The story of the Krone Experiment was born when I was a young assistant professor sitting with the graduate students with my feet up on the rail on the second floor balcony in the old library that the Harvard College Obervatory used as a colloquium room. From this perch among the stacks, one could get a good view of both the colloquium speaker and the audience. I cannot recall the speaker or the topic or whether it had anything to do with my day dreams. In any case, the story developed in rough outline in my mind while the colloquium went on and I composed the first and last paragraphs. Over the next few years I filled in the parts in between.
That did not come so easily. These first glimmers were in 1972 or 1973. Harvard let me go, Texas picked me up. I had little time to work on the book until 1978/79 when I had a sabbatical at the University of Colorado in Boulder. That gave me a little spare time to wrestle out a draft. It was pretty terrible. I wrote it with the spirits of my scientific colleagues breathing over my shoulder, fearful of making scientific errors (which I did anyway) and missing the needs of the story, character development, tension, elementary things like that.
There was an agent in Boulder who had his people read it. They also did not like it, but gave me one valuable clue: there were no women characters. I changed Pat Danielson from a man to a woman and tried to make her a central character, now excellently played by Darbi Worley in the film.
My mother, life-long inveterate reader, saw some other possibilities. Out of some physicist's misbegotten sense of symmetry, I had staged the action on the equator of the planet. My mother suggested moving it where more action could happen; another major breakthrough with huge ramifications for the ultimate shape of the story. My father was an regular reader of Aviation Week. There I found stories about giant lasers that play a role. The magazine rated a wry comment in the book. For these contributions, and so much more, I dedicated the book to my parents.
I worked away on the book over the next few years as I had time. That time would occur, more often than not, on airplanes and at scientific meetings, away from the tyranny of everyday academic scientific life: phones, meetings, classes, students, proposals, and papers. Most of it was written on airplanes or during stolen time over breakfast at scientific meetings. I found loud conversations disruptive, but the "white noise" of a busy restaurant or the muffled silence of an airplane after dinner service were perfect for concentration.
My mother had another great idea. She suggested starting each chapter with a little tableau illustrating what was really going on as the characters struggeled to figure it out. One of those tableaus took on a life of its own. It was written while I sat at a table in the student cafeteria at Iowa State University, lingering over breakfast coffee with my lined tablet and ballpoint. I was a visiting professor there for two weeks and tried to write a little on the book every morning at breakfast. This was sometime in the early 1980's.
That morning was the sort of time writers live for. The story just grabbed me and wrote itself. It is a powerful feeling, nothing else quite like it. The result was chapter 3 of the book, the incident of satellite kidnapping, that is arguably the best thing in the book. It is essentially a stand-alone story that really does not have much to do with the rest of the book. It would be great to have that "groove" every time one sat down to write.
Eventually, I had something I thought I might expose to scrutiny again. I sent the revised manuscript off to various publishers, over the transom. I collected the standard long list of rejection letters. Stabbing around, I timidly approached Anne Dickson of Dallas. Anne was on the advisory board for McDonald Observatory and, I knew, had a publishing firm in Dallas called Pressworks. I spoke to Anne after one of the board meetings, and she said she would look at the book.
Amazingly enough, Anne and her editor, Lucille Enix, liked it. We struck a deal. It turned out that Pressworks was a rather small shop that eventually closed up, but it lasted long enough to get The Krone Experiment in print in 1986. Anne also had a plan: She said, "Tom Clancy was an unkown author, and Naval Institute Press was an unknown press, and they made a lot of money. Let's do that, too." So Anne contacted Naval Institute Press and actually talked to Tom Clancy and got him to write a blurb. Anne employed Clancy's publicist, who ended up being the only person to make money off the hardback, since she got her money up front.
We did get a paperback deal in 1988, however, and that finally made a little money; helped put Rob through Stanford, anyway. We also got a British edition and a Japanese translation. After a stint as Department Chairman and the simultaneous scientific rush of supernova 1987A, I began to wrestle with a sequel. It's on my shelf.
There are more stories of this adventure, but that's enough. Now the film is the thing.
J. Robinson and J. Craig Wheeler at the appropriately-named
Robert Isaac(s) airport, Colorado Springs, CO, July 2002.
I was at the USC School of Cinema-Television in 1993, attempting to get my MFA in Film Production. After a shaky first year, I was starting a shakier second year. I started to drive out to Los Angeles from Austin, got as far as the bottom of the hill down from my parents' house, and my car died. So, I flew to Los Angeles without my car, and with only the possessions I could carry with me. A few weeks into the semester, I called home and asked for my parents to send me a paperback copy of The Krone Experiment.
I had to take the bus to get from my dorm room at the Embassy Hotel on 9th and Grand, downtown, to USC. I used the bus time that semester to read the book. It was a terrific book, and I was happy to finally be able to declare this in a loud, steady voice with no shame. I was also already starting to see, in my head, how it could be a movie. There were probably a few phone calls back and forth about the possibilities, but nothing formal was done about it. It just hung in the air.
At the beginning of the spring 1994 semester, I flew back to Austin, got my car, and drove back to Los Angeles. Nine weeks later, at the end of the spring 1994 semester, I quit USC and packed up to drive home, intending to start my film career in Austin. A couple of hundred miles into the desert east of Los Angeles, my car broke down. I was stranded for at least one day while a slightly shifty service station replaced my radiator.
I called Dad to tell him the situation, and that I didn't know what to do while I was waiting. He suggested, half-seriously, that I should start writing the screenplay for Krone.
Fully seriously, I took out a notebook and a ball-point pen, and I wrote the first six or seven pages of the script out in longhand, in screenplay format. Those opening pages remain basically intact and identical in the seventh-draft screenplay currently in production. Let's talk about all those intermediate drafts, though, because a lot of things happened in between.
I returned to Austin with these promising first pages of handwritten script, and work on the first real draft of the screenplay got started soon after, with Dad and me sharing the work. Dad created a draft of scenes, taken straight from the book, which he thought needed to be in the movie. I got to work, honing it and making things more cinematic. On Christmas Day 1994, I handed him a complete, printed version of the screenplay with card stock covers, making it official.
We noodled around with more drafts as 1995 got underway, and soon we were on our fourth or fifth draft and talking about how to shop it around. Somehow we knew someone who knew someone who knew John Badham, the director of WarGames (1983), one of my favorite movies (and one which The Krone Experiment movie resembles in spirit). We sent a copy off to his agent, but we didn't stop there.
Dad made contact again with Anne Dickson, his former publisher. She was a friend of Elizabeth Hailey, whose book A Woman of Independent Means had just been turned into a TV mini-series. Anne invited us up to "do lunch" in Dallas and meet Elizabeth Hailey. We jetted up there. Dad brought a signed copy of the book. We had a pleasant enough time, full of vague small talk. Later in the afternoon, we went to meet one of Anne's neighbors, who had a movie connection as well: his daughter was Steven Spielberg's personal assistant!
So, we put things in motion for the neighbor to call his daughter, and for Hailey to read the book, and we went home. Only a couple of days later, we got a call from Anne saying that Elizabeth Hailey had read the book and loved it. She was beside herself with excitment, having expected to find it obtuse and over her head, but instead she thought it was a cracking good thriller that was a real joy to read. It was so good, in fact, that she wanted our permission to tell a friend of hers, a producer named William Allyn.
Bill Allyn had two notable movies to his credit as a producer: Rich and Famous (1981), starring Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen, and Cousins (1989), starring Ted Danson and Isabella Rossellini. We sent Allyn a copy of the screenplay. Allyn called us back in short order and said he loved the script, it was fantastic, and he wanted to option it immediately for at least one year.
Bill Allyn ultimately optioned it for two years. There were a lot of lawyers involved, so the story loses some of its charm during this period. Allyn did his best to sell it, but he didn't find any takers at the major studios. He was set to keep working on it, to look for other places to take it, but we let the option lapse and shook hands, our business relationship over.
Meanwhile, I had been working in Austin as a location sound mixer and a sound editor on various independent feature films. They were all extremely low-budget, but it was a good way to get into the scene and meet people. One of the people I met repeatedly was Ben Pascoe, who was a young actor working on all of the same films I was. I also met other young filmmakers who were writing scripts and trying to figure out what to do with them. People with various ambitions were all over the place. That was kind of an exciting time.
Pat Fitzgerald, one of the producers of the film I was working on in the fall of 1996 got to chatting with me between takes. I told him about the Krone book and the screenplay, and about Bill Allyn. One thing led to another, and when Allyn's second option finally lapsed, Pat Fitzgerald picked it up the option for another year. It too eventually ran out, with no production having come from it.
This whole time we were dealing with the idea that we might actually sell the screenplay, get some money for it, and see it produced, I was silently praying that it didn't work out, because I wanted to make the movie myself. In 1995, I could picture the possibilities for shooting it with a small budget in Texas, even though the script called for locations around the world. We wrote the screenplay to be produced with a $30 million Hollywood budget, minimum, but I could see that it could be done for much, much less. However, the minimum cost was still way too much to seriously consider as an undertaking. You'd need fifty or a hundred thousand dollars to shoot it on film, easy. So, I waited. I waited for the technology to get cheaper.
Boy, did it. When Canon released their XL-1 digital video camera, I read and read and read about it. I also kept track of computer system prices, and editing equipment prices, and they were getting cheaper all the time. The price of making a feature went down to tens of thousands of dollars, then ten thousand dollars, then less than that.
In September of 1999, I awoke in the middle of the night with the sudden conviction that it was time to do The Krone Experiment. I announced this by email to a few close friends, who told me to go ahead and do it. I put out a call for actors to send me headshots, and I started calling in favors from old friends in the Austin film community to see who would help me out. One of the first I called was Ben Pascoe.
I didn't know Ben closely, but I'd been to his apartment to hang out a few times, and at one of those times I fobbed off another script I had written, called L'Artiste et La Modèle. For reasons I'm still not sure of, Ben simply loved this script. I even got a call from him, totally at random, about eight months later (eight months after the last time I'd seen him), just so he could tell me that he read it again and still loved it, and that if I ever got something together, some film project, he was there for me.
So I called Ben, wondering if he was a man of his word. I told him I was going to do this thing called The Krone Experiment, and I told him, "Whatever you do, don't tell me I can't do it." This is a screenplay where, on page 2 (out of 140), a soviet aircraft carrier is supposed to catch on fire. Ben said he'd check it out. He called back to say I was a crazy madman, but he wasn't going to tell me I couldn't do it. In fact, just like he promised, he said he would be there for me, all the way.
Ben put together the first auditions, and gradually as the weeks passed it became clear that he was a producer, and that we were full partners in this crazy thing. So, here we are today, with half the movie in the can and racing to finish the rest so the editing can begin.
An idea that popped into my Dad's head when I was two or three years old became a book whose sales paid for my college film education, and is now a full-blown movie in production with me at the helm. Has anything like this ever happened before? I can't think of a story quite like it. I suppose that one day, there might be a third part of this story -- dealing with what happens in the years after the movie comes out. Maybe the best, and most extraordinary, is yet to come.
---jrw 4 August 2000