of course, beside the point. This is, after all, a movie and the level of detail above wouldn’t be in it.

But Justice Scalia had written that he can’t think of how the matter of secession would get to the court. Well judge, I see how the issue can get to you. At least in theory. And it’s a pure jurisdictional question in a battle between states over money.

And for those wondering how, exactly, the Supreme Court could enforce a judgment against a seceding state in the event the court dumped the unhappy secessionists? Well, that has always been a problem since the judiciary doesn’t have a military wing to it. In 1957, the Army was called in on Executive Order to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. It remains a problem today out in Maricopa County, Arizona, where a court officer was caught on camera reading the files of a defense lawyer while she was addressing the court. The guy was held in contempt, and ordered to apologize on the courthouse steps. This was followed by a law enforcement sick-out. Enforcement can be tricky.

But the difficulty with enforcement of a court order is an issue separate from having the matter heard in the first place. Under this scenario, if a military solution were to be used to stop secession, it would come after a legal analysis of the merits.

Dan’s script, being a political farce, obviously doesn’t end with a military solution. I can’t give away more since it is just now being entered in competitions and my brother is still scrapping for an agent to represent him. (Anyone out there? Is this thing on?) But of his five finished screenplays, this is the best. And all the others have advanced in competitions.

So in the end, Justice Scalia, I think it can be done. Granted, I’m pretty far afield of personal injury law — you really can’t get any further afield than this — but then, so is almost everyone else that opines on the subject with the exception of a few scholars.

If I’ve completely blown the analysis — and I admit that despite its simplicity that is certainly possible — I’m sure people will let me know.

Graphic by Dan Turkewitz


February 21st, 2010

The Supreme Court’s Other Responses to the Screenwriter’s Secession Question

Geez, you go to Florida for a few days vacation and that is the time for a post to go viral? It seems the interest in Justice Antonin Scalia’s response to my brother Dan’s request for assistance on his screenplay, dealing with Maine seceding from the U.S., drew interest not only from legal blogs but from numerous political ones as well. Maybe I should have published all the responses?

I watched (from my iPhone) with fascination as the story on my little post exploded across big time blogs/media (Washington Post, NBC, CBS, WSJ, Volokh, ATL, Politico, and many more). It’s tough to blog with an iPhone though, and Mrs. NYPILB would not have been pleased if I was tethered to a laptop instead of frolicking on Floridian beaches, pools and golf courses. (That’s Dan with my kids above, in his alter ego role as Super Uncle.)

Thus far, over 23,000 page views for that one post.

A little back story on why he wrote to the members of the court, over my objection, might be helpful. When he wrote his award-winning sci-fi thriller of astronauts stranded in space and fighting with each other for survival, he sought expertise on the plausibility of his plot. So he wrote to astronauts. And he got responses.

If astronauts would respond to him, he figured, why not Supreme Court justices, especially given the lack of people that could speak authoritatively on the issue of secession? When I told him he wouldn’t get meaningful responses, I was right on 9/10 of the justices he wrote to. Scalia was the exception.

But while Scalia was the only one to respond to the substance of my brother’s request, other responses did come in. He received three personally signed rejection letters from Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Stephen Breyer, which are all lovingly reproduced here. While reproducing rejection letters isn’t exactly the norm, these happen to be first rate, classy rejections. If you’re gonna get dumped, it might as well be by the best. Frankly, I was stunned that he even got these. And, as you can see, none of them are form letters. And they use top-notch stationary. Just in case you were wondering.

On the actual substance of Scalia’s letter, I will follow in another post with my thoughts on how the issue could reach the high court, despite Scalia’s protest in the letter that:

“Secondly, I find it difficult to envision who the parties to this lawsuit might be. Is the State suing the United States for a declaratory judgment? But the United States cannot be sued without its consent, and it has not consented to this sort of suit.”

[Now added: How the Supreme Court Could Hear the Secession Issue (A Response to Justice Scalia)]

Regardless of whether one agrees with Scalia’s political-judicial beliefs, the guy clearly picked up major cool points for giving my brother a substantive response. Justices Thomas, Alito and Breyer also picked up a few of those points, to the extent that they did take the time to respond, albeit with rejection. Justice Souter picked up a single point for having a secretary respond.

On the flight back from Florida I pondered a question: Is there any significance to the fact that the responding troika of Scalia-Alito-Thomas form 3/4 of the conservative wing?

I’ll leave it to others to opine on that subject.

Addendum: A commenter notes that Justice Alito spelled our last name wrong and that this deserves a head-shaking response: “‘Turkwitz??’ Not true, Justice Alito, not true.”

(And yes, Dan still needs an agent.)