"JUST wanting to be a screenwriter is like just wanting to be a co-pilot." Attributed to the late John Gregory Dunne, this maxim summarizes not only the institutional bias most working film scribes must overcome but also the toxic peril of shame, humiliation and worthlessness that is the default state of most writers. It's what dean of screenwriters William Goldman manifested as the "Slough of Despond" in his original script for "The Princess Bride." So when A-list screenwriter Scott Frank had such a charge leveled at him across the table at a friendly lunch -- by Lawrence Kasdan, he of "The Big Chill," and "Grand Canyon," no less -- it had roughly the same effect as the angel with a flaming sword in the Delacroix painting who expels Adam and Eve from paradise.
"He asked me what I was doing, and I said I was working on a rewrite and thinking about doing this or that," Frank recalls. "And he really let me have it: 'That's what you said to me a year ago! When are you going to direct?' And I went home after lunch nauseous. I was haunted by that: 'Why haven't I done it?' 'What am I waiting for?' I hadn't directed up to that point for the simple reason that my kids were very small and I didn't want to be away from home for that long. And then my wife said to me, 'You have to quit hiding behind us.' "
The result -- in a circuitous, perhaps overly plotted fashion -- is "The Lookout," Frank's directorial debut after nearly two decades in the service of other people's visions. It is the story of a night watchman at a small-town Kansas bank engorged with USDA money -- a high school football star (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with future to burn who is suddenly reduced to a brain trauma casualty in the blink of a head-on collision on graduation night -- and the ex-con and his stripper moll (Matthew Goode, Isla Fisher) who target him as their inside man. But as a design problem of how someone with diminished mental faculties can outsmart his far more cunning predators, it's an elegant a demonstration of the screenwriter's axiom "character is plot," as well as of what a promising director stands to gain from a textbook script.
"Many writers want to direct because they feel they've been ill served by a director," says Frank. "I've been incredibly well served by the directors I've worked with. I'm probably the least bitter writer out there. But for the past 20 years, I've always felt inadequate or that I don't deserve success or that I'm a fraud ... Every writer feels this way. But my way of dealing with it was organized around pleasing people. "But I was increasingly unable to locate myself in my own stories. I know they were well written and well constructed, but myself -- my personal self -- was not there. What was missing were my personal tastes and wants and my aesthetic -- just a little small dollop of myself."
A boyish 47 despite a day job that has broken most of the great writers of the American Century (see Fitzgerald, Scott: Act 2), Frank sports an easy affability that would seem at odds with his chosen profession -- at least as it is portrayed to us in the movies. Married (his wife, Jennifer, is the sister of director Phil Joanou) with three children and living in Pasadena, the screenwriter's new suburbia he might be said to resemble Clark Kent, if not exactly Superman.
Frank grew up in Los Gatos, Calif., the son of an airline pilot, and enrolled in UC Santa Barbara during the Iranian hostage crisis of the early '80s, where he envisioned a column for the student newspaper written by a precocious (and fictional) child genius who could explain the unraveling world. That character eventually became the eponymous 1991 film "Little Man Tate," which established Frank as one of the premier purveyors of character in an industry that too often cuts just that corner when mass-assembling its product.
And yet, Frank almost immediately found his way into scripting these whirling clockworks of plot at apparent odds with his designated talent: "Dead Again," "Malice" (written under the watchful eye of Goldman, and on which he shared a credit with Aaron Sorkin) -- even "Minority Report," one of two scripts he worked on for Steven Spielberg (the other is "Saving Private Ryan," for which he did not receive credit). Also among these are the two best adaptations of Elmore Leonard's pulp novels (and yes, that includes "Jackie Brown" and Jim McBride's Showtime-only "Pronto"): "Get Shorty" and "Out of Sight," for which he was nominated for an Oscar.