SUMMER SNEAKS : Well, They Wanted Action : Brash newcomers Zak Penn and Adam Leff engineered their own industry buzz, landing an agent and a deal for their screenplay. Fame and fortune followed, but with a weird ending
Chris Moore was having one of those adrenaline-inducing days that sometimes occur in Hollywood when the Industry is obsessed with a single topic.
Four people had called him that September, 1991, morning urging him to read a screenplay called “Extremely Violent.” Each caller was telling the young agent that this combination action, fantasy and parody picture would be a perfect vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Moore had never heard of screenwriters Zak Penn and Adam Leff, two neophytes less than a year and a half out of college, but he did what agents are programmed to do on such occasions. He picked up the phone.
“I don’t know who you guys are,” he told Penn. “I haven’t read your script yet, but everyone in town is calling me about it.”
The agent would later learn he had been set up. The buzz about “Extremely Violent” had been generated by low-level studio or agency employees he knew who also happened to be friends of Penn and Leff. Having failed to grab an agent’s attention by more conventional means, the writing team had brazenly orchestrated a plan to transform their screenplay into a hot property and get themselves an agent.
By the time Moore discovered the truth, he had signed Penn and Leff as clients and was hardly in a position to object to the ruse. Under a new title, “The Last Action Hero,” the screenplay did indeed become hot enough to launch a bidding war and eventually attract Schwarzenegger as both star and executive producer. It went on to form the backbone of a picture with one of the biggest price tags ever--an estimated $65 million to $80 million. Columbia Pictures will release “Last Action Hero” (the article was eventually dropped from the title) on June 18.
“Everyone should sell their script that way,” said Moore (whose then-employer, Intertalent, was absorbed by International Creative Management), looking back on the writers’ hustle.
Hollywood is filled with stories of screenwriters who toil in obscurity for years before making the big score. This is not one of those stories. For Penn and Leff, who got to know each other while taking a film appreciation course at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., the struggle for recognition lasted only a matter of months.
Their careers did begin in the standard way, however, as they recalled during an interview in an office at 20th Century Fox, where they are finishing work on a script for “P.C.U.,” a satire based on their experiences at one of the country’s most politically correct campuses.
Not long after their 1990 college graduation, the pair--Leff is from Chicago, Penn from New York City--moved to Los Angeles. Their first goal was to line up an agent, perhaps the hardest task a writer ever has to face.
“Agents are the Catch-22 of the movie business: Everybody starting out desperately needs one and nobody starting out can possibly get one,” screenwriter William Goldman, who wound up doing an uncredited “polish” of the “Last Action Hero” screenplay, wrote in his now-classic book “Adventures in the Screen Trade.”
While making about $200 a week as script readers and researchers, the fledgling team unsuccessfully shopped a comedy-horror screenplay about a giant rat in Manhattan’s Central Park.
“We used it as a calling card--to get doors slammed in our faces,” joked Leff, who is quieter than Penn but fond of sardonic one-liners. Added Penn, the more aggressive of the pair: “That worked very effectively.”
Sometimes given to finishing each other’s sentences, the still-boyish Penn and Leff, both 25, are so industry-savvy that it is hard to believe they descended on Hollywood without family connections. Penn does have a father named Arthur, but although he is often mistaken for the director of “Alice’s Restaurant” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” he is actually a lawyer and no relation. Leff’s father is a money manager.
In their spare time, Penn and Leff wrote a thriller but decided to shelve it. Instead, following the well-worn path of legions of other aspiring screenwriters, they took Robert McKee’s celebrated screenwriting course.
Armed with a better understanding of screenplay structure--also gleaned from a research project on horror films that they did together for Quincy Jones Productions--they came up with the idea to turn on its head the concept behind Woody Allen’s 1985 “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” In that film, Mia Farrow’s movie-star idol walks off the screen to join her in the real world. In theirs, a real-life nerdy boy would take the opposite step, entering the celluloid world of his action-movie hero.
“Everyone thought it was stupid at first,” Penn said. To their friends also just starting out in the industry the idea had several strikes against it: It was a movie about movies, it mixed different genres, and worst of all, it was a parody of the action genre.
Penn recalls friends saying: “It’s not a good way in the door because every college kid off the boat . . . “
“Writes a parody,” Leff said.
Undeterred by this skepticism, Penn and Leff decided their idea was good enough to warrant a full-time commitment. Quitting their jobs that spring, they set about viewing 45 action movies, analyzing them with the zeal of cineastes dissecting the oeuvre of Hitchcock or Fellini.
Holing up in Penn’s bedroom near Hancock Park and sharing a desk, they wrote a screenplay but were dissatisfied with it, so they pounded out a highly detailed 80-page treatment before completing another draft.
It may seem strange to be “just off the boat,” as they describe themselves, and yet have the self-confidence to write a script for the world’s biggest superstar. To them, however, only Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone fit the role, and Schwarzenegger seemed the most appropriate of the two because of his “self-mocking personality.”
“We wanted the movie to have a really overblown super hero . . . and to be as big and ridiculous as possible. And at the same time, exciting,” Penn said. “And Arnold is just the biggest of all those guys.”
Asked Leff: “Who would you write it for, if you were going to write an action parody?”
“Exactly,” Penn added. “You’ve got to pick someone.”
By the end of the summer, they were showing the screenplay to friends and--this time--getting an enthusiastic response. In retrospect, this was the most exciting time, both of them say.
“We were excited about the prospect that we might actually get an agent--and even like a decent agent,” Penn said. “That was a huge enough reward in and of itself. That would have kept us going.”
Instead, Columbia bought their screenplay for $500,000. The price, though impressive for writers with no experience, was not high by Hollywood standards because Schwarzenegger’s participation was by no means assured. Other studios had considered it a “kids’ picture,” according to Moore.
Not surprisingly, Penn and Leff have since experienced some of the disappointments common to screenwriters. Columbia had always hoped to attract Schwarzenegger to the project. To get the superstar interested, Barry Josephson, Columbia’s senior vice president of production, hired heavy-hitter screenwriter Shane Black (“Lethal Weapon”), who in turn brought in David Arnott (“The Adventures of Ford Fairlane”) to inject more humor into the script.
Although Penn and Leff believe they were up to the task of revising their screenplay themselves, they are nothing if not realists about the movie business. “There was a reason they hired Shane Black: Because Arnold wanted Shane Black,” Penn said. “And it made sense. I mean, Arnold doesn’t know us.”
There is one heady memory from that period, Penn recalled.
“When Arnold expressed interest, Shane apparently insisted we be at the meeting (with Schwarzenegger and top Columbia executives), which was very nice of him,” Penn said. “It was a power meeting for them, but it was kind of just stargazing for us. After that, we met with Shane once or twice, but then, we were only as involved as they chose to keep us. We weren’t really.”
“They got the movie made,” Leff said, noting that successive “drafts were sent to us periodically--not for our input, just as a courtesy.”
Their screenplay has developed a life of its own, Penn said, “but since it has grown into the huge Godzillian creature that this thing has, it’s amusing. You don’t feel so lonely, because you see it stomping around the city. It’s not like it was just some bird that flew away.”
More disappointments were to come. Stung by Columbia’s decision to award Black & Arnott sole screenplay credit, the novice writing team sought arbitration by the Writers Guild of America, West. The guild, siding with the studio, recently awarded Penn and Leff a less prestigious story credit.
“We argued for what we thought we deserved and for what other people said they thought we deserved,” Penn said carefully. “The people who mattered disagreed. I support that decision.”
Early success has apparently taken a toll on Penn and Leff’s working relationship. They declined to discuss their differences, but each is planning separate projects with other partners. But they must continue working together on “P.C.U.,” which is expected to go into production this summer. After that, they will revise “Central Park,” the once-scorned rat project, which was bought by New Line Cinema after the sale of “Last Action Hero.”
Now that their careers are taking off, what advice do they have for other beginning screenwriters?
“Never second-guess your script ideas, and if there’s something you really feel you can do a good job on, you should go ahead and do it no matter how many people tell you the genre is tired and the script won’t sell,” Leff said.
“Take Robert McKee,” he added. “And when it comes to getting an agent, scam it. Otherwise, they’ll never read your script. Use all of your connections.”