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Will He Make the Final Cut?

Initial Success in Screenplay Contest Changes the Script in Amateur's Life


Until last fall, Rick Grubbs of Fullerton had never even read a screenplay, let alone written one. Now, not only does the 33-year-old pharmaceutical salesman have a chance to see his first script made into a movie that will be executive-produced by Hollywood golden boys Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, but he has a shot at directing it.

Grubbs is one of 10 finalists in the Project Greenlight national screenwriting contest co-sponsored by Miramax Films & TV, HBO and LivePlanet (a Los Angeles-based entertainment company co-founded by Damon, Affleck and "Goodwill Hunting" co-producer Chris Moore).

More than 10,000 amateur screenwriters from around the country submitted their scripts electronically to the Project Greenlight Web site between Sept. 25 and Nov. 4. The 10 finalists were notified Jan. 31.

"It's so exciting," Grubbs said.

Grubbs and his fellow finalists won't be kicking back and simply waiting to see who is announced the winner in mid-March. They'll be too busy for that.

As finalists, they were given 19 days to shoot a three-minute scene from their screenplay, which will be evaluated by the judges. The top three finalists will have personal interviews with Damon, Affleck, Moore and Miramax executives, who will select the winner.

Miramax Films, which will provide the winning contestant or winning team's screenplay with a $1-million production budget, is guaranteeing distribution of the film in theaters. Miramax Television also will chronicle the making of the movie in a 13-episode documentary series to air on HBO early next year.

The 10 finalists each received $8,000 worth of equipment--a digital video camera, a computer and Avid editing software to shoot and edit their three-minute scenes.

Grubbs said his screenplay, "A Just Defense," is about "a high-profile defense lawyer who knowingly defends guilty clients and has to eventually pay the price for it." The twist? His current case is a murderer-rapist, whose latest victim comes back to haunt the unscrupulous lawyer.

Grubbs filmed his three-minute scene last week at the Newport Beach Yacht Club: a dramatic exchange in which the lawyer "freaks out" in a restaurant when he has a face-to-face encounter with the dead victim who haunts him.

Filming the scene was a daunting experience.

"That's the crazy part," he said. "I have zero background in film at all. I want to make the three minutes as close to feature-film quality as I can on [equipment] I've never experienced before and do my regular job--and I'm a part-time dad and my head is spinning."

With a little help from family, friends and a friend of a friend named Laura Brown, Grubbs managed to assemble a group of about 60 for the shoot: 20 crew members, eight principal actors and too many extras. He had to send some of them home.

"It was amazing to be working on the set with all these people, who were all working for free, especially when you are running late," he said. "I must have apologized a million times that night."

What he expected to be an eight-hour shoot lasted 14.

For the technical aspects of the filming, Grubbs relied on the expertise of Trent Noller and Mary Pipes of Brea-based Glass Eye Productions.

"They spent a few hours lighting the restaurant," he said. "I trusted them to know what they were doing."

But for the actual direction of the scene, Grubbs relied solely upon his own vision.

"I didn't really have another style in my head," he said. "When I was talking to my director of photography [Curt Atduhan], he was trying to pull my creativity out of me. He kept naming all these movies that I had never seen. But it was a matter of [filming] what I had in my head."

Grubbs, who majored in public relations at Cal State Fullerton, wrote his script last fall in about two months after buying a few screenwriting books and reading "a ton" of screenplays over the Internet.

"I wrote it to see what I could do with it and maybe beat the odds and get it bought somewhere," he said. "Once I got into the process of writing, I found I loved it and see it as a career change if that's in the cards for me."

He heard about the contest, which was free and open to U.S. residents over the age of 18, from a friend.

About 7,000 screenplays were submitted to the Project Greenlight Web site. After the field was narrowed to 250 scripts, each contestant or team then submitted a three-minute personal video in which the entrants talked about themselves so the producers could evaluate leadership, creativity and other qualities needed to helm a feature-length motion picture.

From there, the producers narrowed the field to 30, and then down to the 10 finalists.

LivePlanet spokesman Keith Quinn said there are other screenwriting contests that have "a similar spirit"--helping people gain access to filmmaking in Hollywood--"but I'd say Project Greenlight is the most comprehensive of all these," guaranteeing to take the winning writer's idea from script to theatrical release.

That's why so many amateur screenwriters entered, he said.

For Grubbs, it's now a waiting game. After having spent "every spare moment" this weekend editing his scene, today he must overnight-mail his video to the Project Greenlight judges.

The winning screenplay will be selected on or about March 15. "It's going to make me crazy," he said, "but it's fully worth it."


Also contributing to this report was Times staff writer Chris Ceballos.

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