For years, Jack Barth had managed to eke out a living as an itinerant comedy writer. Over the course of his career, the former editor of Stanford’s humor magazine had co-authored a series of offbeat travel books, wrote freelance film and travel pieces for major magazines, and produced a television show in the UK. He even wrote an episode of The Simpsons — “A Fish Called Selma,” which Barth said he got greenlit after only “128 failed attempts.” (Barth clarifies that the bit about Planet of the Apes musical was, sadly, not his idea).
Such a varied career isn’t unusual for a writer. Certainly nothing to be embarrassed about, especially in a vocation where the simplest yardstick for success is whether you get to keep doing it for a living. Still, it felt something like a second-half redemption for Barth when, after 40 years in the business and 25 unproduced screenplays, he sold his first feature script at the age of 62.
A high-concept that was also personal, Barth’s script was about a not-especially-successful singer-songwriter who, through an unexplainable event, becomes the only person in the world who remembers the Beatles. Barth’s protagonist books a few more gigs with his newfound superpower and achieves some cult popularity, but mostly wonders why his one-of-a kind songbook isn’t bringing him the same fame and fortune it once brought the Beatles, or the fulfillment he’d imagined.
“I wrote it from my point of view,” Barth says. “Which was, I was lying in bed one night thinking, if Star Wars hadn’t been made and I just came up with the idea for Star Wars, I bet I wouldn’t be able to sell it. Carry that on to the Beatles, if I knew all the Beatles songs, I bet I couldn’t be successful with it.”
“Jack is a terrific writer, but he’s also a great high concept guy,” says Trey Ellis, a screenwriter and friend of Barth’s who knew him from the Stanford Chaparral and had read early versions of his Beatles script. “This is exactly the kind of thing he thinks of all the time.”
If Barth’s concept sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because his script, Cover Version, was acquired by Working Title Films and eventually became Yesterday, from legendary British filmmakers Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’s Diary) and Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Steve Jobs, 28 Days Later).
“I wrote the first treatment in 2012 and in 2013 and I gave it to my agent. She gave it to a producer named Matt Wilkinson,” Barth says, of his script’s initial journey. “Matt tried to get it going as a project that we would fund for maybe $10 million, a low budget film, plus whatever it cost to clear the Beatles rights, which would’ve been a lot. [Wilkinson] got a guy named Nick Angel at Working Title, who’s a professional music clearance guy, working on the Beatles clearances. In the course of doing that, years later, he mentioned it to Richard Curtis because they’re friendly. Richard said, ‘That’s a great idea, I want to do it’ because he had a deal with Working Title/Universal to make a couple of films. He wanted [Cover Version] to be one of the films that he made.”
Barth’s Cover Version eventually became Yesterday, written by Richard Curtis and directed by Danny Boyle. To get that kind of validation — two of the UK’s most celebrated filmmakers wanting to make his screenplay — after toiling away for years in the #content mines, sounds like any writer’s dream come true.
Only for Barth it soon wasn’t. The trouble started with Barth accepting what he believed was a lesser credit than he deserved.
“My impression when they first told me ‘Richard Curtis wants to buy your film’ was that he was going to produce it,” Barth says. “Then when we got into the final negotiations, they said, ‘Also, here’s the credit that he’s insisting on having’ where he’d be the sole screenwriter and then I’d get co-‘story by’ credit with him. I thought, well that’s kind of fucked up to pre-arbitrate credits, I don’t think the writers guild would like that. But at the same time, I’d been at this for five years at that point and figured it would be nice to just cash out and finally move on. So I accepted.” (Barth notes that the film was made under the auspices of the British Writer’s Guild rather than the WGA, and the two have slightly different rules).
Barth’s screenplay — the early versions of which he worked on with MacKenzie Crook, who later left to work on his own BAFTA-winning BBC series, The Detectorists — shares a number of similarities with what would eventually wind up in Yesterday. In Cover Version, Barth’s protagonist is in a long-term relationship with his bandmate, a school teacher named Ella. After the inciting event, he’s noodling around playing “Yesterday,” and his bandmates compliment him on the catchy new tune he’s written. At first, believing this to be a prank, he Googles “Beatles,” only to find nothing but pictures of insects and Volkswagens.
In Yesterday, girlfriend Ella has become platonic childhood friend/lifelong crush Ellie, also a schoolteacher. The rest of the set up is all more or less as is, only after the event, unlike in Cover Version, where the lead’s new songbook yields only slightly better gigs, Yesterday‘s hero (played by Himesh Patel) becomes an overnight success, selling out arenas and becoming a worldwide sensation. His somewhat confusing conflict becomes having to choose between superstardom and dating a schoolteacher.
In both, the hero comes to a turning point when he seeks out an unfamous and unassassinated John Lennon, in this universe a grey and wizened fisherman still living in Liverpool. Both scripts end with a joke about no one remembering Harry Potter.
The main difference between the two, which would seem to carry Shakespearean significance based on what was to come, was that whereas the Jack Barth version was a meditation on professional disappointment — the message vs. the messenger, and personal expression vs popular validation — the Richard Curtis version was a rom-com about a childhood crush.
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot,” Barth says. “And I think that the reason that Richard turned him into the most successful songwriter of all time is because that’s how Richard’s life is going. He met Rowan Atkinson at Oxford, he came out of Oxford and immediately rode Rowan Atkinson to huge success in his early twenties, he’s never been knocked out, as far as I know. Why wouldn’t this guy become the most successful songwriter in the world?”
Having swallowed the bittersweet pill of his film being produced, but with a lesser credit for himself and a new, sunnier version of his story in the film, Barth then found himself on the sidelines during Yesterday‘s promotional tour.
“I contacted Universal Publicity and said, ‘Look, I’ve done some research and I don’t think there’s ever been a screenwriter who sold his first screenplay at my age,'” Barth says. “It’s an interesting angle, almost inspirational. I think it’s a great story. But Universal didn’t want it, they kind of had their marching orders — that it was ‘Richard Curtis and Danny Boyle, two great British filmmakers working together at last.’ I understand that in terms of cleaning up the marketing.”
Barth accepted his diminished role at first. Being rewritten was nothing new, and as a film journalist himself he knew it’s easier to sell an interview when the subject is a big name. But then he watched as Richard Curtis, a writer so revered in the UK that he’s literally one step below a knighthood, seemed to do his best to minimize Barth’s contributions to the movie in interview after interview.
DenofGeek asked Curtis about a “germ of an idea” that Curtis “ran with.” To which Curtis responded, “I had the one-sentence then said I don’t want any more information because I sometimes found when I worked with original material that it doesn’t come from the heart. So I tried to write a whole film that meant something to me, rather than having too much extra information.”
That “one sentence” characterization of Barth’s script would become a theme again in an interview with SlashFilm (emphasis mine): “Yesterday was an odd one actually because I didn’t think of the one lined thesis. Someone rang me and said, you know, would you be interested — and I think maybe even directing — the film with this one line plot: a musician who’s the only person to remember The Beatles. And so, what happened after that is I said well no, don’t tell me anymore. Let me just write my own film,” Curtis said.
The Wall Street Journal, in a story Barth pitched himself, was one of the few outlets to focus on Barth’s involvement, and how his and Curtis’s visions differed. But even with Barth as the focus, Richard Curtis seemed intent on minimizing: “’When I wrote my version I hadn’t actually read Jack’s; that was the deal,'” Curtis was quoted.
Yet if Curtis hadn’t read Barth’s version, how did they both hit upon, among other things, the idea of an alive-and-well John Lennon living as an obscure fisherman?
Meanwhile, the Harry Potter bit at the end of the movie would seem an almost throwaway gag. That is, if only Richard Curtis hadn’t once again written Jack Barth out of it. In this case, Curtis credited, strangely, Sarah Silverman.
“I also definitely had a conversation with Sarah Silverman, who’s got a credit at the end of the movie,” Curtis told the Huffington Post. “She said, ‘At the end of the movie, he should find out that no one can remember Harry Potter. That’d be a good joke.’ So that joke ended the movie, but what I can’t remember is whether I already had the idea that other things should disappear, or whether she said that first. But it was a lovely little thing to play around with.”
(I contacted Richard Curtis’s representative, who said Curtis wouldn’t be available for comment. Virtually everyone else involved (producers, agents) either declined to comment or didn’t respond to my calls or emails.)
Would people respect Richard Curtis any less if they knew he hadn’t come up with every scene and bit in Yesterday? One would think not. But it’s also not unheard of for beloved creators to fall so in love with other people’s ideas that they forget the ideas were other people’s. Robin Williams, to name just one, was famous for it. Williams also never really denied it, and most of his victims, to whom he generally cut a check, didn’t seem to hold it against him.
As for Curtis, there was one time when he did credit Jack Barth, according to Barth.
“Just before the film came out, a writer in Australia got a lot of international press claiming that we stole his idea from an ebook he wrote,” Barth says. “I turned in the first draft before his book was published, so that would’ve been an easy one to bat away, had anybody asked. Within 24 hours, Richard Curtis sent me an email — for the first time ever –‘congratulating’ me for supplying such a great idea, which, he gushed, was all mine, not his at all.”
One could argue it’s a simpler marketing story to sell a “Richard Curtis/Danny Boyle movie,” or even “Sarah Silverman contributed a joke” than “Richard Curtis makes unknown 60-something writer’s screenplay more commercial.” And so Barth says he once again swallowed his pride and didn’t make a stink to avoid hurting the movie. He even attended the Tribeca Film Festival premiere, paying his own way from the UK, where he’s lived since 2000.
Whether or not Barth’s silence helped, Yesterday was solidly successful, going on to gross $153.7 million worldwide on a $26 million budget.
Barth’s reward for that success? Financially speaking, not much. While he was paid “a reasonable price” for his initial script, Yesterday‘s success has, to date, garnered nothing in the way of a payout. In fact, as reported by Deadline, Barth’s accounting statement still shows Yesterday $87 million in the hole.
How does this happen? Well, being a relative nobody at the time, Barth’s deal was for a share of net, or “below the line,” profits, the only kind of profit-share nobodies can generally get.
And net profits, as most people in the entertainment business (or anyone who’s heard the term “Hollywood Accounting”) will tell you, are virtually worthless. As of 2011, the actor who played Darth Vader still hadn’t received residuals for Return of the Jedi (which opened in 1983 and earned $475 million on a $32 million budget). One entertainment lawyer I contacted told me that in 28 years, only three movies they’d worked on had ever “hit net.” As another explained, “Basically, how important you are determines when or if something is legally considered profitable.”
All of which makes Barth’s treatment, like the protagonist of his script, not especially notable. The sad irony of an exploitative business practice is that the more widespread it becomes the less juicy a story about it seems. And by the time he spoke up about it, Barth says, most news outlets had long since moved on from the kooky non-Beatles Beatles movie.
“I didn’t realize Richard was going to do this to me until the week that the film was released,” Barth says. “Then all the publicity hit all at once and I could see that he was taking credit for everything. I think I could have done something then but I didn’t want to jeopardize the film. I got lawyers to contact Richard’s lawyers and they just dragged it out.”
“By the time I realized I needed to get the story out there myself, it was really hard to pitch something that was for a film that had come out eight months earlier. Most of the media is concerned with just promoting the current films, they’re not interested in a story about the abuse of the powerless by the powerful.”
This journalistic apathy in turn, is sadly understandable. Covering entertainment requires access, and in times of precarity, when so many seemingly well-established colleagues are being furloughed or laid off, annoying the powerful — which once upon a time journalists considered their main function — is mostly just a professional liability. The same high risk/low reward calculation probably contributes to those producers and agents involved not wanting to participate in the story.
So once again Barth finds himself cursed with a great story that’s maybe just a tad too real, a tad too complex for mass consumption. He’s in the somewhat quixotic position of simultaneously wanting the credit he feels he deserves for the premise and some of the good bits of a movie, while disavowing the saccharine tone of the same film. At the very least, Barth thought, having been even a small part of such a successful movie would help him get the kinds of meetings he couldn’t before. So far, that hasn’t panned out either.
“This is why I’m so upset, this is why I actually feel like Richard has damaged me financially,” Barth says. “I write and say I’m the guy who created the film Yesterday and they look and they go, ‘No, you’re not, that’s a Richard Curtis movie, you moron.'”
“It’s really hard to get a project going, because the one thing about Yesterday, people are mixed about it, but one thing everyone agrees on, it’s a great idea.”