A big turnaround


It was the most inauspicious of beginnings. His father was killed by a girlfriend two months before he was born. His mother left him in foster care when she got out of prison. Physical and sexual abuse were daily realities, hope seemingly futile and far-fetched. But, in the most Hollywood of endings, Antwone Fisher is now a household name.

An autobiographical screenplay, begun while he was a security guard on the Sony lot, found its way to Denzel Washington, who not only co-starred as his Navy therapist, but also made “Antwone Fisher” his directorial debut. Now earning a living as a screenwriter -- with a family of his own -- the soft-spoken 43-year-old reflects on his journey.

No college, no film school. What made you think you could write your own movie?

Part of it was the Navy, which not only gave me a place to “be,” for the first time, but is all about moving up, breaking rank. I knew I couldn’t act, direct or produce. But anyone who can afford paper and pencil can write, I figured. I later discovered that writing is reserved for “professionals” -- all the studios saw was my guard’s uniform. Still, I jotted things down on paper towels from the Sony restroom and started attending a free screenwriting course at South-Central’s AME church. The teacher hooked me up with producer Todd Black, his roommate at USC Film School. Fox turned the story down when they heard l was part of the package. “Don’t waste your bullets going from studio to studio,” Todd said. “Focus on writing the script.”


You spent years coming to terms with your past. Was it tough, dredging it up -- then letting go?

It was very anxiety-producing. I felt like I’d be exposed, totally out of control. Fortunately, I had Todd, his partner Randa Haines (“Children of a Lesser God”) and Denzel Washington as professors, determined to do right by me. It was the University of Antwone Fisher, pretty heavy-duty. Since then, I’ve written “Finding Fish,” which was on the New York Times bestseller list, and sold a handful of scripts -- with no help from an agent.

You walked away from $50,000 that Fox offered you for the rights to your story. Did you lose sleep over that?

I never had that much money before, so it didn’t mean anything. If they said $5,000, it might have been different. When we gave the script back to Fox in ‘94, the studio paid me $250,000 for it. I saw my name in the trades: “Hard Life Can’t Hold Back Fish.” I told the woman who kept me in the orphanage that someday she’d read about me. One of my social workers came to the set. “What a way to come back,” he said.

What was your mother’s response to the movie?

My mother is still a stranger to me. There’s a lot of empty space on the phone. I didn’t invite her to the premiere because it would have been in poor taste. She did tell me that she was proud of me because I’d learned to work the system. From her point of view, it’s all a game -- and any time you can get one up, do it, she says. That’s where she comes from. She doesn’t mean any harm. And shy Antwone grew up to be a screenwriter and told the world about his life.

-- Elaine Dutka