Thursday, May 16, 2013

Headhunter, by Michael Slade--Better than Silence of the Lambs?

I ignored this book for about 3 years. The cover gave me the creeps. Not the image in the link below, I'm talking about the hardcover-it was a woman's head on a spike. This was the late 80s and I was working for movie producer Elliott Kastner (EK), and the book was on a shelf in my office. EK had ignored it too-he was a literary snob and only made "classy" books into films, and let's face it, a woman's head on a spike ain't classy, just horrible. Then a friend of mine visited my office and saw the book. He'd read it and said if I liked police/murder thrillers, nothing could beat Headhunter. He told me I should try and make the movie. So I took that image of the head on a spike home with me every night to read the book. What can I say, the book grabbed me like Abel Magwitch grabbed Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations, turned me upside-down and shook the heck out of me. And when I got to the part where the killer's identity was revealed I was so shocked, so utterly blindsided that I cried out "no way!" and threw the book across the room. Then of course I picked it back up and finished reading it. And boy did I want to make the movie. I told EK and he said "okay run with it" which I presumed meant try and produce the movie. So off I ran.
At that time, Michael Slade was the pen name for three trial lawyers in Vancouver BC. The main scribbler and spokesperson for the trio was a guy named Jay Clarke (Jay still writes the books in the Special X series to this day, but I believe he now writes them with his daughter instead of the two other lawyers). I contacted Jay (it was easy to do things like that working for EK, my first day on that job I had Gregory Peck on the phone).
Jay told me the film rights for Headhunter were unavailable-they'd been held in option for a few years by a company that hadn't got the film made but was paying good money for the option. But Jay had heard of EK and a movie he'd recently produced called "White of the Eye" - a serial killer thriller, which was great but didn't make much of a splash. Jay didn't care; he was so excited about EK's involvement that we worked out a deal whereby I got the option for much less than the other guys had been paying.
White of the Eye was written and directed by Donald Cammell, who I immediately thought would love to do Headhunter. I'd gotten to know Donald when he came to Pinewood Studios to recut scenes in White of the Eye for the upcoming video release.
By this time, Donald and EK were in the process of trying to get financing for a script called "Jericho" that Marlon Brando had written and wanted to star in (EK, Brando and Donald were friends from way back). I told Donald about Headhunter and he agreed to read it. He went back to Los Angeles and a couple months went by so I called and asked him if he'd read the book. He said he had but I could tell it wasn't true - I just knew he'd be more excited if he really had. I told him not to worry and said just call me when you've read it.
Months went by. Then one day, I was with EK going over the mail when the phone rang. It was Donald calling from LA. And when he started raving about how great Headhunter was, I knew this time he'd really read it. It blew him away. He wanted to write the screenplay and make the movie. I thought we were off and running. But naturally Donald wanted his usual writing fee to adapt the book into a script, which was $75k. By today's standards that's really cheap, but EK hit the roof and said there was no way he'd pay Cammell that money to write that script. Again, EK didn't think a book whose cover was a woman's head on a spike was worth the money. So the entire project stalled and derailed and I never got to be the producer of a movie that, in my opinion, would not only have come years before Silence of the Lambs, but would also have blown that movie out of the water. If I had the money and connections today, I'd adapt Headhunter into a screenplay myself (doing it back then wasn't an option) and make that movie.
So anyway, if you love serial killer thrillers, and if you loved Silence of the Lambs (which I thought was great and one of the best book to movie adaptations ever), I think you'll agree that the book Headhunter makes Silence of the Lambs look like Little Bo Peep.

Here's Headhunter on Amazon:

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