In the heart of the old Hollywood dream factory, on the same Culver City lot where “Gone With the Wind” and “Citizen Kane” were filmed, Terry Black is watching his fondest movie dreams come true.
“Dead Heat,” a $5.5 million film starring Treat Williams and Joe Piscopo, is taking shape on Stage 16. And the screenplay is Black’s own--the first by the 33-year-old Costa Mesa-based writer.
Just two years ago, Black was a daytime computer programmer taking night writing classes at Orange Coast College--just another anonymous face in the army of would-be writers seeking their big Hollywood break.
Now, even as the Michael Meltzer-David Helpern production for New World Pictures is nearing the end of a 37-day shoot, Black still roams the vast sound-stage sets in a state of perpetual delight.
He’s like a kid in a candy store, marveling at all the Hollywood re-creations of his “Dead Heat” concepts, from the sleekly evil corridors of a cadaver-filled corporation run by (who else?) Vincent Price to a stylishly high-tech, neo-Frankenstein laboratory with the latest bring-'em-back-alive technology.
“I still can’t quite believe it’s all happening to me, and really it’s impossible to describe my feelings about it,” he said earlier this week, sitting at the edge of the “resurrection table.”
“But I’ll tell you this,” he added with a grin. “Whatever it is, I love it.”
Sudden fame runs in the family. His 25-year-old “kid brother” Shane Black wrote two 1987 releases, “The Monster Squad” and the hugely successful cop thriller, “Lethal Weapon.”
Now, it’s Terry’s turn.
Apparently, “Dead Heat” isn’t the usual boy-meets-ghoul story. Williams plays the police detective hero (pun-ishyly dubbed Roger Mortis) who’s killed during a skirmish with jewelry thieves. Thanks to the resurrection table, Roger’s detective buddy (played by Piscopo) and girlfriend (Clare Kirkconnell) revive Roger, but it’s only temporary--he has but 12 hours to live. The two cops plunge back into the den of thieves, zombies and deranged scientists, hoping to wrap up the case within the 12 hours.
“I know, this sounds like every genre around--action, adventure, fantasy, horror, even film-noir mystery,” said Williams, who considers “Dead Heat” a real change of pace from his work in such heavy dramas as “Once Upon a Time in America” and the recent TV version of “A Streetcar Named Desire.”
“Terry’s got something here. It’s different and several cuts above the usual genres.”
“You can talk about a science-fiction genre, but, of course, it’s far more than that,” said Black, a tall, bear-like man with Victorian-era muttonchop whiskers. “Some of it can be pretty low-brow and dumb. Remember the giant monster movies (from Japan)--I mean, how many ways can you destroy Tokyo? The best ones transcend that. They give you believeable people, not just special effects, and they can have a lot of dark, edgy humor about them.”
Black’s writing reflects a boyish whimsy. He still talks about the classic TV series “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek,” and the endless hours he spent in movie theaters watching everything from C-grade serials to masterworks by Ford, Hitchcock and Welles.
Nor has he forgotten his comic-book roots.
“That’s how I got hooked on writing when I was only 7,” he said. “Look, you learn narrative from them: the conflicts, the crises, the antagonists, the triumphant climaxes. The best of the heroes, like Spider Man, were flawed and very human.”
Black was graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied writing and computer science, and moved with his family to Orange County 10 years ago. Before “Dead Heat,” he had some sporadic success with published short stories, some developed while taking writing classes in Costa Mesa.
There was “Looney Tune,” a wildly absurd tale about Bugs Bunny and a senile Mickey Mouse.
And there was “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” which was submitted to the new “Twilight Zone” TV program but turned down. “It’s an anti-mystic story, about someone who goes around predicting what wasn’t going to happen to people,” Black said.
Finally, there was “Dead Heat.”
“We encouraged Terry to just write an original piece that stood on its own, not just to write stuff for a particular show,” said Larry Carlson, his OCC writing professor. “We figured this was the best way for him to make it.”
Black said he got the idea for the “plot twist from ‘D.O.A.,’ that old (1949) Hollywood movie--the one where Edmond O’Brien is slowly dying from poison but out to get his killer.” He wrote his first draft in three weeks in December of 1985. Things continued to move swiftly.
Urged by Carlson to enter “Dead Heat” in the 1986 national Films of College and University Students competition, he won the $2,000 second prize in the screenplay category.
“It was a sweet victory for all of us,” recalled Carlson. “It’s usually the big-cannon (film) programs, like the ones at USC and UCLA, that walk off with honors.”
Brother Shane’s agents circulated the screenplay around Hollywood. Late last year it was bought by Helpern-Meltzer Productions. The company won’t specify the purchase price, but it has indicated that it was in the $100,000-plus range.
“Let’s just say it’s a tidy sum, or what would have taken me three years to make in my old (computer programming) job,” Terry said.
As a first-time screenwriter, he is philosophical about the “collaborative process” of movie-making--namely, changes in his original script suggested by the producers, director Mark Goldblatt and others.
Characters have been added, including a villainous official played by Darren McGavin (others in the cast include Lindsay Frost and Keye Luke). And writer Darren Starr was brought in by Helpern and Meltzer to do some “structuring work” on the Black script. (The producers said they have yet to decide whether Black will get sole credit or will share it with Starr.)