[This story was written at request of Chilling Tales for Dark Nights, in relation to its Animation Kickstarter found here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/craiggroshek/chilling-tales-for-dark-nights-the-animated-horror
I've heard it said that if you want to work in television or film these days, you need to "adapt or die".
This doesn't mean you have to change to fit the tastes of modern audiences, or keep up with current trends or technology. It literally means that if you're pitching your concept to a production company or network, you'd better be adapting an established property, or your project is likely to be dead on arrival.
If you're not hoping to create a prequel, sequel, spin-off, or the much dreaded reboot, you'll want to present an adaptation of something with a pre-existing audience. It seems like executives are less and less willing to take a risk on an original concept, when they can cut corners and use name recognition to put asses in seats.
Don't get me wrong, when I moved out here, I had every intention of making my way on my own. I came with my own series show bibles and series synopses. I started out on the web, making terrible content on New Grounds, and when people started digging my work, I began aiming higher.
Little did I suspect that of all the projects I would be hired to write, none of them would actually turn out to be mine.
So, that's how I was introduced to the concept. Adapt or die. Early on, I got work converting the lesser-known works of Hans Christian Andersen into a modern television crime drama. Thumbelina became a diminutive, tough-talking rookie on a corrupt police force only she could clean up. The Ugly Duckling was re-imagined as a promising young ballet dancer, threatened by a mob boss named Little Claus. Every word I hammered out felt like a nail in my creative coffin, but the studio loved it.
When production wrapped on the first season, I swore on everything I held sacred that I would never do anything like that again. A few tense years scrambling for work changed that, and the next big job I took on involved corrupting a 1970s children's puppet show about whimsical vikings. Under monetary duress, I transformed it into an action-packed major motion picture sextravaganza, starring some fly-by-night starlet who was more adept at showing skin than taste in scripts.
After that, I stopped pretending I had standards.
This is what lead me to Thibault Ward. As the legend went, Mr. Ward had come over to the United States from the Czech Republic when he was a young man. Having only a box of old drawing pencils to his name, he took to drawing caricatures of anyone willing drop a few coins into his tin. Eventually, his artistic skill would catch the notice of the local newspaper, which gave him his first real job as a staff cartoonist.
It was a rags to riches story I would've loved to explore as a character piece. A film about the rise of a young immigrant escaping some unknown old-world persecution would've been a nice change from the recycling center my office had become.
Unfortunately, that was not meant to be. Mr. Ward had become somewhat well-known for a comic strip he had initially created for the paper. One that got him a few book deals and saw his work reprinted across the country in various outlets.
"Fresh Catch" was the name. I suppose it was clever at the time, and the bad wordplay certainly didn't detract from the strip's staying power. The 80s even saw a Fresh Catch cartoon, though it only aired for one season before being replaced with something equally saccharine. They changed the name to “Tunatoons”, as well, which seemed to be an odd choice.
I had actually seen the cartoon as a child, though it hadn't made enough of an impression to be remembered. It wasn't until I was offered the job of adapting Fresh Catch into a live-action film that memories of the short-lived show came creeping back into my brain.
It was essentially a "Tom & Jerry" setup, back when that was actually a new concept. The comic strip featured a small group of anthropomorphic tuna fish, who would engage in ocean-related wordplay and would be involved in various slap-stick scenarios. Where Garfield had pies in the face and hating Mondays, the Fresh Catch fish would constantly fall for fishing hooks hidden in everyday items they would want to keep.
I bought a couple collections of the strip to prepare myself for the project, and I could spot an oft-used formula right away.
Panel One: Tuna fish looking at a random item they would like to keep.
Panel Two: Tuna gives the set-up for a pun or word play.
Panel Three: Tuna tries to take the item, but get snared by a hook and whisked off-panel.
Panel Four: Remaining tuna delivers the punchline, seemingly with no regard for its lost friend.
I didn't see much material to work with in terms of an over-arching story line for a feature-length film, but inventing a plot was something I'd gotten very used to. Just reduce the concept to a skeleton, then slap some mystery meats on until you have your own literary Frankenstein's Monster.
The villain of the comic strip... the Gargamel or Lucy Van Pelt... was a grizzled old fisherman who also happened to be a buck-toothed beaver-man. His name was originally "Old Man Dam", but in later strips a more commercially viable moniker stuck. "Driftwood". The stains on his rain slicker and wading boots could've been fish guts, but it's more likely they were just crudely drawn splashes of water.
The weird thing about this comic strip, as opposed to the aforementioned Tom & Jerry, is that sometimes... the bad guy won. Every so often, a strip would actually end with Driftwood catching and canning one of the tuna characters. It was always some one-off fish who didn't appear in the strip before or after, but I found it to be a disturbing creative choice nonetheless.
The cans would go on a shelf in the beaver character's fishing shack, along with the many others he'd managed to catch. I was just glad he never seemed to eat any of them. Not when kids reading the strip could see, at least.
I figured it would be easy enough, in the end. A nuclear family of live-action actors go out on their boat one day for a wholesome vacation. A storm hits, they're magically transported to an island where they meet a bevy of annoying CGI tuna who won't shut up. Driftwood and his gang of dock-worker otters menace the happy, colorful tuna fish, and eventually the family saves them. Roll credits, move merchandise.
Early talk behind the scenes had Ryan Reynolds as the father, and it was mentioned that Ice Cube might lend his voice to a rapping tuna.
Then I met the illustrious Mr. Ward.
I've sat down with plenty of weirdos in my time. Studio execs who are very obviously coked out of their minds, eccentric actors who want to pick my brain about how their pointless, forgettable character would behave, and so on. Mr. Ward was different, though.
He lived in squalor, which was surprising considering the modest legacy he had created. I suppose whatever deals he had made as a young man were short-sighted and not very beneficial to him. His home looked all but abandoned, with a yard full of random debris and clusters of rusted, old rain barrels. When I pulled into the bumpy dirt driveway, I finally realized how far I had truly traveled from any sign of civilization.
Apparently, Mr. Ward enjoyed solitude. I can understand being drawn to the peace and quiet of wooded property on the outskirts of town, but suffice to say it's not for me. I couldn't imagine an elderly person living so far away from any form of medical assistance by choice.
The old man was insufferable. Crooked and gnarled like the dead trees outside his run-down house, Mr. Ward looked like someone who should've been afraid of a random stranger like myself. Instead, he was quite the opposite, barking at me to get inside before I let in mosquitoes, and demanding I take a seat and stop acting nervous.
It was difficult to believe a somewhat funny comic strip had come out of such a humorless old man. I was deeply regretting the decision to look him up, even before he insisted I drink bitter, stale tea from a cup that still had crust on the lip.
To say Mr. Ward's visage was unpleasant is an understatement. It wasn't the ruddy, wrinkled skin or the wild brow and ear hair that put me off. It was the scowl... a scowl so overstated and outlandish that it would've been more at home on a drawing of Driftwood than on a human face. Especially since they seemed to share the same prominent two front teeth.
"You must be wondering why I asked to meet with you." I croaked, choking down the scalding water that was barely passable as a legitimate beverage.
"No." Mr. Ward shook his head, taking his own cup in shaking hands, "You're one of the movie men. The last in a long line of snake oil salesmen who wish to bastardize my work."
I chuckled awkwardly, but it wasn't a joke. I already knew that.
"I know what you mean," I tried to relate to the old man, "Believe me, the last thing I wanted to do with my career was adapt other people's ideas. But hey, look at it this way... you're the first creator I can actually sit down and talk to. You can tell me what you do or don't like, and I can maybe change this or that according to your opinions."
Mr. Ward sat back for a moment, breath whistling through his nose, as he seemed to consider my words. It was like watching a very old, dried-out gourd trying to process a head full of burrowing mites.
"What I would like from you," Mr. Ward finally said, "Would be for you to leave my work alone. You will not adapt it. You will ruin it. You will corrupt it. You do not create, you destroy. If you have any respect for people who actually dream, who invent, you will not put your hands on my characters or my world."
Slightly taken aback, I defended a process I deeply hated. Sure, the end product I would produce was going to be intellectual garbage, but I had seen the comic strip and it wasn't exactly comedy gold.
"Well, don't you want your story to reach a wider audience? A new generation of children? Surely you created the comic strip to bring joy and laughter to kids, so why not let others take up the project and grow the viewer base?"
"These doodles, they may seem small and ridiculous to you. To me, they are very important. There is a piece of myself in these strips. Every poorly made doll or shirt that bares my creation rips another piece of my work away from me. It becomes less special. Less meaningful."
The discussion was tense, and it dragged on for an hour or more. As cranky as Mr. Ward was, he was far from stupid... so in the end, he knew that no matter how much he objected, the rights to his work hadn't belonged to him for a very long time. The most he could really hope to do was guide my hand a bit.
Eventually, he relented and did give me some advice about the project. Mostly, he spoke of the way his strip represented 'real life' and 'the truth of human nature'. I had to stifle a laugh or two here and there. He clearly thought very highly of himself.
"The fishes can be smart, but they are easy to manipulate." Mr. Ward explained, "It is integral to the story that you show they are victims of their own wants and compulsions. The boys are caught by things like baseballs, toy trucks, trinkets that catch their eye."
Then, the old man's outdated opinions started to show through.
"The girls, they desire things like beautiful dresses, cakes and candies. They are also not as wily as the boys. Not as clever. Women frequently cause problems that the men must step in and solve."
When I was content, if not comfortable, with the information and opinions I had received, I said my goodbyes and promised Mr. Ward he would be happy with the final product. Neither he nor I believed that, I'm sure.
In the following weeks, I set to work on an early draft of the script. As mentioned, I went with the "family gets sucked into a land of adventure" thing. I got word that Driftwood was going to be a live action character, which meant no gnawing down trees or flattening people with his tail unless I wanted to make the actor, possibly Vincent D'onofrio, very uncomfortable.
I also removed the morbid concept of Driftwood catching and canning the tuna fish. Ones that children would no doubt become attached to. Sending kids out of the theater in tears wasn't really a good way to sell more tickets. Instead, I threw in a foreboding threat of "selling the island to developers" as the villain's main motivation. Hey, it worked in every other children's property ever written...
I had to admit that while most of the original creator's words about not adapting his work and preserving outdated gender roles fell on deaf ears, something about the whole thing did cause me to rethink something. Maybe this time, just this time, I would leave my name off of the finished film. A pseudonym would work, and while I was more than ready to accept the paycheck, there would realistically be little to no notoriety to claim from this. Maybe disassociating myself was an easy, perhaps lazy form of protest – but it was still protest nonetheless.
I had just finished my first draft when the phone rang. It happened so perfectly, that if I had seen it in a story, I would never have believed it could happen. The moment I typed the “D” in “END”, the ring snapped me out of my creative focus.
Thibault Ward was dead, and the movie was off. The timing was even more unbelievable than that of the call. At first, I saw little reason to cancel the film project based on Ward's death alone. Then, the details were filled in for me.
In his old age, Mr. Ward had clearly been unable to keep his property in acceptable condition. After many warnings, countless fines, and several threats of action, the county finally sent a crew out to remove the junk he had accumulated.
There was a gunshot, and they found the man dead at his kitchen table. Recently emptied tea cup overflowing with blood. Self-inflicted wound to the head. His death was instant, with the barrel clenched between his odd teeth.
Mr. Ward didn't kill himself over the county's decision to dispose of his things. Not entirely, anyway.
The barrels. Apparently, the ones I had seen in his front lawn were just the tip of the iceberg. There were supposedly barrels scattered across his back yard, and filling a shed out back. There were even two or three barrels stacked in closets in his house.
Inside the barrels? Kids. From very young to nearly teen-aged. Many, many children from as-of-yet undetermined decades. It would be a very long time before they could all be identified, but some were said to be in such a state of decay that Mr. Ward must've been doing this well back into his early years as a cartoonist.
It's been over a year, now, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around the whole thing. All I know is that the Fresh Catch movie is definitely canceled with absolutely no plans in the works to revive the project. I was paid a pittance for what little work I was able to accomplish, and I quickly had to move on to a SyFy channel adaptation of that old “Flying Purple People Eater” song.
They expect me to wring 12 episodes out of that thing, possibly more if they're desperate enough to renew it. I'm not kidding.
I'm thinking that once everything is sorted out, once there's some more insight into who these kids were, where they were abducted from, and why Thibault Ward might've done what he did, maybe I'll revisit this whole thing with fresh eyes. As soon as it's not “too soon”.
I'm almost positive that I can adapt this into a pretty decent horror movie.