Adventures in the Screen Trade
Three screenwriters’ tales of success,
complete with heartbreak,
By Terence Loose
David McKenna - American History X, Blow, S.W.A.T.
Consider his take on the same big
But if McKenna’s respect is slightly tainted when it comes to
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
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
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
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
His career hasn’t always been coated in
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
Mark Andrus - As Good As It Gets, Life as a House
Picture a top
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The deal fell through.
Sensing an opportunity, however,
They loved it, and asked
They handed him a script. “Here’s what one looks like,” they said. “Go try.”
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
“He asked me if I had representation,” says
The next thing
He bought the champagne.
Soon, director Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) became attached.
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
But all was not lost.
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
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
They loved it. Really. They bought it for $75,000.
They loved it. But they needed some changes made.
Which turned out to be a good thing. For two weeks of work on
They loved it.
Then they fired
With no full-time job
A year went by and
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.
Someone said they loved it. þ