Farhad Safinia, the screenwriter and director of The Professor and the Madman, has just filed a lawsuit that is anything but ordinary. In California federal court, he alleges that he never came to a deal to shoot the picture and that Voltage Pictures is committing copyright infringement with respect to the movie about the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary that stars Mel Gibson and Sean Penn. Plus, he’s asserting defamation.
His lawsuit follows one in August from Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, which must be discussed first for context.
Icon claims that Gibson was entitled to sign off on any material changes to the screenplay, any change of director, filming locations and more. The complaint also contends that Gibson would be allowed to see the final production budget and schedule, and, if necessary, select a final cut of the film.
Voltage, in reaction to the lawsuit, told the Los Angeles Times that it “had sincerely hoped to have an excellent relationship with Mel Gibson and his company on The Professor and The Madman, but Mr. Gibson and the film’s director consistently failed to live up to their professional and contractual responsibilities to Voltage.”
(Separately, in court, Voltage is looking to dismiss claims on the failure of Icon to spell out the harm from the alleged contractual breaches.)
Now, Safinia is suing over the press response. Represented by the same attorneys handling Icon, the film director asserts that Voltage and chief Nicolas Chartier “intentionally made and published the false and defamatory statement with actual malice, knowledge of, and/or reckless disregard as to the falsity of those statements because Defendants knew Mr. Safinia has in fact lived up to all his professional responsibilities to Defendants. Moreover, no contract was concluded or signed by Mr. Safinia, on the one hand, and Defendants, on the other. Thus, the assertion Mr. Safinia ‘consistently failed to live up to’ his ‘contractual responsibilities to Voltage’ is demonstratively and patently false.”
The lack of contract, if true, would be astonishing and may play into the separate copyright claim. It’s not typical for someone to film a movie without coming to a deal that transfers rights. It’s possible that the two sides disagree whether a term sheet was ever truly executed, but that will be explored later.
For now, Safinia alleges that without his permission or consent, “Defendants prepared, distributed, displayed and offered for sale an unauthorized derivative work from Mr. Safinia’s copyrighted screenplay titled The Professor and The Madman. Defendants engaged in the foregoing violations of Mr. Safinia’s rights with full knowledge that Mr. Safinia does not consent to unauthorized use of his copyrighted screenplay, and with full knowledge that their activities will damage Mr. Safinia.”
According to Gibson’s suit, at least one version of the movie was screened for distributors at Cannes. According to Safinia’s suit, he registered the screenplay for protection with the U.S. Copyright Office on Aug. 4.
There’s obviously more to this story. Voltage’s lawyer didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
In the meantime, Safinia is requesting a preliminary and permanent injunction, the impounding of film negatives and further monetary damages. Quinn Emanuel is representing him in court.