The ballad of a local kid who loved movies and comic books so much he moved to Hollywood...where he writes movies and comic books
Published: July 27, 2011
So at 18, after graduation from Anchor Bay High School, Haddon, after hero Indiana Jones, climbed into his car and started driving because "his parents couldn't order him around anymore." He hit 42 states and crashed on as many couches in the first year on graduation gift money and earnings from a comic book shop gig. When he returned home he did it again. If you want to be a writer you can't sit in a room.
At 20, Haddon moved to L.A. because the "very idea of Hollywood is untouchable in Michigan, just a silly thing 'for dreamers.'" He lasted three months.
"I had no idea what I was doing, and it just scared the hell out of me," he says, "the enormity of what I wanted to accomplish out there. I was gonna end up a pothead, just playing video games, and that would be the total of my day, every day, just talking about the screenplays I want to write."
He eventually penned two unpublished novels. A few of his short stories were published in "online journals and obscure literary journals such as Permafrost." Some won him several writing scholarships at the University of Michigan; his "Everything I Know About Ice Fishing" scored him the Lawrence Kasdan Fellowship. Haddon says, at 25, he tricked folks into giving "me a lot of grants and stuff to study overseas." Smart move considering he spent two thirds of his time at U-M overseas, "including Australia where they sent me to go for 10 months." He earned an English degree in 2003, after balancing studies with lots of travel. "I'd save money working jobs like construction, apartment and hotel maintenance, and, later, as a sales rep for a California-based auto industry supplier. Whatever would put money in my pocket really, so I could take off to who knows where next."
Haddon's life truly began at 29. That's the year he packed up and moved to L.A. to write movies. He shacked up in scenester-y Silver Lake for two years with three dudes he met on Craigslist. His bedroom was drummer-adjacent, which no doubt helped with the writing.
Freelance "culture" writing requires real hustle that eats undue amounts of time. You have to pitch ideas to editors and hassle publicists for star time, and there's the phoning, researching, driving and interviewing, all before you write, and then there's the editing process. Haddon had to eat crow churning this shit out or be homeless. He had it down, though, and he'd win face-time with stars —from James Cameron to Danny Boyle — on film press days because he had space reserved in so many different papers.
He claims maybe "one of every 30 pieces" he's actually proud of, including a Metro Times' cover piece on Royal Oak-born director Sam Raimi.
"I can admit that so much of the film aspect of it [freelance writing] was entirely mercenary, because every week I'd spend three, four hours sitting down with actors and filmmakers I admired. I've had well over an hour sitting down with Tarantino, for example." Haddon found ways to frame film pieces with music coverage too, thus doubling his money for the same interview, such as quizzing Andre 3000 about how acting affects his music or Quentin Tarantino about music in his films. (He could imagine selling scripts and even seeing them made, but little could match sitting "down with Tarantino for an hour to talk about music and his films.")
Meanwhile, there was a downside to living among the Silver Lake hipsters: "Those guys hated me. And the reason they hated me was because outlets like Metro Times and others around the country paid me to talk about music. There were all, like, these music hipsters, you know, scenesters, and they hated me because I wasn't in a band and I was making money off of music and they weren't. It didn't matter how long my beard got, no matter how long my hair got, I was never welcomed as part of that community."
He'd already met Scott Thomas of L.A. indie band Ringside (which includes actor Balthazar Getty) while interviewing them at their State Theatre gig supporting Weezer. Haddon and the bandleader hit it off. (Haddon: "kindred spirits"). Once he arrived in L.A., his new pal introduced Haddon to Hollywood parties where he had no choice but to juggle syllables at "places I wasn't nearly cool enough to get into by myself. Learned a lot about the town and, most importantly, how much I still had to grow as a person and artist to make it out here."
Haddon's hustle for self-improvement defines him in a way; and that's how he was then, and how he is now, only a lot more refined; his self-belief is as big as L.A., which allows him to concentrate on things others overlook — sometimes the minutiae — bringing significance to that which, otherwise, would have no significance, such as drawing inspiration from Valentino's silent film Thieves of Bagdhad. That was the basis of that first script he sold to Warner Brothers, which allowed him to quit his life in freelance hell. Yes, scriptwriting is far sexier than journalism.
There are a few ways to sell a film idea: Write the script and hope someone will buy it, or pitch it to the right set of ears and hope someone will pay you for it before you start to write it. This hasn't changed much since long before Joe Gillis met Norma Desmond. Though Haddon made his first sale on a potent pitch and penned the screenplay later, a strong pitch only gets you so far: "There needs to be an appetite for what you're trying to sell, and the market out here literally changes weekly," Haddon says. Because huge franchises are now built on comic-book characters, Haddon has got his timing on. "Movies are an easier sell if they're based on properties," and Haddon's Hyde script is based on his own comic book based on famous lit characters.
The writer is blessed with the self-belief to charm while spinning a story in front of suits. He can pitch, and not every writer can, of course. "That's how Hollywood works," he says. "It's always worked that way. If I wanted to write exclusively as an artist, as a writer free of commercial worries, I'd be making independent films. Do I resent it sometimes? Sure, all writers do, but a lot of the greatest movies ever made were done so inside this system. ..."
But, Haddon adds, "Screenwriters aren't actors. There's nothing more nerve-wracking than pitching to a studio. We don't crave being the center of attention. For me, in particular, I tend not to sleep the night before. I do a lot of prep-work. I run through my pitches for several weeks until I know them inside and out. I hate not having answers to questions that might be thrown at me."
But not every pitch is good. Haddon actually pitched Hyde in an airplane hangar at the Santa Monica Airport belonging to David Ellison, the Hollywood rich-kid head of Skydance Entertainment, a company co-financing Paramount films including True Grit and Mission Impossible IV. Because Ellison also happens to be an acrobatic pilot who stores his expensive competitive jets at the hangar, he set up the Skydance shop there as well.
Haddon's hero Harrison Ford is a pilot who, unbeknownst to the writer, happens to own the hangar adjacent Skydance. Once he got his pitch up and running, Harrison appeared from nowhere. Haddon choked. "It was the worst pitch I did, I think, of my life. I'm like, 'I can't go on, my childhood idol is standing, you know, like 50 feet away next to a Lamborghini ... or it was a Ferrari?"
Despite the distraction, Haddon's pitch sold. It also included his clever and skillfully scripted comic book series The Strange Case of Dr. Hyde. The 2011 four-part series — illustrated by the renowned M.S. Corley with colorist Jim Campbell — contains complex and ugly duality-of-man themes in rather uncomplicated scenarios; it's post-mod comic writing winking at everything from Silence of the Lambs and Jack the Ripper — who cameos in a big way here — to the old Hammer and Universal monster movies. Haddon even borrows the character of Inspector Thomas Adye from H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man, although he uses Adye 11 years before Wells' novel; hence, Adye's appearance here is prequel in a fictional timeline.
And somehow Haddon compressed all that into a conversational spiel that nailed a thick-money deal from a flyboy mogul in an airplane hangar.
His agents at the massive talent and literary agency, International Creative Management (ICM), Ava Jamshidi and Lars Theriot, collectively represent authors and directors of films including A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tron: Legacy, Just Wright, Step Up, Brooklyn's Finest, Save the Last Dance For Me and others. They're pretty psyched about Haddon.
Jamshidi (who also reps comic-book legends Grant Morrison and Todd MaFarlane) thinks Haddon has a pretty sweet future, talks of him in a tone that's equal parts parent and partner. "Look, we don't make money unless he makes money, so that should say something about our belief in him."
Even she was surprised that Haddon sold to Warner Brothers on a pitch, because "Warners is notorious for not giving new writers a shot. But he's very good in the room." She pauses before adding, "You know, writing is only 50 percent of it. The other part is how you interact with people, and Cole knows how to give them something to work with. Producers and directors want to know if they can work with you. They need to be able to say, 'You know, this guy will be fun to work with.'"
Haddon's biggest asset at the moment, Jamshidi explains, is his ability to reinterpret older material in such a way that's "intelligent and witty. ... Original material is harder to pitch now, that's just how it is. ..."
That Warner idea was called Thieves of Bagdad (minus the "h"), a script that has since been retitled Arabian Knights (with a "K," and Haddon knows full-well there were no knights in the Middle East then; he had no control over that). The story mashes up myths surrounding and involving literary characters; in other words, it's a very contemporary movie idea, or what Haddon calls a collection of all the great thieves "and scoundrels of One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and essentially assembling them in Ocean's Eleven fashion to pull off the greatest heist of their careers."
Fran Lebowitz might've had Hollywood in mind when she said that "Original thought is like original sin: Both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met." Haddon certainly talks about his own work as a sort of recombinant cultural DNA.
"People complain about the lack of originality in Hollywood, but this has been the case since its inception," Haddon says, "from Alfred Hitchcock remaking his own film [The Man Who Knew Too Much] to Ben-Hur ... I mean, my original inspiration, the Thieves of Baghdad, was a Valentino silent. My jumping-off point was an old silent film stolen from Arabian Nights. The other day, I saw the original Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood, which amazed me; that's a silent film based on English folklore, a medieval character. ...
"And that's where it's very frustrating today, because people assume that it should all be original, when it's very rare that anything in Hollywood has been drawn, at least anything commercial, from original material. There's always some source material, from plays or whatever — the trauma today is it's being taken from video games and board games."
His Hyde is well-done, a hellish, violent and fun script wrought with familiar characters, and a kind of social allegory for America set in 19th century London, and realizing "how people at the top are more corrupt than those at the bottom. It's kind of my way of exploring America while paying homage to my working-class roots.
He continues: "It's about how America's is so divisive, no matter what people say; the home of the American Civil War and the civil rights movement — it hasn't exactly ever been harmonious. But today this idea of justifying the division with morality versus reason, it's becoming such a binary way of thinking that I wanted some way to talk about the dangers of this sort of 'Hyde' thinking — the dangers of following your leaders without questioning them ..."
Haddon's all about "developing projects" — these book, TV and film schemes of sorts — with numerous other folks whose names drop from his mouth to the floor waiting to be swept up. But neither he, nor his agent can go on record about anything forthcoming that's not signed off on. But it's official that Haddon's developing a new comic book miniseries with Kick-Ass co-creator John Romita Jr., and his Kickstart Entertainment graphic novel, Space Gladiator, drops early next year.
He can also freely speak of his forthcoming nuptials on Mackinac Island in October. His fiancee, Lindsay Devlin, whom he met in L.A. a few years back, is actually from — surprise — Grand Rapids, and she graduated from U-M.
"She worked at a lot of major companies, left and went independent roughly the same time we started dating. She got six or seven other people hired for low- to mid-six-figure deals, but producers don't get anything until something gets made, so, after making a lot of people a lot of money and not even getting gift baskets in gratitude, she shifted to screenwriting last year."
The couple's apartment is in a better section of town than old Joe Gillis' Hollywood place. The couple lives and works there too, and considering how married careerists who share professions tend to want to kill each other, if not move to alternate universes, how's that going to work out? That kind of dynamic has got to be hard — no matter how together you are personally, there's competitiveness, one rises the other falls; it's so Hollywood, could be so A Star is Born.
Haddon dismisses that, but adds, "Yeah, well what's really interesting are the things that you don't want to admit, you know, sort of like the little envy here and there and when things go better for the other person. ... I know a lot of people who are in these relationships and it's not always easy. Luckily, she's been mostly cool about it. I think probably because the power dynamic was so different when we started dating, where she was the one with all the connections and knew everyone, and I'd go to meetings and it was, 'I'm Lindsay Devlin's boyfriend.' Now, she goes into meetings and it's, 'I'm Cole Haddon's girlfriend.'"
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