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Dealing With Script He Never Wanted To Write

April 09, 1986|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

Neal Jimenez was only standing on that rock because things were going so well for him. If he hadn't optioned his first two scripts, if he hadn't been working so hard on that first commissioned screenplay, he might not have gone to Placerville at all.

"I needed a little break, a little vacation," says Jimenez, who was a 23-year-old UCLA film student on a professional roll when he took that trip in mid-July, 1984. "I went up there to visit some friends and it turned into a camping trip."

Jimenez was with five of his former Canoga (Sacramento) High School friends that night when they wandered away from camp for a midnight hike. He doesn't remember too much about the accident, except that he was standing on a rock, in nearly total darkness, when the rock slipped out from under him.

His friends later explained that he fell about 20 feet into a shallow pool and that when they got to him, his head was under water and he was unconscious. Two of his friends, who had learned CPR in the Army, managed to pump the water out of his lungs and get him breathing. But it would take them all night to get him to a hospital.

"We were really removed," Jimenez says. "They had to take me in a boat across the lake, then find a house where they could call for an ambulance."

Jimenez, who lives alone in a new apartment complex in West Los Angeles, recalls only fragments from the long night. He remembers waking up briefly during the boat ride and looking into the concerned faces of his friends. He remembers bits of his ambulance ride. And he remembers knowing that he was badly hurt.

"It was no shock to me when the doctor told me I had broken my neck . . . that I was paralyzed," he says, matter of factly. "There was a strange immediate acceptance, an unfathomable optimism. Denial did not come until a lot later."

Now, nearly two years after that accident, Jimenez is still working through the denial stage. His screenwriting career has flourished, almost uninterrupted, and he is still studying at UCLA. Two of his scripts--one finished before his accident, the second one after--have been made into movies and will be released this year.

He has just completed a rewrite for director Claudia Weill for a PBS "American Playhouse" film, and he is writing a script based on his observations and experiences as a paraplegic patient at Rancho Los Amigos hospital in Downey.

But it has only been four months since he left the hospital and learned that the hurdles facing a person in a wheelchair are greater than he had ever imagined.

"In the hospital, everything is designed so you can get around," Jimenez says. "Outside, you're faced with all these barriers and curbs, with not being able to get into restaurants or theaters because there are no bathrooms with access for wheelchairs."

Jimenez angrily recalls being kicked out of the UA theater in Marina del Rey because his wheelchair was blocking the aisle. He was told that it was against fire code regulations to sit there, and there was no other space in the theater where wheelchair patrons could be accommodated.

He says the manager of the theater, in trying to cushion his eviction, gave him passes to the UA in Westwood. But when he got outside, he discovered that the passes had expired.

"It just outrages me," he says, softly.

Jimenez was at first paralyzed from the neck down, but two operations--to remove pressure from his spinal chord--restored control to his upper body.

He remembers getting a call two weeks after his accident from the producers of "Lazaro," a script he had begun adapting from a novel before going to Placerville.

"I said, 'I think I'll be able to get back to work on it in two weeks,' " he says. "They said, 'Take as long as you need. It's your script.' "

A few weeks later, someone set a typewriter in front of him.

"It was a scary moment, just learning if I could type," he says. "It was difficult and it was slow, but I could do it. That was really a boost, as far as getting on with things. It was the difference between needing full-time care and being independent, and I knew I would be able to work."

Jimenez's first movie is "River's Edge," a low-budget (under $2 million) drama inspired by a news story several years ago about a group of high school students who, having heard a murder confession by a classmate, waited several days to tell police.

The movie, starring Crispin Glover (the nerd dad in "Back to the Future") and Dennis Hopper, is being directed by Tim Hunter ("Tex," "Sylvester") for the producers of "Desperately Seeking Susan." It will be released in August by Hemdale Releasing.

"It is a very powerful script," says producer Midge Sanford. "The best way I can put it is that the director respected it so much, he did not make a single change. The movie is essentially Neal's first draft. He is an extraordinary writer."

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