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No longer adrift in Hollywood

How did these two reach the big screen? 'Without a Paddle,' honest.

August 19, 2004|Judy Chia Hui Hsu | Times Staff Writer

For years, they belonged to the legion of aspiring screenwriters who schlep laptops to cafes, swap story ideas over lattes and sleep in cheap motels. But now when Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse drive away from their favorite Starbucks, a large sign on Melrose Avenue tells them they're no longer up the proverbial Hollywood creek.

"It's heartwarming," Leggett says of seeing the billboard advertising "Without a Paddle," a good-natured comedy adventure with a screenplay he and Rouse co-wrote. "It's an incredible sense of validation and a little bit of disbelief that you actually are one of those guys with their name on the screen."

The movie, which opens Friday, stars Seth Green, Matthew Lillard and Dax Shepard as thirtysomething buddies on a quest to find infamous skyjacker D.B. Cooper's lost treasure in the backwoods of Oregon.

It is no coincidence that Rouse and Leggett's first Hollywood feature film is about friendship in a rural setting. The two, who met as comedians and later worked together on television projects, have known each other for 15 years. Rouse spent his childhood in Oak Ridge, Tenn.; Leggett was born and raised in Tomahawk, Wis., "on the edge of the middle of nowhere," he says.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 94 words Type of Material: Correction
"Without a Paddle" -- An Aug. 19 Calendar Weekend article about the movie "Without a Paddle" may have created the impression that partners Jay Leggett and Mitch Rouse were the only screenwriters involved with the film. Another pair of writing partners, Harris Goldberg and Tom Nursall, wrote the original version of the script based on the concept of a "comedic 'Deliverance.' " After a Writers Guild of America arbitration, Goldberg and Nursall received a "story by" credit along with an additional writer, Fred Wolf, and "screenplay by" credit was awarded to Leggett and Rouse.

The writers came up with their idea for the film at their Starbucks hangout two years ago while discussing a "comedic version of 'Deliverance' " -- John Boorman's 1972 thriller based on James Dickey's bestselling novel about friends who canoe down a whitewater river. (Burt Reynolds, who played the lead role in "Deliverance," makes a brief appearance in this movie.)

The two also wanted to write about a local treasure myth, Rouse says, so they sent the protagonists after Cooper's nearly $200,000 worth of ransom money.

And they set the movie in rural Oregon not only because that's where Cooper had purportedly parachuted with the loot, but also because, Leggett says, "we both grew up in a place like that -- with tree forts, where you could take off all day with your friends and get into reasonably safe trouble."

The writers, who both turned 37 this month, infused the film with pop culture references from their adolescence, borrowing from the adventures of big-screen heroes such as Indiana Jones and Han Solo. "We really wanted to tap into the '80s and growing up," Rouse says, adding that their work is also influenced by early "Saturday Night Live" sketches.

Leggett and Rouse began their careers as comedians and share a passion for improvisation. The two met at Chicago's Second City comedy theater. They've also been onstage together, watching each other play for as few as eight people in a basement in the Windy City's ImprovOlympic.

The friends made their first movie -- the 1992 television comedy "Mario and the Mob" -- as actors. They have also written, produced and acted in television shows together, though they're probably best known on the small screen for projects they've done apart: Leggett was on the Fox comedy-variety show "In Living Color" in the mid-'90s; Rouse starred in last season's ABC comedy "Lost at Home."

Still, working as a team has had more than its fair share of rewards. "It's like our grown-up play group -- and they pay us to do it," Leggett says.

"You don't usually get to go on that journey with somebody else," Rouse adds.

In addition to "Without a Paddle," Leggett and Rouse co-wrote "Employee of the Month," an independent film starring Matt Dillon that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

And they plan to return to their roots for a live show called "Mitch and Jay and the Big Board" at the Improv in West Hollywood this fall.

It's a long way from when they first started visiting Hollywood about a decade ago. Rouse remembers when they would share a room at a motel on Sunset Boulevard and stay up watching prostitution raids. He says he would always be counting his dollars to see how long he could stay in town.

"We don't have to worry about not having gas money anymore," Leggett says, "but there's another set of challenges which are every bit as exciting."

"These are the kind of problems we want," Rouse says.

"It's the ultimate reality check," Leggett says, "because you may be having dinner at the Polo Lounge, but across the table's the guy who remembers when you only had one pair of shoes."

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