One of the myths about moviemaking is that the movie gods prize originality and are wide open to writers with something new to pitch.
“It used to be an original idea town. It’s now all about underlying rights,” Craig Titley observed when he talked about his screenplay for 20th Century Fox’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.
Percy, based on the first book in a series by Rick Riordan, is directed by Chris Columbus (Harry Potter 1 and 2). The contemporary fantasy-adventure, opening February 11, is rooted in Greek mythology.
Percy, who learns he’s the son of Poseidon, discovers the gods of Mount Olympus and assorted monsters are alive and well and walking among us. Titley, who has a PhD in mythology, was able to put his academic training to good use here.
But the slowdown in selling originals doesn’t have him complaining. “I’ve always pretty much been a gun for hire doing assignments and adaptations so business is booming from where I’m sitting.”
For instance, he wrote the screen stories for adaptations like Cheaper by the Dozen, based on a novel, and Scooby-Doo, based on Hanna-Barbera’s animated TV series. Nonetheless, he’s a fan of originals such as The Hangover, District 9 and Up, which he notes were among 2009’s top hits.
“It’s like the powers-that-be have determined they need underlying graphic novels or games, but certainly I don’t think audiences have said that that’s what they want,” he said. “They want good movies, as always.”
That’s what Titley hopes he has with both Percy, whose cast includes Logan Lerman, Uma Thurman and Pierce Brosnan, and with the remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that he and producer Sam Raimi are developing. New Line was planning to make the effects-driven underwater picture before it was downsized by its Time Warner parent.
Titley sees an original side to adapting: “I like adaptations where there’s a lot of room to wiggle and be creative and bring in new elements as opposed to something where you’ve got to treat the source material as sacred.”
The prospects for 20,000 Leagues improved last November when a competing Disney remake was scrapped by new studio chief Rich Ross. However, moviegoers still won’t be seeing Raimi and Titley’s version any time soon.
“First, we have to attach a director and then we have to convince a studio to make a $200 million water movie,” he laughed. “It could be many, many years.”
It’s a pet project for Titley, who loved Jules Verne’s novel and Disney’s 1954 film. “I’ll be hitting the ground running on that in the New Year,” he promised.
“That was a book where there was a lot of wiggle room because as Verne wrote it was very much like a travelogue without a real story driving it.” To adapt it he asked himself what Verne would do if he were in Hollywood and had to bring his own novel to the screen.
Titley faced different challenges in adapting Percy.
“When Fox bought these books they had no idea they were going to be as successful as they were, so originally there was a little more of being footloose and fancy free with the source material.”
One thing that needed changing was that the novels skewed very young. “They were super-super kid-friendly and a little goofy at times. We didn’t want to make a goofy kiddie movie.”
What they wanted was something similar in tone to the later Harry Potter films with their older teen appeal, elements of romance and hardcore action.
The real challenge was walking the fine line between being true in spirit to the source material while knowing he had to take certain liberties in adapting it to the screen without alienating the books’ fans.
Titley came aboard in ’07 when Columbus asked him to write the screenplay. He was writing as the Hollywood writers strike loomed.
“It was literally one of those projects where we turned in the first draft at like 11:59 the night before the strike and then had to sit that out. We picked it up again in ’08 and started filming the beginning of ’09.”
When Titley says he and Columbus worked together smoothly he’s not just being politically correct.
“In a way, he sort of discovered me,” he explained. “My very first spec script went out many moons ago and made it into the hands of his production company. I wrote a movie for them and they gave me an office and a two-picture deal. So I’ve been in their world for a long time and kind of knew Chris’s taste.”
Moreover, when Titley was fresh out of USC Film School he worked as an assistant to Joe Dante, who’d directed Gremlins, which Columbus wrote.
“I had access to every single draft of ‘Gremlins’ so actually Chris – although he doesn’t realise it – was one of the writers that taught me how to write. I think I got so inside his head studying his early scripts that when we actually had to work together we were completely in synch.”