Back in our Bicentennial year of 1976 I wrote a novelette titled “The Phantom of Kansas.” I was pleased with it, and even happier when it made the final Hugo Award ballot. There it lost to, appropriately enough, Isaac Asimov’s “The Bicentennial Man.” It has been suggested by some that my story would have won except for A) the fact that I had two stories on the ballot in that category that year, B) the obvious link to the Bicentennial, and C) the nostalgia factor for one of the greats of the genre. In fact, Isaac wrote me a very nice letter mentioning all three factors, though he referred to himself as an “oldster,” not a great.
Some years later when the rights to my short story “Air Raid” were purchased, I participated in the story conferences concerning adapting what was really a very short but punchy story into a full-length motion picture. I suggested myself as a screenwriter, several times, as loudly as I could, but no one seemed to hear me. (Not surprising; I had no track record, had never even seen a screenplay, much less written one.) So they hired someone else, who I will not name. What he eventually turned in left us all horrified. There was very little of the original story left in it.
But in the meantime I had taken a chance. I got copies of some screenplays, such as The Godfather and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I would read a page of script, and then watch how that played out in my VHS copies of the movies. (William Goldman says that’s how he learned to write for the movies, too!) Then I sat down and, in four frantic days and almost sleepless nights, adapted “The Phantom of Kansas” as a two-hour movie, so the next time the producers were searching for a big-name screenwriter (we approached Waldo Salt, and he turned us down) I had something to show them instead. Plus, I would work cheaper! They were impressed, I was hired, and there went the next ten years of my life. I did eight or nine re-writes of the Millennium script before it was finally made.
I have always thought my Phantom screenplay was pretty good. It is rough, I readily admit that. It could do with a good polish or two. At least three different companies bought options to the story at various times, developed them for a couple years, and then decided not to green-light the picture, so all rights have reverted to me.
My agent in Hollywood has had no luck selling it, either. He says only three kinds of movies are getting the go-ahead these days: A) animation, B) superhero movies, either original or sequels, and C) “packages,” with one or more Big Name Stars or Big Name Directors already attached. Otherwise, you don’t even get past the studio gate.
And so, figuring we have nothing to lose and possibly something to gain, here’s what we are doing at the website:
First, publishing the story itself online. I’m hoping you will read it and see for yourself if you think it would make a good movie: “The Phantom of Kansas” novelette.
Second, and for the first time ever, we are publishing the screenplay: The Phantom of Kansas screenplay. This is an exclusive extra for visitors to the varley.net website!
What are we hoping for? Well, maybe one of you is in the movie business, or maybe you know someone in the movie business. Wouldn’t it be nice (as the Beach Boys sang) if the power of the Mighty Internet and its infinite connections could bring some creative people together to make this movie?
Anyway, even if it never happens, I hope you all enjoy reading it.
June 21, 2016