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Shot through with self-expressiveness

To turn old scripts into new art, screenwriter Tom Benedek started at the firing range.

October 02, 2005|Dinah Eng | Special to The Times

IF you think the value of a script is no more than its latest rewrite, Tom Benedek is here to prove you wrong.

Benedek, who wrote the screenplays for "Cocoon," "Free Willy" (uncredited), "The Adventures of Pinocchio" and other films, wanted to clean out a garage full of drafts and research material from writing jobs over the last 20 years, but one thing stood in the way.

"Emotionally, I needed to celebrate and memorialize the work first," says Benedek, who thought about tossing the scripts into a ritual fire with a shaman's blessing or filming himself shredding everything with a table saw. "But I kept seeing a script that had never been produced, riddled with bullet holes and bronzed like a baby's shoe."

So Benedek went to work and made his vision a reality. The result, five bronze sculptures and a dozen striking photographs of love's labors stuck in studio limbo, are on display at Frank Pictures in Santa Monica's Bergamot Station/Gallery A5. Titled "Shot by the Writer -- Works on Paper: 1983-2004," the show is on view through Oct. 11.

Hollywood is not only enjoying the irony of the exhibition, it's buying. Benedek says producer Michael Shamberg ("The Skeleton Key," "Along Came Polly"), director Jan de Bont ("Lara Croft Tomb Raider," "Speed"), Austin Winsberg, television producer and creator of "Jake in Progress," two motion picture agents at United Talent Agency, and an entertainment attorney are among those who have purchased his artwork.

"From the Oscar to the DVD box, there are tokens of success of a project, but I've always felt that the unproduced script was unsung," says Benedek, sitting in the study of his Brentwood home. "There are so many factors that play into deciding whether a film gets made that have nothing to do with the writer, who brings great energy to every project. So for me, elevating and memorializing the misses is a valid enterprise."

To do this, Benedek, 56, first had to learn a few things. While talking about his idea at Elite Fitness in Brentwood, he discovered that the gym's owner, John MacLaren, was a former Navy SEAL and marksman trainer. MacLaren readily agreed to teach Benedek the basics.

"I'd never shot a gun before, or even been interested in them," says Benedek, who rented a gun at LAX Firing Range in Inglewood and got permission to shoot at his scripts as targets. "After the first 50 rounds, I became pretty accurate."

He started by shooting small-caliber bullets into the drafts.

"I watched my words exploding in front of me," he says. "When I saw the effect, I was shocked. It was more dramatic than I thought it would be."

After some research, he discovered that paper is too porous for conventional bronzing but that he could replicate the scripts in bronze by the indirect lost-wax casting process. This involved creating a replica of his shot-up script in wax. This wax version was then encased in plaster. Once the bronze was poured through the plaster mold, the wax melted away, and the bronze set in its place. The one-time mold was then hammered away from the sculpture.

"It took a lot of trial and error with the foundry to get it right," says Benedek, a quiet man who sparkles with enthusiasm when describing his art. "You get amazing exit wounds from the bullets, almost like flowers, so we have to paint on the wax to bring out the detail. I ended up using larger-caliber bullets after the second sculpture to get larger holes and more detail."

In all honesty, he notes that the bronze sculptures are not made from actual drafts but rather replicas of scripts. The cover pages were re-created on a letterpress, and colors were chosen for aesthetics.

"It's a conceptual project, the illusion of a screenplay," he says.

But the real shot-up scripts were so interesting-looking that he decided to photograph them.

At one time, Benedek had wanted to be a cinematographer and so had studied photography, art history and composition. Success with screenwriting led him to put words on paper instead of images on film.

But shooting down his own words, so to speak, ended up being both therapeutic and creative. Here at last was the writer, in control of every nuance, collaborating with artisans at the foundry or photo lab but always having the final say.

"I decided I'd shoot all the projects I didn't own," he says, all that were "works for hire that I'd never work on again because they were out of my control." He counts 22 unproduced scripts in his arsenal: rewrites of the work of others, his own original scripts done under contract, and adaptations of books locked in by the studios.

There was "Spells," a teen horror movie rewrite; "Sunbelt," a high-tech thriller; "Viagra Falls," a comedy about the discovery of a heart medication's uplifting side effect; and other titles now immortalized as numbered editions of "Gun Play" if bronzed, or "Plot Holes," if photographed.

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