Getting gypped out of a screenwriting credit for a movie that has grossed over $300 million and won seven Oscars would put anyone on edge. It's a good thing that Don Ethan Miller is an expert at tai chi, and he knows how to relax.
But no matter how mellow the former Chilmark resident can get with Chinese meditation, he still hungers for justice. He got his first taste last month, 18 years after he and another writer, Peter Hassinger, wrote a 60-page treatment pitching a movie about a young William Shakespeare who beats a case of writer's block when he meets a beautiful woman with a noble pedigree.
If the plot sounds like one you've seen before, a California judge thought so too. In United States District Court in Los Angeles, Judge Dean Pregerson ordered that Mr. Miller's claim of copyright infringement go to trial.
The case will pit the tai chi instructor, who now lives in Arlington, against Hollywood heavyweights Universal Pictures and Miramax Film Corp., the co-producers of Shakespeare in Love, a box office smash and critical success in 1998.
"What galls me the most," Mr. Miller said in a telephone interview last week, is that it won best original screenplay. Everyone was praising this picture for its originality, but the guys who got the Oscars didn't make it up."
Ripped-off is how Mr. Miller feels. His film treatment was shot down back in 1983, and by 1985 he had resigned himself to hunkering down for a winter in Chilmark, turning his idea into a novel. But then, a Montreal production company optioned the story for a movie and hired him to write the screenplay. By 1991, Filmline International had sent five drafts of The Dark Lady to executives at Universal. All were rejected.
In 1992, Mr. Miller happened to pick up a copy of Variety and read an article saying that Universal was planning to shoot a Shakespeare movie starring Julia Roberts. "I was confused. I assumed it was our project," he said.
Only it wasn't. "I got hold of a copy of the script, and it was astoundingly similar to mine," he said. Mr. Miller threatened legal action, charging plagiarism. Then he heard the project was shelved. Six years later, though, it was revived, and Shakespeare in Love was in the theatres with a different cast line-up and screenwriting credits going to Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard, the British playwright.
"Theft of intellectual property in Hollywood is rampant," said Mr. Miller. "I was at a dinner party in L.A., and everybody had a different story of stuff being ripped off."
But the trick is finding some recourse. "It's very costly and arduous to make a case and make it stick," he said. "Lawyers won't take a case unless it's a very successful movie."
But Mr. Miller is emboldened by earlier successes, most recently, he said, by a high school biology teacher from Detroit, who was awarded a $19 million settlement last March from a Michigan jury that believed his claim that movie producers had stolen his idea for the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, Jingle All the Way.
It's also not the first time an Island writer has challenged ownership of a movie idea. In 1988, Art Buchwald, the syndicated newspaper columnist and longtime seasonal resident of Vineyard Haven, filed a lawsuit against Paramount Pictures, claiming the movie Coming to America was based on a film treatment he and another writer had submitted five years earlier. They won their case in 1995 with a settlement just over $1 million.
Already, Mr. Miller's case shows some promising signs. Attorneys for Miramax and Universal had demanded a summary judgment, hoping to see the case thrown out. But instead the judge wrote in his ruling that "a reasonable jury could find that Shakespeare in Love is substantially similar to protected elements of The Dark Lady."
In three lengthy paragraphs, the judge then spelled out all the similarities. In both Mr. Miller's draft screenplay and Shakespeare in Love, the famous playwright is suffering from writer's block and is under pressure to produce a play. In both, he meets a beautiful noblewoman. And in both versions, "the love affair unblocks him, and he writes a great new play," said Mr. Miller.
Even minor details are the same, such as when Shakespeare gets a ferry ride from a boatman over the Thames for a secret tryst with his new lover. "I was living in a house overlooking Chilmark Pond when I wrote the novel and screenplay," he said. "The Thames boatman, I found him while rowing across Chilmark Pond one day."
Mr. Miller is convinced his ideas were stolen outright. "Five executives got those drafts," he said. "Coincidentally, it turned out to be the same five who were involved in the development and production of Shakespeare in Love."
Another coincidence? Miramax studio chief Harvey Weinstein is also a seasonal resident of the Vineyard. Mr. Miller said the two have never crossed paths on the Island.
But they might see each other in court. Mr. Miller expects a trial to begin early next year and for it to be closely watched. "There's never been a movie this successful, one with such a sterling reputation that has been the result of such egregious theft," he said.
Lawyers for Mr. Miller have not named any amount sought for damages. That will be up to the judge to set guidelines, and for the jury to decide if the plaintiff wins. But the screenwriter and tai chi instructor has a good idea what he's missed out on. "One's career is propelled skyward by a success like this," he said.
A drama major when he attended Dartmouth, Mr. Miller has always been drawn to history. "The Elizabethan period was so vital and so exciting with the modern theatre being born," he said. "The English language was at its pinnacle."
Despite the love of language, the theatre and history, Mr. Miller does not come off as a bookish sort. A quick web search found Internet pages touting his tai chi and martial arts achievements complete with pictures showing thick biceps and a determined stare. The 1995 national kung fu champion wants his day in court.
"Should we succeed and win," he said, "I could actually go back to the writers' guild and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and demand both credit and the Academy Award."
Until then, he's got other things to keep him busy - a two-year-old son and a steady load of tai chi classes to teach. "Tai chi has kept me sane and kept me from pursuing a life of crime in the face of the great injustice done to me. It centers you. It equalizes your emotional state," he said. "And it pays the rent."