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Fast Times for Santa Monica Student : Movies: Jessica Kaplan's script providing a unique look at high school life is snapped up by New Line Cinema.

August 23, 1995|CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finding good screenwriters to pen authentic teen films has always been a dilemma in Hollywood, but New Line Cinema thinks it has the answer.

Why not get a teen-ager to write the script?

New Line went straight to the source recently when it bought a screenplay written by 17-year-old Jessica Kaplan, a senior at the Crossroads School in Santa Monica.

Titled "Powers That Be," it is the third film in the works at New Line's Single Cell Pictures, the production company headed by Michael Stipe, lead singer of the rock group R.E.M.

Kaplan, who wrote the script--her first--when she was 16, says she never really expected it would be made into a film.

"I just sat down to write something that was real and about my experiences. It had nothing to do with appealing to a genre or trying to get a studio executive to like it," Kaplan says.

"Powers That Be" is a drama about Beverly Hills high school students who try to get involved with the South-Central Los Angeles gangsta rap music scene. When their escapades result in a tragedy, a young male teacher helps the script's heroine deal with the crises it causes.

"It's really about upper-class teen-agers in L.A. who have no culture of their own, so they try and take someone else's," Kaplan says. "It's kind of about the white hip-hop culture, which I think is an oxymoron. . . . If there is a message, I guess it's, 'Get a culture of your own.' "

The young screenwriter, who has lived in Los Angeles her whole life, says she has taken some film classes, but hasn't had much training in how to write a script. She is currently working on a rewrite of "Powers That Be."

"I really wrote it raw," she says. "I wasn't thinking about structure because I wasn't thinking about it getting made. Now, I'm putting some structure in, but I'm really not changing the story."

Sandy Stern, who runs Single Cell with Stipe and is co-producer of the film, says the movie will have a budget of around $5 million and that everyone at the studio is eager to get it out as soon as possible, which means it could go into production as early as this fall.

"It's so about what's going on now, so 1995, that we don't want to wait on this one, we want to make it now," Stern says. "And it's such special material that I just know we won't have any problem getting a director and then some stars."

Stern says they are considering stars such as Alicia Silverstone for the heroine and Stephen Dorff, Ethan Hawke or Christian Slater for the young teacher.

Stern, who produced the teen-geared Slater film "Pump Up the Volume," says that since he did that movie, he has had innumerable high school-oriented scripts sent to him. And none compared to the one Kaplan wrote.

"I know all too well that you can't get a 40-year-old screenwriter to write something like this," Stern says. "This young woman has such a unique voice--it's so authentic and real. It's her world, and she's bringing us into it like no one else could. This is what it's like in high school today."

Kaplan says she has several deals in the works to write other scripts, and hopes she can do that throughout college. While she had planned on going to New York University, she says she now plans on staying in Los Angeles and will probably only go to school part time.

And what about all the money she's getting?

Kaplan says she doesn't even know how much she is making off "Powers That Be" because there have been so many formalities, but she confirmed it probably is a low six-figure payment. And that money will go right back into her work, she says.

"I don't have anything grandiose that I want to buy or do with the money," she says. "I'll probably use it to make and direct an oddball independent film, which is something I really want to do. Right now, I'm just going to concentrate on films."

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