Author Steve Alten’s harrowing journey taking ‘THE MEG’ from the book to the big screen

The Meg circles in THE MEG. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

If there’s ever been a more harrowing tale releasing a project that had been languishing in development hell, it probably would still fail to compare with what author Steve Alten went through seeing his novel, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, brought to the big screen.

The affable author, and a fleet of fans nicknamed “Megheads,” have waited over two decades to see his creation about a man (played by Jason Statham) saving the world from a 70-foot prehistoric giant shark, the Megalodon, brought to life. Blessedly, that patience has paid off. His new publishers have even re-released the book, replete with lots of new bonuses, including new content like a prequel and 18 images from the journey over the last 22 years.

There’ve been so many ups and downs with getting this to the big screen in the past 22 years. Let’s walk through maybe the bullet points of this journey, starting with what it was first like when you got the call a studio was going to option this?

My agent at the time, Ken Atchity, had a first look deal with Warren Zide at Hollywood Pictures. We optioned the movie before the book was even taken onto the market. We got the big two book deal from Bantam-Doubleday a month later. So things were looking pretty good. And then the roller coaster started to head down.

Meg had made the New York Times best-seller list and other best-seller lists – it had done really well. But then two weeks before I was supposed to be paid a huge amount from Bantam-Doubleday, they stopped taking my phone calls. We didn’t know what was going on. Turns out they were being bought out by Bertelsmann and the outgoing president of the company was trying to improve her bottom line, or something, but she started dumping contracts and mine was one of them.

Even though they were printing 750, 000 paperbacks, four months later, they publicly cancelled my contract. We had just moved into a new house so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep the house. Then a few months after that, the president of Hollywood Pictures, David Vogel was fired. So they rescinded the rights to THE MEG, because they knew the new guys weren’t going to do something the old guys did. In two phone calls, I basically lost a million and a half dollars and my house.

So your spirit is probably at an all-time low at that point. How did you pick yourself up from that?

I remember driving home from basketball that night I got the calls and I was feeling pretty low. I started listening to the news, about how someone’s child drown in a pool, and I realized, “Quit sucking your thumb. It’s only money. You’ve got a New York Times best-seller under your umbrella. Get off your ass. Reset your goals and get going again.”

We had to sue Doubleday to get the rights to the second book back. They had wanted another underwater story and were trying to make me into the next Peter Benchley. But I didn’t want to write underwater stories. The book was about the Mayan’s calendar/ Doomsday prophecy – and in 1998, I was way ahead of the 2012 curve. Meanwhile, I took four months and quickly wrote The Trench just to get some money coming in – that also hit the best-seller list. Then we got the rights back to the Mayan story and I re-wrote it as The Domain – and years later that became an international best-seller.

What happened in the next climb for the roller coaster was Nick Nunziata, the founder of Chud.com, found out about [the rights rescinding to THE MEG] in 2004. He took it to his friend, Guillermo Del Toro and Lloyd Levin. They optioned in for a dollar from me and asked me to write a script. I wrote a script and they added Jan De Bont to the package – Jan and I worked on that script – and they took it to New Line Cinema. New Line bought the package and added Shane Salerno as the new screenwriter. Salerno basically ignored the book and created his own story, involving a Japanese whaler – like a Moby Dick movie. It was horrible. That was the lowest point I had. I realized if this movie was going to get made it would kill the franchise. Fortunately, they didn’t make it and the rights reverted back to me two years later.

That’s fortunate, even though your project is still languishing.

And every time it languishes, the one studio makes it a little bit harder to make. I had met Belle Avery, the producer, during that time period with New Line. She believed in my work. She’s the big hero of this. Without her, this doesn’t happen. She absorbed many body-blows over the past eight years too. She basically financed about twenty round the world trips to get this done. She’s the hero in my book.

What we did was I fired everyone associated with the New Line deal and basically optioned the right to MEG to her. We wrote a script together – a really good script – and she took that out and was able to raise $150 million, working with Gravity Pictures in China. They took that package to Warner Brothers and they joined in. That was three years ago and here we are.

Jason Statham, Cliff Curtis, Bingbing Li, Page Kennedy, and Ruby Rose in THE MEG. Courtesy of Warner Brothers.

What a storied journey this has been.

Oh there’s more to it. These are the bullet points.

I’m sure. Did this at all affect what you were writing in the novels?

No, because the novels have their own fan base. They call themselves the “Megheads.” They’re very loyal and they loved the books. I was able to make enough money that I was able to keep going. There have been some tough times. I’ve absorbed enough body-blows that have probably caused my Parkinson’s. Listen, you do what you gotta do. There’s always going to be somebody who’s got it worse than you. I’ve had some good breaks and bad breaks too, but at the end of day, my books keep getting better. With MEG now being made, I figure it will open up avenues for the rest of my work.

There are changes from your book. Can you remember some of the craziest changes in the drafts throughout the years?

I remember the first writer for Disney had changed all my Japanese characters to Germans. That was kinda petty. Salerno’s changer were the most ridiculous. He had a Japanese whaler, hunting the Meg in California waters. Why is a Japanese whaler in California waters anyways? There’s plenty of whales in Japan. I remember sending him six pages of notes and him ignoring every one of them. I think the craziest thing he had in the script was he had the Meg growling.

The good thing is now they have the right tone, the right actors and great producers. And fortunately, in the end, it worked out. I’ve always said, if they do it right, this is going to be a huge franchise.

Do you see this long journey as a blessing now given tech advancements, casting, funding, etc.?

I would agree with you. Sometimes you have to wait to get it right. You never know when the timing is going to be. It did work out correctly on all those fronts.

THE MEG opens on August 10.

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