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Portrait of the Artist as a Young Millionaire : When He Sold a $1.75-million Screenplay, Shane Black Became a Hollywood Role model, Whether he likes it or not

August 19, 1990|JAMES GREENBERG | James Greenberg is a Los Angeles-based writer who is not currently working on a screenplay.

IT'S AN ORDINARY NIGHT AT THE Pad O' Guys, the West Los Angeles bungalow where screenwriter Shane Black and a dozen or so buddies from his UCLA days hang out discussing the weighty topics of the day, such as how long it's been since any of them had sex. A picket sign from the Writers Guild strike two years ago decorates the wall and a promotional display from the movie "Flipper" and an assortment of toys and movie hype collect dust on the mantle. No Good Housekeeping seal of approval here.

The phone rings. "It's a girl," someone yells in excitement and disbelief. A basketball game is on TV but it's just background noise; this is not a household of jocks. Neighbors think they're vampires. Amid the commotion, Black sits in the corner of the cluttered living room, with a Dominos pepperoni pizza on his lap. For dessert, he wolfs down a couple of Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars.

Considering their frat-house lifestyle, it's hard to believe that these people are successful screenwriters, actors, production designers and animators. It is almost a badge of honor to downplay accomplishments, and anyone displaying the least bit of pretension is instantly deflated. Black half seriously thinks of himself and his friends as "10 guys in a sinking boat." But to many screenwriters of his generation, Black is a role model of how to flourish in an industry famous for using and abusing writers.

The 28-year-old Black has lived out every screenwriter's dream. In 1986, he sold his tough-guy buddy script, "Lethal Weapon," to Warner Bros for $250,000. Then last April he upped the ante for spec scripts when he auctioned another macho adventure tale, "The Last Boy Scout," to the David Geffen Co. for a staggering $1.75 million. He is one of an increasing number of writers reaping the benefits of Hollywood's new hunger for completed scripts submitted on speculation--written without a contract from a studio or producer. In a town that historically has undervalued screenplays, Black's script was a milestone--for a few months he was the country's highest paid screenwriter. But the spending spree quickly escalated and soon his record was surpassed by Joe Eszterhas' script for "Basic Instinct," which Carolco Pictures bought for $3 million.

"I feel that writers deserve at least as big a share as any aspect of the creative team," Black says. "The writer is as important as, well, the director." With big payoffs for scripts such as "The Last Boy Scout" and others, writers are finally asserting the power of the screenplay in the movie-making equation, attempting to secure creative control along with the big money.

But Black is neither a crusader for writers' rights nor a celebrity-in-training. His no-style style--T-shirt, ripped jeans and 4-day stubble--is a comment on what he considers important. "I don't need the beautiful girl on my arm and the fancy car and the best restaurant," he says over coffee at Norm's in West Los Angeles, his favorite restaurant. "You could make a lifetime out of just trying to maintain your status as a cool guy. What I care about is the work."

Things haven't changed much for Black since the big deal. A few nights after becoming Hollywood's latest millionaire, he was in a bar with his older brother Terry, his longtime mentor and a successful screenwriter himself ("Dead Heat"). "After ordering a beer, Shane pulled out his wallet and turns to me and says, 'Terry, I'm a little low on cash. Could you loan me $10?' I looked at him and said, 'Shane, get a job. This writing isn't going to pan out.' He cracked up. Shane just doesn't understand what it means to be wealthy."

He still drives a beat-up Mustang convertible and lives in a rented house on the Westside with four roommates. "I don't have any immediate plans for the money," Black says. "I know this sounds dumb, but every two weeks or so I go on a big spree at the Mysterious bookstore on Beverly, and if I see a series of books that's going to run me $50, I'm not going to say that's too much. But that's really the only difference. And on people's birthdays I buy slightly nicer gifts."

If Black isn't particularly interested in his money, a lot of other people are. On the same day that accounts of his windfall appeared on the front pages of The Times and Variety, he received a call from a Westside real estate agent who wanted to help him find a new house. So many people want a piece of Black that he has started to become protective of his time and privacy; the message on his answering machine apologizes if he's been neglecting you.

One call that he wishes he didn't take came in the middle of the night from a female acquaintance, who berated him for his success. "She woke me up at 2 a.m. saying she just wanted to let me know that she thought I was sick for writing this stuff and making so much money," he remembers. "I should be ashamed of myself because there are real writers out there struggling and I write this trash."

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