When “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” opens in theaters on Friday, the Paramount film starring Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Alfred Molina and Billy Bob Thornton will be the end result of hundreds of big decisions by various creatives, from the boardroom suits to the filmmakers themselves.
But it’s also the product of one potentially confusing big decision. The film shares its name with an acclaimed 2014 thriller by David Shafer that HBO acquired last June to develop as a half-hour series with Brad Pitt‘s Plan B Entertainment executive producing, and Zev Borow (“Chuck”) writing the adaptation.
Shafer, who lives in Portland, Ore., calls the confusion “very inconvenient to me” and “a real bummer.”
“My book had some buzz and a good reception; its title helped,” Shafer wrote in an email to TheWrap. “I would have thought the generous thing would be to let a first-time author hold on to the thing he got right a little longer.”
While both the book and the movie make use of WTF, the widely adopted acronym for “what the fuck?” there are no other similarities.
Shafer’s debut novel follows three young adults unwittingly caught up in an international conspiracy to privatize the world’s information. Published in August 2014, the book got numerous positive reviews, including a rave in The New York Times as “a paranoid, sarcastic and clattering pop thriller.”
Fey’s film began its life as a book, too: Kim Barker’s 2011 memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” a widely praised account of her five years as South Asia bureau chief for the Tribune. The Tribune said the book “poignantly chronicles a gradual disenchantment with reporting on bloodshed” and “has a descriptive flair that can amuse and disconcert in the same breath.”
In February 2014, Fey announced that Barker’s book would be adapted by Robert Carlock, Fey’s longtime professional partner (he was showrunner on “30 Rock” and, more recently, executive producer on “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”). Fey signed on to star as Barker, who juggles wartime journalistic responsibilities and a love interest (played by Martin Freeman). Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (“Crazy, Stupid, Love”) directed.
At one point, Barker’s memoir title was considered for the movie, as well as “Fun House,” a title that was in place as recently as February 2015.
It’s not clear when or why the filmmakers team decided to go with “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” Paramount, the distributor of the film, had no comment.
But there’s nothing to stop the studio from claiming Shafer’s title as their own. Titles can’t be copyrighted, and can be trademarked only in limited circumstances, according to regulations set by the Register of Copyrights and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The tale of two WTFs symbolizes the creative chaos of Hollywood, and shows how the process of titling a movie — key to establishing its identity for the public — is sometimes indifferent to a major rule of commerce: The First One to Market Wins.
By April 2015, when “WTF” the movie wrapped production in New Mexico (ably standing in for Afghanistan), “WTF” the novel had already assumed a presence in popular culture. “WTF” the novel preceded “WTF” the movie by almost a year and a half; the novel’s HBO adaptation plans preceded it by about eight months.
Shafer conceded that “the beautiful phrase was never mine to stake exclusively,” admitting that “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was also the title of a 2007 book of Iraq war photography by Ashley Gilbertson.
Since the HBO series is going forward with another title — still TBD, by the way — Shafer said he has made his peace with losing his original handle. “It is code that belongs to the commons,” he said.