Inside the Quiet Legal Battles Over Martin Scorsese's 'Silence'

Silence Still - Publicity - H 2016
Kerry Brown/Paramount Pictures

Silence Still - Publicity - H 2016

In November, Paramount Pictures will release Martin Scorsese's Silence, about the persecution of a Jesuit missionary in 17th century Japan. The movie, based on an award-winning Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo and starring Liam Neeson, took an astonishing 26 years to complete and has been the subject of all sorts of litigation and dealmaking. It's no accident that there are seven or eight credited production companies depending on where one looks. As for the writing, Jay Cocks (Gangs of New York) is currently listed as the screenwriter, but that's been the subject of a quiet legal war that culminated in a settlement earlier this month with screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, the son of revered filmmaker Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, East of Eden).

In 1990, the same year that the younger Kazan was nominated for an Academy Award for adapting Alan Dershowitz' Reversal of Fortune, Scorsese and Cocks made a deal with Penta Pictures to co-write Silence. A copy of the agreement reviewed by The Hollywood Reporter reveals the two were to be paid $250,000 for the screenplay plus $150,000 more for rewrites if the producer exercised its option. Additionally, Scorsese and Cocks were promised five percent of net profits if they were the sole writers and half of that if they had to share credits.

Eventually, the rights to the film project went to Cecchi Gori Pictures, which sued Scorsese multiple times after the director kept putting other films including Kundun, Gangs of New York and The Departed ahead of Silence. In 2012, in court papers, Scorsese blamed the delay in part on "a cloud on the title to the Picture" thanks to a separate lawsuit from Cecchi Gori's former president. By the end of 2013, Scorsese came to a settlement that allowed him to move forward with directing the film.

But that wouldn't be the end of troubles.

After Scorsese commenced preproduction of the film on location in Taiwan in late 2014, more money was needed. According to Tyler Zacharia, the managing partner of Moriah Media (seemingly connected to Emmett/Furla Films) and an executive producer on Silence, the film was headed toward a shutdown. Fabrica de Cine and Moriah Media met with Scorsese and made an offer to provide capital. Scorsese and the previous producers (presumably Cecchi Gori) accepted, and filming commenced in early 2015.

But the special purpose entity created for the production, in tracing the chain of title on Silence, became aware of a 2002 agreement that Cecchi Gori had made with an individual named Michael B. Gordon (300, G.I. Joe) to write the Silence screenplay. In turn, there was another deal whereby Kazan would polish that screenplay. As a result, in August 2015, the Silence production company put out a "notice of tentative writing credits" to Scorsese, Cocks, Gordon, Kazan and the Writers Guild of America. That triggered a writing credits arbitration before the guild, which resulted in a determination two months later that Silence should only be credited to Cocks and Scorsese.

Kazan wasn't satisfied.

In May, he filed a lawsuit in L.A. Superior Court alleging that he was promised $400,000 for writing services, $200,000 for executive producing services and credit on Silence. He said that he had deferred all but $15,500 to help facilitate financing of the film, but that when new producers stepped in to acquire Cecchi Gori's rights, it triggered his entitlement to the compensation.

In response, the new producers argued that Kazan was only entitled to be paid if Silence was based on his screenplay. And the filmmakers were completely denying that his work was used.

"I have not seen nor read the Silence screenplay reportedly written by Michael Gordon, nor the polish of Michael Gordon's screenplay reportedly written by Nicholas Kazan," stated Scorsese in court. "None of the versions of the screenplay that Jay Cocks and I wrote were in any way influenced by or based upon [their work]."

Kazan's attorney Aaron Liskin at Kinsella Weitzman argued this was irrelevant.

"The agreement provides for Kazan to receive his deferred compensation the very instant a third party acquired either the book Silence or Kazan's screenplay," he wrote. "As such, no film had to be produced at all for him to be paid."

A trial was scheduled to begin on Sept. 12, but the parties have now avoided a showdown on the precipices of the release of Silence with a settlement. Unfortunately, terms have not been revealed.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.