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Fall Sneaks

Writers, Take Heart

It is possible for a first-timer to get a script made. Four screenwriters relate their happy endings.

September 08, 2002|PETER McQUAID

This is not the story about the struggling screenwriter who goes out in a blaze of ignominious glory, taking callous studio execs and D-girls with him. It's not the cliffhanger about how the brilliant script gathered dust on some studio exec's shelf for 10 years before going on to win the Oscar for best picture.

It is partially the story of the script that was sold to one company and was about to be made when a similar movie came out, and then the company went out of business. Or decided it didn't want to make pictures like that anymore. So, screenwriter gets his script back and takes it somewhere they love it, they really do, but then there's a higher profile movie, which is sort of but not really the same, but appeals to the same audience, so it's best to wait. Sigh.

It's a wonder anything gets made in this town ... but you knew that.

At any rate, somewhere in Los Angeles reside four happy screenwriters (for the moment) who will see their efforts bear fruit on the big screen for the very first time. Unsurprisingly, none of them seems terribly cynical about the sometimes-tortured progress from page to soundstage (they all got their movies made, after all), but there are lessons in each tale.

Lesson No. 1

You really don't have to have attended Brown (but a little time at NYU wouldn't kill you).

C. Jay Cox, who wrote the script for "Sweet Home Alabama," grew up in northeastern Nevada, on a ranch he describes as "six miles outside of a town of 600, in a county the size of Massachusetts with 2,500 people, where you had to adjust cake mix recipes to account for environmental conditions." After graduating from Brigham Young University, he fled to L.A.

Michael Gerbosi, who wrote "Auto Focus," grew up in Laguna Beach and attended Vassar, where he didn't major in film.

The project germinated when he bought the rights to "The Murder of Bob Crane" by Robert Graysmith and pitched biopic kings Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski ("The People vs. Larry Flynt") with his idea to turn the story of the all-American TV star's descent into sex addiction into a film. They liked it, they really liked it. And so did Paul Schrader, who directed with a bare-bones budget estimated at $8 million.

Burr Steers, who wrote and directed "Igby Goes Down" (made for between $8 million and $10 million) grew up in and around Washington, where he attended St. Alban's, the prep school of choice for haute D.C. He attended NYU in the '80s, but readily admits his attendance at such nightclubs as the Mudd Club was far more consistent. After finishing there, Steers got some work as an actor, most notably in "The Last Days of Disco" and "Reservoir Dogs," as well as some horror movies he doesn't seem to want to mention.

Lamar Damon, who co-wrote "Slap Her, She's French" with Robert Lee King, grew up in Austin, Texas, where his parents were professors at the University of Texas. He attended USC for undergrad and NYU for grad school, where he earned the ire of his fellow students by selling his first script to Disney before getting his master's.

Lesson No. 2

There is still hope for you, even if you have the

worst job on Earth.

Until five years ago, Cox worked for the L.A. County Commission on Children and Families, in an office in the sub-basement of the Hall of Administration. "We were in charge of overseeing all the really awful stuff that happened in the Department of Children's Services.

Gerbosi did deliveries, plus "a variety of low-paying menial Hollywood positions," including script reader, receptionist and writer's assistant. He also worked on an extremely cheesy TV series he refuses to name. "They were so loathsome, I'd really rather not give them the publicity."

Steers got the inspiration for "Igby" while working similarly menial tasks. "I was just treading water as an actor and I was delivering real estate catalogs in Orange County and these ideas were coming up.

"I wrote the script because I needed to," he explains.

Damon worked as a writer on so-called reality TV shows, notably "Road Rules" for MTV. But take heart--even though he's been a working scriptwriter since college, "Slap Her," with roughly a $14-million budget, is his first movie script to see production.

Lesson No. 3

Even though you're not an actor, lie about your age.

Interestingly, the notion that in Hollywood, men age gracefully while women wither on the bone seems not to apply to screenwriters. Not a single subject in this story was willing to cop to his age. Shall we say "all graciously ensconced somewhere in the neighborhood of 39?"

Lesson No. 4

Know who you're pitching.

As Steers puts it, "After my first couple of pitches, I had to learn that you can't bring up 'The 400 Blows' and have anyone in Hollywood know what you're talking about. 'Rushmore' wasn't commercially successful enough to attract money, so then, I thought 'The Graduate.' Find the one sentence that you can give them that they can pitch it with."

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