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A seasoned veteran enjoys a summer hit

Seventy-something screenwriter Alvin Sargent used age-old techniques in bringing young Spider-Man to life.

August 08, 2004|David Freeman | Special to The Times

Alvin Sargent, who has been writing movies since the 1960s, is something of an eminence grise among screenwriters. His many titles include "Ordinary People," "Paper Moon," "Unfaithful" and now, "Spider-Man 2" -- an unlikely credit for a man in his 70s. Sargent has managed to keep the comic book energy intact while also building a quiet story about Spider-Man's sense of identity -- hard for a young fellow to know just who he is when he can spin vast webs but can't talk about it to the girl he loves.

Sargent's most amusing clue to this theme is the inclusion of scenes from a production of "The Importance of Being Earnest," one of the greatest of all comedies of identity.

The show has a certain nod to age and old movies -- Rosemary Harris, looking like Mary Poppins' grandmother, dangles from high buildings. In the same spirit, when Kirsten Dunst gets tossed around in Alfred Molina's tentacles, she evokes Fay Wray in King Kong's grip.

Like most Hollywood scripts there are caveats about authorship. Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (that ampersand tells us they wrote as a team) and the novelist Michael Chabon share story credit. As a general rule the holders of the story credit get one-third of the TV, cable and video income allotted to the script. Whoever wrote the script itself gets the other two-thirds. The amounts are calculated using an arcane accounting system that is subject to trickery. It's still a lot of money over the life of the picture. Also, Sargent is married to the producer, which has never hurt a screenwriter's chances.

Just as I was writing this article my fax line started ringing, but no fax was coming in. This happened once before, but this time it wasn't Ray Stark calling. Don Simpson was on the line. He might be dead, but he knew what I was writing about. "Don't try to explain this stuff to people," he said. "They'll never understand it, and all they want to hear anyway is how crooked the deals are."

"How are you, Don?"

"I'm dead. It stinks. So some geezer wrote a kids movie. Big deal. Only a writer would be impressed by that. Stop wasting my time."

"Don, you can't tell me what to write. You're out of the business."

"And you're out of ideas."

So do you get to see the new releases?" I asked.

"Some of them. I get pirated versions."

"I wouldn't talk about that too much. The studios are really on the warpath."

"What are they going to do, kill me? HEY! I HAVE PIRATED PICTURES. THEY STINK."

"OK, Don. OK. Take it easy."

"I thought you were going to write a book about me. (Ah. Now I see why he's calling.) What happened to that?"

"It's not about you. There's a character sort of based on you."

"Sort of? Waffle, waffle, waffle."

"I might do it."


"What's it like where you are?"

"Lousy. Like waiting in the lobby for a screening that won't start."

"I get it."

"You get nothing. I want some DVDs. They take forever to get here. Send that 'Spider' picture. I don't care who wrote it. It's a hit. That's what matters."

Then he hung up.

A screenwriter's dilemma

Now that Paul Mazursky is back from being honored in Poland ("It was great. It's a comedy country,"), the financing of our off-again, on-again Mexican movie has started to perk up. With the new reduced budget there have been some interesting phone calls, so far all from living people. There's been just enough activity to allow for a little optimism. It's the screenwriter's dilemma: Since most of my screen work comes to nothing, pessimism is the most likely state. And yet, no one could do this without believing that it can all turn around, that any old coffee-stained script could soon become a movie. No wonder I'm hearing voices.

Maybe I need to try my hand at comic books. I was never a Spider-Man fan, though. I preferred Captain Marvel because there was a character called Freddy Freeman. The name appealed.

The fuss about my book is calming down. I'm still in for a few more readings and speaking gigs. I've done this so often that if people don't have questions, I give them some and then answer them. I guess it's like running for office. The next thing is the paperback deal. It remains -- like much else in my life -- unsettled. The editor has been canned, another example of how publishing is now like the picture business where people are fired all the time. It sounds grim, I guess, but it still beats working for a living. And of course, it's all true.

David Freeman is a screenwriter and author, most recently, of "It's All True: A Novel of Hollywood."

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