The best writers are skilled ventriloquists. Just the same, it's a bit jarring to meet Brad Kane. The screenwriter of two gritty, popular, unproduced screenplays -- a Richard Pryor biopic and an epic drama about a black pimp in 1980s New York City -- Kane turns out to be a white former child actor and Broadway veteran who sang the part of Aladdin in the 1992 Disney film.
"There were always a lot of conflicting aspects of my personality that I was trying to work out," says Kane, now 33.
No kidding. His mother was a singer at the Copacabana in the '60s, and by the age of 10 Kane was acting in commercials, television and musical theater ("Evita," "Sunday in the Park With George") around New York.
After dropping out of NYU's undergraduate film school and moving to L.A. in the late '90s, Kane (sometimes credited as Caleb, his middle name) burned out on acting and "did the prototypical L.A. thing, which is I picked up a guitar and wrote about my misery." Warner Records released an EP of his songs (they're on iTunes), which have been used in several TV shows.
But strolling the theaters of 42nd Street as a working 11-year-old had brought him into contact with scores of Port Authority runaways and their criminal exploiters, a moving canvas that a few years ago he finally turned into a sprawling ensemble piece called "These City Walls."
"It was my youth," Kane says. "In 1983, Times Square was not Disneyfied. It was pimps, prostitutes, muggers, grifters, runners -- all those kids. . . . I have so much passion for that place, that time, those people -- that New York that doesn't exist anymore -- that it just came through in the writing."
Kane's music manager got "Walls" to Pryor's widow, Jennifer, who wanted Kane to bring that tone to a biopic about her late husband (who died in December 2005). Ultimately, both the untitled Pryor script and "Walls" ended up on the unofficial Black List of the industry's most-liked reads in 2006.
Now, after acting and music successes, Kane's screenwriting career seems poised for its breakthrough. The Weinstein Co. is in discussions with Oscar-winning writer-director Bill Condon ("Dreamgirls") to develop and direct the Pryor project, and director Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") is beginning casting for "Walls." Kane is also about to turn in his adaptation of Elizabeth Kostova's bestselling 2005 novel, "The Historian," and he's negotiating a deal to rewrite the assassin-in-exile action film "Matt Helm," DreamWorks' answer to Universal's "Bourne" blockbusters.
It's enough to make a guy want to break out in song.
The Sayles way
of movie finance
No modern screenwriter has quite the career breadth of John Sayles. Tuesday's DVD release of the 1980 cult monster film "Alligator," one of Sayles' earliest screenwriting assignments, landed a week after his 16th film as a writer-director, "Honeydripper," premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It's an emblematic moment. Over 30 prolific years, the 56-year-old writer-director-editor has forged a unique template for financing deeply personal DIY films like "Men With Guns," "City of Hope" and "Lone Star" with writing assignments on high-profile studio projects like "The Mummy," "Apollo 13" and "Jurassic Park IV."
Sayles used the $15,000 he earned for his "Alligator" rewrite -- plus the paychecks he collected writing "Battle Beyond the Stars," "Piranha" and "The Lady in Red" for B-movie king Roger Corman -- to fund his first micro-budgeted film, "Return of the Secaucus 7." Those experiences laid the groundwork for the nonprecious, often practical approach to screenwriting that he applies to his own cash-crunching films.
For example, on "Alligator" the budget and logistical constraints meant Sayles had to write half a dozen different versions of the marauding, El Dorado-sized reptile's demise -- chain saws, fire, explosions, drowning -- until he proposed one that the filmmakers could achieve without actually harming their one giant animatronic star. (An off-camera explosion did the trick, and the prop was successfully passed along to Gator Nation at the University of Florida once the shoot ended.) And during filming, he remembers pulling over to use pay phones at roadside diners to return beseeching calls from director Lewis Teague, a Corman graduate.
"The functional part of screenwriting is you're solving problems for people," Sayles says. "When you're writing for other people you're helping them tell their story, not your story. What you learn from that is there's another way to do it. And sometimes you get a new idea that's even better."
The practicality and efficiency of the Corman mill stand in sharp contrast to the ubiquitous dead-end development procedures of studios with money to burn and major commitment issues -- a system from which Sayles has benefited greatly without becoming reliant on for creative fulfillment.