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SUMMER SNEAKS : Well, They Wanted Action : Brash newcomers Zak Penn and Adam Leff engineered their own industry buzz, landing an agent and a deal for their screenplay. Fame and fortune followed, but with a weird ending

May 16, 1993|TERRY PRISTIN | Terry Pristin is a Times staff writer.

Chris Moore was having one of those adrenaline-inducing days that sometimes occur in Hollywood when the Industry is obsessed with a single topic.

Four people had called him that September, 1991, morning urging him to read a screenplay called "Extremely Violent." Each caller was telling the young agent that this combination action, fantasy and parody picture would be a perfect vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Moore had never heard of screenwriters Zak Penn and Adam Leff, two neophytes less than a year and a half out of college, but he did what agents are programmed to do on such occasions. He picked up the phone.

"I don't know who you guys are," he told Penn. "I haven't read your script yet, but everyone in town is calling me about it."

The agent would later learn he had been set up. The buzz about "Extremely Violent" had been generated by low-level studio or agency employees he knew who also happened to be friends of Penn and Leff. Having failed to grab an agent's attention by more conventional means, the writing team had brazenly orchestrated a plan to transform their screenplay into a hot property and get themselves an agent.

By the time Moore discovered the truth, he had signed Penn and Leff as clients and was hardly in a position to object to the ruse. Under a new title, "The Last Action Hero," the screenplay did indeed become hot enough to launch a bidding war and eventually attract Schwarzenegger as both star and executive producer. It went on to form the backbone of a picture with one of the biggest price tags ever--an estimated $65 million to $80 million. Columbia Pictures will release "Last Action Hero" (the article was eventually dropped from the title) on June 18.

"Everyone should sell their script that way," said Moore (whose then-employer, Intertalent, was absorbed by International Creative Management), looking back on the writers' hustle.

Hollywood is filled with stories of screenwriters who toil in obscurity for years before making the big score. This is not one of those stories. For Penn and Leff, who got to know each other while taking a film appreciation course at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., the struggle for recognition lasted only a matter of months.

Their careers did begin in the standard way, however, as they recalled during an interview in an office at 20th Century Fox, where they are finishing work on a script for "P.C.U.," a satire based on their experiences at one of the country's most politically correct campuses.

Not long after their 1990 college graduation, the pair--Leff is from Chicago, Penn from New York City--moved to Los Angeles. Their first goal was to line up an agent, perhaps the hardest task a writer ever has to face.

"Agents are the Catch-22 of the movie business: Everybody starting out desperately needs one and nobody starting out can possibly get one," screenwriter William Goldman, who wound up doing an uncredited "polish" of the "Last Action Hero" screenplay, wrote in his now-classic book "Adventures in the Screen Trade."

While making about $200 a week as script readers and researchers, the fledgling team unsuccessfully shopped a comedy-horror screenplay about a giant rat in Manhattan's Central Park.

"We used it as a calling card--to get doors slammed in our faces," joked Leff, who is quieter than Penn but fond of sardonic one-liners. Added Penn, the more aggressive of the pair: "That worked very effectively."

Sometimes given to finishing each other's sentences, the still-boyish Penn and Leff, both 25, are so industry-savvy that it is hard to believe they descended on Hollywood without family connections. Penn does have a father named Arthur, but although he is often mistaken for the director of "Alice's Restaurant" and "Bonnie and Clyde," he is actually a lawyer and no relation. Leff's father is a money manager.

In their spare time, Penn and Leff wrote a thriller but decided to shelve it. Instead, following the well-worn path of legions of other aspiring screenwriters, they took Robert McKee's celebrated screenwriting course.

Armed with a better understanding of screenplay structure--also gleaned from a research project on horror films that they did together for Quincy Jones Productions--they came up with the idea to turn on its head the concept behind Woody Allen's 1985 "The Purple Rose of Cairo." In that film, Mia Farrow's movie-star idol walks off the screen to join her in the real world. In theirs, a real-life nerdy boy would take the opposite step, entering the celluloid world of his action-movie hero.

"Everyone thought it was stupid at first," Penn said. To their friends also just starting out in the industry the idea had several strikes against it: It was a movie about movies, it mixed different genres, and worst of all, it was a parody of the action genre.

Penn recalls friends saying: "It's not a good way in the door because every college kid off the boat . . . "

"Writes a parody," Leff said.

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