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Making His Own Big Break

A TV extra had a dream: He wanted to make a film, but he had no script, no stars, no backers. Still, as Hollywood stories go, this one is just right.

November 03, 1996|Robert W. Welkos | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

Heath McLaughlin's story is a lesson for any would-be filmmaker who thinks breaking into the movie business is as difficult and painful as . . . well, a root canal.

The story begins four years ago, when McLaughlin, then an extra on the TV sitcom "Cheers," ran into Terri Kreutzer backstage and thought she looked lost and confused. Kreutzer, the wife of a Racine, Wis., endodontist, had received a walk-on role through a charity auction.

McLaughlin, a former Army helicopter pilot who hails from Neenah, Wis., met over dinner with Kreutzer and her husband, Jim, and a friendship blossomed.

Today, that friendship has resulted in a film called "Just Write," a romantic comedy about a tour bus driver who gains the affection of a famous movie actress by innocently pretending to be a big-time screenwriter.

The movie cost $1.2 million--a pittance by Hollywood standards--and was bankrolled by five dentists and a hospital administrator who work in the Greater Racine-Kenosha area.

McLaughlin, who was a stand-in for David Caruso on TV's cop drama "NYPD Blue," is the producer. Jim Kreutzer, whose first brush with movies was helping to make a small suspense movie in southeastern Wisconsin called "Fever Lake," is executive producer. And Andrew Gallerani, whose previous work included Taco Bell commercials, is the director.

"Just Write" features a reputable cast, including Sherilyn Fenn of "Twin Peaks" fame, Jeremy Piven of the ABC sitcom "Ellen," JoBeth Williams and Alex Rocco and appearances by Nancy McKeon and Ed McMahon.

How this unlikely group of investors and wannabe filmmakers from America's Dairyland managed to pull it off points up the unpredictability of Hollywood--and how low-cost movies are used to boost careers and, they hope, attract big bucks from studios eager to distribute them.

McLaughlin, 29, had set out to make a family film but quickly realized he lacked the clout to pry a script out of a studio or major agency. So, against the advice of people in the business, he and Kreutzer placed ads for screenplays in the Hollywood Reporter and some Chicago theatrical papers.

Soon they were deluged with 350 scripts.

To his disappointment, McLaughlin said, many of the scripts were heavy on violence and pricey special effects.

"I have never read so many murders in my life," McLaughlin recalled. "Every script opened up with a murder. Psycho-thrillers. Sexual thrillers. Action-packed blockbusters. But there was very little creativity."

While McLaughlin was poring over the scripts, Kreutzer was back in Wisconsin lining up the financing. He found willing investors in general dentists Dennis Fahey, Terry Huff and Mike Walsh, orthodontist Randy Moles and the administrator of a hospital in Kenosha, Rick Schmidt.

The dentists were not blinded by Hollywood glitz. "No one mortgaged their house," Kreutzer said. "They are all very astute businessmen. They all realized the risk-reward ratio there."

But as family men over 40, they all wanted a movie they wouldn't be embarrassed to watch at the local cineplex.

"We wanted a movie that we would not have to hide in our bedroom drawers and send the kids up to bed to watch," Kreutzer explained. "Nothing dark and edgy or controversial and violent. We wanted to make a romantic comedy. Something we felt people around here where we live would want to go see."

Then McLaughlin came upon a script by first-time screenwriter Stan Williamson. He contacted the writer and met with him over coffee at Starbucks.

"I told him what my vision was," McLaughlin said. "You have to convince people you are capable of doing what you say you'll do. He said, 'I won't give a script to just anybody.' "

Even with a script in hand, McLaughlin knew that he did not have the track record that would attract a cast unless he had help. "Because I was a first-time filmmaker," he said, "I had to have somebody who could add credibility."

Enter Bruce Newberg, a casting director at Slater and Associates in Santa Monica, an agency that casts big and small films.

Newberg said he immediately took a liking to the script but knew it would be extremely difficult getting name actors to commit to a low-budget movie, especially one made by novices.

"They are very hard to get off the ground," Newberg said of most low-budget films. "The bigger agencies, more often than not, don't pay attention to them, even though there has been a change in the business because of Sundance and small films are getting a lot of attention and proving lucrative on some occasions.

"The biggest obstacle in low-budget movies is who is the first [actor] to commit," Newberg explained. "Sherilyn [Fenn] was the first person to come on board. She had been in another movie with a similar budget called 'Love Life' and had had a good experience. I think that made her trust me. She wanted to do a romantic comedy, and no one had given her a chance before. I knew in a small movie her name would help a lot."

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