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Tess Gerritsen: Once Bitten, Not Shy

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

Author Tess Gerritsen
This best-selling Rizzoli & Isles author wrote the thriller on which the blockbuster movie Gravity was based - and earned nothing from its proceeds. But writing well is the best revenge

Imagine this scenario:

You write a novel called Gravity. It's a hit with readers, and soon catches the attention of Hollywood. You sell the film rights to New Line Film Productions who create a screenplay. You wait for the film to hit the theaters.

And wait...

And wait... until ten years pass and you've given up hope of seeing your book become a movie

Then, in 2010, you hear that another film is in the works. It's called Gravity. The synopsis is the same as that crafted by New Line. The producer is the same. But there's one big problem. Turns out New Line has now merged with Warner Brothers - and WB says it's not obligated to make good on the original terms guaranteeing you a production bonus and 2.5% of the net proceeds.

So you sue, of course. But you can't claim copyright infringement because you've sold your film rights. You instead claim breach of contract, but a judge decides you have no grounds for litigation.

The movie is produced, earns a worldwide gross of more than $700 million, and wins seven Academy Awards. You get no production bonus; no piece of the net. But that's not the worst part of this story. The worst part is that this actually happened to best-selling physician-turned-author Tess Gerritsen on whose book the Bullock/Clooney blockbuster was based.

If there could possibly be an upside to this case, it is this: because the lawsuit never made it to court, Gerritsen never signed a nondisclosure agreement - a rarity for any settlement or suit involving the motion picture industry. As a result, she's free to talk about her experience, and that's exactly what she does.

CIM asked Gerritsen if she believes WB regrets its inability to restrict her public discourse on the matter. "I have no idea what they're thinking, or if they regret anything," she says. But because the case was dismissed, she can share the details and "...what I reveal may not be particularly flattering."

WB has been largely silent on the legal challenge. "Everyone [else] has an opinion," Gerritsen says, "from trade reporters to industry commentators. Those who work for the studios tend to take 'the writer's always a scumbag' point of view. Writers tend to think 'the writer's always screwed.' I know what the truth is. So do those deeply involved in the case. At least I can feel good about everything I've done."

The experience has not left Gerritsen broken, but it has left her wiser and she hopes to share her wisdom in a non-fiction work. "I would like to write a book for other writers about the process of suing Hollywood - and how the writer is always at a disadvantage, even when he is absolutely correct that his work has been stolen."

Yet, as disappointing as the Gravity deal was, Gerritsen has enjoyed the exact opposite relationship with television. The TNT series based on her Rizzoli & Isles book series ran for seven seasons and she has nothing but goodwill for producer Bill Haber. "I can't say enough good things about him, and about how I was treated during the creation of the show." Haber and the writers made it "...the phenomenon it [was]," she says. "I just sat back and watched." Gerritsen's latest Rizzoli & Isles novel, I Know A Secret, was released August 2017.

In 2016, Gerritsen released her first standalone thriller in eight years. Playing with Fire tells the story of violinist Julia Ansdell who, while in Rome in an antique shop, happens upon a captivating piece of sheet music called Incendio. But when she returns home and plays the score, her daughter responds in a horrifyingly violent way. Convinced the music is somehow transmitting evil, Julia travels to Venice to learn about the man who wrote the waltz, and the meaning behind it. It's a haunting story crafted to lure readers from page to page, and back and forth between World War II and today.

Like friend and fellow writer C.J. Lyons, also a former physician, Gerritsen's thrillers rely greatly on an in-depth knowledge of science and medicine. The creative spark, however, can be lit in any number of ways "...from newspapers, to true crime stories, to personal experiences." Playing with Fire was born out of a nightmare from which Gerritsen awoke shaken, and unsure of its origin. The novel took a year to write.

Gerritsen admits the historical aspects of the book required a great deal of research, but the subject matter also urged her to journey deep into her own musical roots. A musician herself, she composed the violin piece Incendio, the score at the heart of the story. Of her own possible career in music she confesses, "I'm not good enough. As an amateur I have a great time, though, and have even carted my fiddle through Ireland, where I was rewarded with lots of free Guinness whenever I walked into a pub."

So, what about a movie version of Playing with Fire? After Gravity, would Gerritsen even consider selling another book to Hollywood? "Absolutely," she says, "in fact [it's] being sent around to producers by my film agent at CAA - but I'm going to be far more cautious about which people I work with."

Though the sting of her brush with the movie industry persists, Gerritsen at least has the satisfaction of knowing she tried to push back. Most other writers in her situation aren't as fortunate. She knows of one writer who was told by a producer: "Even if you sue us, no one will believe you. You're just a nobody."

While the studios may act as though the Gravity dispute never happened, many screenwriters and authors share their own Hollywood nightmares with Gerritsen and thank her for speaking out. "Some of their stories make you want to scream in outrage," she admits. "I at least had the resources to file suit."