Gilstrap Hired to Adapt True Story of Heroism

HOLLYWOOD, CA (July, 2010)– Thriller writer John Gilstrap has signed to write and co-produce the film Six Minutes to Freedom, reports SESSO Entertainment Group, the independent development and production company that recently optioned the theatrical rights to the non-fiction bestseller by the same name. Gilstrap, who has previously penned screen adaptations for works by Nelson DeMille, Thomas Harris and Norman Maclean, was co-author of the book on which the movie will be based.

Six Minutes to Freedom recounts the true story of Kurt Muse, an American living in Panama, who was arrested in 1989 under the direct order of General Manuel Noriega in retribution for his involvement in a plot to overthrow the dictator. As his family was forced to flee the country in fear of their lives, Muse endured long months in the torture factory that was known as Modelo Prison. Ultimately, Muse was rescued in the opening moments of Operation Just Cause, the U.S. Invasion of Panama. The rescue mission, executed by the U.S. Army’s super-secret Delta Force, is one of the great successes in the annals of Special Forces operations. Under heavy fire, and with their rescue helicopter shot down in the middle of a neighborhood controlled by hostile forces, the Delta operators and Muse held attacking forces at bay for over thirty minutes until reinforcements arrived on the ground and delivered Muse back to his family in the States.

The film project will be developed by SESSO, and produced by the company’s principal, Samuel V. Franco. “The book spoke to me the moment I began reading it,” Franco said in an interview. “It is an important story that people should learn about. It is filled with characters that make up the scope of mankind—from its most evil, to unrecognized heroes.”

John Gilstrap is scheduled to begin work on the script once his latest book, No Mercy, is released in July. Six Minutes to Freedom is being described as a cross between classics such as Midnight Express, Missing, and Black Hawk Down.

“When I first found out about Kurt’s remarkable story, I was shocked that no one had yet written a book about it,” Gilstrap said in an interview. “It’s the perfect real-life thriller. It’s got a team of patriots who suffer unspeakable hardships for their ideals, it’s got one of the great villains of the modern era in mass murderer Manuel Noriega, and it’s got a family that is devoted not just to each other, but to a cause higher than themselves. Finally, it’s got a kick-ass third act that delivers a happy ending at Christmastime. I’ve always believed that this is a story that America needs to see on the big screen. More than that, it’s a story that they need to take into their hearts.”

Nathan’s Run

Two days after I sold the North American hard cover rights for Nathan’s Run, and my head was still spinning from the equivalent to hitting the lottery, I got an amazing phone call from my literary agent. The conversation went something like this:

“Hi, John, this is Molly. I was wondering if you had anything special planned for this evening.”

“Well, this is Friday, so we usually do pizza and a movie. Why?”

“Funny you should mention movies. The bidding’s getting pretty hot in Hollywood for the movie rights. Last time I heard, seven studios were involved. I think the deal will probably close tonight, and I’d like you to stick near the phone for a while, if that’s not too much trouble.”

You’ve got to remember now that just two days before, I was teaching classes on the handling and storage of hazardous wastes. I was an engineer, for God’s sake, living in Woodbridge, Virginia; not exactly the center of the media universe. After mulling the question for about one one-thousandth of a second, I said something cool and aloof like, “What, are you kidding??? Of course I can stick near the phone! Oh, my God, a movie??”

The bidding was, indeed furious, and after a few intervening phone calls — during which I found out for the first time that I had a Hollywood agent (my literary agent saw to that)—Matthew (the Hollywood guy) called at around 10:00 that night to tell me that Disney had an offer on the table for more money than I had ever seen, cumulatively, in my entire life, and that we had ten minutes to make a decision.

“There’s a decision to make?” I gasped.

“Well, yeah,” said Matt. “In fact I’m advising you not to take it. At least not yet. We haven’t heard from Warner Bros. yet. Besides we have ten minutes… actually about eight and a half minutes.”

Disney’s ten minutes were not approximate; their offer was good for precisely nine minutes and 60 seconds. In fact, while we sat on the phone chatting—okay, he was chatting, and I was hyperventilating—Matt had to drop off the line every minute on the minute to take another call from the Mouse House, advising him that his client had exactly seven minutes to make up his mind. Six minutes… five minutes.

When we got down to under three minutes, I started to crack. “Let’s just take the offer,” I begged. “I mean I can’t…”

“Wait,” Matt said. “I’ve got Warner Bros. on the other line.”

He was gone for all of 15 seconds.

“Warners just beat the offer from Disney,” Matt announced. “Now, with your permission, I’d like to just play them against each other, unless you have a preference for producers…”

Confession: At that point in my life, I didn’t know what a producer did, let alone why I should prefer one over the other. I told him to use his best judgement.

Warner Bros. won, and I went to bed that night high as a kite, and reasonably certain that I was the only person in all of Woodbridge who’d closed a movie deal that night.

Oh, how quickly a life can change!

Nathan’s Run Redux

Two years after I’d sold the movie rights to Nathan’s Run, there’d still been no forward progress on the movie. Script problems, they said. Insurmountable ones, in fact. Matt the movie agent called with the bad news in August of 1997: Warner Bros was putting Nathan’s Run in turn-around; the first in a complex series of steps that generally lead to a movie’s death.

All because of script problems. I told Matt that the previous script writers were missing the point of the story; that I could do better, if only given the chance. Important Hollywood Lesson: Be careful what you say.

“Hmm,” said Matt. “Do you think you could do it by next week?” The word “sure” escaped my lips before the filter in my brain had a chance to stop it. Sure I could write a screenplay in a week. Why should I let a little detail like never having seen a screenplay—let alone write one stand in my way? Bravado, baby. If you’re gonna be a dog, be a big dog, that’s what I always say.

So, I dashed out to my local bookstore and picked up a copy of William Goldman’s book, Adventures in the Screen Trade, and read it cover to cover in a day. In it, he’s got the complete script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and when I finished it, I actually thought I had a handle on this screenwriting thing, so I started writing. Three days later, I had a completed script for Nathan’s Run.

Matt loved it. The executives at Warner Bros. loved it—enough to pull it out of turn-around and back into active development. But best of all, I had a decent writing sample for my agent to shop around Hollywood, in search of additional screenwriting work.

Oh, and where does the Nathan’s Run movie project rest now, you ask? It’s back in turn-around…

At All Costs

When I was writing the novel At All Costs, I knew I was on to a hell of a story, but man, was it hard to write. If you’ve read it, then you can probably figure out why: Lots of characters doing lots of things all at the same time. Everyone in my publishing food chain—author, agent, editor, publisher—knew that the kinks would get worked out, but until they did, we’d all agreed that no one—NO ONE—would see a copy of this manuscript until it was truly finished.

A little peek at publishing’s dirty underbelly: Movie studios plant spies thoughout the publishing industry. Their job is to keep an eye out for stories that would make good movies, and then pirate copies of the manuscript to their bosses in Hollywood so that they can have a leg up on all the other producers when the literary property comes up for bid in Tinseltown.

To keep this from happening to us—to keep producers from passing judgement on a manuscript that wasn’t yet completed—we created our own little security network. At any given time, exactly three copies of At All Costs drafts existed in the whole world. I had one, my literary agent had one, and my editor had the third. If the material leaked, we’d know that it came from the editor. It’s not that we didn’t trust him, but publishing houses are big places, and it’s easy to lose track of how manuscripts are handled and by whom.

Word leaks anyway, of course, and anytime people want to see something yet can’t get their hands on it, the result is known in the industry as buzz. And the buzz on At All Costs was really good. My editor routinely fielded phone calls from producers asking for an advance peek, and he told them all exactly what he was supposed to say: “You’ll get a peek at the same time everybody else does.” Out in Hollywood, Matt the movie agent (not to be confused with Molly the literary agent), was telling people the same thing: “Relax. You’ll get the same shot that everyone else does.”

Then one day I got a phone call from Molly’s assistant asking me for an updated copy of the manuscript. When I asked why, he said something like, “we just need a current copy.” Well, the reality was, that I didn’t have a current copy—not that anyone would be able to read. When I edit a manuscript, I pencil changes on the pages themselves—sweeping changes, in this case, with arrows and margin notes, and all manner of indecipherable markings—and I hadn’t yet entered any of them into the computer. It wasn’t even due for another three months. “Send what you can,” the assistant said.

Okay, when your agent asks for something, you deliver. Those are the rules. So, after printing out a new copy of the old manuscript, I sent it off via Fed-Ex, and started stewing. Something was happening. I felt it, but I couldn’t imagine what it might be. Finally, I called Molly. “There’s something you’re not telling me,” I said.

Boy, was I right…

It seems that mega-producer Arnold Kopelson (The Fugitive, Platoon) had walked unannounced into Molly’s office and said that he’d heard that the new Gilstrap book was almost done, and he wanted to take a look at it. Molly explained the rules we’d developed, but Kopelson pressed hard.

Molly slipped him the copy, and the next day, promising that this would be his next huge-budget film, he made a pre-emptive offer that only a fool would say no to. And my mama didn’t raise no fools.

So I had my second mega-bucks movie sale, and the champagne flowed in the Gilstrap home. Plus, this one was virtually guaranteed to be made! Was that cool or what?

In three years since that day in 1997, the film hasn’t moved an inch closer to production. Welcome to Hollywood.