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Putting faces to some famous words

Billboards all over town will soon be picturing noted Writers Guild members. If you don't know who they are, feel obligated to ask.

August 31, 2003|Michael T. Jarvis | Special to The Times

Their words have entered the pop-culture lexicon, and their names are part of the running conversation about the movies. But the faces of screenwriters, even the most famous, have long been eclipsed by those of the actors who bring their lines to life.

A new ad campaign by the Writers Guild of America, west, however, reverses the usual order of things.

The face of Callie Khouri, for instance, will soon appear on a billboard above a major Los Angeles intersection, one of many that will crop up around town this week featuring the faces of prominent screenwriters, alongside memorable dialogue from their films.

Khouri's ad includes the line she wrote for 1991's "Thelma & Louise": "You shoot a guy with his pants down, believe me, Texas is not the place you wanna get caught."

Notably, neither the writer's name nor the name of the film is printed anywhere on the ad.

The campaign is aimed at key decision makers in the entertainment industry, says Marc Norman, a guild member who created the strategy to help mark the guild's 70th anniversary. "We wanted to change their minds a little bit: Here's a line you know. Here's the face of the writer. You should know who this is -- and if you don't, you oughta make it your business to find out."

Norman, who shared 1998 Academy Awards for best picture and best screenplay for "Shakespeare in Love," said that screenwriters Amy Heckerling, Robert Towne and William Goldman will appear on the first billboards this week. He called the selection process "hard but fun." Guild members Ron Bass, Terry Curtis Fox and Tim O'Donnell initially discussed and debated 30 to 40 the films and the writers, Norman says, then did research "to make sure that the writer wrote it and it hadn't been ad-libbed." From there, the list was narrowed to 15, which were OKd by the group's directors.

A photo of Goldman, who received a 1969 Academy Award for best screenplay for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," will appear next to his famous lines:

SUNDANCE: I can't swim!

BUTCH: Why, you crazy? The fall'll probably kill you!

"I haven't seen what it's going to look like, but I'm thrilled, I think it's a terrific idea," Goldman said telephone from New York. The author of several books on screenwriting, who won his second Oscar for adapting "All the President's Men" into a screenplay, Goldman hopes the billboards will bring more visibility to writers. "It's gotta help. Everybody always thinks that all the directors have the visual concepts and the actors make up all their lines. There is such an ignoring of the craft of screenwriting that anything that calls attention to it is a big help."

But shouldn't the billboard identify the author and the film? "Part of the fun is the mystery of it," says Victoria Riskin, the president of WGA, west. "Hopefully people will match the film with the screenwriter." The point of the campaign is to highlight the art of writing, Riskin says, not to make specific writers famous. "Writers tend to be more obscure collaborators in the process. This is a way to bring them out into the sunshine. It's to illuminate what writers do, who they are and the central role they play in the creative process of films."

Khouri, whose "Thelma & Louise" screenplay won a 1991 Oscar, likes knowing that her name won't be on the billboard. "I'm happy not to have both my name and my picture. I know everyone is a little shy about it. It's always painful to have your picture anywhere, let alone a billboard." Connecting a famous line to the writer is more important, Khouri says. "If you do work that ends up in the common vernacular, it often will be attributed to the actor who said it in the movie instead of the writer who wrote it."

Khouri considers it an honor to be on the billboard, yet the retiring ways of the writer die hard. "I'm nervous," she says. "I'm not relishing it. The fortunate thing is that the billboard will only be up for a month."

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