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French scribe claims ‘Syriana’ plagiarized

Screenwriter says 15-20 scenes ‘lifted directly’ from her script
/ Source: Hollywood Reporter

A French screenwriter living in Jordan has sued Warner Bros. Pictures, George Clooney’s production company and writer-director Stephen Gaghan, alleging that their film “Syriana” plagiarized entire scenes and characters from a script she wrote several years ago.

Stephanie Vergniault’s case comes up for hearing Monday at the Paris High Court, said her attorney, Jasna Hadley Stark. The filmmakers are being sued for 2 million euros ($2.4 million) and damages, Stark said.

Executives at Warner Bros. France said they were aware of the case but declined comment. A spokesman for Warners in the United States said, “While we have not seen a copy of this suit, we believe it is without merit and (we) will defend our position in court.”

“I live in a part of the world where we have no access to the latest films, and I would never have seen ’Syriana’ if a friend of mine based in Los Angeles hadn’t alerted me,” Vergniault said Tuesday.

“I saw the film entirely by accident, and I’m still in a state of shock that someone of the caliber of Stephen Gaghan could stoop so low. At least 15 to 20 scenes of the film -- the characters and how they develop, creative elements, the entire structure -- has been lifted directly from my script. I couldn’t stop screaming when I first saw the film in a movie hall in L.A. First I thought I was going crazy, seeing my work on the screen, and then, when I realized what had happened, I was furious.”

Vergniault, a specialist on geopolitics in the Middle East, claims that she worked on a script titled “Oversight” from 1997-2003, registering it with the French copyright body SACD in September 2004 and copyrighting it in the U.S. a month later. The script tells the story of a former CIA agent who is reassigned by the organization to reactivate an underground network in Afghanistan for the benefit of an American oil company.

“I have read the book by former CIA agent Robert Baer that is supposed to have inspired the story, and there is nothing in it that remotely resembles the scenes taken straight from my script,” she said.

Clooney received an Academy Award last month for his supporting role in the film, while Gaghan was nominated for his screenplay. He originally sought eligibility in the adapted screenplay category, but the Academy switched him to the original screenplay race.

Upon learning of the switch in January, Gaghan said he did veer from Baer’s memoir, “See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism,” and conducted a great deal of original research that he incorporated into the script, but still considered it an adapted screenplay.