Hollywood stole my life

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The Independent Culture
Struggling writer Mark Dunn got a shock when he saw a

preview of the new Jim Carrey movie, due here next week.

The Truman Show was uncomfortably close to a script he'd failed

to sell to Paramount Studios. So far, so Hollywood. Except in this

case, he has an off-Broadway play and a cast of witnesses to prove

it. And with $200m at stake, he's not about to change his story

The Truman Show, the latest Hollywood vehicle for the manic comedian Jim Carrey, hits British cinema screens next week. A thoughtful contemplation of the hegemony of television over all of our lives, it is, at its simplest, a story about the exploitation of a hapless Everyman by a ruthless media corporation. It makes for good fiction. But behind this film another, real-life tale of exploitation may be lurking.

Meet Mark Dunn, a soft-spoken researcher in the rare books department of the New York Public Library, who believes that the movie, one of this summer's big blockbusters in the United States, takes its central idea from a play that he wrote back in 1992. So certain is Mr Dunn that credit for the original idea should be his, that he is suing Paramount Pictures and the creators of the film for $200m.

It is hardly the first time that a studio has been hit with such a lawsuit. Just ask the makers of The Full Monty about their legal battle with two New Zealand playwrights who believe that their 1987 play Ladies Night was plagiarised for the unexpected British hit. Scores of such complaints have reached the courts only to founder. But few are as compelling, at first glance, as the one being pursued by the benighted Mr Dunn.

"It's not my contention that they just took the premiss," remarks Dunn, 41, who works in the library to make ends meet while he struggles to reach the big time as a playwright. "It's that they heavily borrowed from the entire play, including the plot, characters, theme, and a lot of scenes. It makes me feel like nobody's safe from being taken advantage of."

To be sure, The Truman Show is not your standard, vacuous Hollywood fare. Without giving too much away, we can reveal that it depicts the life of Truman, played by Carrey, who finds himself trapped unwittingly in the twilight world of a sound set. As an orphan, Truman is cast as a character in a round-the-clock soap opera that is broadcast to hungry viewers across America. Truman's life is thus a television confection - his friends, even his wife, are actors and everyone he meets are extras - but he does not know it. Until he finds out.

The film drew huge applause from critics, who greeted not only Carrey's funny and deeply poignant performance, but also the wider issues it raises about our television-saturated society. At its strongest, the film explores our shared paranoia about the authenticity of our lives, and about our increasing taste for cheap voyeurism through the TV screen as well as our worship of the god that is electronic media.

The amusement is not shared by Dunn, however. Seven years ago, he wrote a play called Frank's Life. Just as with The Truman Show, the play's title doubled as the title of a television show in which the main protagonist unknowingly leads a life that is turned into a soap opera for network viewers. The play ran for three months in an off-off-Broadway theatre in 1992 and garnered some good reviews.

Indeed, in the lawsuit filed in a Manhattan court earlier this summer, Dunn and his lawyer highlight some 110 points of overlap between The Truman Show and Frank's Life. Other defendants in the suit include the screenwriter for the movie, Andrew Niccol, and its producer - one of Hollywood's most successful - Scott Rudin.

It is not just that both projects are about innocents who discover that their entire lives have been TV shows. Common to both is a shared best- friend character with whom the protagonist of each drinks beers and shares his woes; a character who rebels and decides he can no longer carry the deception; a blond and bitchy wife; and a mean producer who executes the whole project, played in the film by a cold-eyed Ed Harris.

It was back in 1995 that wind of Paramount's treatment first reached Dunn. Lawyers, however, told him that he would have to wait until the film's release before taking any action. Early this spring, he and his wife first saw posters for The Truman Show in his local cinema in New York. "It was like someone punched me in the stomach," he says now. "That's when I knew it was going to be a difficult summer."

Finally the film came out and Dunn, bracing himself for the anger he knew he would feel, joined the long queues and bought his ticket. With his wife by his side in the darkened cinema, he scribbled all the similarities with his own work in a small notebook. His notes will form the basis of his court action. Representing Dunn is a lawyer, Carl Person, who already has experience of taking on the studios. He couldn't resist the case, saying it was "the best I have ever seen". Person acknowledges that such cases are hard to win. "There is no real protection for ideas at all. Copyright is difficult to enforce, so people who infringe it do it with impunity. And it's profitable to do so, because it's difficult to prove."

To triumph over the legal might of the studios, a plaintiff, under standards laid down in the late Seventies, must demonstrate "striking similarities between the works", including "arc of character" and the location of the story. Person is adamant, however, that the mirroring between the film and Dunn's play is so remarkable that winning this case should be a cakewalk.

One who supports Dunn's complaint is a New York theatre critic, Susan Shapiro, who gave a rave review to Frank's Life when it opened in 1992. On seeing the film this summer, she assumed that Dunn had successfully sold his idea to Paramount and immediately telephoned him to offer her congratulations. "This is such an idiosyncratic, bizarre story," she said. "I saw the trailer for the movie and turned to my husband and said, `I saw this as a play'."

Shapiro offered her own thoughts on what happened to Dunn to the Los Angeles Times recently, and she points that Tristar Pictures was obliged to pay out a seven-figure sum to the family of a lawyer, Geoffrey Bowers, after acknowledging that his story as a man dying from Aids in a leading law firm formed the basis of the Tom Hanks film, Philadelphia. The producer of that film was none other than Rudin.

In turns out, in fact, that Rudin was invited by Dunn to see his play when it was playing in New York. Whether he or any of his associates in fact went along, nobody can be sure, however. But Person insists that Rudin had ample opportunity to become aware of Frank's Life and its unusual theme, either by seeing it himself, hearing of it from others or reading any of the positive reviews. As a result of those reviews, moreover, Dunn received calls from Hollywood producers who were interested in turning it into a film. Among the studios to which he sent the play for consideration was Paramount itself, in the summer of 1992. It was turned down by Paramount and also by Twentieth Century Fox.

The case, if and when it comes to court, will turn on matters of timing. While nobody associated with the film has commented on the case directly, it appears that the defence will rest on the claim that the screenwriter, Niccol, first submitted his original treatment for the film, at that time called The Malcolm Show, to his then agent in May 1991.

A synopsis of that treatment, obtained by Daily Variety, said: "Malcolm is the star of a 24-hour continuous soap opera in the future but doesn't know it. He has been filmed by hidden cameras every second of his life - The Malcolm Show has been running since his birth. The show has 16 producers, all his family and friends are actors - all the strangers that he sees in the street are extras."

Rudin had reportedly threatened meanwhile to countersue if Dunn persists with his own complaint. Paranoia about the risk of plagiarism suits has haunted the Hollywood studios. Producers have taken to protecting themselves by opening submissions only from people they either know already or have been told about by agents. By simply not opening the envelopes of unsolicited story ideas, they hope to shield themselves from future assaults from people such as Dunn. The studios fear that such suits have become a cottage industry, the cost of which could quickly run into millions of dollars. "I don't think there are as may ideas stolen as there are people suing," notes Richard Arlook, a literary agent in Beverly Hills.

Recent complaints that have made the headlines include the unsuccessful bid by the author Barbara Chase-Riboud to block the release of Steven Spielberg's Amistad last year, contending that it was largely lifted from a book she had written in 1989. Another writer, Stephen Kessler, asserted, also in vain, that parts of Twister, written by Michael Crichton, had come from one of his screenplays.

The $200m cited in this case is no random sum. It is the least that The Truman Show is expected to harvest once it has circled the world. Dunn says that the story was 100 per cent his, and that 100 per cent of the revenues are due to him. If defeated in court, Paramount will have an embarrassing bust on its hands. Mark Dunn, however, will finally have made it - if not in quite the way he would have wanted.