Almost 10 years ago, Jason Smilovic did what any newly minted graduate of the University of Maryland with a degree in political theory and philosophy would do. No, not law school or an entry-level position sorting some congressman's mail. He decided to become a screenwriter.
"I found out that I was born of the strictest aversion to work," says Smilovic, now 32, with his decade-old screenplay hitting theaters as "Lucky Number Slevin" this past weekend in the No. 5 spot. His twisty, verbally dexterous thriller (the film received mixed reviews, with some saying the movie tries to be too clever for its own good) stars Josh Hartnett, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis and Ben Kingsley. "I wanted to be a writer because that was something I really and truly enjoyed, and that never felt like work to me."
Wait a minute. Writing isn't work?
"No, no, no, no, no," he says, correcting himself. "That was a 23-year-old talking. Now, as a working writer, I know that writing is torture. Writing is work. Writing is hell. I hate those writers who say that writing isn't work and that it comes easy and that they think that everything that they write is great. Let me be very clear: Writing is very much work for me. And I hate everything I write."
Harsh self-criticism from someone who at 28 was a Hollywood wunderkind. Despite that unproduced screenplay (which Smilovic kept "putting back in the drawer and taking out" while shopping it around), he did manage to finish something. In 2003, he was the creator and co-executive producer of the TV series "Karen Sisco," based on a character from the Elmore Leonard novel and Steven Soderbergh film "Out of Sight." And shooting has recently wrapped on the pilot of "Kidnapped," another dramatic series written by Smilovic and starring Delroy Lindo, Timothy Hutton and Dana Delany. He hopes it will debut on NBC in late summer or early fall.
So when does the self-loathing stop?
"When you get paid," Smilovic says with a laugh. "When you're a kid and you're working on a script, you're focused on someday being a professional screenwriter, so there's no pressure. It's a hobby.... You're not at the point yet where you can even begin to feel the pressures of trying to maintain artistic integrity or trying to make a deadline."
As for artistic integrity, Smilovic says he owes a debt of gratitude to a long list of influences. "Alfred Hitchcock, obviously. The films of Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, Billy Wilder, William Wyler, Robert Wise, Robert Altman's film 'The Long Goodbye.' He's been a huge influence on me. Anything by Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, J.D. Salinger. Anything I ever read by Shakespeare, any play I ever saw."
Oh, and indirectly, his father.
"When I was younger," he says, "my father owned a lot of video stores. I used to watch as many movies every week as humanly possible."
Despite that youthful obsession, Smilovic insists that "Slevin" is anything but a film geek's film. "There's probably less than 10 references to films in the movie," he says. While acknowledging that the arch dialogue and stylized look of the film are "heightened" and that "it doesn't mimic life in any way that we know it," he denies that his creation is supposed to feel like a movie.
"That's like saying 'Star Wars' feels like a movie. Or 'Superman' feels like a movie, or 'Casablanca' feels like a movie, or 'The Lady Eve' feels like a movie, or anything made before 1948 feels like a movie."
Like anything created by any artist, the world of "Slevin" is, according to Smilovic, "a place that has been conceived, and not one that has been drawn from daily experience. I think it's a world that is a world unto itself and that is not meant to look like your own world and not meant to sound like your own world."