After 40 Years, Howard Kaplan’s ‘The Damascus Cover’ Hits Theaters

The Damascus Cover Howard KaplanIf achievement is a mélange of skill, perseverance and luck, along the way I’ve had periods of fierce drive, missed great opportunities and been the recipient of incredible luck. As a result, the film adaptation of my novel The Damascus Cover, starring Sir John Hurt and Jonathan Rhys Meyers will soon hit theaters, 40 years after the book’s initial publication.

The novel had a nice run; for three months climbed the Los Angeles Times best seller list and was translated into seven languages. Additionally, it was sold to a publisher in Yugoslavia for translation. When the book was turned over to the Central Committee of the Communist Party for authorization to translate it, permission was denied and the remaining copies of the galleys still on submission elsewhere were confiscated. No reason was given and The Damascus Cover was placed on the official Eastern European blacklist. The agent who submitted it, later Stephen King’s agent, Ralph Vicinanza and I were the same age.  He died in 2010 at 60 from a brain aneurism. My father will be 99 in October and plays bridge five days a week. So I’m lucky about a lot of things.

In 1977, a big Hollywood agent sent The Damascus Cover everywhere for film consideration. There were no takers though after reading it, a producer from Lionsgate Films called, and asked if I would write for him. I had a contract for a second novel and told him I was concentrating there. Big missed opportunity – Huge.

The Damascus Cover was out of print for decades. Then in the summer of 2005, an old friend called. She told me a director she knew, Dan Berk, was looking to produce and direct a film set in the Middle East. She had given him my novel and he wanted to meet me. No Beverly Hills power lunch, we sat at a small table at Peet’s Coffee. He brought a contract that was a few pages long. After we talked, I glanced at it, did see the money amounts, and signed it. Years later he said to me, “I don’t think you even read it.” I trusted him and again I was lucky, that trust was more than well-placed.

Dan deserves an award for grit and perseverance. During the next ten years we never communicated, save for one meeting a year at our table at Peet’s Coffee. He’d email me each June and say he wanted to renew the option, his right to continue for another year, to weave it all together. I’d listen to his progress: Israel funding fell through, we could shoot on Malta as their film industry pays to encourage production and is interested. Whenever Dan asked to reduce the price of the option, I agreed. The last time I accepted a hundred dollars for that year. I always had my eye on getting the film made and his drive was impressive. Then suddenly in 2014 he secured funding and a Beverly Hills agent came aboard brought in his client as the lead, James D’Arcy, who had a role in the Russell Crowe film Master and Commander. The movie now would be filmed in Casablanca which has a thriving low cost film industry.

A few weeks before shooting, D’Arcy was offered a role in a comic book TV series, Agent Carter, and he abandoned us. That show lasted one year, maybe he wasn’t so lucky. For tax credit reasons, we had to have European Union actors and the agent offered eleven possible alternatives, male leads who were available to shoot in Morocco in two weeks.  When I was on set in Casablanca, the British producer told me that there were ten names she’d never head of and Jonathan Rhys Meyers. She told them, “I’ll have him.” I would frequently tell Dan and it became a joke between us, that we kept failing upwards. The French actor, Jean Reno and Charles Dance, then on Game of Thrones, both turned down the part of head of the Israeli secret service. So it was offered to John Hurt. Hurt loved the script and additionally had a house in Morocco he wanted to stay at after the shoot.

During post production, Dan came over several times with edits for me to watch. I had no right of approval but he is the kind of person smart enough to know when he needed help. At one point I excised ten consecutive minutes that did not move the story forward, and he immediately agreed. Dan often says that when he hit a wall he went back to the book. It’s a magnificent film and I love what he’s done with my novel, which is available again as a paperback and for the first time an eBook.

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Howard Kaplan

Howard Kaplan, a native of Los Angeles, has lived in Israel and traveled extensively through Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. When he was 21, while attending school in Jerusalem, he was sent on a mission into the Soviet Union to smuggle out a dissident’s manuscript on microfilm. His first trip was a success. On his second trip to the Soviet Union, he was arrested in the Ukraine and interrogated for two days there and two days in Moscow, before being released. He holds a BA in Middle East History from UC Berkeley and an MA in the Philosophy of Education from UCLA. He is the author of four novels.