New York playwright Mark Dunn's law suit charging that the hit movie The Truman Show stole its story from his 1992 play has elicited its first dissenting response, though, oddly, the retort did not come from the case's defendants.
Documents shown to Variety by an unnamed source claim that Truman screenwriter Andrew Niccol began work on his screenplay in 1991, fully a year before Dunn's play Frank's Life was staged Off-Off-Broadway. Niccol is one of the suit's defendants.
According to a June 22 article in Variety, Niccol pitched a movie called The Malcolm Show to his former manager Alex Rossu in May of 1991; one week later, Niccol sent Rossu a one-page treatment of the same idea. The treatment described Malcolm as "the star of a 24-hour continuous soap opera in the future but doesn't know it. He has been filmed by hidden cameras every second of his life." The article also mentioned a letter from June or July of 1991 in which Niccol told Rossu that the screenplay of Malcolm was "partially finished."
Truman, which stars Jim Carrey, is about an guileless young man who comes to realize that his entire life has been the subject of a long running and highly successful television show. Frank's Life has a similar plot, and Dunn has accused Niccol and producers Paramount Pictures and Scott Rudin of stealing the story.
"It's very strange that the documents didn't come from the defendants," said Dunn's lawyer Carl Person. Person told Playbill On-Line that Variety stressed that the papers had not originated with the defendants, though the publication would not say from where they had come. Nonetheless, Person said the materials would not change his approach to the case. "One [document] is an undated letter, one's a dated thing called a treatment which is not The Truman Show, but The Malcolm Show, and doesn't have the literary elements that we're complaining about," he said. "Malcolm's Life could be just another episode for `The Twilight Zone,'" he continued. "The mere fact that someone wants to write a screenplay on that theme doesn't mean they went through the effort that my client did." Person also questioned the validity of a one-page treatment in a copyright case. "It's just an idea. Those aren't protectable under copyright law. In a copyright case, it's a staggering amount of stuff you have to deal with, not a one-pager." Person said he had not heard from the suit's defendants regarding the documents revealed in the Variety article.
Dunn's Frank's Life was produced Off-Off-Broadway from May to August of 1992 at 13th Street Repertory Company in Manhattan. Dunn told Playbill On-Line that the play enjoyed a popular run and received good reviews. The playwright submitted the work to Paramount's New York office in June or July of 1992. The studio rejected the script in August, according to the suit.
The suit claims that Frank's Life contains all the major characters found in the film, said Dunn, including the central dupe, the show's megalomaniacal creator, and the lead figure's wife and best friend, who are in reality paid actors.
The suit seeks all of Paramount's proceeds from The Truman Show. After three weeks in theatre, the movie has grossed $85 million.
-- By Robert Simonson