J.D. Shapiro recently showed up to accept his Razzie for Worst Movie of the Decade for his credited role as screenwriter for 2000’s Battlefield Earth, the John Travolta alien movie based on the L. Ron Hubbard book, and even more recently, he penned a piece for the New York Post in which he describes just how this movie went from an interesting sci-fi movie to the “suckiest” movie ever made, and how his attempt to get lucky at Scientology meetings led to a struggle to avoid being associated with said suckiness.
“Let me start by apologizing to anyone who went to see Battlefield Earth,” Shapiro began. “It wasn’t as I intended — promise. No one sets out to make a train wreck. Actually, comparing it to a train wreck isn’t really fair to train wrecks, because people actually want to watch those.”
Shapiro says he read an article in Premiere magazine that led him to believe the Celebrity Center of Scientology in Los Angeles was a good place to meet single women, and upon meeting the president of the center, “we ended up talking for over two hours. She told me why Scientology is so great. I told her that, when it comes to organized religion, anything a person does to reward, threaten and try to control people by using an unknown like the afterlife is dangerous.” Although he does proceed to poke a lot of fun at Scientology and their weird rituals (“I was bored so I told them I had a vision of L. Ron. They said, ‘What did he say?’ ‘Pull my finger,’ was my response. They said I was done.”), he’s careful to point out “if you’re reading this to get the dirt on Scientology, sorry, no one ever tried to force me to do anything.”
What they did try to force him to do was change the script he wrote for them, which Travolta had glowingly referred to as the Schindler’s List of sci-fi. “My script was very, VERY different than what ended up on the screen,” he insisted. “My screenplay was darker, grittier and had a very compelling story with rich characters. What my screenplay didn’t have was slow motion at every turn, Dutch tilts, campy dialogue, aliens in KISS boots, and everyone wearing Bob Marley wigs.” These would apparently be the script notes that got him axed from the project. “I thought it was a joke. They changed the entire tone. I knew these notes would kill the movie. The notes wanted me to lose key scenes, add ridiculous scenes, take out some of the key characters. I refused to incorporate the notes into the script and was fired.”
The best explanation he has for this is that Hubbard himself apparently had left detailed notes on how Battlefield Earth should be translated into a film, and Travolta’s camp wanted to honor that. He also suggested that Hubbard’s hatred of psychiatry is the reason the bad guys were called Psychlos.
So how did it all wind up for Shapiro? “The only time I saw the movie was at the premiere, which was one too many times. Once it was decided that I would share a writing credit, I wanted to use my pseudonym, Sir Nick Knack. I was told I couldn’t do that, because if a writer gets paid over a certain amount of money, they can’t. I could have taken my name completely off the movie, but my agent and attorney talked me out of it. There was a lot of money at stake.”
It sounds like a nightmarish example of the worst aspects of making a big-studio movie, but Shapiro takes it all in stride. “Now, looking back at the movie with fresh eyes, I can’t help but be strangely proud of it,” he concluded. “Because out of all the sucky movies, mine is the suckiest.”