Up Against His Own Deadline
In 1991, an earnest 18-year-old in a conservative blue suit and red tie bantered on national TV with Larry King.
“I want to make films about the things no one is making films about, like rape and suburban drugs,” said Shane Salerno, who was on the show promoting his public-access documentary, “Sundown: The Future of Children and Drugs.”
Salerno billed the program, a collection of videotaped interviews he shot while in high school, as a “suburban ‘Boyz N the Hood.’” A profile of Salerno in the Los Angeles Times then noted that reporters interested in the Encinitas teenager were likely to receive 50-page press kits explaining his views on drugs, crime and teen culture, plus letters of endorsement from Pete Wilson and other politicians.
A little more than 10 years later, sitting in his West L.A. office, Salerno sounds like the idealistic 18-year-old when he reflects on the interview on Larry King’s show as a “major thing.” With the same earnestness, he recalls the moment two years later when he decided making documentaries about rape and drugs was no longer enough: “I went to my mom and said, words to the effect, if we don’t go to L.A. now, I’m going to end up in San Diego making documentaries for PBS and I want to do more than that.”
What happened to Salerno is the stuff of Hollywood fable. Without relatives in the industry, big-money friends or a Sundance pedigree, the kid voted Most Likely to Be Famous by his high school classmates quickly vaulted into the top echelons of the film industry, working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Michael Mann. By age 24, he was simultaneously developing projects for Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone. His first on-screen credits were 1998’s “Armageddon” (adaptation) and 2000’s “Shaft” (story and screenplay). At 28, he was the co-creator and executive producer of his own TV series, “UC: Undercover.”
Ten years after he exchanged quips with King, Salerno is an established screenwriter and producer, with a seven-figure “first look” deal with Jersey Films and a development deal with 20th Century Fox Television. Even in a town with jaded response to rags-to-riches stories, Salerno’s rise evokes respect.
“He reminds me of Francis Ford Coppola, in terms of his enthusiasm and his grandiosity, in thinking big,” said Tony Bill, a veteran Hollywood actor and producer who directed two episodes of “UC: Undercover.”
Growing up in San Diego, Salerno was often compared to the ambitious Michael J. Fox character on the sitcom “Family Ties”: a straight-laced conservative teen in a world of hippie adults. Dressed in black sports jacket and blue jeans, he still has the clean-cut appearance and a consistently sober expression.
Salerno doesn’t fit many Hollywood stereotypes. He says he’s never smoked a cigarette, tasted a drop of alcohol or experimented with drugs--in part, a reaction to “Sundown,” he says.
“He’s my straight man when we go out,” said director John Singleton, who spent a year working with Salerno on “Shaft.”
Associates describe him as a media junkie and voracious reader known for walking into meetings aware of every movie ever produced by everyone in the room.
The product of the ‘80s and suburbia lists Mann’s “Miami Vice” TV series as his seminal inspiration. “I thought those were the two coolest guys,” Salerno said. “They made me believe Miami vice cops drove $350,000 Ferraris.”
Salerno says he’s always felt like he was in a rush, in part due to the lasting effect of the sudden, unrelated deaths of four teenage friends. Since he figured out how much time he lost while sleeping, he says, he rarely sleeps more than three or four hours a night. His production company is named Chasing Time Pictures.
Salerno’s hard-charging personality was clearly not embraced by everyone. He says he continually faced the murmuring in the industry: “Who is this kid? How did he get here?”
“Herein lies something I’ve run up against,” he says. “There is a real difference between arrogance and confidence. For me, if you don’t get it right, I don’t understand what the point is of doing it. The worst thing you can be is ordinary.”
The person who launched Salerno’s career in Hollywood was Gregory Hoblit, a producer and director on “Hill Street Blues” and “L.A. Law. " He was introduced to Salerno in 1993 at an editing facility and vaguely recalled Salerno as the kid who made a documentary.
“He walked into my offices and there was something about him that got my attention,” said Hoblit, who went on to direct films, including “Primal Fear” and the recent “Hart’s War.” “He’s built like a fireplug. Short hair. He has this military way about him. Very polite. ‘Yes, sir. No, sir.’”
Hoblit agreed to let Salerno hang out on the set of “NYPD Blue,” which had recently been launched to critical acclaim.
Commuting each day from Encinitas to Los Angeles, the 20-year-old Salerno had a front row seat for the development of one of television’s best dramas, including the much-publicized departure of series star David Caruso. “I was on set when huge tantrums occurred,” Salerno said.
He refused all production and gofer jobs, the traditional steppingstones. “I didn’t want to be anybody’s assistant,” he said. During his yearlong apprenticeship on the set of “NYPD Blue"--he received no salary during that time--Salerno said he carefully planned how he was going to approach his career. “And during that time I did something that people in this business don’t do, which is I read every single thing I could get my hands on,” he said.
If a director or filmmaker spoke anywhere in town, he was there. On his list of seminal moments is a chance meeting with screenwriter Ernest Lehman in a Brentwood copy shop, which resulted in an inspirational note of praise for a script Salerno handed him in the parking lot.
At the time, Salerno was shopping a pilot script about two twentysomething minority cops, which attracted the attention of veteran television executive Fran McConnell. With the help of McConnell, Salerno landed a three-year deal with Universal Television and producer Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”), who was preparing “New York Undercover,” which coincidentally happened to spotlight the adventures of two twentysomething minority cops.
He describes his time with “New York Undercover” as “the worst nine months of my life.” He clashed with one of the show’s producers and his co-writers; he wanted out of his three-year deal, even though everyone, including his agent, said he was crazy to walk away from guaranteed money. In his first year, at the age of 21, he made more than $200,000.
“Everybody said wait,” recalled Salerno, who had already taken notice of Hollywood’s legion of burned-out TV writers. “The difference between me and those writers is I left.”
He managed to get out of his contract with the help of his new agents at Creative Artists Agency. “It was very clear that he was on a path to move forward,” said Joe Cohen, his CAA agent of eight years.
Within weeks of leaving “New York Undercover,” two extraordinary things happened. Both came about through his relationship with Arne Schmidt a producer who worked on such films as “RoboCop” and the current “We Were Soldiers.”
Based on the TV script, Schmidt gave Salerno a shot at developing “A Season in Hell,” an action picture about an arson investigator tracking a serial arsonist.
Schmidt was also developing “Thunder Below,” the story of Adm. Eugene Fluckey, a heroic World War II submarine commander. Schmidt was pitching the story to established, big-name writers, but Salerno wanted it for himself.
A few weeks after walking away from “New York Undercover,” Salerno brought up “Thunder Below” during a meeting with executives at the newly born DreamWorks. By the end of the meeting Salerno had the room enthusiastic for the submarine movie, even though he had no formal role in Schmidt’s project. Schmidt had already pitched to DreamWorks, unsuccessfully. Within days, Salerno met with Steven Spielberg, who greenlighted the project.
A few days later, in an unrelated development, Dino De Laurentiis paid $600,000 to acquire Salerno’s script for “A Season in Hell,” which Salerno and Schmidt pitched as “‘Twister’ with fire.” Stallone reportedly wanted to do it.
Within days, the then-24-year-old Salerno was staying in Stallone’s Miami guest house working on “A Season in Hell.” “First, I show up at his house and it’s Xanadu,” Salerno recalled. “Xanadu with some peculiar stuff, like a 20-foot-high statue of himself, which he had sculpted himself.”
Stallone had just finished “Cop Land,” the 1997 film he felt re-established his credentials as a serious actor. As Salerno recalls, Stallone wanted to be Olivier and the script called for Rambo. Salerno says he wrote 18 versions of the script with Stallone before throwing in the towel.
Salerno began working on other projects, including a “production polish” of the Kurt Russell thriller “Breakdown” for De Laurentiis. He was also developing a movie on the Zodiac serial killer for Disney’s Touchstone division, a project that he had been obsessed about for two years.
Next, Salerno met director Michael Bay, who had just completed “The Rock.” Bay asked him to read a preliminary draft of “Armageddon,” a much-coveted project in the Hollywood writing community that was expected to have a budget of well over $100 million. Bay hired Salerno despite objections from the producers and the studio. “The idea of Shane Salerno writing this movie was not on Disney’s radar,” said Salerno, who ended up sharing a screenwriter credit on the movie.
When word went out that Salerno was on the project, within hours “meetings that I couldn’t get before, projects that I wasn’t being considered for, everything changed,” he said.
After finishing work on “Armageddon,” Salerno met with Singleton, who had read Salerno’s script for “Thunder Below.” Singleton found common ground with Salerno. “We both loved ‘Miami Vice,’” Singleton said. “We could finish each other’s sentences with the same TV and movie references.”
Singleton and Salerno worked and reworked “Shaft” for Will Smith, Wesley Snipes and, eventually, Samuel L. Jackson.
Although largely skewered by critics, “Shaft” made money. With two major projects in theaters, Salerno became a hot property, a writer with a reputation for writing action scenes and, as one executive put it, “masculine guy stuff.”
Not every project made it to the screen. DreamWorks put “Thunder Below” on the shelf when Universal announced plans to develop a competing World War II submarine movie, “U-571.” With Stallone unable to agree on a script, “A Season in Hell” floundered.
But the high-profile assignments kept coming. In 1998, he signed on to work on “Bay of Pigs” for Ron Howard and Imagine Entertainment. At the same time, he was developing his own projects, most notably collaborating with actor Ving Rhames on “Night Train,” about boxer Sonny Liston.
Around that time, he received a call from Mann, his teenage hero, who brought Salerno in to write a movie about the drug trade, something of a dream come true for the then-26-year-old Salerno. He dived into the world of drug trafficking, doing research with DEA agents and underworld characters.
But after a year and a half, Mann decided to do “Ali” first, putting Salerno’s drug-trade movie on hold. “I was crushed,” Salerno said.
But as is often the case for Salerno, frustration soon led to another flurry of deals.
Working with novelist Don Winslow, he developed the concept for a one-hour drama about a team of undercover agents. NBC executives read the script on a Friday, and the following Wednesday, after meeting Salerno, they gave approval to develop a pilot.
A few days later, Jersey Productions, which came on board as co-producers of “UC: Undercover,” announced a seven-figure “first look” deal for Salerno’s film projects. Under this type of arrangement, a studio has a contractual right of first refusal on every script a writer can deliver. If the studio declines, the writer is free to shop the script elsewhere.
Despite only nine months of actual staff experience on a show, at the age of 28 Salerno was given the role of show-runner, handling day-to-day production tasks on a one-hour action series this season.
“UC: Undercover” got off to a rocky start. First, actor Jimmy Smits dropped out days before the pilot was scheduled to start production, reportedly due to contractual entanglements with ABC. Then, in a season packed with edgy new spy dramas, “Undercover” was put on hiatus before the end of its first full season. It’s not expected to return.
The Liston picture finally appears set to go into production this summer with William Friedkin directing for Paramount and the Tom Cruise-Paula Wagner production company. Through his deal with Jersey, Salerno is writing an occult-themed picture tentatively titled “Revelation” for George Clooney and Warner Bros., and a thriller called “Vidocq.”
At 29, Salerno has acquired many of the trappings of Hollywood. He owns two houses, one in Beverly Hills and another outside the city. In the press, he has been linked romantically to former “General Hospital” actress Sarah Brown, a relationship he declines to discuss.
He wants to direct, an ambition he has denied until recently because everyone in Hollywood says that what they really want to do is direct. “I think it will be in the next 15 to 18 months. That’s the timeline I’ve got for myself.”
After a short pause, he added, “I tend to hit the deadlines I set for myself.”
Kevin Brass is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas.