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SUNDANCE PREVIEW

A lot riding on this one

A skateboarder turned filmmaker launches his first big project, `The Good Life.'

January 17, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

AS a skinny teenager growing up in Missouri and Nebraska, Steve Berra was pummeled by bullies and ridiculed for ditching organized sports in favor of skateboarding. With a shaved head, baggy clothes and few friends, Berra slept through most classes and had a 1.2 high school grade-point average.

"What I was," Berra says, "was the kid who everybody assumed was a complete lost cause."

The "lost cause" went on to become not only a wildly successful professional skateboarder, with the obligatory endorsement deals and screaming fans, but also an impressive reader and writer. But as much as he might have changed, Berra, now 33, never forgot his childhood isolation, and he has channeled those memories into "The Good Life," a movie having its world premiere in the dramatic completion of the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Thursday.

Like mastering a kick-flip backside tail-slide or any of his other shin-shattering skating tricks, Berra's transition from friendless teen to gregarious filmmaker required relentless dedication amid repeated failure. His film's journey to Park City, Utah, also makes for a quintessential Sundance story: Determined storyteller perseveres for a decade; gung-ho producer cobbles together a motley crew of investors; intensely personal film beats out more than 3,000 other submissions for a spot in the nation's top showcase for indie cinema.

"Skating gives you an endurance that very few people have," Berra says in the middle of his private indoor skate park in downtown Los Angeles, as skaters Felix Madonna and Heath Kirchart fly off ramps behind him, occasionally tumbling onto the concrete as they try to perfect new moves. "You learn to get your butt kicked and push through. The way out is the way through."

After deciding at age 14 he was destined to be a professional skater, Berra moved to Southern California in 1992 to live with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. The sport was scarcely popular back then, and Hawk counseled his 18-year-old roommate to develop a fallback plan.

"He told me, 'You have to look at skating as fun. But it's not a career,' " Berra recalls.

He remembered the advice. As his skateboarding career took off, Berra also started acting. On his first television series, 1997-98's "413 Hope St.," Berra was allowed to revise some of his dialogue. Writing, he found, was fulfilling.

Despite his lowly academic record, Berra had excelled at typing -- "I think that was the only A I ever got" -- and he also loved to read. While on a skateboard tour one day, Berra went into a thrift store, where for a quarter he bought Ben Bagdikian's "In the Midst of Plenty: The Poor in America."

The book resonated with Berra. "I was considered poor when I was growing up. I didn't have a phone," he says. His personal recollections of trying to get by matched Bagdikian's premise: "You're looked at as a failure," Berra says. "Not only in your neighbors' eyes, but in your own."

So Berra seized on those two elements of his childhood -- emotional and financial impoverishment -- and some 10 years ago started to craft "The Good Life" screenplay.

The story unfolds in modern-day Nebraska, in the shadow of a college football powerhouse that is all but called the University of Nebraska. A young man named Jason doesn't care a bit for football, but he is passionate about a dying movie theater, and for caring for the infirm man who runs it. Into that world enters a mysterious young woman, Frances, who seems to love old movies as much as Jason dislikes football.

Concerned that too many predictable TV roles would ruin his skateboard image -- he had a good run on "Felicity," but then there were the turns on "Nash Bridges" -- Berra stopped auditioning. He looked to star in "The Good Life" himself. Unfortunately, as one producer promptly told him, he wasn't good-looking enough to carry a film and couldn't compete with the likes of Luke Wilson. "That was such an obscure comparison," Berra says, still laughing over the incident.

So Berra put "The Good Life" down and focused on more commercially viable scripts -- twisted thrillers in the spirit of "Se7en." Director Guy Ritchie and producer Matthew Vaughn ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels," "Layer Cake") optioned one of his scripts. "I loved the genre," says Berra, who grew up watching Steven Seagal, "Friday the 13th" and kung fu movies. "It wasn't just to get attention. And I progressively got better at writing."

But Berra knew enough about Hollywood to know the chances for his passion project weren't good. "If there was any way I was going to get in a room and talk about 'The Good Life,' it was going to be through one of those thriller scripts," he says.

And that's pretty much what happened.

Warner Bros. production executive Lance Sloane was working on a modern-day pirate/surfing movie, and Berra came up as a possible screenwriter.

Berra wasn't interested, but Sloane and Berra did eventually meet.

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