The filmmaker, who went to jail for his role in the Anthony Pellicano case, tells a judge that his new movie (‘Warbirds’) will star John Travolta and that he will be paid more than $1 million
By Eriq Gardner
Stick around a Wyoming bankruptcy court long enough and you’ll never know what you’ll hear — John Travolta signing up for a forthcoming Top Gun-type film, a lack of universal love for the acting chops of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and most especially, what in the world Die Hard director John McTiernan has been up to lately.
Once the film world’s top gun himself for such blockbusters as The Hunt for Red October and Predator, McTiernan spent 10 months in a South Dakota prison cell after pleading guilty to lying to law enforcement officers investigating him for hiring private eye Anthony Pellicano to wiretap The Dark Knight producer Charles Roven, with whom McTiernan worked on the 2002 film Rollerball. Now out of prison, he’s involved in a contentious bankruptcy dispute near his 3,254-acre ranch in Wyoming.
First Interstate Bank wanted to foreclose on the ranch, but McTiernan and his wife then filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The bank contends that the bankruptcy was done in bad faith and is now looking to convert the case into Chapter 7, a much more drastic procedure that seeks to liquidate rather than rehabilitate the individual.
On Wednesday, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Peter McNiff presided over a four-hour court hearing where a lawyer for McTiernan squared off against an attorney for the bank. Much of the hearing concerned the value of the ranch, McTiernan’s refusal to accept an initial offer for the property, and the nitty gritty of McTiernan’s financial statements. Nevertheless, McTiernan’s Hollywood comeback was also a prominent subject because the film director wishes to show he has other means to pay the creditors even if he refuses to liquidate his ranch.
James Belcher, McTiernan’s attorney, told the judge in his opening argument that while McTiernan was fighting for his freedom, he couldn’t work in the movie industry because it was impossible for production companies to get “key man” insurance on him. But he says the situation has changed.
"The evidence will show his earning potential dwarfs my concept of reality — north of $2.5 million on the projects he has on the table," said the lawyer. "One of them is sealed and in the bank."
Well, not quite sealed but very close.
McTiernan later took the witness stand and offered some clarity on what he’s been doing in his life the past year and what he intends to do next. “The basic idea is that I want to re-establish my career and rebuild my life,” he testified.
The director quickly added that the “normal way is you put out your shingle and you go to lunch a lot in Los Angeles and schmooze and eventually someone comes to you.”
But he’s not so fortunate to be in the situation where lunch meetings come easily. So he’s gone back to his roots as a filmmaker — writing scripts on spec. In fact, he says he has completed three screenplays. One was written in the months before he went to jail. The other two were written this past summer. And one of those scripts appears to have already scored a buyer.
According to McTiernan, Hannibal Pictures is handling the film (The company is an international sales agency that packages talent to sell to overseas distributors. An executive at the company confirmed it’s indeed working on this project titled Warbirds, followed by another McTiernan project titled Red Squad.) Travolta has signed up for the lead, and McTiernan aims to begin shooting this autumn. As for other cast-members, offers have gone out to Queen Latifah and Johnny Knoxville, says the director.
The paperwork isn’t quite complete. “They offered a million so far, my agent is still hoping to get one million and a quarter,” said McTiernan, before adding that when he was hot, he would command $8 million per picture.
Under cross-examination by the bank’s lawyer, McTiernan was challenged about whether the Travolta film can really be counted upon. The director, who says he’s been taking two-hour meetings every day on this project, said Hannibal hired his assistant director this week as well as people to scout airplanes. Then, there’s CGI firms in Atlanta and Montreal being interviewed to handle the special effects that will cost $3-5 million since “it’s sort of the dog-fighting movie of all time they couldn’t make when they had the real airplanes because it’s too damn dangerous.”
Plus, it’s John Travolta. “He’s one of five or six guys… the old term is ‘bankable,’” says McTiernan. “If they commit, the movie happens.”
Not every old Hollywood star is favored by the director.
McTiernan says he is being eyed to rewrite someone else’s script and direct a film that is scheduled to begin in January. He’s strongly considering it, but there’s one thing he doesn’t like about the project. “They are trying to put in Arnold Schwarzenegger, and it’s a bad idea. I have to convince them not to.”
McTiernan presented the possibility that with new income on top of his residuals, he’ll be able to procure alternate financing so as to repay his debt, though he says he still intends to sell the ranch and move. Asked by the bank’s lawyer whether he wanted to go back to Los Angeles, the director seemed to rule out that possibility. Should the director start earning millions of dollars again, he’d be forking over a significant chunk to his ex-wife under a divorce agreement. Plus, he pays a 10 percent commission to his agent at Paradigm. Well, maybe. McTiernan says his contract with his agent lapsed two years ago, but “if I don’t pay him, he’ll sue me. I think there is an implied contract.”
Judge McNiff was star-struck. When McTiernan got off the witness stand, the bankruptcy judge said, “It is very interesting to hear you.” And at the end of the proceeding, the judge remarked, “This is quite a day. We’re known for it in bankruptcy.”
Photo credit: AP Images