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Using Differences as Grist for Their Script

Movies * Writing partners Jaffe Cohen, Christopher Livingston allowed their real-life conflicts to inspire 'Hit and Runway.'

March 02, 2001|JON MATSUMOTO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Screenwriting partners Jaffe Cohen and Christopher Livingston come across like a real-life variation of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple." Cohen is openly gay, Jewish, cynical and very New York in his sensibilities. Livingston is straight, optimistic and Beverly Hills-bred.

So when the pair sat down to write their first feature film script seven years ago, they didn't have to look beyond their own combative but respectful relationship for dramatic inspiration.

Livingston and Cohen's independent film "Hit and Runway" is a comedic look at two seemingly mismatched screenwriters who attempt to collaborate on an action-adventure script for Hollywood. Elliot (Peter Jacobson) is a high-minded gay playwright who cares first and foremost about character depth and meaning. Alex (Michael Parducci) is a novice writer who loves escapist films featuring beautiful babes and gun-toting heroes. Elliot agrees to collaborate with Alex after he discovers it may help him land a date with Joey (Kerr Smith of "Dawson's Creek"), the cute waiter-actor who works at the cafe owned by Alex's family.

"When we were writing 'Hit and Runway,' Jaffe and I fought a lot [over the content of the script]," says the New York-based Livingston, who was in Los Angeles last week to promote the film, which opens today at selected theaters. "But the seeds of the conflict for the film came from our fights. One of the basic conflicts between the two characters is that Alex is an optimist and Elliot is a cynic. That [sense of optimism] is definitely in me, and that [cynical quality] is definitely in Jaffe."

The winner of the best screenplay award at the 1999 Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, "Hit and Runway" manages to reflect the personalities of Jaffe and Livingston. As Alex and Elliot argue over the direction of their script, the film takes aim at the commercial strictures of the Hollywood studio system. At the same time, "Hit and Runway" tries hard to entertain and at times conveys romantic optimism.

Livingston and Cohen first met 12 years ago when Cohen was selected to act in a short film Livingston was making while a film graduate student at New York University. The pair ended up collaborating on the script for that film as well as subsequent projects such as a television pilot and an animated action series called "Cliff Hanger," which was released on video.

The partnership works, they say, because each possesses different but complementary writing skills.

"As we write, Chris keeps track of the story and where everything has to go," explains Cohen by phone from his New York home. "I tend to want to be inside the characters' heads. I do the close-up work. If I didn't have Chris to push the story along, I may just fall in love with the sound of my own voice or fall in love with my characters. It's a great writing team."

The film's rather naive but likable Alex is clearly a dumbed-down version of Livingston, who also directed, produced and co-edited the film. In conversation, Livingston comes across as bright and thoughtful.

However, Cohen is more than willing to admit that he is very much like the Elliot character. A longtime playwright and comedian, he became one of the first openly gay male stand-up comics to appear on national television in the U.S. when he performed on Fox's "Comic Strip Live" in 1990.

A kind of gay Woody Allen, Cohen had pined to bring the autobiographical Elliot character to the screen. What he didn't want to do was create another stereotypical gay pretty boy. During one humorous scene in "Hit and Runway," Elliot complains of being the victim of a gay caste system that places "funny-looking" guys like him in the untouchable class.

"Most gay people aren't like the people in [the Showtime television series] 'Queer as Folk,' whose problem is having too much sex," comments Cohen. "A lot of gay men are like me. I was never a gorgeous beauty. For years I felt like I was much more oppressed by the gay value system than by straight society. I have a lovely man now, but back then I thought I would never find love because as wonderful as I was on the inside it didn't necessarily show up on my face in a bar."

Not Much Beefcake

or Star Power

"Hit and Runway" was rejected by some gay film distributors for not having enough beefcake. Mainstream film distribution companies complained about the movie's lack of star power. "Hit and Runway" is being distributed by New York-based indie Lot 47 Films.

Though he has sharper commercial filmmaking instincts than Cohen, Livingston is nevertheless cautious when it comes to the possibility of making major studio movies. His mixed emotions toward Hollywood were first established during his youth.

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