YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Pretty Good for a First Job Out of School

Less than nine months after graduating from AFI, Jesse Wigutow has a six-figure deal and a script Brad Pitt and Mike Figgis like.

March 05, 2000|LAURA KAUFMAN | Laura Kaufman is a freelance writer in Pasadena

May 1999: Film student Jesse Wigutow spends 11 days dashing off the first draft of a screenplay on his laptop at the Beverly Hills Public Library--in time to get his last class critique before graduation.

September 1999: Wigutow sells "Urban Townies" to Warner Bros. as part of a development deal worth in the "mid to high six figures," if both "Townies" and a second script are made into movies.

October 1999: Brad Pitt expresses interest in playing the lead, an unpublished novelist who returns home to deal with his dying father and alcoholic mother.

January 2000: Pitt submits to Warner Bros. a list of directors he'd like to work with, including Cameron Crowe and Mike Figgis.

It sounds like every aspiring screenwriter's Hollywood fantasy. But it really happened to Wigutow.

No wonder, then, that Wigutow, 26, who graduated from the American Film Institute in June with a master of fine arts degree in screenwriting, can't stop smiling--at least not when a newspaper photographer treks to his hilltop home and asks for a serious pose. "I don't feel like I've found fame. I feel like I've found a nibble of success," says the curly-haired Wigutow, who throws his feet up on a wicker coffee table, olive-green striped socks peering out from his blue slacks, and attempts a poker face.

Warner Bros. bought the script for Baltimore/Spring Creek partners Barry Levinson and Paula Weinstein, who will co-produce with management company partners J.C. Spink and Chris Bender.

Mark Romanek, known for his edgy music videos, had been attached to direct the project but later dropped out after changes in the script made the troubled lead character more unsympathetic.

Figgis, after meeting with Pitt, was attached as director, and a source said the film could start shooting as early as July, although no contracts have been signed. Guiding actors into the heart of dark characters is not unfamiliar territory for Figgis, who directed Nicolas Cage's Oscar-winning performance as a terminal alcoholic in "Leaving Las Vegas."

In the meantime, Pitt may tackle an ensemble role in the remake of "Ocean's 11," which like "Urban Townies" has not been green-lit yet. The "Ocean's" role would take about a week to shoot, the source said.


For his part, Wigutow remains an unpretentious guy who feels awkward when former AFI schoolmates ask about his earnings. Even this interview takes getting used to. "Talking about myself makes me uncomfortable," Wigutow says, shifting on the couch. "It feels a little vain."

It began as a story Wigutow had been mulling about someone who can't escape his past and it becomes his downfall. He based the character partly on an upper-middle-class acquaintance who jumped out the window of his Park Avenue apartment.

The script, which he started writing in May, follows the emotionally repressed Artie, who drinks and drugs his way through a visit to New York as his dying father attempts to connect with him and Artie tries to rekindle a relationship with Jackie, his high school sweetheart.

In late August, Wigutow decided to test the waters by giving a draft to his friend, Toby Babst, an assistant at United Talent Agency.

Babst loved it. "Jesse wrote something that blew me away," Babst said.

Since his boss, agent Marty Bowen, was on vacation, Babst passed the draft on to Bender-Spink. Early the next week, Wigutow called his machine and heard Spink plead: "I need to meet you right now. I'll call you every hour on the hour until I hear from you," Wigutow recalls.

Spink said he loved how the script played with time and that he was particularly moved by the inexorable downward spiral of the hero, who in trying to cope with what's going on around him manages to write a novel--in longhand. "The wasted potential, that was what hurt, knowing something good was snuffed out," Spink said.

"The great thing about it was that he couldn't express himself," Spink said. "The only way he could is through the book. But we'll never know 'cause we'll never see the book." By Thursday of that week, Bender-Spink had decided it wanted to manage Wigutow, who signed the following week with UTA as his agency.

Over Labor Day, Warner Bros. senior vice president of theatrical production Jeff Robinov read "Townies" and made an offer, as did Artisan, Wigutow says.

Then came meetings with entertainment lawyers. "At times I had to bite my lip from laughing, thinking, 'Why do you care about me?' It was surreal. Three weeks earlier I was sitting in the library, working off a friend's script notes and [now] I'm entering law firms and they're saying this law firm is for you."

Despite his newfound success, the low-key Wigutow has no plans to trade in his collection of Hawaiian shirts--he's sporting a checked shirt today--nor his 7-year-old Honda Civic.

Los Angeles Times Articles