Film director Will Westaway first mentioned making The Writer with No Hands in 2010. We were long-time collaborators and school friends from Torquay (England). I first acted as an advisor on the film and later came on board as producer.
Seeing the “making of” unfold has been like watching a jaw-dropping piece of real-life theatre. It’s true what they say: Sometimes life is stranger than fiction and, because all of the other people involved who could promote the project are either dead, embittered, hiding or have lost it, I’m sharing my story here.
Seven years ago, Will received a message from Matt Alford, a university professor who wrote about how Hollywood movies misrepresented modern American foreign policy. In his free time, Matt was trying to solve the mysterious death of a Hollywood screenwriter, which was rumoured to be a CIA assassination.
He wanted someone to film his investigation.
“Matt’s an absolute nutcase,” Will told me. “He’s an eccentric, super-intelligent academic obsessed with conspiracy theories. He’s so filmable; you never know what he’s going to do next. Also, he’s got loads of weird family stuff happening at home and he’s going to let me film it all.”
When I asked Will about the investigation, he seemed less enthusiastic. With noticeable reluctance, he rattled through the story.
“It’s about a screenwriter called Gary Devore, who was writing a sensitive political script and using his government contacts to research it. Then, on the day he finished the script, he died under suspicious circumstances.”
“What circumstances?” I asked.
“Oh, there are so many unexplainable things.”
Each piece of evidence seemed to contradict the next.
Devore died when his car careered off the motorway and into an aqueduct. The coroner concluded it had been an accident, but this meant Devore must have been driving the wrong way. (There also was scant evidence that the car had crashed through the barriers.)
There were rumours that, shortly after Devore’s disappearance, the authorities had come to his house and either wiped or commandeered his computer without explanation. It took more than one year to discover the vehicle in the water — even though the area had been scoured many times — and, when the car was found, Devore’s laptop was missing.
So were his hands.
The case was a mess, and Will was about to jump headlong into it.
“Are you definitely going to do this?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m going round to Matt’s tomorrow. I can’t wait to see what his house is like. I bet it’s complete chaos.”
In the months that followed, Matt and Will spent a lot of time together. From what Will told me, I began to see Matt as the kind of oddball academic that often is portrayed in “offbeat” American movies. But for all Matt’s quirks, there was a growing sense that he might be onto something — especially when a Department of Defence contractor pointedly advised him to let the matter go.
It was around this time that the first signs of friction began to emerge between Will and Matt. The conflict was obvious: Will wanted to make a human-interest story about a man with an unhealthy obsession; Matt wanted Will to document the Devore case. So, Matt understandably became aggrieved when Will started interviewing his wife, asking her questions such as, “Why she and Matt no longer slept in the same bed?”
Matt and Will had set out to make a documentary that showed how Hollywood had an agenda. Unfortunately, they too had their own clashing agendas. Their quarrel is best summed up by a piece of footage that got canned. Matt was helping his son bake a cake in the kitchen with Will filming it.
Matt’s son looked into the camera and asked: “Daddy, why is Will filming this?”
“Because I want to make a piece of investigative journalism and Will wants to make a cookery program.”
At this point, Matt decided to go to Los Angeles to interview leads; Will went with him. During this period, I didn’t have any contact with them.
When they returned, Will had changed. Before he went to L.A., he barely talked about the case; he spent most of his time shaking his head in disbelief at Matt. But now, Devore was pretty much all he talked about. Conversations with him became a lot less interesting; he rambled on about fishermen he had talked to who had been at the aqueduct before and after Devore’s accident. Evidently, the case had a way of getting under peoples’ skin: It had happened to Matt and, now, it was happening to Will.
When Will showed me the footage from the trip, the volume of it shocked me. It would take weeks to watch everything, let alone begin to edit it. It reminded me of Thierry Guetta in the Banksy film, who filmed his whole life for years and kept the tapes in a disused storeroom.
The second problem was that collecting the testimonies in L.A. had further muddied the waters. Some witnesses were convinced Devore had been murdered by methamphetamine dealers, while others said it was an accident. A third contingent was convinced Devore was a CIA spy and was alive. None of these arguments could be discounted because the evidence for each was compelling.
The third problem was Matt himself. Like Will, he’d also changed in the wake of the L.A. trip. He’d always been the driving force behind the Devore investigation but, by 2012, he wanted to distance himself. What had caused this? Only Matt knows for sure, but perhaps it had something to do with Devore’s publicist, Michael Sands.
Sands claimed to have ties to the CIA and indicated he could get Matt some real proof. When he returned to the UK after their meeting, Matt continued to push Sands for this proof. Unfortunately, we’ll never know what it was because he died shortly afterwards.
Sands’ death was somewhat suspicious, and yet Matt refused to accept it might have been linked to his investigation. He told Will he had nothing more to say and wanted to finish filming.
Understandably, Will suspected that either someone high-up had put the frighteners on Matt or he was too scared to continue because of Sands’ death. Will confronted Matt many times about this, but he denied everything.
Neither of us felt right about the whole thing.
These issues led to the edit from hell. After two years rearranging footage in his bedroom, Will still didn’t have a completed film. At this point, he booked a flight to Malta. There, he pulled the curtains, avoided the beach, and sat in a hotel room for a week determined to finish the film.
When Will showed me the finished cut, the Devore content still was confusing, but the film was intriguing — mainly because of the tension between Matt and Will. I wonder if Will could have avoided including this conflict even if he wanted to. With creative projects, you think your rational brain is in charge but often your subconscious does the heavy lifting. Either way, the movie posed the question: Is anything we see on film real, or is it all manipulated for someone else’s agenda? Which, in a way, had been Matt’s lifework.
Will never was sure about this version and often referred to it as the “rough cut.” He entered a few film festivals and received some awards, but the harsher audiences considered it incomplete.
As Will watched the film on the big screen, he knew it was not what it could have been. He had set out to make a movie about an eccentric guy solving a mystery. Instead, he and Matt had become confused about the mystery and angry at each other. Also, the interview with Sands had been almost entirely omitted.
Will’s hot-and-cold attitude toward this cut spilled over into distribution efforts. At one point, Robert Downey Jr.’s production team requested a copy; however, when Will sent it he forgot to remove a part that criticised Downey’s “Iron Man” franchise for working with the Department of Defence.
Sky Atlantic also had wanted to buy the film for a six-figure sum, but abandoned the idea right at the end of the meeting when Will revealed it had not been shot in high-definition.
A few months after the film’s release, Matt started writing a book about the Devore case, in which he poked fun at himself and Will. He also presented the evidence he had accumulated in a more detailed way. It seemed strange that Matt would do this while simultaneously distancing himself from the film and investigation. But perhaps it was his way of putting a line under the project and, at least in the book, he could edit what he was saying, which was much harder with the film.
Matt published in 2016, and quickly followed it up with a new academic book about propaganda, before declaring his research in the field done.
A few months later, Will came to me saying he felt he hadn’t done justice to the Devore case. I agreed to come on board as producer for a new version. He needed me to provide the clarity and the distance he no longer possessed.
This edit took us two years to complete. Whenever you chop up anything there are difficult choices but, because of conflicting footage, those decisions were multiplied. We had to tread carefully because every time we made a decision we changed the story. I guess Wolf Koenig was right when he said: “Every cut is a lie. It’s never that way. Those two shots were never next to each other in time that way. But you’re telling a lie in order to tell the truth.”
When Matt heard the final version of the film was almost complete, he contacted Will and said he wanted to make a final statement to camera. Will was surprised — and not keen to acquire more footage.
However, out of curiosity, he drove to Matt’s house.
Will arrived to find Matt dressed in a clown outfit. Apparently he didn’t want anything he said to be taken seriously, which begs the question, why say anything in the first place? Then again, if the CIA had got to him it made perfect sense: If he was dressed as a clown outfit, he could say he was fooling around rather than defying their directive.
During this interview, Matt also mentioned he now was focused on a series of entertainment projects — a world away from his academic training. All of this Will considered to be borderline lunacy. For example, Matt had been performing at nightclubs and local church groups, where, dressed in novelty outfits, he read excerpts from his book while playing the ukulele. Seriously, if a writer made this up no one would believe it.
Had the case sent Matt over the edge? Maybe, but I don’t buy it. I think there’s a method behind his madness, and he’s just waiting for the rest of us to catch up.
The Writer with No Hands (Final Cut) now is finished and, in the absence of having a fund for entering festivals, we arranged for it to be pre-screened for free at 40 indy venues around the globe, including a vape lounge in New York; a prison in Christchurch; a backpackers’ in Rio; and an uptown arts bar in Kansas City.
I think it’s a compelling watch, not only because of the intricacies of the Devore case, but also because all these background issues have seeped in.
It’s a film that deserves to be seen by a lot of people, but I’m pretty sure it never will be. Weeks after the official release, Matt still refuses to do any publicity even though he regularly appears all over the alt-media and our shared social media pages to promote his academic work. I’ve still never met Matt and he seems like a decent guy. But if he’s trying to make our film un-promotable, he’s doing an excellent job.
The most interesting part in all of this: Even if Sands’ death was an accident, the CIA still got its way on reputation alone. It’s ironic that Matt set out to make a film about the CIA’s interference in Hollywood movies and now is refusing to publicise his own about the CIA. But, as he once said on camera: “One way or another, the CIA always win(s).”