With so many flamboyant directors and macho producers making the rounds these days, Hollywood insiders rarely find time to buzz about a lowly screenwriter.
But what if he's a guy whose script was based on a real-life encounter with an alien?
Now that gets Hollywood talking.
And according to industry word-of-mouth, what gave "My Stepmother Is an Alien" its most tantalizing air of mystery wasn't the film's stars--Kim Basinger and Dan Aykroyd--but its original screenwriter, a mystery man known simply as Jerico.
Did Jerico really meet an alien? It's easy to be skeptical, especially since "Stepmother" (a box-office bomb) was reviled by critics as a silly Tinseltown fantasy.
But consider this--Jerico's original screenplay wasn't a fluffy comedy. The script was, as one Hollywood executive described it, "a very real, terrifying story."
Weeks after the film opened, the reclusive screenwriter surfaced. Reluctant to give out his phone number or meet at his home ("I live in a very difficult neighborhood"), he set up a rendezvous one night at a Sunset Strip eatery.
A man of 35 with shoulder-length hair, a thick beard and dark, probing eyes, Jerico, whose last name is Stone, was bright and thoughtful, though he appeared wary during portions of his chat. But his unusual account offers an intriguing glimpse into a writer's creative process--and how the results are reworked and distorted by the Hollywood studio system.
"My original script was an allegory about child abuse," he said, sipping a cup of tea. "I wanted to reach kids in a way that wouldn't make the story just a disease-of-the-week TV movie. And after certain incidents I'd experienced, I realized I could tell the story as a fable, a fairy tale that would make it easier for kids to grasp the child abuse angle."
According to Jerico, these "incidents" occurred during his childhood in Brooklyn, where he says he was "beaten up" frequently, both at home and at school. He spent his days at a train station, reading comic books with a young black friend who had suffered similar abuses.
"We decided to become comic super heroes and called ourselves the Black Jacks," he said. "It gave us strength. When kids from school found us, we'd become the Black Jacks and lay into them until they stopped bothering us."
One day his friend showed up badly beaten. "He said we couldn't do anything to stop his father because he was an alien. And he said he couldn't see me again--and he never did."
Years later, Jerico moved to Los Angeles, where he was "a street person," crashing at flop houses and sleeping in parks. He was befriended by a young black kid who turned up one day, badly beaten. The youngster said his father had hurt him, but told Jerico he couldn't fight back because his father was an alien.
Intrigued, Jerico said he followed him to a supermarket parking lot, where the boy hopped into an abandoned car. "It didn't have any wheels and its windows were spray-painted black," Jerico recalled. "I rushed up and started kicking the car when the door opened and. . . . "
Jerico's voice dropped to a whisper. "It was an alien. It wasn't a man. It wasn't a person. It looked so strange I couldn't even describe it. I just froze. The next thing I knew this huge hand leaped out and dug into my stomach, grabbing a hold of my spine. The pain was so intense I just collapsed to the ground.
"The alien creature stood over me and said, very gently, 'Sorry, Black Jack.' Then the car started to shimmer, very brightly, and I blacked out from the pain. When I came to, the car--and any traces of it--was gone."
Not long afterwards, Jerico had a chance meeting with Orson Welles--"I cornered him walking into Ma Maison and he told me, 'My boy, "The War of the Worlds" was just a dress rehearsal.' " Inspired, Jerico began pitching a story about a child's nightmarish vision that his stepmother is an evil alien.
"No one believes him because she's the greatest mother in public, but in private she's totally sadistic to him," he explained. "It was a very dark story."
In 1981, Paramount hired Jerico to write the script, but when he delivered it to the studio they saw it having more potential as a comedy. More writers were brought in (four, including Jerico, are listed on the final credits), and the script bounced around before being made by Weintraub Entertainment.
Jerico recently saw the film at the Fairfax Theatre. His reaction? He flashed a wan smile. "Hollywood is a doomed planet," he said. "Watching the film is like seeing someone you loved very much at one time and then seeing them much later and. . . ."
His voice trailed off. "They're the same person, but they look so different. So many things have happened to them. It's not the person you loved 20 years before."
As a community, Hollywood is refreshingly tolerant of oddballs. Still, when one development executive who'd taken meetings with Jerico was asked for a comment, she replied, "You could say he's a real weirdo."