April 06, 2012 7:21pm PT by Matthew Belloni
Producers Zwick, Herskovitz Win 'Last Samurai' Trial Over Allegedly Stolen Script
A federal jury has sided with producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick in the long-running dispute over whether the script for the Tom Cruise blockbuster The Last Samurai was stolen from screenwriter brothers.
Plaintiffs Aaron and Matthew Benay claimed that their script, also called The Last Samurai, was submitted in 2000 by their agent to an executive at Bedford Falls, the production company run by Herskovitz and Zwick, and was later used as a basis for the 2003 film. But in a unanimous decision reached Friday after a seven-day trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, a jury ruled that the script never was submitted to Bedford Falls in the first place. All other issues in the case, including whether an "implied" contract existed between Bedford Falls and the Benay brothers, were thus rendered moot, giving Herskovitz and Zwick a victory.
"Ed and I are extremely relieved," Herskovitz told The Hollywood Reporter in an interview Friday. "It's hard to live under a cloud of false accusations for so many years. The fact that the jury said we never even saw the script—justice has been done."
A call to the Benays' attorney was not immediately returned.
The Benay brothers first filed their case in 2005, alledging that their screenplay for Last Samurai—about an American war veteran going to Japan to help the Imperial Army by training it in the methods of modern Western warfare—was written in the late 1990s. The brothers registered it with the WGA and hired a literary agent, David Phillips, who claimed he "pitched" it orally to Richard Solomon, then-president of production at Bedford Falls.
The case experienced several twists and turns, with strange allegations of forged evidence and DNA tests. A federal appeals court in 2010 affirmed the dismissal of a copyright infringement claim but sent the case back to a lower court to determine whether an implied contract might have existed between the screenwriters and Bedford Falls. In February, federal judge Philip S. Gutierrez dismissed as a defendant Warner Bros., which distributed the film, leaving just the producers as potentially on the hook for millions of dollars in alleged damages from a film that grossed more than $350 million worldwide.
But during the trial, questions were raised about whether that phone call to Solomon ever took place. Zwick and Herskovitz claimed they never knew about the other script until they were well into development on their own movie and read that a competing Samurai project was in the works. And ultimately, after just five hours of deliberation, the jury agreed with them.
Herskovitz and Zwick, whose prolific careers as writer-producer-directors include the TV series My So-Called Life and Thirtysomething and the films Blood Diamond and Defiance, were represented in the case by lead litigator Gary Gans.