From Saharan adventure to a Los Angeles courtroom: the sorry tale of Dirk Pitt, PI

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The Independent Culture

If you paid last year to see the Hollywood romp Sahara, starring Matthew McConaughey and Penelope Cruz, you may be interested to know of a sequel currently in the works. But you should also be aware that it will not be showing in a cinema near you but rather played out in a courtroom in Los Angeles.

The film, which lost $105m (£54m), was loosely based on one of the many novels by Clive Cussler featuring the detective Dirk Pitt. Loosely, however, is the disputed word here. So irate is Cussler with what hit the screen he is suing for breach of contract. And he is being countersued.

Sharing the billing in this most messy of Hollywood squabbles is the producer, Philip Anschutz, a billionaire industrialist and cinema-chain owner. What is likely to unfold in a trial that opens next month is a parable about giving authors control over film versions of their books and why it is rarely a good idea. But that is precisely what Anschutz did when he first approached Cussler about filming Sahara, in which Pitt, played by McConaughey and a UN scientist, played by Cruz, race across the desert trying to save the world from a deadly new toxin.

Thinking he could create a lucrative franchise out of Dirk Pitt similar to Indiana Jones, Anschutz offered generous terms. The writer would get $10m up front for every Pitt book that was optioned as well as veto rights over all the screenplays and even over the casting of actors.

Cussler had reason to be shy of the movie business. In 1980, the late Lew Grade took his book Raise the Titanic and made a film that lost so much money the UK impresario later quipped that it would have been, "cheaper to lower the Atlantic". The film, starring Jason Robards, was an unadulterated embarrassment.

What Mr Anschutz may not have reckoned on was the extent to which Cussler would try to enforce the terms of the deal once production got under way. He reportedly refused to allow the casting of Tom Cruise as Pitt on the grounds that he was too short. More importantly, he repeatedly rejected treatments of his book, allegedly disparaging some of the screenwriters hired for the job as "hacks".

In his lawsuit, Cussler insists that Anschutz and his production company Crusader Entertainment ended up reneging on a contract that had given him rights of "sole and absolute" approval. "They deceived me right from the beginning," the author said in court depositions. "They kept lying to me ... and I just got fed up with it."

Crusader is now suing Cussler alleging that he attempted to blackmail the company by refusing to sign off a single script except those written by himself. It also accuses him of trying to sabotage the film's box office chances by publicly disparaging it even before its release by Paramount Pictures.

"It is the height of arrogance for Cussler to take $10m to make a movie and then torpedo the franchise," Alan Rader, a lawyer for Anschutz, told the Los Angeles Times. Cussler is also accused of racist slurs in his consideration of some of the screenwriters. More than ten different writers were assigned to the project at different times.

In the end, the film flopped and Anschutz's hopes of creating a Pitt franchise appeared to be wrecked even before the eruption of court hostilities.

The author, meanwhile, said last week: "I had such high hopes. I felt like an artist who creates a picture and then someone else comes along and paints over it."