I really don’t want to get up tomorrow. I might just lay there with the blankets pulled up over my head. I doubt I’ll cry but it’s not impossible. No, I’m not waiting for the result of my annual blood test, which is always terrifying, nor do I have a dental appointment. Nor is my mother-in-law flying in for a stay-in visit, I actually like my mother-in-law. The problem is a TV show named Elementary that will debut in Australia tomorrow night. Why should this bother me so much?
It’s like this.
Back in 2003/4 I had this idea. It hit me, smack, like an angry magpie. Dr Watson is a woman! It is 2004 and she lives in New York where she works with the NYPD as a scientist. Her great-great-grandfather was a London doctor, what she doesn’t know is he was the Doctor Watson. When she finds his old diaries she turns up a body frozen for one hundred and twenty years. She brings the frozen body back to life and it is Sherlock Holmes. Voila! Watson and Holmes ride again, only now it is modern day New York and she’s a woman, which like so many good movies and TV series before leaves romantic friction on the table.
I knew it was a great concept. Sometimes a writer just hits the sweet spot. He/she knows this is a home run from the moment it leaves the bat. I very quickly wrote up a draft of a feature movie which I called My Dear Watson. The tone was Miss Congeniality, comic, heart, a little action and a few thrills. The core of the movie was Watson learning to embrace life and Sherlock coming to grips with the 2000s. It wasn’t a brilliant draft but the idea excited me, it was a winner.
I got it off to my agent, and herein lies the nub of my problem, I only have an Australian agent, not some gung-ho Yank who needs to find fuel for his Porsche everyday he goes to work. Sporadically I have tried to get somebody in the U.S. to rep me but without success. Anyway, my agent wasn’t as inspired as I was. Her comment was “I picked the killer”. Well, yes, I wasn’t trying to be too tricky here. Then she thought it should be darker in tone, more like the original stories. So what did I do? I did nothing on it for four years, my agent left for the love of her life – to live in New York ironically – and I wrote prime-time television throwing my energies into other feature scripts that my Australian agency might just be able to get up here. But My Dear Watson still gnawed, it was such a damn good idea.
By this time I had a much better idea for the character Watson. As a young girl aged ten she had fallen through the ice while skating and “died”. That incident had made her want to make a difference with her life, she was a crusader and cryogenics were her specialty although she was employed by NYPD as a time of death specialist. In this version she finds the old diaries and travels to Switzerland where she locates a secret lab set up by her great-great-grandfather in which is preserved the body of Holmes, retrieved from the icy lake after his plunge at the Reichenbach falls. Watson had spent his life trying to revive his friend and while he had failed, the body was still preserved intact.
A friend of mine Trevor Farrant, a brilliant writer who has worked on many US TV shows, told me it was a fabulous idea, the Americans would love it and I should write it as a TV show. Trevor thought the key point of the show was Sherlock’s study of human behaviour versus Watson’s CSI forensic instinct. Trevor is a tough taskmaster and didn’t think my pilot outline was good enough though he did urge me to call every US Agent I could find till one took me on. I think I lasted about three before I gave up. Then my Australian agency asked if I had any ideas for the US and I sent it in though in the end I doubt they ever sent it off. So once more I was frustrated with My Dear Watson.
A year or so later a plethora of Sherlock Holmes remakes started up in feature and TV, one even featured a modern day Holmes but I still had an ace up my sleeve, my Watson was a woman.
Then in August 2010 I was fortunate enough to be selected to do a comedy screenwriting workshop with American Steve Kaufman. We had to bring an idea to develop. I had something I thought might be fun about a lawyer who finds he never really graduated and has to go back to high school. In the end though they did one of those exercises where you have to throw out that idea and come up with another two. I pitched one idea but Steve didn’t seem crazy on it so I pulled out My Dear Watson (aka Over My Dead Body) and he reacted favourably. He loved the Rip Van Winkle aspect of it. Post the workshop I decided I would really go for it this time. My TV commitments had suddenly halted and I actually had time on my hands.
I plotted out the movie as per the Save the Cat template, employed ideas Kaufman had offered and spent twelve weeks head down bum up on the script. Finally, I had a draft I was happy with. In fact I had two – one set in New York, one in Sydney. Now to get it made, this time I would pull out all stops I told myself. I figured my first port of call would be to Screen Australia but the people I wanted to see were on holidays.
My good friend and fellow writer Sarah Smith loved the concept. There was one US producer in particular she thought might go for it. My hopes were high. Not long after I get a call from Sarah who tells me the terrible news. A US casting agent she was dealing with had sent through a list of proposed pilots and in that list was Elementary, a modern take on Sherlock Holmes where Holmes is working for the NYPD … and WATSON IS A WOMAN!!!!
If I was ever going to be raped by a Transformer, this would be what it felt like, a river of pain, anguish, impotence. Not just the three months work down the drain but the certainty I’d carried with me that this was a great commercial idea proven right, but not for me, for some Johnny-come-latelies. I was tormented by images of these dopes in the US who had “created” the show celebrating at groovy Hollywood night-spots, telling themselves how clever they were while I had been there seven years earlier. Sorry, I don’t mean to be bitter, and my gripe isn’t with them anyway, I don’t even know them, I’m just green and puce with envy.
Actually the concepts aren’t exactly the same, my Holmes is the original Holmes transported to the present day which gives it a lot of fun but also much poignancy. Elementary sounds like they’ve taken the contemporary British series and made Watson a woman. I’ve heard from two people who have seen the show that it’s not that good but so what? It has probably destroyed any chance of my version ever being made, and maybe you’d think my script was crap if you saw it on screen. But at least it would be on screen.
It’s not the first time I’ve suffered the curse of being an Australian thousands of Ks from the real action. Way back in 1992 I came up with a movie which was a modern take on vampires. This was the same time as the original Buffy. So Josh W is a genius and Dave W a nobody. The script is here, unmade. I even have a Hollywood director who loves it but now the vibe is that vampire movies are old hat.
It is no consolation that I am not alone in my purgatory. My friend Sarah who I mentioned has been through the same thing. Years ago Sarah came up with an idea for a movie about a battling single mother who grows pot to provide for her family. She wrote the script and was looking to get it made. A couple of years go by then first Amazing Grace hits the big screen, (elderly aristocrat grows dope to save manor) then Weeds the small screen. I don’t have to imagine how Sarah felt, I know. This is the sometimes gut-wrenching heartache and frustration of being an Australian writer without US representation. If you are a commercial, concept kind of writer like Sarah and me the ideas are often too big or too daring for Australian producers to contemplate. Those producers here who might be big enough already have their own projects.
I guess at the end of the day I have to accept the responsibility for not getting my project out there sooner but it really isn’t easy, not when you’re writing your fingers to the bone seven days a week to sustain a family, nor when you send scripts off to producers here and they don’t get back in touch for months, if ever. I believe I have a couple more killer movie concepts so I think another trip to the States beckons. No matter how many doors are slammed in my face it can’t be worse than hiding under the blankets not wanting to face reality.
I’m still not sure if I can watch Elementary. Maybe.