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‘Sahara’s’ Cussler draws line in sand

Author takes stand in Crusader case

After a week of trial, plaintiff and star-witness author Clive Cussler took the stand for a brief direct examination in his case against Paul Anschutz’s Crusader Entertainment over the disappointing film “Sahara.”

Under the direction of his attorney, Bert Fields, Cussler touched on the main elements of his claim that his extensive script approval rights were violated and that the ultimate product “tore the heart out” of his novel, which features action-adventurer Dirk Pitt.

Cussler sued in 2004, claiming he was owed the balance of $2 million on the second Dirk Pitt novel and that the value of his film rights in the series had been destroyed by the “Sahara” disaster. Crusader countersued several months later claiming that Cussler’s refusal to approve the screenplays and his disparagement of the film to his fans spelled its doom.

The normally courtly Fields was particularly solicitous of Cussler, highlighting his age — he’s 75 — and bouts of ill health. Fields already had told the jury that Cussler was a cranky guy who sometimes misspoke, but on the stand, he fumbled only a few names.

Cussler testified that in a compromise over money and script rights, he would have complete script approval only on the first film and consulting rights on subsequent films, and would receive $10 million for each of the first two Dirk Pitt books. An Indiana Jones-type series was initially envisioned.

By the time the contract was signed in 2001, there was a screenplay by Thomas Dean Donnelly and Joshua Oppenheimer, which Cussler approved. David Ward was then brought in for revisions, which Cussler also approved.

Where the blame lies may be the main issue in the lawsuits, but there’s no question that what followed was development hell. In 2001, Paramount brought in James Hart for further revisions, which Cussler refused to approve. At that point, Cussler testified, he felt he had no choice but to write his own screenplay, which he said, incorporated the best of the previous drafts. In total, he wrote three screenplays, and producer Karen Baldwin told him Paramount loved them.

Nonetheless, in 2002, Josh Friedman was brought in for another round of revisions, which Cussler hated. He scrawled on the script, “This Josh Friedman should have his keyboard shoved up his anal canal.” At trial, this testimony elicited smiles and minor giggles from the jury.

In late 2002, Donnelly and Oppenheimer were brought back on the project, and Cussler said he approved the new script with some changes. Cussler then met with director Breck Eisner and writer John Richards to discuss their vision of the film. He did not approve their revisions and never saw another screenplay. One issue in the case is how much approval Cussler had over script changes once a director was hired.

Cussler also addressed the racial and anti-Semitic claims in the case — that he rejected screenplays in bad faith — saying his refusal to approve Friedman’s screenplay had nothing to do with religion. He pointed out that he approved Eisner, who he thought was Jewish, as well as Oppenheimer. Cussler also denied any racial bias in refusing to change the character of sidekick Al Giordino from Italian to black and also denied that he insisted on using a Confederate flag in a battle scene.

In a surprise move, Anschutz’s attorneys declined to cross-examine Cussler, reserving the right to call him as a witness when they put on their own case. “None of the testimony needed a response,” said Anschutz attorney Marvin Putnam outside of court. “We didn’t want to impose order on their chaos.”

Trial continues today with expert testimony.

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