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When Hollywood comes a-calling... think twice

Author Marie Phillips on a movie adventure that went off the rails

The email from my agent came without warning, first thing one morning four years after the publication of my first novel Gods Behaving Badly. I skimmed it sleepily. “EXCITING NEWS … shooting starts next month … Christopher Walken and Sharon Stone ….” I sat bolt upright in bed. My book was being made into a movie! Having failed to produce anything even close to a decent second novel, I was thrilled to have some good news. I called all my friends, who responded as one: “Can I come to the premiere?” The premiere! The stars, the paparazzi, the red-carpet glamour! I could hardly wait. Of course, the film hadn’t been made yet.

I flew to New York to visit the set. I booked myself a room in an AirBnB flat in Brooklyn where the owner’s cat shat on the floor every day, which I told myself was keeping me grounded. I hadn’t spoken to anyone involved in the film aside from one of the writers who had friended me on Facebook, and I had no idea whether I’d be allowed on to set for a few hours, sit in a corner in silence, and then slink away, or be feted as the goddess of this whole thing.

Filming had been under way for several weeks by the time the writer showed me on to the set. I was warned so many times not to address the director, Marc Turtletaub, that I was imagining him as a cross between Orson Welles, Mussolini and a tropical typhoon. He turned out to be a tall, genial man with a face like a friendly goose, who took no greater pleasure than to tease me mercilessly and good-naturedly on any subject he could think of.

Nevertheless, it was made politely clear that my contribution on creative matters would not be welcomed. The day I pointed out to Marc’s assistant that an on-screen Scrabble score had been added up incorrectly was treated as a major incident, requiring the intervention of several intermediaries before this news could reach Marc’s ears. So, I kept my mouth shut on anything regarding the film. I never even saw the script. I just concentrated on having fun on set.

It was fascinating watching my novel take celluloid form, although a few of the changes perturbed me. I had no objection to the story being relocated to New York – better than a Hollywood-ised London where everyone travels by Routemaster bus via Tower Bridge regardless of where they are going, and there’s a cameo from Richard Branson playing a Beefeater. I didn’t even mind the character Alice being renamed Kate. My main concern was that the gods were now wealthy and successful, which for me undermined the premise of the book, which is a satire on the loss of power, ageing, and the fear of death. But I told myself this wasn’t a book, it was a film, and it wasn’t my film. So I didn’t say anything. It was too late anyway.

And the film set was an amazing place to be. I had one of those folding canvas seats behind the director’s chair from where I could watch all the action, and to which handsome young men constantly brought delicious food on a tray. I hung out with the crew, who were all delightful, often surprisingly tattooed, and seemed to pick up that teasing thing from Marc pretty damn fast. I got to see the world of my film take form, with scores of people working seemingly endless hours to bring the locations, costumes and characters to life. And I became the undisputed on-set champion of Words With Friends, which is the most important thing.

I observed movie stars at close quarters. Oliver Platt asked me to run his lines with him. Alicia Silverstone casually recommended the most expensive and exclusive restaurant in New York (I went for pizza instead). Sharon Stone, meanwhile, greeted me with the words: “You have such cute hair. And your skin is flawless!” which caused me to stammer out the pithy response: “You, um, are very beautiful.” “It’s all natural, of course,” she replied, and I didn’t know if she was joking – she certainly looked stunning close up – so I just nodded stupidly like a dog in the back of a car. On her last day, she sent a member of her entourage with a gift for the crew: a bucket of ballpoint pens, each printed with the words “Sharon Stone, Love and Thanks, Gods Behaving Badly”. I took two.

I even got to be an extra, playing a dead Edwardian in the Underworld. For my fleeting seconds on screen, I spent two hours in hair and make-up. This scene was shot in a bug-infested park near the Hudson River, and between every take, the entire cast would leap up and slap wildly at all the insects that had been clawing their way up our costumes. Then we would reset into our languid Underworld poses, feel the climbing creepy crawlies once again and pray that the word “cut” would come soon.

Once I was back in London, every time I saw a friend they asked when the movie was out. I had no idea. I’d started writing The Table of Less Valued Knights, about a seemingly doomed quest that was not at all a metaphor for the difficult second novel, and which was actually fated for publication. The film seemed a distant thing. Finally, two years later, I was back in New York and I ran into one of the stars while out shopping for phone credit in Park Slope. I introduced myself as the writer of the film he recently appeared in. “Oh yes,” he said. He paused. “It’s a fiasco.”

I called the production office and arranged to come in and see the finished movie. I loved these people and they’d been good to me. I really wanted the film to be a success, for them as much as for me. It wasn’t. It was only ever screened once, at the Rome film festival, and the reviews were excoriating. The worst was penned in Italian by one Dr Apocalypse and given extra piquancy by being put through Google Translate. “Finite do not know how in such a cauldron of inadequacy film,” the mangled text concluded. The film would never be released.

Would I do it again? Yes. It was a wonderful, unique experience, and I find it impossible to blame the passionate, hard-working team for the fact that the film didn’t ultimately work. My four years of throwing away unpublishable novels had taught me how that happens. And who knows? Maybe next time, I might even get to go to a premiere.

The Table of Less Valued Knights, by Marie Phillips, is published by Jonathan Cape at £12.99