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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

'Eagle' flies in a phoenix career

September 30, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

DAN McDERMOTT has actually admitted the ugly truth, the secret that screenwriters everywhere have always firmly suspected -- executives are envious of writers! He's one of the writers who penned "Eagle Eye," the Shia LaBeouf techno-thriller that was No. 1 at the box office over the weekend, selling nearly $30 million worth of tickets in North America. The reviews for the film were pretty lukewarm, with a number of critics blasting the D.J. Caruso-directed picture for ripping off various Hitchcock and Kubrick films. But what caught my eye about McDermott was that he's the Hollywood equivalent of a double agent.

He understands the well-hidden thoughts that rattle around in executive's brains when they're taking phone calls in the middle of pitches and passing on great material because the characters aren't sympathetic enough. They're actually all jealous! McDermott knows firsthand. Before he turned to full-time screenwriting, he was a successful TV executive, first as a vice president of current programming at Fox, then as head of DreamWorks Television. Everything was going swimmingly. . . .

And then he almost died. Actually, the way he tells it, he was clinically dead for several minutes, suffering heart failure as a result of nitrogen poisoning from a scuba diving excursion. He was in the middle of nowhere, on a small island off Bali. His girlfriend at the time -- Maria Bello, if you must know -- helped get him back to Bali and then to Singapore, where he recuperated in a cardiac clinic, spending a night hooked up to an EKG machine. It might be too corny and on the nose to write as a scene in a biopic, but the near-death experience completely turned him around.

"After I spent 2 1/2 hours laying on a stretcher, not being able to breathe, I thought to myself, 'What a waste,' " he told me last week. "I've got a ton of money in the bank, I've got this hotshot job at DreamWorks and it's all meaningless. I've just been living through my ego. From that minute, I promised myself that if I managed to survive, I'd live the life I wanted to live, not the way I thought other people wanted me to live. And however well I end up doing as a writer, whether I just eke out a living or win a bunch of awards someday, I'll be happy because, to use the sports analogy, I'd feel like I left it on the field."

How did McDermott end up as an executive in the first place? And how did being an executive give him a different approach to writing? Here's what he had to say:

McDermott had grown up wanting to be a writer, going to UCLA Film School in the early 1980s, where he was surrounded by all sorts of great writing and filmmaking talent, including Brad Silberling, Todd Holland, Ed Solomon, Shane Black (who was in the theater school) and Neil Jimenez. "I thought they were a little ahead of me," he says with a laugh. "Actually, I was a little panicked about trying to catch up with them."

McDermott went to the American Film Institute and proceeded to knock around, unable to land much in the way of writing jobs. He finally took an offer as a low-level executive at a cable TV production company. "I was dead broke, $40,000 in the hole and had nowhere to turn," he says. "I just had no idea about the commercial side of the business. I wasn't the kind of kid who'd read Variety when I was 14. When I went to film school, I didn't know the difference between a producer and a director."

But as an executive, he was a fast learner, rising quickly through the ranks. He tried to keep writing on the side, but by the time he landed a job at DreamWorks in 1995, he was focused on the executive life. It took him a couple of years to shed his entanglements after the 1999 scuba accident, but by 2001, he'd sold his first spec script to 20th Century Fox. Not long afterward, DreamWorks production chief Adam Goodman phoned with a tantalizing offer: Was McDermott interested in working on an idea Steven Spielberg had that could be written as a futuristic thriller?

Who would say no to that? McDermott ended up writing several drafts of "Eagle Eye," which turned out well enough that Goodman assured him that DreamWorks would make the movie. During some down time, McDermott started work on a couple of other projects, which is when he heard the news writers invariably hear: The studio had some new writers working on the picture. I asked him how he felt, since he'd surely seen that happen from the other side of the fence.

"You just can't take it personally," he says. "The paradox of Hollywood is that if a studio gets a script they really like, the first thing they do is hire some other writer to rewrite it. It stings a little, but that's the nature of the business. If they didn't like the script, they wouldn't be rewriting it; it would just be sitting on the shelf."

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