An in-flight scare leads to a buzz script on the ground

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EXCLUSIVE: The path that winds from a screenwriter’s mind to a finished film at the multiplex can begin in the most unlikely of places. For Zach Dean, it started on a seemingly doomed flight.

In September 2005, Dean, a high school teacher and struggling screenwriter, was sitting on JetBlue Flight 292 from Burbank to New York when news reports on the in-flight television system informed him and 138 other passengers that the plane’s landing gear had malfunctioned, possibly preventing it from landing.


For more than two hours, he sat on the plane contemplating his mortality as it circled Southern California, burning fuel in the hopes of making a dangerous touchdown a little less risky should the aircraft catch fire. By the time it finally landed — safely — at LAX, Dean had pledged to write a script about family.

The result of that high-altitude resolution is a screenplay called “Kin,” which Dean, 35, finished last year. Although the script’s narrative suggests “A Simple Plan” or “Bonnie & Clyde” more than a feel-good family film — it’s partly about a brother and sister who commit a robbery, kill a state trooper in rural Michigan and then are forced to go on the run — it touches on the themes of love and loyalty that raced through Dean’s mind as he watched his fate play out on the in-flight video system.

“The flight solidified what I think is important, and what’s important affects what you write,” Dean says. (During the flight, he also resolved to have a child with his wife; the couple now has a 2-year-old daughter.)

In a turn sure to provide inspiration to hundreds of unknown screenwriters, “Kin” has been steadily gaining momentum in Hollywood and is now attracting some top names.
Stefan Ruzowitzky, director of the 2007 foreign-language Oscar winner, “The Counterfeiters,” has agreed to direct the film, and he and Dean have spent the last several months developing the script. Meanwhile, 2929 Productions, the film financing and production entity run by Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban that has been behind movies including “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Two Lovers,” has chosen the script as its point of reentry into the filmmaking business after a notable hiatus.

The company has essentially scrapped its previous development slate, and former executive Marc Butan has parted ways with the company. 2929 Productions has instead been reconceived with an emphasis on fewer development projects that have a higher probability of moving into production. “Kin,” which Hollywood veterans Gary Levinsohn, Shelly Clippard and Adam Kolbrenner will produce, is its first acquisition under the new mandate.

The buzz is also starting to build at Hollywood talent agencies about “Kin,” with its juicy roles for both a young actor and actress (the male character is in his early 30s and the woman in her late 20s) as well as supporting parts, including that of an older man who has just been released from prison.


“Talk about your postmodern experience,” Dean says, recounting his hours on the plane, during which he also wrote a letter to his wife. The writer notes the passengers’ moods, which he says ranged from vocalized fear to quiet contemplation, as well as his own attempt to derive meaning from the event. “I’m not a terribly religious person, but things went down that day for a reason.” (The plane, incidentally, also carried several other writers and Hollywood personalities, including journalist Alexandra Jacobs and actress Taryn Manning).

Dean’s larger back story is the kind you don’t hear of much in Hollywood these days: a writer with working-class roots who works in obscurity for years, doing mostly rewrites, until lightning — or busted landing gear and a near-death experience — strikes.
Before his job as a film and writing teacher at the upscale Riverdale Country School in New York, Dean, a native of small-town Michigan, had worked an assortment of odd jobs, including bartender, carpenter and casino dealer. After he wrote “Kin,” he was discovered by Kolbrenner of Hollywood management company Madhouse Entertainment, which has nurtured a number of unknown writers and turned their work into hot feature projects such as Universal Pictures’ “Safe House” and Alcon/Warner Bros.’ “Prisoners.”

After “Kin” began catching Hollywood’s eye, Dean continued working at Riverdale Country School, where the students, he said, were jazzed about his newfound Hollywood career even if some of the parents were a little skeptical. He finally left the job and his pre-Hollywood life several months ago, after the demands of this script and others he has begun working on became too great.

For now — at least before the meat grinder of the development process takes its toll — Dean’s is a happy Hollywood tale. And there’s a bright side to working in the movie industry after going through an in-flight ordeal: After you stare your own mortality in the face, looking into the eyes of a studio executive won’t be nearly as terrifying.

— Steven Zeitchik