The writers-producers of "Marked for Death" are thrilled that their low-budget, wall-to-wall action picture grossed about as much at the box office during its first week in release as it cost to make. But Mark Victor and Michael Grais aren't interested in engaging their star, martial arts master Steven Seagal, in any kind of combat over the hit film's writing credit.
Even after losing a dispute for writing credit before an arbitration board of the Writers Guild of America, the tall, lean, pony-tailed Seagal has continued to raise the credit issue in recent interviews and during an appearance on a late-night talk show.
"I figured it out--I rewrote 93% of their script," said Seagal in an interview with The Times by telephone from the Brooklyn location of his current film, "The Price of Our Blood." "It hurts me when I read lines (in reviews) like, 'They tailor-made the action scenes for Steven Seagal.' That's a total joke."
"We're not really looking to get into a confrontation with Steven Seagal or anyone else about who wrote what," said Grais, during a joint interview with Victor in a West Hollywood hotel. "The record in the Writers Guild speaks for itself."
The experience with Seagal has been a strange turn of events for Victor and Grais, who spotted the actor in his first leading role--1988's "Above the Law"--and were convinced he would become a major star. Now that "Marked for Death" has confirmed their judgment, they find themselves at long-distance odds with him. Besides his above-the-line billing in "Marked for Death," Seagal also receives co-production credit with Victor and Grais.
Seagal reserved his strongest comments for the Writers Guild of America arbitration committee that ruled against him. "They're responsible for some of the most unjust, ridiculous legislation anywhere in the film business," said Seagal, adding that he'd "never again go through the arbitration process."
"Seagal also has claimed that he wrote over 90% of his last movie, 'Hard to Kill,' which he didn't get screenplay credit for, either," Victor said. "Somewhere there seems to be some misunderstanding as to what gets screen credit from Steven's point of view."
In "Marked for Death," Seagal plays a retired drug-enforcement agency cop who moves back home to suburban Chicago and discovers the drug scene flourishing in his old neighborhood. He finds himself facing a Jamaican drug lord, Screwface, who casts a death sentence on Seagal and his family.
The film has been No. 1 in the box office during its first 10 days in release and its nearly $22 million in grosses marks it as the first big hit of the fall.
Victor and Grais would prefer to shove the feud with Seagal into the background and bask in a success that was a long time coming. Friends since fourth grade, the pair became writing partners early in their careers and had co-written "Poltergeist" and "Poltergeist II" (which they also produced) before being introduced by their agent to Seagal. They said they decided immediately that they wanted to write a script for him.
"Basically, what happened is that we saw this guy and we said he could be the next Eastwood or Stallone," Grais said.
"The way we viewed this was 'Dirty Harry' for the '90s," Victor said.
Thus began a nearly three-year collaboration that would eventually produce "Marked for Death." They said they first went to Seagal, who had been familiar with their earlier Charles Bronson script, "Death Hunt," with a pitch for a Japanese-set action story. But they soon discovered it was too close to "Black Rain," a film then in production that starred Michael Douglas as an American cop who goes to Japan on assignment.
As Seagal went to work on his second feature, "Hard to Kill," the pair wrote a script called "Screwface," based on the name of the Jamaican drug lord of the current film. "We wrote the movie on spec for Steven and stylized with him in mind," Victor said. "What subsequently happened was that we went out to raise the money. But we had a lot of difficulty doing that because 'Above the Law,' (Seagal's first film) was a marginal success and did not do well overseas."
Among the studios to reject the project was Warner Bros., which has a multipicture deal with Seagal. But at the time, Victor and Grais speculated that the studio, not having had the success it envisioned for "Above the Law," wanted to wait and see how "Hard to Kill" would fare before green-lighting a third Seagal project. So the pair eventually took the film to 20th Century Fox, which agreed to distribute the film.
That Seagal was not a box-office draw was a blessing as well as a curse, the partners said. It was one of the major factors--among other economies they employed--that allowed them to make the film on a $12-million budget, instead of the $40 million-plus budgets of most action pictures featuring high-salaried stars. By the time Seagal's "Hard to Kill" came out and became a major success, "Marked for Death" was already shooting.
"I don't think that you'd be able to make a movie again with Steven Seagal that would be under $20 million," Grais said. "Part of it is picking the right guy at the right time before he breaks and before he costs you $5 (million) to $10 million."
Pat H. Broeske contributed to this article.