Screenwriters Laura Kightlinger, Mike White fight like cats and dogs over script
One screenwriter says her friend -- another screenwriter -- copied ideas from a script.
They were friends and neighbors. She remembers him calling her late at night to bum a cigarette and discuss their lives as struggling writers and actors in Hollywood. He remembers bonding over their love of animals and helping her search the hills when her cat disappeared.
But everything shattered after she wrote a screenplay about a woman obsessed with rescuing cats — and he wrote a screenplay about a woman obsessed with rescuing dogs.
Now, Laura Kightlinger is suing Mike White in Los Angeles County Superior Court, claiming she gave him her script, "We're All Animals," to read only to discover he was making a film called "Year of the Dog," which the suit contends relied on the script about her life as a cat rescuer.
The White film, which stars "Saturday Night Live" alumna Molly Shannon, was released April 13 by Paramount Vantage to largely positive reviews — it earned a 72% on the RottenTomatoes.com film website — but has generated just $1.5 million in box office receipts.
White, who wrote and directed the film, vigorously denies the allegations, insisting that beyond a general thematic similarity, the two scripts have different plots, characters and dialogue.
"They are totally different scripts," he said in a telephone interview. " … I know there is a similarity in the sense that [the female leads] both have pets that they care about, but beyond that, everything she is saying that is similar seems like a real stretch to me."
In a town where film and TV ideas are often discussed among friends over lattes and laptops, Kightlinger's lawsuit provides a cautionary tale for screenwriters: How far should writers go when discussing their ideas, especially with other writers?
Kightlinger is not alleging copyright infringement. Instead, the suit, which was filed in October and will soon enter the deposition phase, claims that because White is also a producer, there was an expectation that he would compensate her if he used her script in some way.
"Our claim is not a copyright claim but rather a breach of 'implied' contract claim," said Jennifer McGrath, Kightlinger's attorney. "Mike and Laura were friends, but he was also a writer-producer. There was an expectation that if she told him her idea and he was going to use it in some way, she would be paid and she would also be involved in the project."
White's attorney, Louis P. Petrich, said in an e-mail to The Times that what Kightlinger asked White to read was "not a list of ingredients, but rather a specific story with delineated characters and a detailed sequence of events. … Mike's movie is not that story."
A survey of the two scripts shows some similarities in basic plot elements: In each, the lead character loses her pet — one dies and one wanders off; each brings her animal rights activism to the workplace, where she is eventually fired; each begins hoarding animals; and each visits a farm. Most other key plot points and characters differ.
Eric Weissmann, a Beverly Hills entertainment lawyer who is not a party to the lawsuit, said Kightlinger faces significant legal hurdles. "Anybody can do a movie about somebody who is obsessed with an animal … but then the question is, 'Was there really an implied agreement? And was the agreement really about that?' "
White and Kightlinger are seasoned writers and actors.
Kightlinger was a staff writer on "Will & Grace" and "Roseanne." She's also an actress and comedian, who appeared as Nurse Sheila on "Will & Grace" and was a featured player on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1990s [she impersonated O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark].
Kightlinger also created, produced and stars in the IFC cable network's comedy series "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman."
White drew Hollywood's attention when he wrote and starred in the quirky 2000 indie film "Chuck & Buck," portraying a young man who stalks his boyhood pal to reconnect with their past. He has written and acted in Jack Black's hit comedy, "School of Rock," the Jennifer Aniston vehicle "The Good Girl" and "Orange County." He also wrote and produced Black's Mexican-themed wrestling comedy "Nacho Libre."
Kightlinger said she first met White in 1996. He later was a frequent visitor in the home she shared with Black, who was her then-boyfriend. The two men later became producing partners, but today run separate production companies, although they continue to have joint projects.
She said that she based her screenplay on her experiences in the zany and often heart-rending world of cat rescues.
For example, while working at "Will & Grace," Kightlinger said she helped set up feeding stations for stray cats that roamed the grounds of CBS Studios on Radford Avenue in Studio City. Her work with strays became so well known, she said, that her co-workers even altered the name on her office door to read "Catlinger."
A tall, raven-haired woman with striking dark eyes, Kightlinger is given to self-deprecating humor. At one point in the interview, she quipped: "I'm not embarrassed to be called a cat lady, or a dog lady or even a dog." She currently has a dog and two cats.
Kightlinger said that during her conversations with White, she mentioned wanting to write about women in Hollywood who bonded over rescuing animals and how her relationship was falling apart because of work with animals. She wrote her screenplay in 2002 and showed it to White.
"I read it and told her it was great and told her if she wanted me to have a part [acting] in it, I would do it," White said. " … But I never made any kind of agreement that I would use it — nor did I use her script."
White said he and Black posed for photographs holding a copy of her screenplay. She planned to imprint the photos on T-shirts so they could be worn to a film festival in a bid to fuel interest from studios and production companies. A spokesman for Black said the actor declined to comment.
Kightlinger said she gave White a new draft of her script in late 2003 or early 2004. She said she agreed in 2004 to allow a production company, Catapult Films, to shop her screenplay to the studios but found no buyers.
Then early last year, she read in the Hollywood Reporter that White had struck a deal with Paramount to make "Year of the Dog." She called to congratulate him and offered to "punch up" his script with jokes or other dialogue if he wanted her to, but according to the lawsuit, she says he declined, saying she would find his script "boring" and "wouldn't like it."
White denies this. He said he told her: "It's not really a jokey movie but I think you'll like it."
When her agent sent her White's screenplay to read for a potential part, Kightlinger said she felt it was like a "stab in the back." She telephoned White and "I said, 'What is going on?' And he said, 'Well, does it matter as long as you get it out there? Get the word out about animals?' "
White denies this conversation ever occurred. He said she left an "accusatory" message on his answering machine. "She and I have never ever spoken about [my] script since she got it," he said.
Now, the two don't speak. "This was an old friend," she said. "He knew how personal it was to me. He would laugh at things that I was doing [rescuing cats] … and then using it and made it feel like it was his experience."
But White maintains that he based his film on his life — not hers.
White, who has two cats and two dogs, said the movie "came out of me losing a pet and replacing that pet with a lot of pets and becoming involved in animal rights, becoming a vegan." He noted that he had a cat named Bootlegger, a former stray, who was found dead in the neighbor's yard.
"That whole story line came out of my own life," he said. The reason he made a movie about dogs instead of cats was because "dogs are easier to train in movies and easier to [film]."
In an anguished e-mail to The Times, White wrote, "I would never do what she's accusing me of doing" and called her allegations "a surreal … nightmare from which I hope to wake."
"The only thing that has ever mattered to me as far as my work was that people thought I was original and that I had integrity," he wrote. "I never cared if they thought I was weird or uncommercial or an acquired taste or whatever. That Laura is seeking publicity for herself by trying to damage what I have spent my career trying to create seems cruel."
As for Kightlinger, her frustrations over "Year of the Dog" are not unlike the anger expressed by the main character in a screenplay she wrote called "Better Than J.C." A struggling actress named Amanda discovers that another actress named J.C. has ripped off one of Amanda's funny catchphrases and used it in a wildly popular TV commercial. J.C. is then rocketed into the national spotlight.
In the script, Amanda says of J.C.'s success: "I can't help but think it should have been me and not you."
Kightlinger said she began writing the script before her friendship with White took off, finished it after they had become friends and she showed it to him in confidence.