Hell, somewhere in Ireland -- the Beginning
I never seriously considered a career as a screenwriter until I was 40. That alone would make me an untouchable in the Hollywood system, which has become more and more youth-oriented. Sure, the people in power are in their middle years, but nobody would let one of them in at that age; the system is designed so that anyone who wants to succeed within it needs to enter it early and hit early in order to be successful.
But I wasn’t particularly interested in screen work when I was young. I started my career as a writer young; I was fifteen when I started working as a rock music journalist and eighteen when my first book was published. I worked in rock music until my late 20's, publishing three nonfiction books in the genre.
I took screen writing in college, and wrote scripts and novels during my years as a journalist, but never spent the time required to market them. After leaving rock music journalism I teamed up with Sandra Brandenburg, a long-time friend and professional editor. We started work on our fantasy series, The Lost Myths Saga, which would eventually become four volumes. And we teamed up to work as fine arts journalists. The next five years or so gave us a glimpse into the publishing industry that made me feel nauseated about the way writers were treated. We interviewed a lot of authors, wrote for a lot of magazines, reviewed books and wrote critical articles about fantasy and Science Fiction, mostly. My list of failed agents grew – I’d had my first agent in high school, a man in his late 20's who turned out to like young girls. Over the course of the next ten years I retained a series of losers and sociopaths, including a woman named Shelley when I was living in England who told my editor at Harrap Limited that I would waive the last third of the advance on my book, PUNK RETRO: The Music of the No-Future Generation without my knowledge, then conspired with the same editor to return the rights of the book to me and then going ahead and publishing it after my return to California. It was ten years, before I knew that book had actually been released and never distributed because Harrap, Limited went into bankruptcy. I tracked an entire shipment of 5,000 books to a warehouse on Long Island, but by the time I contacted the distributor they had no idea what had happened to the books. I never had a copy of my third book.
During the same period of time there was Tamara Martin, assistant to Denise Marcil in New York, who encouraged me to move to London then completely dropped the ball on me in the u.s. and left the business.
In our mid-thirties Sandra became very ill; a congenital heart defect was discovered, and when we were thirty-five she had a quadruple bypass that resulted in nerve damage in her legs. It left her unable to work except in spurts (we never stopped writing novels and screenplays during that period, but she had to give up journalistic work) and I went to work for the local newspaper in Petaluma, California, writing about the arts. At the same time I started working as an investigative journalist for some online websites, including Neighborhood America, a Florida-centered website that concentrated on local neighborhood land and environmental issues. I wrote hundreds of articles for them over the next couple of years, and Sandra and I also wrote for Access America about elderly care. Both websites were casualties of the internet bubble-burst, but I wrote some great stuff during that period of my career.
In the late 1990's Sandra and I had the opportunity to work in Concept Development for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, with a television writer named Aaron ?, the son of film producer ??. We worked on the last season of Deep Space Nine and several seasons of Voyager, but during the last season the entire production team was fired and new people hired in an attempt to keep the series alive. And Aaron, who was in his early 30's, died in his sleep one night of a brain aneurysm. That was the end of our career in television work.
In 2000 I paid cash for my little house in Cotati, California. At the time I knew was extremely lucky; most single women could never buy a house in Northern California, much less for cash. The equity in that house would become important in a few years.
One of my few useful former agents (by that time I’d had thirteen, and only two of them – Ellen Steele and Roxann Caraway – had been of any use whatsoever) became an editor for a small publishing company called Fire Mountain Press. Roxy’s own history in publishing wasn’t pleasant; she had started one of the first electronic publishing companies, only to lose the company and a lot of money in a hostile takeover.
My first novel, A Ghost Among Us, was published in 2002. That same year our agent, Scott Ferguson, offered to submit our scripts to a start-up film company in Ireland called ShadowHawk Productions. He received their first submission materials in the first week of September, and we were immediately struck by their organization and professionalism. After sending some initial material, Scott sent us this letter on the 25th:
I got a message today from ShadowHawk Productions. They received our package and tell me it will be represented by Sarah Whelan, our Story and Script Agent. And, Executive Producer Anthony Whelan will be considering the projects.
Their submission guidelines were three pages long. After some of the people we’d done business with, most lately a book agency in England called Zebra who had turned out to be two flakey women with a cell phone and no clue whatsoever, they looked like a breath of fresh air.
On October 1st, Scott received the following letter from Anthony Whelan.
Dear Mr. Ferguson;
The synopsis for “Death of a Shining Star” have (sic) been read and passed by our Executive Editor. At this stage we would now like to request a full copy of the script to be submitted to us. Please find attached our application form. Please fill out this form to your requirements (?) And return it to us with one complete copy of the script requested. Refer to our submission guidelines for details. If you have any further questions regarding (what?) Please contact me.
Kind Regards, Geraldine Whelan
I did send the script, but at this point I was already starting to wonder why all these people had the same last name. Was one of these women Anthony Whelan’s wife, and if so, who was the other one? My novel was published in October and received a number of favorable reviews (and one incredibly lousy one). I received my first letter from Anthony Whelan on October 14th, and it seemed as if everything was going my way.
Dear Ms. Hill;
We are in a position to development your script (I should have picked up on the grammatical errors in their letters earlier; I blame email for my lapse – I’ve had letters from Hollywood producers that were riddled with errors) to it’s (sic) final stage if it continues to be of interest to us (double-speak much?). The question is, what involvement you want us to have? If you just want us to get the finance your (sic) looking for a Script agent? If you would like us to work with you in making the script so that it can be seen worldwide then you are looking for Finance of Production? Please let us know. Thank you.
Senior Executive Producer
We decided on full production for Death of a Shining Star. By the middle of December ShadowHawk was considering two more scripts; another solo script of mine entitled The Sewing Club and one of my collaborative works with Sandra Brandenburg, Dream Lovers. They turned down three others, all Hill/Brandenburg collaborations.
In January I signed final contracts for the production of Death of a Shining Star and for another solo project entitled The Sewing Club. Both these scripts are set in California; Anthony Whelan was eager to establish himself in the states, and was planning to find co-producers in California. I should have been a red light that he hadn’t yet produced a feature film but was already looking to produce two, 7,000 miles from his office.
Over the next two months, there was a lot of correspondence back and forth regarding Shining Star, mostly, as Anthony Whelan decided to first concentrate on this script. During these months other scripts were being read as well
, and in January of 2003 I was offered a contract for my film Death of a Shining Star, my true-life story about my college lover and some of my friends.
During this period I was loaning Tom and Sandra money; in addition to Sandra’s medical problems, which proved to be ruinously expensive, Tom had a run of bad luck in his career, beginning with the closing of two naval bases in Northern California – as a civilian nuclear and airline technician, he was thrown on the job market with 5,000 other specialists, and they were pretty much left to fend for themselves.
In the spring of 2003 everything seemed to be going our way; Anthony Whelan, the President of ShadowHawk, was a personable young man who had started his career early and appeared to be a child prodigy. At the age of 25 he had already made several documentaries and music videos, and he wanted to move into feature film. He owned a house in Dublin; his mother, father and sister lived there with him, and his mother and sister were both working for ShadowHawk. His assistant, Alan, was also living there, and attending college. His cousin, Cathal Byrne, was a financial officer for the company, and since he had a Master’s Degree in Finance, it seemed like a good set-up, if based on nepotism.
Geraldine Whelan, Anthony’s mother, was in charge of reading scripts submitted. She liked Death of a Shining Star so much that she requested other scripts be submitted; others were, and the company appeared to be extremely efficient. At least, at the time.
On January 16, 2003 I accepted Anthony Whelan’s offer to produce Death of a Shining Star. After a couple of false starts on Shining Star involving flakes (get used to this – if we learned anything from working with ShadowHawk it was that there are ten times as many flakes, dweebs and psychopaths in filmmaking as there are legitimate players) John Nichols of Allied Artists entered the arena at the end of February.
In March, ShadowHawk offered my company with Sandra Brandenburg, Lost Myths Ink LLC, a consultancy with ShadowHawk. We agreed to assist in the writing of in-house scripts if needed, and to provide editing services. All this seemed, at the time, as if it was the answer to a dream – Anthony Whelan’s vision appeared to be global, and to encompass everything we’d always wanted to be able to do.
I was thrilled at Allied Artists coming onboard for Death of a Shining Star. I received my first personal email letter from John Nichols on March 2, 2003:
Some questions for you. Can you send me some info on the people involved with the co-production? Do they have a web site or any bio info? How far along are they in developing the project? What are they looking for in terms of a co-production partner and what do they need for that partner to provide? Are they planning to shoot in Ireland and if so, are there tax advantages for shooting in Ireland?
As it happened, Death of a Shining Star is based on events from my own life, starting in 1979, the summer following my graduation from high school, and ending ten years later with the death of the man who was one of the true loves of my life. It had to be filmed in California, but that didn’t prove to be a problem for John Nichols – Allied Artists was a U.S.-based company, after all.
That month ShadowHawk optioned another script of mine entitled The Sewing Club. By the third week of March John Nichols was working with Cathal Byrne on the financing aspects of production for Death of a Shining Star. In April we were offered a production option for Fruit of the Poison Tree, one of our collaborative scripts based on another true-life story about chemical poisoning in California.
Over the next two months John Nichols offered to put up 50% of the financing for Death of a Shining Star if ShadowHawk’s (supposed) team of European investors would supply the other 50%. A director was hired – Brian Eustace, a former documentary filmmaker for the BBC and owner of a small development company called Realt Entertainment. We were hoping he had the experience we needed; it was around this time that we discovered Anthony Whelan was only twenty-five, and although he had an impressive record for such a young man, it was somewhat unsettling to have placed our business affairs in the hands of someone in his mid-20's (despite the fact that Hollywood thinks this is a good thing, as evidenced by some of the lame films and television shows produced).
After that promising start, the remainder of 2003 was taken up by ShadowHawk financial manager Cathal Byrne supposedly working on the other 50% of the financing needed for Death of a Shining Star and Anthony Whelan and the rest of the team working on production for The Sewing Club and Dream Lovers, which they contracted in November of the year and planned to be producing in 2004.
Overall, the situation still looked promising. We understood that movies aren’t made in a day or even a year, and at the close of 2003 we felt we were going to be in business with ShadowHawk for the long run. But I was starting to feel a little nervous; my money from our television payout was gone, and I was now living on the equity in my little green cottage. While it had gained almost $100,000 in value since I bought it in 2000, I was a little worried; I’d never had a mortgage before and didn’t want one anymore than anyone else. The odds of a single woman buying a house in Northern California were thousands to one. I’d been one of the lucky ones.
Sandra’s health problems and the closing of the California military bases cost that cost Tom his career path as a nuclear submarine/airline technician made it impossible for them to survive in the expensive climate of Sonoma County. During the years between 2000 and 2004 I’d loaned them money, they’d paid it back several times and then had to borrow it again, and this continued after I mortgaged my house. They already had a mortgage, even though it was only for $60,000, but each month they were a little short.
In January the main focus was supposed to be on Death of a Shining Star. Cathal Byrne’s first message that year to our agent, Scott Ferguson, read,
I have a couple of questions regarding Shining Star. We know Allied Artists are interested in putting up 50% of the budget for the film. I will contact John and discuss the budget and contractual arrangements with him. Regarding other interested parties, can you please provide information on the following? (I’ve left out the producers who were interested in working with us at this point, since we wound up working with them at a later date, after leaving ShadowHawk – there were about a dozen) We are trying to establish who all these people are and what their interests are in the script. Debora, Sandra and Tom – should you need to contact any of these people to get details, please be sure to copy Scott in the mail. At this time what we need are the details on these companies and where their interests lie. Once we have these and have reviewed them, we will make a move to contract for the remaining 50% of the film budget.
Any questions? Please contact me...Cathal Byrne
In January of 2004 ShadowHawk decided that their first in-house production would be my script The Sewing Club, s story which could be adapted to filming in any town near a large city, and could be produced on a modest budget. But that had barely begun, most of that month had to do with peripheral production companies and the introduction of Brian Eustace, the director. We started working with him on the film budget, casting, and locations. He took over the financing talks in February.
On the first of March I received this note from him:
I had an inconclusive meeting with Tyrone Productions – they produced “RiverDance”. John McColgan, the boss of Tyrone, is an old friend and colleague – I once directed him in a play. Even though they have made gazillions from tv they are leery of feature film. The costumes look lovely (I had illustrations for DEATH OF A SHINING STAR done by Jasmine Schwindeman, a college student who was fabulously talented and an aspiring fashion designer). My intention was to shoot entirely on location if possible both for authenticity and economy, but a studio (the discussion was about a film studio situated on Treasure Island between San Francisco and Oakland) could be very useful. Thanks for the info – we should talk soon.
And a few days later this letter went to Andreas Gruenberg, a German producer who evinced interest in providing financing for the film but not participating in the production;
“I am presently completing the budget for Debora Hill’s screenplay, DEATH OF A SHINING STAR. This has been somewhat delayed by the usual problems regarding casting, insurance, etc. In common, I suppose with every other project, there are a number of casting options at various prices, which would raise or lower the production costs. Obviously, the greater the stellar magnitude of the actor, the higher the insurance cost.
We are preparing an approach to Scarlett Johannsen, which, if successful, will propel the project out of the low to mid-budget range. A talent such as Johannsen’s will need to play to actors of similar ranking. While this enormously increases costs, having such a name attached to the project is very attractive to investors.
I am in touch with a number of potential investors in Ireland and the U.K. and the response has been, predictably, cautious. Tyrone Productions (who own RIVERDANCE and are cash rich due to it and successful tv production) are reluctant to invest in feature films as they are currently having expensive difficulties with a historical epic, THE GREAT O’NEILL.
Alan Maloney, of Parallel Films, currently has the script. Palace are also cash-rich, on the back of INTERMISSION. Alan is very close to Colin Farrell, and has promised that Colin will read DEATH OF A SHINING STAR (this was the first I’d heard of this, and wondered what part Colin Farrell could possibly play in a film about teenaged artists).
At the moment, I am awaiting replies from the above mentioned. I’m sure you know what it’s like. I will keep you informed of developments.
Best wishes, Brian Eustace, Director
Realt Entertainment Ltd.
In March someone re-entered our lives, although it was a surprise to hear from him again. His name was Frank Cmero, and before we started working with ShadowHawk, we wrote a film script of his life story. He and his wife and baby escaped from the Czech republic in 1979, and his story was particularly interesting because he was a government official before his defection. After writing the script, we didn’t really know what to do with it, and ShadowHawk thought it was too expensive for one of the first productions – the budget would run around $50 million u.s.
In March I realized it was a year since John Nichols pledged half the budget for Death of a Shining Star, and nothing had been finalized. On March 14th I wrote him the following letter;
Dear Mr. Nichols;
I has been some time since we communicated, and since then I know you have been in frequent communication with Anthony Whelan and Cathal Byrne at ShadowHawk Productions regarding DEATH OF A SHINING STAR. The director, Brian Eustace, spoke to me this morning. He has been in financing meetings regarding the script for the past two weeks, and plans to be in California in May and begin shooting in July.
The reason he has not yet contacted you is because he is under the impression that your offer to put up half the budget for the film is under the condition that first financing is in place first. If this is the case, Mr. Eustace will be contacting you later in the negotiations. If not you may contact him at...
Shortly after sending that communication, Brian Eustace asked me when John Nichols offered to put up half the financing for the film. I wrote him this note;
The first mention I have of Allied Artists offering to put up half the budget was in March of 2003. That message was from Cathal Byrne; I don’t know if John Nichols would be interested in becoming the first investor onboard, but he has been in the game for a long time, and I think it would be worth a shot. In December Scott (Ferguson, our agent), wanted to contact him and talk about it, but Anthony veered him off, saying he wanted to deal with Allied personally, as they had already progressed so far. You might want to discuss it.
At the beginning of 2004 Sandra’s niece Amanda starting working for me part-time. Amanda, who came to California from Florida, where Sandra’s sister and her husband moved when Amanda was was twelve, entered our lives in 2003 at the age of 21. She was a delightful, beautiful, intelligent tiny redhead with a voluptuous body and a taste for vintage clothes. Although she was still working as a Customer Service representative for a bank at the beginning of 2003, she was dissatisfied with this career path and wanted to return to college. Some bad decisions had made that difficult for the present, and until she was able to verify residency in California the fees would be prohibitive.
Amanda and Anthony quickly became email friends, and in March Sarah Whelan, Anthony’s sister and also an employee of ShadowHawk Productions, offered Amanda a prospective position with United Film Productions International (supposedly their umbrella company, or a subsidiary...Anthony Whelan had constructed an elaborate house of cards that looked stable at the time, but this was before the hurricane started to blow). But what she was being hired to do was nebulous...this is the note Sarah wrote to Amanda,
Your application has been processed and approved. You are now a member of United Film Productions International. UFPI is owned by ShadowHawk Films. Consulting companies involved include: Realt Entertainment, Petkov Graphics, Lost Myths Ink & White Tiger Entertainment. We also have individual consultants like David Kiernan, and many more. The aim of UFPI is to create a world-wide range of film crew to provide services in all areas of production & development. Please see below for you information.
UFPI Position: Production Assistant & Researcher
Group: Operations Group - Television & Motion Picture Division
Group Directors: Alan McNamara & Anthony Whelan
Account Number: MC100010
Vendor No: 4001
Please keep all this information safe as you will need it in the future. Will you please work with Debora and write a small piece about yourself and sent it to me. This information will be displayed on our website. If you have any other questions, please contact me. Welcome to the team.
Sounds wonderfully professional, doesn’t it? These people had the superficial aspects of a successful business down pat – how was anyone to know it was all smoke and mirrors? The song from Chicago, “Razzle-Dazzle ‘Em”, could have been written for the young men and women who were ShadowHawk Films. The next note was obviously calculated to draw me further into the web; perhaps they actually believed it themselves, at least then.
"Cathal and myself had a meeting today regarding Lost Myths Ink. We both agreed that SHINING STAR may very well be the making of our U.S. business. It looks like Scott Ferguson is going to stay as a member of the team. Scott will be our U.S. Business Manager for Development, reporting back here to the Managing Director. Regarding Lost Myths Ink, we see a long and profitable future and a well-laid plan like this:
Debora and Sandra; Editors and Story & Script Development writers reporting back to the General Manager & Development Manager, assisting and providing new ideas.
Tom: U.S. Business Manager for Acquisition reporting back to the General Manager and Acquisition Manager here, helping us find information needed.
Amanda; Production Assistant reporting back to the General Manager, helping with information needed.
Please talk to your team and let us know how you all feel about this: “Lost Myths Ink”, a member of United Film Productions International in the Television and Motion Picture Division".
Regards, Anthony Whelan, Managing Director - Operations
It was starting to occur to us that Anthony Whelan’s objective appeared to be to swallow us up and make us part of his future empire. At the time, that didn’t seem to be such a bad thing, as long as there was an empire to be a part of. But in March and April there were some strange misunderstandings having to do with the way they wanted to handle productions. In fact, they didn’t seem to know how to do this, at all...they divided them into two categories which they titled “Finance of Production”, supposedly meaning they would finance the film themselves through their investors or “Sale of Production”, which meant they would manage the production but not finance it themselves.
Thusfar the only script they had approved for in-house financing was THE SEWING CLUB. This appeared to be because it could be filmed anywhere, and they were thinking of moving it from Northern California to Dublin. But in April, a conflict arose regarding that script and the entire system, but we were too busy with Frank Cmero and his supposed development money for GO WEST, YOU IDIOT! To notice. We had been promised the development money in writing by the end of April. It all seemed so fabulous at the time, as if we had won the lottery. But the reality was that we were being taken for a ride to the Twilight Zone, and it wasn’t going to be an episode with a happy ending.
On April 22nd I wrote this letter to everyone at ShadowHawk:
Frank Cmero will be leaving for Europe on May 3rd and is arranging to pick up the first installment of the development money for GO WEST, YOU IDIOT! In Germany. We will probably begin work on the novel first, until we start working with someone on the rewrite; we want to tailor the script to the specifications of the producer and director...if it turns out to be Anthony and Brian, all the better!
Lost Myths Ink will be incorporated as of sometime next month, and our lawyer, Peter Landes, will be working with Frank regarding the distribution of the development money. When we return from San Diego on May 3rd Sandra and I are going to begin work on a plan for the novel.
As of May 1st, Amanda Siedentopf will be working for me as my assistant, until Brian needs her to start work as Production Assistant on DEATH OF A SHINING STAR. Sarah; we haven’t heard back from you regarding the financing for THE SEWING CLUB – Amanda can begin sending letters to my network after May 3rd, if you want her to. I believe Scott has already sent out some inquiries of his own.
Until then, hoping to hear good news...always!
It certainly sounded good at the time. Brian was planning to be in California in May, but I was to learn that movie people are always planning to be somewhere soon, and rarely get there. On the 28th of May I got this note from Anthony – he was a master of gobbledy-gook talk.
As you know, Sarah is the Director of Administration Group which oversees our Marketing Department. While we believe our Marketing Department is doing well, we have taken steps to create a strong hold on the film market. We now have the Television & Motion Picture Group up and running. The purpose of this group is to control the flow of production within Television & Motion Picture. Also to begin finding a number of join investors for Television & Feature Scripts. Finance and Development – Alan McNamara is the Group Director. He will be working closely with Sarah, the Marketing Director and myself in the hope that over the next few months we will have a lot of serious investors interested in joint financial agreements for scripts like THE SEWING CLUB and DEATH OF A SHINING STAR. If you have any questions regarding this, please contact myself at this mail address or Alan. Thank you for your time.
Reading that again after a few years makes me realize that Anthony was the absolute master at talking a lot and saying nothing. Something else that was epidemic in the film industry. We went to San Diego and Disneyland for ten days, and Amanda went with us. When we returned, Sarah Whelan offered Tom a job at ShadowHawk (along with everyone else, I guess they decided they might as well bring in as many people as they could, since they weren’t going to pay anyone anyway). He received his letter from her –
First off, let me welcome you to United Film Productions International. You have been contracted as Business Manager of Acquisition. Geraldine will send you a letter regarding your position and how it works.
At this time I would like to explain U.F.P.I. to everyone, as there have been a number of questions regarding. ShadowHawk Films set up UFPI last year in order to gain relationships world-wide with production professionals and build a company capable to dealing with all areas of Film and Television. The UFPI Associates Consultants are individual professionals who provide different areas of expertise and allow UFPI to advertise more services and seek better business. Should any of you have any further questions regarding UFPI, please contact me.
Regards, Sarah Whelan