Where there's a Will

Will Clarke has a deal with a New York publisher and a Hollywood studio, and it only took him eight years to become an overnight success

The one producer who bit, and bit hard, was Michael London, who rarely even listens to pitches from writers. He is, after all, a busy man, having been the producer of such acclaimed films as Thirteen and House of Sand and Fog in 2003 and Sideways, the latter of which was nominated for a Best Motion Picture of the Year Academy Award at the beginning of 2005. London also works with directors who instigate their own projects, which means he seldom needs to troll for new ideas. But this was different. Something about the book got him. And something about Morris kept him there.

"When Grant was sitting there, I remember every beat of the story he was telling just felt completely like nothing I'd seen before and very much like something I could imagine I wanted to see," London says. "And that's rare, almost like once a year, and when it happens it's easy, because you just say, 'I want to do this.'"

As it happened, London was trying to find something to make with director David Gordon Green, acclaimed for his trio of self-described "languid, lyrical dramas" George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow. And, as it so happened, Green lived two blocks from Grant Morris, whose script for Comeback had been sent to Green as something he might like to direct. (He passed, Green says, but the director shared the writer's "sensibility and sense of humor.") And, as it so happened, Green's also from Dallas. Did someone say "karma"?

Clarke hands out Vishnu finger puppets at book 
signings.
Clarke hands out Vishnu finger puppets at book signings.
Denise Roy, an editor at Simon & Schuster, brought Clarke on after meeting him at a writers' conference.
Marion Ettlinger
Denise Roy, an editor at Simon & Schuster, brought Clarke on after meeting him at a writers' conference.

Green read Lord Vishnu and immediately loved it. "I thought, 'This is the funniest crap I've read in a long time,'" he recalls. He told Morris and London he was in, and they started shopping their project around to studios. For Green, the chance to do Lord Vishnu was especially exciting: He's long wanted to make a comedy with mass appeal, to prove he's not merely the maker of moody, humid films.

"I've always seen this as having the absurdity and energy of M*A*S*H and a lot of the present-day commentary and comic sensibility of Groundhog Day," he says. "I want to get into the energy level and not shy away from the odd ridiculousness of the religion and spirituality that are beautifully woven into the story, but ultimately it's a character piece about a pretty funny guy dealing with weird situations thrown in his face."

New Line Cinema was immediately interested, London says. But last summer the trio eventually went to Paramount, where London ended up getting a three-picture deal with the studio, based in no small part on the success of Sideways.

At the same time, Denise Roy was getting antsy to sign Clarke--and, truth be told, the interest from Paramount didn't hurt. (All involved insist the fact Paramount and Simon & Schuster are owned by multinational Viacom had nothing to do with anything at all.)

"I have a name for the list of books I work with, 'Adventures in Americana,'" Roy says, "and it can be fiction, non-fiction or just unexplored moments in American life, and Lord Vishnu is certainly one of those. I think there's something so clever to Will's imagination, and I think it's something people will respond to. Any editor's going on gut feeling, and as a completely unscientific as that sounds, there was a real spark to his imagination, and people want that and want to encounter a mind like that."

On August 24, 2004, Simon & Schuster made Will Clarke the latest addition to its roster and put Lord Vishnu's Love Handles on its release schedule. The following day, the publishing house closed the deal to buy The Worthy, which it will publish next summer.

And, pretty much just like that, Will Clarke's a player, not yet a household name but no longer a secret, either.

The movie's not yet a done deal: Morris is finishing a third draft of the screenplay, which is due in a few weeks, and after that, London will have to line up a movie star powerful enough to warrant what London expects will be a fairly big budget. ("It's closer to Ghostbusters than You Can Count on Me," he says with a small laugh. "Which means you can't make the movie for $5 million.") There have been a number of actors mentioned for Travis--among them Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Vince Vaughn, even Brad Pitt--but thus far, it's all wishful thinking. There's even the chance the movie won't get made: Paramount just signed a second option agreement, which ends next July, but till cameras begin rolling--by the beginning of the year, London hopes--it's just an idea in development, one among dozens of dreams waiting to come true.

Till then, Clarke will keep pimping his book at signings, working on his third novel and, yeah, even take the occasional freelance advertising job.

"I got enough money to quit advertising for a while, but I still freelance," he says. "In trying to make the whole writer thing take off, it's really tough, even with all the breaks that I have. If the book doesn't earn back its advance, it's going to be a decline from there. The Worthy will be less promoted. And the movie might not happen at all. It just all depends. Everything is lined up for me to have really great expectations, and I do. At the same time, I've been through this so many times, so many almost-happenings with the book, that, well, I'm not wary of it, but it could all go away tomorrow."

So says a man who doesn't believe in karma. At all.

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