James Franco‘s Bukowski lacks the necessary rights, says a new lawsuit that figures to explore the boundary between biography and autobiography.
On Thursday, Cyril Humphris stepped forward in California federal court to assert that he owns motion-picture rights to author Charles Bukowski‘s semi-autobiographical novel, Ham on Rye. The complaint alleges that Franco’s film is infringing upon this famous novel.
In interviews, Franco has said the novel is one of his favorites. Ham on Rye is about a boy growing up in working-class Los Angeles in the 1940s who copes with various coming-of-age cruelties. Franco also had revealed to the media that he planned to adapt it for film.
In January, 2009, Franco and Humphris entered into an agreement to allow the actor to develop a film based on the novel. But Franco’s rights “terminated in November 2010,” says the lawsuit.
Franco has readied Bukowski anyway, and according to the lawsuit, it “borrows the Novel’s themes of childhood loneliness; adolescent self-consciousness; the failures, hypocrisy, and cruelty of adults; and, in an unflinching depiction, the crude interest teenage boys take in sex. …The Film incorporates entire scenes, including substantially their dialogue, from the Novel.”
The complaint goes into all the alleged similarities as well as the conversations between Humphris’ and Franco’s camps over the past year.
For example, after learning about the project, Humphris says he emailed Franco to express his concern, with Franco responding, “I’m doing a little project with some of my NYU colleagues based on one of Bukowski’s biographies.”
Humphris wanted to see a copy of the script but says he couldn’t get a response from Franco. He heard from Franco’s lawyers, though, in March 2013.
“Around the same time, Mr. Humphris became aware of a conspicuously timed effort by Mr. Franco to tell interviewers that the Film is not an adaptation of the Novel,” says the lawsuit. “During the week of March 11, 2013, Mr. Franco publicly denied that the Film is based on the Novel and was quoted in the press stating that the Film ‘focuses on [Bukowski’s] childhood.’ “
By last December, Humphris says he learned that Franco and Rabbit Bandini Productions had completed work on the film and was shopping it for distribution.
“By producing, marketing, displaying, and/or distributing the Film, Mr. Franco, Rabbit Bandini, and those involved with them have infringed on Mr. Humphris’ exclusive motion-picture rights to the Novel,” continues the lawsuit. “Because it is based on Ham on Rye, Mr. Franco’s film impairs Mr. Humphris’ ability to exploit his rights to produce a film based on the Novel.”
Owning rights to an autobiography doesn’t necessarily give the owner life-story rights on the author. And it’s possible to do a biography without infringement, as facts can’t be copyrighted. But the arrangement of facts in a creative manner can be protected, and so Humphris is coming to court with an interesting claim that he is essentially entitled to Bukowski’s expression of childhood and any imaginative flourishes therein.
The plaintiff, represented by Alonzo Wickers at Davis Wright Tremaine, is seeking an injunction and monetary damages.
The Hollywood Reporter has reached out to Franco’s reps and will update with any response.