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Sitting near the back of the Chinese Theatre, in between his wife and his parents, Darren Lemke watched the big Imax screen light up, Gemini Man unfolding before his eyes.
He was at the Paramount-Skydance movie’s Sunday night premiere and had walked the red carpet not too far from star Will Smith and director Ang Lee. And why not? He had his name in the credits, right next to David Benioff, the famous co-creator of the Game of Thrones TV show, and Billy Ray, who was nominated for an Oscar for writing Captain Phillips.
But Lemke was having a vortex of emotion and in the midst of a surreal, almost out-of-body experience that was also tinged with a bittersweetness.
Because despite having his name in the credits, despite walking the red carpet, Lemke had nothing to do with the movie currently playing onscreen.
But the fact that the movie exists at all has everything to do with him. And that’s because Gemini Man is a quirky example of how no idea is truly dead in Hollywood, shows that every movie has its own road to the screen and reminds people that the 1990s spec script market was its own wild animal.
In the mid-1990s, Lemke was working at a grocery store, pushing carts and pushing 27, writing murder-mystery theater in North Jersey. A graduate of New York City’s School of Visual Arts, he had seen his classmates enthusiastically rush to Los Angeles after graduation, then slowly return like soldiers from the warfront. He stayed behind, tapping away at the keyboard on spec scripts, all action and thriller.
In a weird only-in-Hollywood confluence, only in this case it was only-in-Jersey, he went out to the movies one night, giving a script to a friend of a friend’s brother, who gave it to an assistant to a movie producer, who then gave it to said movie producer.
It was 1997. The spec market driven by high-concept ideas and hotshot writers such as Joe Eszterhas and Shane Black and Ed Solomon and Dan Waters, sometimes creating bidding wars and commanding seven figure deals with maybe their own bar thrown in as part of the package (which happened to Troy Duffy for The Boondock Saints), was still running hot. Big ideas were in demand.
In that context, the producer, Don Murphy, who had already developed a reputation for aligning himself with promising material (he had been a producer on Natural Born Killers, written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Oliver Stone), liked what he read enough that, after a series of conversations, he flew Lemke out on his own dime to Hollywood, putting him up at the Best Western on the Sunset Strip.
It was a whirlwind. Lemke met with filmmakers and studios. He got an agent at UTA and an attorney.
“In one week, I sold two pitches,” he recalls.
One of them happened to be Gemini Man, a story about an assassin trying to get out of the business who is forced to battle his own clone that is 25 years younger and at the top of his abilities. It had a Western vibe, and was, in Lemke’s words, Shane-like in its telling about a man who latches on to a mother and son, looking for some peace only to be hunted down by his younger self.
Warner Bros looked at it and was interested, but Disney, in a time long before the studio would be driven by live-action remakes and Marvel movies, moved aggressively to buy it. Tony Scott, the Crimson Tide and True Romance filmmaker whom Lemke met earlier that week, quickly came on as director to sweeten the deal.
“It was absolutely crazy, and the more the years go on, the crazier it seems,” Lemke says of his introduction to Hollywood.
Things were moving so fast, the Tinseltown smiles so wide and sparking white, Lemke was convinced the movie was going to be done in a year. “I thought we’d be out in summer of ’98!” he says.
But that’s where Gemini Man screeched to a halt.
The studio and producers almost immediately began hitting snags as to how to actually pull the movie off. At first, the thinking was two different actors would be used to play the assassins (think Harrison Ford and Chris O’Donnell). Then the idea turned to: What if it was one actor playing both roles? Do you use makeup? Can we use visual effects?
Scott soon moved on and then Mel Gibson tried his hand, even shooting test footage using early CGI tech that would one day be old hat in Hollywood. (Disney, via their Touchstone label, spend upwards of $8 million experimenting with visual effects in those early years.)
Gibson didn’t stay either and Lemke, learning the hard trade of development hell, moved on. He wrote several drafts of Gemini Man and saw his baby get handed off to the next scribe. And the next and the next. Over the next decade or more, Brian Helgeland, Andrew Niccol and Jonathan Hensleigh were among the numerous writers that wrote and rewrote Gemini Man.
“After Mel left the project, it disappeared from my life,” he says. “And life went on.”
For Lemke, that meant writing more scripts and moving back to New Jersey. He wrote and directed a little-seen low-budget thriller titled Lost that starred Dean Cain, but it wouldn’t be until 2010, 13 years after first selling Gemini Man, that he finally earned his first big-screen credit, with Shrek Forever After. In fact, life moving on for Lemke meant moving into younger skewing and animated fare, which is where he found success. Jack the Giant Slayer, Turbo, Goosebumps and this year’s hit Shazam! were his produced movies after Shrek Forever After.
And occasionally he read reports of some new writer or director tackling Gemini Man. Jerry Bruckheimer came on board as a producer in the early 2010s and shot test footage with Clint Eastwood. Millions more were spent on development.
“Every now then, I’d read in the trades that Gemini is still alive,” he says. “But it was hard to keep that torch lit.”
When he read that the project moved from Disney to Skydance and that Ang Lee had come aboard, he was ready to scoff.
“I had heard variations of this 20 times before,” he recalls of the news. “I was calloused. I had been down that path so many times before but it was the first time I was hopeful. It was exciting to see that people were still interested in it.”
While Lemke wasn’t involved in the making of the movie at all (numerous, and at this stage, uncredited, writers contributed to the final shooting script) earlier this year he returned to his baby to claim at least some parentage, filing arbitration with the WGA for credit.
Some elements had changed; it was now more of an espionage story, the female lead was a kick-ass spy, but Lemke was awarded story by credit and screenplay by credit. The latter an important milestone as it is that credit that ensures a writer’s participation in residuals.
Lemke says the long road of Gemini has taught him several lessons:
“A writer has no control if something gets made or not,” he says. “All you can do is write the best script you can. And that will lead to the next job. If it gets made, it’s a bonus. Also, hang in there.”
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