Hunkered down in a spare room at his mother's Laguna Hills home, Charles Mondry and his writing partner Anthony Bagarozzi worked feverishly to finish their screenplay, an action-thriller about an amnesiac suspected of planting bombs throughout Los Angeles.
Mondry and Bagarozzi, who met as teen-age video store clerks in Lake Forest in 1987, had no idea if their script would sell, but they knew they were onto something good.
Good enough for the 132-page script to sell only two days after their Hollywood agent began sending it to producers in late September.
And good enough for Columbia Pictures to make a preemptive offer in an amount that would bring tears of joy to any screenwriter: $1 million.
"You don't know what to expect," said Bagarozzi, 29. "Being the guys who wrote it, you sort of assume nobody is going to like it, and they're going to make fun of you. When someone says, 'Wow, we like this,' that's a shock."
"You hear [the $1-million figure], and you just don't accept it as real," said Mondry, 32. "You hang up the phone and you're still the same person, that struggling writer. You don't feel any different. You feel something should change."
It will in a few weeks. By then the writers will have signed a contract with Columbia and received their first checks.
What the $1-million sale means is this: Mondry and Bagarozzi will receive $750,000 for signing--minus a 10% agent's fee--and $250,000 for various rewrites.
But that's just the beginning. When the film is actually made, they'll get another $500,000 and a small percentage of the film's adjusted gross.
What's created such a stir in Hollywood--news of the deal made both the Hollywood Reporter and The script's amnesiac character wakes up in the custody of the FBI and is told he's suspected of planting bombs. Although he doesn't believe it, he is taken along with a young female FBI agent on a race through L.A. in hopes he'll remember where he put the bombs so they can be disarmed.
The hook is that the screenplay happens in "real time," Mondry said. "Every second on the screen is equal to real life."
That, however, is not what made Gavin Polone want to produce "Tick-Tock."
"For me, what pushed me over the top was I was so deeply involved in the story from the beginning," said Polone, who was impressed by the writing, the originality of the characters and the "tremendous energy and pace" of the script.
That's also what sold Matt Tolmach, Columbia executive vice president of production, on the script.
"It's got all the trappings of the great action movies, but with two real [lead] characters, which sets it apart from a lot of action movies," he said.
Polone, who is working on "The Panic Room" starring Nicole Kidman, expects to have "Tick-Tock" in production by late winter or early spring with Tom Dey ("Shanghai Noon") directing. He sees a bright future for the two screenwriters.
"There are so many people struggling and not getting anything sold. For these guys to get a big sale like this I think bodes very well," he said.
Thirteen years ago at Tower Video, Mondry and Bagarozzi took advantage of the store's "two free video rentals a night" policy for employees.
"Every night we worked, we took home videos and we would find a director whose work we loved," said Mondry, mentioning filmmakers such as Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick. "We'd just basically go through the whole catalog and watch one film after another. It was sort of a self-taught film history course."
Although he had screenwriting ambitions at the time and wrote an unsold screenplay when he was 20, Mondry majored in psychology at UC Irvine and later earned a master's degree in poetry from Brooklyn College. For the past four years he has been a part-time lecturer on literature and composition at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Bagarozzi, who began making short films at 16, went to Irvine Valley College for two years and held down a series of part-time jobs--"just anything that made money and gave me time to write." Two years ago he sold his first screenplay, "The Tin Man," a revisionist noir L.A. detective story, to the Walt Disney Co. for $250,000.
Bagarozzi was talking to his pal Mondry in New York over the phone while rewriting "The Tin Man" 18 months ago when they came up with the idea for "Tick-Tock."
Over the next couple of days they outlined the plot over the phone.
"We thought we could write it quickly, but it turned out much more difficult because in 'real time' the logistical problems are incredible because you can't cut around anything. We had a lot of false starts," Mondry said.
When spring semester ended, Mondry returned to his mother's home in Laguna Hills on June 1 so he and Bagarozzi could spend the summer working on the screenplay.
Just like in "Tick-Tock," time was of the essence: They wanted to finish the script before Mondry had to go back to work in the fall, and they wanted to try to sell it, and possibly have it in production, before a threatened Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild strike next May.
Round-the-Clock Writing Schedule
So, they put in 10- to 18-hour days, frequently working from 3 in the afternoon until 9 the next morning. Sitting at separate computers, they'd each work on different scenes, then exchange what they had written and rewrite each other's work. They'd recharge themselves with coffee and energy drinks from the neighborhood 7-Eleven or head to the open-all-night gym around the corner where they'd discuss the script as they pumped iron.
Noting the tremendous odds against selling a screenplay--some 40,000 screenplays are registered each year with the Writers Guild of America west and only about 1,500 are sold--Mondry advises other screenwriters to ignore the statistics and keep writing.
"If that's what you want to do and you're passionate about it, you should try it," he said. "If you're just doing it for the money--and surprisingly a lot of people I've encountered are--I think there's a much easier way to making money than writing a screenplay."
In their case, he said, "we had something I thought I'd want to see as a movie, and that was the bottom line."
Of course, it turned out to have a seven-figure bottom line.
Mondry's mother, Joyce, a secretary at Laguna Hills High School, knew her son's script was something special but had no clue the next big Hollywood screenplay was being written in her spare bedroom.
"I had no idea they'd sell it that fast or for that much money," she said.