With so many flamboyant directors and macho producers making the rounds these days, Hollywood insiders rarely find time to buzz about a lowly screenwriter.
But what if he's a guy whose script was based on a real-life encounter with an alien?
Now that gets Hollywood talking.
And according to industry word-of-mouth, what gave "My Stepmother Is an Alien" its most tantalizing air of mystery wasn't the film's stars--Kim Basinger and Dan Aykroyd--but its original screenwriter, a mystery man known simply as Jerico.
Did Jerico really meet an alien? It's easy to be skeptical, especially since "Stepmother" (a box-office bomb) was reviled by critics as a silly Tinseltown fantasy.
But consider this--Jerico's original screenplay wasn't a fluffy comedy. The script was, as one Hollywood executive described it, "a very real, terrifying story."
Weeks after the film opened, the reclusive screenwriter surfaced. Reluctant to give out his phone number or meet at his home ("I live in a very difficult neighborhood"), he set up a rendezvous one night at a Sunset Strip eatery.
A man of 35 with shoulder-length hair, a thick beard and dark, probing eyes, Jerico, whose last name is Stone, was bright and thoughtful, though he appeared wary during portions of his chat. But his unusual account offers an intriguing glimpse into a writer's creative process--and how the results are reworked and distorted by the Hollywood studio system.
"My original script was an allegory about child abuse," he said, sipping a cup of tea. "I wanted to reach kids in a way that wouldn't make the story just a disease-of-the-week TV movie. And after certain incidents I'd experienced, I realized I could tell the story as a fable, a fairy tale that would make it easier for kids to grasp the child abuse angle."
According to Jerico, these "incidents" occurred during his childhood in Brooklyn, where he says he was "beaten up" frequently, both at home and at school. He spent his days at a train station, reading comic books with a young black friend who had suffered similar abuses.
"We decided to become comic super heroes and called ourselves the Black Jacks," he said. "It gave us strength. When kids from school found us, we'd become the Black Jacks and lay into them until they stopped bothering us."
One day his friend showed up badly beaten. "He said we couldn't do anything to stop his father because he was an alien. And he said he couldn't see me again--and he never did."
Years later, Jerico moved to Los Angeles, where he was "a street person," crashing at flop houses and sleeping in parks. He was befriended by a young black kid who turned up one day, badly beaten. The youngster said his father had hurt him, but told Jerico he couldn't fight back because his father was an alien.
Intrigued, Jerico said he followed him to a supermarket parking lot, where the boy hopped into an abandoned car. "It didn't have any wheels and its windows were spray-painted black," Jerico recalled. "I rushed up and started kicking the car when the door opened and. . . . "
Jerico's voice dropped to a whisper. "It was an alien. It wasn't a man. It wasn't a person. It looked so strange I couldn't even describe it. I just froze. The next thing I knew this huge hand leaped out and dug into my stomach, grabbing a hold of my spine. The pain was so intense I just collapsed to the ground.
"The alien creature stood over me and said, very gently, 'Sorry, Black Jack.' Then the car started to shimmer, very brightly, and I blacked out from the pain. When I came to, the car--and any traces of it--was gone."
Not long afterwards, Jerico had a chance meeting with Orson Welles--"I cornered him walking into Ma Maison and he told me, 'My boy, "The War of the Worlds" was just a dress rehearsal.' " Inspired, Jerico began pitching a story about a child's nightmarish vision that his stepmother is an evil alien.
"No one believes him because she's the greatest mother in public, but in private she's totally sadistic to him," he explained. "It was a very dark story."
In 1981, Paramount hired Jerico to write the script, but when he delivered it to the studio they saw it having more potential as a comedy. More writers were brought in (four, including Jerico, are listed on the final credits), and the script bounced around before being made by Weintraub Entertainment.
Jerico recently saw the film at the Fairfax Theatre. His reaction? He flashed a wan smile. "Hollywood is a doomed planet," he said. "Watching the film is like seeing someone you loved very much at one time and then seeing them much later and. . . ."
His voice trailed off. "They're the same person, but they look so different. So many things have happened to them. It's not the person you loved 20 years before."
As a community, Hollywood is refreshingly tolerant of oddballs. Still, when one development executive who'd taken meetings with Jerico was asked for a comment, she replied, "You could say he's a real weirdo."
Not so, said Mary Ann Sweeny, vice president of development at Renfield Productions, a production company run by producer Mike Finnell and director Joe Dante.
"Jerico is just suspicious by nature," explained Sweeny. "He doesn't want to go to Spago or Morton's and play the game. He's this renegade who's managed to stay in the business, but on his terms."
Stephen Deutsch agrees. "Jerico is one of the most fascinating people I've known," said Deutsch, producer of the upcoming Tony Danza film "She's Out of Control." "He's eccentric, but in a sweet way. He's not malevolent at all. He just looks at life very differently."
Sweeny said she first met Jerico while she was an executive at Kings Road Productions. He had pitched her on a "contemporarization" of an Akira Kurosawa film. The Kings Road brass passed on the project, but Sweeny stayed in touch. At Renfield, Finnell and Dante had bought a Jerico script called "Matinee," an "out-of-this world" fantasy about a pair of small-town kids who go to monster matinees every weekend.
"Warners put the project into development and Jerico wrote the original script and did a rewrite as well," Sweeny said. "I think there's another writer on the script now, but it's something that could get made."
Sweeny said Finnell and Dante (who've collaborated on "Gremlins" and "Innerspace") are Jerico fans. "His scripts are always well-received," she said. "There's a quirky uneasiness about his characters that's both fascinating and repelling."
Still, most of Jerico's projects have never gotten past the development stage. "The only reason he hasn't taken off is because it's hard for people in the business to grasp his ideas," said Deutsch. "In Hollywood, everyone compares movies to something else, to peg things. When you make a pitch, you say, 'This is a cross between 'Bull Durham' and 'Rain Man.'
"But Jerico works outside those pegs. Very outside."
And just how eccentric is Jerico in person?
"He does have a very strange life style," said Deutsch. "He's a real loner. I don't think he's gone to sleep before dawn since he was a kid."
The producer laughed, saying half-jokingly: "Sometimes, I'm not all that convinced that he's not a vampire."
Sweeny added: "Mike and Joe came up doing horror movies, so they accept his odd demeanor. But he does have this wonderful darkness about him. As I remember, when Jerico and I had our meetings at King's Road, there was a considerable bit of discomfort on the part of the executives there.
"I guess you could say his physical appearance is a little intimidating."
In person Jerico hardly seemed intimidating. But he was a bit unnerved when asked about reports that he'd written a script about new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Phil Spector, a much-lauded producer almost as famous for his bizarre behavior as for his wealth of pop hits. Obviously agitated, Jerico began tapping his knife on the table, insisting that no mention be made of Spector in the newspaper.
Later he relented, faxing a letter which outlined the psychological rigors of screenplay writing as well as Hollywood's negative attitude toward his Spector project.
It went, in part: "I've learned that getting a movie made in Hollywood, seeing your name on the screen, offers virtually none of the reward, excitement and satisfaction felt while actually writing the piece. . . . I don't feel the studios are prepared to make a film celebrating the musical triumphs of a rock genius. . . .
"And if a bio is made like 'The Buddy Holly Story' or 'La Bamba,' the films' thrust is invariably a folksy, melodramatic tale of the star's personal life. . . . Why put the time and effort into writing something you doubt will ever get made? Because, despite the consequences, a writer can only write about things that he experiences and that he loves, and for me that includes aliens and rock 'n' roll."
Jerico insists "Stepmother" would have been a better film if the producers had stuck to his original vision. He's not alone.
"I knew about his 'Stepmother' script when I was at New Line Cinema, and I thought it would've made a great horror picture," said Guy Rydell, now a vice president of production at Pacific Western, "Terminator" producer Gail Hurd's new production company. "I was terribly saddened to hear that they turned it into a comedy. And you have to hope they've learned a lesson about taking a script in such a wrong-headed direction by the way 'Stepmother' has bombed at the box office."
Rydell says he's "a big fan" of Jerico's writing. "He looks at the world differently. His stories have a very distinctive, off-beat approach and strong moral lessons."
Aside from the Spector script, Jerico wouldn't volunteer any information about future projects. But he offered a candid description of the art of screenwriting:
"To me, a screenwriter is a gunslinger--a hired hand. If you don't like the people you're working with, you can always leave. But you'll always be a gunslinger, and that's the way you have to handle working with Hollywood people."
Jerico shrugged. "They tell you who they want dead and you do it."