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Long Path to Overnight Success

Movies* After 15 years, Tony Gayton sees his first two produced screenplays debut within a week.

April 24, 2002|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Screenwriter Tony Gayton is sitting alone in a corner of the Beverly Hills restaurant Maple Drive in a kind of veiled panic, looking as if he's just about to take his SATs and forgot to bring two No. 2 pencils. He's giving the interview process the old college try, though he makes it clear he prefers writing to being written about. Nonetheless, he is aware that it's one of the perquisites of the overnight success it has taken him 15 years to achieve.

Gayton's first two produced screenplays are debuting back to back, within a week of each other: "The Salton Sea," a postmodern film noir starring Val Kilmer, is based on a spec script he wrote three years ago; "Murder by Numbers" is a suspense tale starring Sandra Bullock, about two brilliant teens who are out to outwit the police with a perfect crime (shades of the infamous Leopold & Loeb case of the 1920s), which Castle Rock Entertainment hired him to write after the company's purchase of "Salton Sea."

Although his fortunes have turned around, not much has changed in his daily routine, which consists of sitting down at the computer, getting up again, taking a walk along the bluffs near his Palos Verdes Peninsula home and then, after he has wasted as much time as he can, getting back to work. One sure sign of progress: He's deleted the Solitaire and Hearts software from his computer.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 25, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
Film opening--The movie "The Salton Sea" opens Friday. A story about screenwriter Tony Gayton in Wednesday's Calendar mistakenly said the film opened that day.

A graduate of USC's film school, Gayton turned to screenwriting as a way of eventually wending his way into the director's chair. He worked briefly as an assistant to larger-than-life writer-director John Milius ("What a raconteur. I could listen to him talk all day and sometimes I did," he says with a laugh), who signed Gayton to his first writing deal back in the mid-1980s.

Since then, "it's been an uphill battle," says the youthful-looking 43-year-old, whose only telltale signs of age are twin tufts of gray at the temples. "I had good years and bad years. You can be a good writer, but you also need some luck."

Gayton had luck, but not always the right kind. The good years were marked by descents into the various circles of development hell on scripts he wrote solo or with his older brother, screenwriter Joe Gayton ("Uncommon Valor"), all of which came to naught. During the dry spells he tried walking away. He spent a few months teaching physical education at a high school in Compton only to be lured back by another development deal.

On another break he directed a "kamikaze-style" documentary "Athens, Georgia: Inside/Out," which featured R.E.M., the B-52's and poet the Rev. Howard Finster, a project that was personally satisfying but drained his wallet and "took me out of the loop for a year." In Hollywood terms 12 months can be a lifetime, and he fell into the trap "of writing what I thought they wanted, which is not always a bad thing, but if you're not careful, you can lose your voice."

Just as he was contemplating chucking it all again, he sat down to write something for himself, the unlikely, uncommercial-sounding "The Salton Sea," a dark, convoluted story, some of which is told in old-fashioned voice-over narration. The plot construction is almost as quirky as that of "Memento," though "Salton" was in the can long before that sleeper-hit film was released last year.

In a business where "no" is the most frequently uttered word, "there were a million reasons for people to say no to my script," he says. He did it for the exercise and the possibility that "it would be a good writing sample and I might get an assignment or a rewrite out of it." Instead, Castle Rock immediately bought it, asked for only minor changes--"I rewrote maybe 10 pages"--and before it was even in production, signed him to write another script, which turned out to be "Murder by Numbers."

Although the latter is more conventional, both films feature flawed protagonists, with closets full of skeletons, who are desperately searching for redemption. Thematically, says Gayton, such complex heroes are his obsession. "They're people who are looking into the abyss, fighting monsters and trying to make sure they don't become monsters too."

"Salton" is definitely the riskier of the projects, so rather than blanketing the nation with the movie, Warner Bros. is opening it today in exclusive engagements in a handful of cities for a month to see if it will catch on. "It's not an easy film for a studio, not the kind of product you can bottle and sell," he says. "I mean, how many movies do you have to actually see to figure out what's going to happen? The TV spots usually tell you everything."

"Salton" defiantly refuses to show its hand. The central character, played by Kilmer, is almost impossible to thumbnail, because his identity keeps shifting throughout the film, a deliberate ploy on Gayton's part, of which he is duly proud. "It's my best script. I think I've finally hit my stride," he says. "It happens later for some people."

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