A lawsuit filed yesterday sheds interesting light on how movies like Live Free Or Die Hard get written. As reported by The Hollywood Reporter, Rob Thomas (not the Veronica Mars creator) filed suit in Los Angeles Superior Court against John “Skip” Woods for $661,700 in residuals owed relating to their work on screenplays for Swordfish, The A-Team, and others.
The lawsuit’s details (the full suit is available here) make for interesting reading. Woods and Thomas first met in the early 1990s at college and become close friends. When “Woods got married, Plaintiff [i.e. Thomas] was his best man.” Having always planned to work together, their first project was Thursday, a would-be thriller/black comedy. The lawsuit says the idea for the film was Thomas’, but that Woods insisted he star and direct; he eventually settled for just the latter, with Thomas as producer. When producer Alan Poul came on board, he refused to share credit with Thomas, who “agreed to step aside for the benefit of his friend Woods.”
The assumption was that the film would be successful enough for Thomas to take producer credit on Woods’ second feature, but Thursday was barely released and dismissed by as a Tarantino knock-off when it hit VHS: a representative review written by The Dissolve’s own Nathan Rabin noted that the movie “seems based not just on Pulp Fiction, but on the character Tarantino himself played in that film.” (Woods hasn’t directed another film since, though in an interview earlier this year he said that he’s “just trying to find the next movie that fits into my directing lexicon of ideas.”)
In 1997, Woods pitched Swordfish to Warner Bros. with himself as director and Thomas as producer. By the time the film had been repeatedly rewritten and gotten John Travolta attached, the budget had blown up to $80 million and WB replaced Woods with Dominc Sena (Gone In 60 Seconds). Woods got sole screenplay credit and Thomas got 10 percent of his fee, which the duo agreed would be their standard percentage split going forward. On most projects, Woods would write a first draft, then Thomas would edit and polish.
When it came to 2007’s Hitman, their roles were reversed when Woods got writer’s block. Thomas says he got his cut upped to 15 percent accordingly, but only “after much arguing.” By this time, “Woods said that admitting that Plaintiff was partly responsible for his scripts would ‘destroy his brand’ and ‘make him look bad.’ Since Plaintiff’s primary source of income was the monies he received from Woods, he certainly did not want to do anything to destroy Woods’ brand.”
In 2006, Woods was hired to do on-set rewrites for Live Free Or Die Hard, requiring him to “perform his writing services and be available to collaborate with the director, producers and/or studio executives, if necessary.” He’d allegedly email the notes he got to Thomas, who’d send back his work from a coffee shop. Woods would print out the rewrites and bring them to set as if they were his own.
There was growing tension between the partners: In an April 2010 email, Woods wrote “You ARE my partner, you don’t like the percentage, well that’s your prerogative.” Thomas grew suspicious, and in 2012 he discovered on the Writers Guild Of America website that Woods had been receiving the residuals he claimed were in “state escrow,” including $1.3 million for Swordfish alone. He’s seeking his cut of the unpaid residuals from that and other titles.