Adventures in the Screen Trade

 

Three screenwriters’ tales of success, complete with heartbreak, Hollywood clichés and what “We loved it!” really means.

 

By Terence Loose

 

David McKenna - American History X, Blow, S.W.A.T.

Don’t ask Newport Coast resident and A-list screenwriter David McKenna about the movie business unless you are fully prepared for the answer. His views are strong and candid, much like the stories and characters he pens – the former neo-Nazi skinhead trying to save his family from racism and hate in American History X, or the drug dealer struggling to preserve family and friendship, only to be destroyed by them, in Blow, for instance.

Consider his take on the same big Hollywood machine that has been his bread and butter for the past eight years: “[The studio executives] are very smart,” he says in a mode approaching the intensity of a football coach. “Unfortunately, they’re driven by the buck and that’s why you see so many franchised, blockbuster, $100 million movies. The $30 million story-driven drama is a rare commodity.”

But if McKenna’s respect is slightly tainted when it comes to Hollywood, it is fully intact in the area of the ultimate critic – the audience. “There’s a [large] group of people who want to see something that doesn’t have special effects and isn’t franchised,” he says. “They want to see something original, that makes them think, makes them feel.” He points to American Beauty, 1999’s dark look at the American dream gone sour, as a prime example. “I thought [American Beauty] was good but we’re so desperate we give the thing five Academy Awards [including Best Picture and Screenplay]. It shows the desperation the American public has to get those types of movies.”

That desperation, along with his passionate takes on controversial issues, is exactly what got McKenna writing in the first place.

As a teen growing up in Newport Beach, McKenna did not dream of being a scribe of any kind. The urge came later, while attending San Diego State as a business major – and hating it – when a friend was wrongfully accused of rape and had his reputation destroyed. In the theaters at the time was The Accused, a film told from the viewpoint of a rape victim. McKenna’s creative fire sparked. “I thought it would be an incredible idea to show what it was like to be [wrongfully] accused of a rape from the man’s point of view,” says McKenna.

         McKenna found a screenwriting book in the campus bookstore and soon became obsessed. At graduation he had written three screenplays, one of which, Jello Shots, was inspired by his friend’s ordeal. Armed only with his scripts and ideas for others, McKenna moved to L.A., where he worked odd jobs while polishing his craft.

         A few years later, when McKenna was working as a waiter, he got his “big break.” One of his regular customers worked for Paramount Pictures and McKenna summoned enough nerve to ask him for a read. “I figured I’d hear from him in a couple weeks,” says McKenna. “But he called the next day and was very enthusiastic.” His Paramount connection made a call and McKenna soon had an agent.

While McKenna’s three scripts were being shopped around – with little success – he wrote American History X. That script did sell. McKenna was 26.

Soon after American History X was picked up, Jello Shots sold for $500,000 and McKenna was hired to adapt the book Blow for director Ted Demme and actor/producer Denis Leary. Only then did McKenna feel he had a career as a screenwriter. And he knew what that career looked like. “I see myself as a very American writer,” says McKenna. “The issues I deal with are very American. Rape, cocaine, football, racism.” Add to that the military – McKenna recently finished rewrites of movies about the U.S.S. Indianapolis and America’s most decorated living soldier, Colonel David Hackworth – and crime – he’s currently working on a S.W.A.T. script rewrite.

His career hasn’t always been coated in Hollywood stardust, however. Though McKenna is generally happy with the movies that have been made from his scripts, he’s had his share of the Hollywood writer’s blues. Just last year he took his name off Bully when he determined that director Larry Clark had ruined what he felt was some of his best writing to date. Always a straight shooter, McKenna sent a letter to the film’s director and producers saying the final cut “resembled a porno,” with “gratuitous sex, no story, zero motivation [and] no character development.”

This and other experiences where he felt his work was damaged has sparked another fire in McKenna – that of a director. His goal is to direct one of his early scripts, a sort of urban Ordinary People called Twelfth Man, in an effort to protect its singular vision from the movie-making-by-committee hazards. “It’s much like an architect spending two years designing a building and the lead foreman coming in and moving bathrooms around,” McKenna says. “It damages everything that is incredible about the building.”

Most might see McKenna’s strong viewpoints and fearlessness about sharing them as his eventual downfall in an industry known more for its scandals than its honesty. But McKenna disagrees. “The thing that separates the people who get work and those who don’t is they have something to say. They have thoughts and opinions they want to communicate,” he says. If that’s true, there’s no question about it: McKenna should have a long, healthy career in Hollywood.

 

Mark Andrus - As Good As It Gets, Life as a House

Picture a top Hollywood player, then take away ego and vulnerability. What you have left is award-winning screenwriter Mark Andrus, a man who, from his secluded San Juan Capistrano home, has been quietly creating complex characters Hollywood can’t ignore. There is the unforgettable Melvin Udall (Jack Nicholson), the misanthrope softened by love in 1997’s As Good As It Gets. And George Monroe (Kevin Kline), a man who learns to embrace life only when his nears its end in last year’s Life as a House.

But these characters, as well as Andrus’ life as a screenwriter, might never have been had Andrus not acted on a whim almost 20 years ago. As a graduate of UC Riverside’s MBA program, Andrus decided to take a creative writing class for fun, while waiting to hear from law schools. He wrote a short story about a middle-aged man who complained about everything, which got the attention of the instructor, Thomas Rivera, a published author and poet. On Rivera’s suggestion, Andrus applied to USC’s master’s program in professional writing and got in.

To graduate, Andrus had to complete a novel, a play and a screenplay. When he got to the screenplay, Andrus says he felt he had hit home. “There was an ease I had with dialogue that tended more toward screenplays,” he says. “Fiction seemed so daunting. The range of [description] you are responsible for in fiction is so great. In a screenplay you have to be concise but not that eloquent.”

         Almost immediately after Andrus graduated from USC, Norman Lear, who owned Embassy Pictures at the time, put him under contract. His job was simply to write. “I wasn’t producing anything really,” says the naturally modest Andrus, “but for some reason he believed I could write, so he gave me the time to garner my confidence.” For that, Andrus is eternally grateful, believing that if he had had to freelance during that time and face the inevitable flood of rejections a new writer encounters, he would have given up.

It wasn’t until Andrus was under contract at Castlerock Pictures that a film was made from one of his scripts. It was 1991’s Late for Dinner, an offbeat sci-fi pic that starred Peter Berg and Marcia Gay Harden.

But again years of contract writing followed, causing frustration for Andrus, but also inspiration. It was then that the vague ideas for As Good As It Gets (which Andrus originally named Old Friends) took shape. “The idea was the vilest man in New York lives opposite a gay artist. They hate one another in the beginning of the story but somehow end up in a sort of father and son relationship,” says Andrus. With that two-line idea he began writing and, he says, it just came together.

The same can’t be said for getting Andrus’ idea from script to screen, however. There was an initial frenzy, with Kevin Kline, Ralph Fiennes, Holly Hunter and Pretty Woman producer Laura Ziskin all clamoring on board. But Hollywood works in mysterious ways. “It was all coming together so quickly,” says Andrus. “It was very exciting, a lot of great meetings, then it all just fell apart. And it sat for three years.”

Finally, esteemed writer/director/producer James L. Brooks came aboard, working with Andrus on a rewrite and pushing the project. And still it wasn’t a lock, mainly due to Hollywood’s financially myopic viewpoint: Studio executives are much more comfortable greenlighting a $90 million action thriller aimed at teens and 20-somethings than a $50 million character-driven picture whose likely audience is ruled by day-planners. “It’s definitely harder to draw adults to the theater than teens. Teens are always eager. Adults need a compelling reason,” says Andrus. Which is why As Good As It Gets was a hard sell. “As Good As It Gets was always a worrisome project,” says Andrus. “People thought of it as an art film and didn’t want to make it.”

But it did get made and did draw people out – to the tune of over $100 million domestically – and garnered Andrus an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay.

Perhaps it was partly due to the success of As Good As It Gets that Andrus’ next success ran contrary to every Hollywood cliché. Life as a House made it from Andrus’ printer to the big screen in less than a year. “Nothing in my career has been easier than that movie,” says Andrus, who, with producer/director Irwin Winkler, pitched Life as a paragraph idea to a Columbia exec over lunch. “And that was it. They let me go write it based on that paragraph idea,” Andrus says.

         But Andrus realizes that his Life as a House experience is, well, as good as it gets. After Life, Andrus adapted Rebecca Wells’ book Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood for the screen, but Oscar-winning writer Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) rewrote and directed the movie. The final product did not impress critics, or Andrus, who now has a much more sober attitude toward his chosen profession.

“I’ve learned that if you vest yourself in what the movie is, versus what you wrote, it’ll kill you. If you vest yourself in worrying about the time it takes to finish a project from when you wrote it, it’ll kill you,” he says. “If I fixated on one bad moment in my career I would never move on. So I have to slough it off. There’s the next movie to think about.”

And the next, and the next. Andrus has got three projects lined up – an adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Bridge for Tom Cruise’s production company, another “artsy” film about the life of janitor/artist Henry Darger, and an unnamed project for Dreamworks’ head Walter F. Parkes. It’s a year and a half of writing, a daunting amount to many, but bliss to Andrus, who shuns the red carpet and spotlight. “The reason I got into writing is because you’re alone in a room writing,” Andrus says. “It’s what I love.” For Andrus, that’s as good as it gets.

 

Keith Sharon - Showtime

The first time Orange County Register reporter Keith Sharon, screenwriter of the recent $90 million movie Showtime, pulled up to his International Creative Management agent’s office building, he was directed to the delivery entrance. He didn’t blame the kid who made the mistake – Sharon, behind the wheel of a beat-up Toyota compact, was himself having a hard time believing he was an ICM client.

But it was no accident – or overnight lucky break – that Sharon, a 20-year veteran newspaperman with a dry, sharp wit, was making his official entrance to Hollywood. It had, in fact, been a long, circuitous road.

Sharon’s journey began three thousand miles away, in 1991, when the then-New Jersey reporter finished a 600-page manuscript for a nonfiction novel called Born and Raised. It was about two Hoboken locals who plotted and carried out the murder of each other’s wives. It was a black comedy, says Sharon. “but it was so dark that you might not see the humor.”

Apparently, the publishing world did not. Even with an enthusiastic and revered agent pushing it, Born and Raised didn’t sell.

“So I moved to California,” says Sharon.

Sharon got a job for the Pasadena Star News and in 1995 wrote a series of articles on a woman who had been raped. His stories piqued the interest of fledgling producers Hale Coleman (ex-wife to Dabney) and Gino Tanasescu, who asked Sharon to write a television script about the woman. A deal was struck, everything was looking good…until the woman refused to sell her rights.

The deal fell through.

Sensing an opportunity, however, Sharon gave the producers his Born and Raised manuscript.

They loved it, and asked Sharon if he had ever written a screenplay.

“No,” Sharon said.

They handed him a script. “Here’s what one looks like,” they said. “Go try.”

Sharon, a lifelong movie buff who habitually rewrites movies in his head, took a shot. “I just tried to have something happen at the end of page 30, something happen at the end of page 90, and a big bang for a finish,” he says.

He handed Coleman and Tanasescu a completed Born and Raised script.

They loved it.

Cue the “Vital Hollywood Connec-tions” scene. It happened that Tanasescu played tennis every Saturday with David Wirtshafter, who was head of ICM’s literary division. She showed him Sharon’s script.

He loved it – a lot of love flying around at this point in the game – and asked to meet Sharon.

“He asked me if I had representation,” says Sharon. “I told him I was a newspaper reporter.”

The next thing Sharon knew he was talking his way into a parking space at the ICM offices. “I was assigned three agents,” says Sharon. He met in their plush offices where: “They told me, ‘On your way home, buy a bottle of champagne, you’re in the movie business,’” says Sharon.

He bought the champagne.

Soon, director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) became attached. Sharon met with him about the script. You guessed it; he loved it. But…

There was no mystery, Fleder said. He wanted to make it a conventional thriller with a detective going after the killer of two women. “He said, ‘You’ve got to have a body on page one, an alibi on page two and two guys on page three who no one believes did it,’” says Sharon, who was perfectly willing to change it. “I figured he was the genius, the guy with the movies. I was just the new guy,” says Sharon. But then, faster than Sharon’s champagne buzz fizzled, the deal fell apart. “To this day, I have no idea what happened,” says Sharon.

But all was not lost. Sharon had still netted top representation, agents who sent Born and Raised out as a writing sample in an effort to get Sharon a writing assignment. And thus began the most colorful, most active, most frustrating period of Sharon’s career: his introduction to pitch meetings.

He met with dozens of producers who all had the idea for the next blockbuster. All they needed, they said, was a writer to come up with a pitch for the studio executives.

“They say write down a few thoughts and then they ask you 50 pages worth of questions,” says Sharon. “You have to have three acts, character, dialogue, plot twists, bits of dialog, and plenty of jokes.”

So the three-minute pitch meeting made famous in The Player is a myth?

“If you’re Scott Frank or Ron Bass, the one sentence pitch may happen,” says Sharon. “But on my level I have to convince them that I’m the guy beyond a shadow of a doubt. I have to convince them that I can’t screw it up.”

In 1998, Sharon did just that with Time Machine producer Jorge Saralegui, who had an idea for a movie about two L.A. cops starring in their own reality TV show. Sharon and Saralegui took the idea to Warner Bros., where Sharon says he stammered and sweated his way through the meeting.

They loved it. Really. They bought it for $75,000.

Sharon quit his job and spent the next six months working on Showtime, handing in a finished script in January, 1999.

They loved it. But they needed some changes made.

Which turned out to be a good thing. For two weeks of work on the rewrite, Sharon received $28,000.

Sharon turned the final draft in.

They loved it.

Then they fired Sharon and hired another writer.

With no full-time job Sharon went on more pitch meetings. They were just as draining. He was not as convincing.

A year went by and Sharon decided that Showtime had gone the way of most scripts sold in Hollywood – death in development. Sharon, who has a wife, two kids, a mortgage and car payments, went back to work at the Register.

Then, in January of 2001, a Daily Variety article announced that Robert De Niro and Eddie Murphy had signed on along with director Tom Dey; Showtime was greenlighted. Sharon’s bonus for being the original screenwriter on the movie: $50,000. It was a needed boost, not just to Sharon’s pocketbook, but to his writer’s motivation.

Sharon went on less pitch meetings. “I think I like the idea of my own ideas from now on,” says Sharon. Others seem to agree. One of Sharon’s spec scripts, Peach Fuzz, a comedy about a 16-year-old boy who lives with his evil stepfather on a floating casino on the Mississippi River, was recently optioned.

Someone said they loved it. þ

 

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