He's giving writers their space

Times Staff Writer

Walk into the Office and you feel as though you've wandered into a Brentwood day spa. And in a sense you have, but a day spa for writers. Writers who live in Brentwood or the Palisades or Santa Monica, writers with studio deals, perhaps, and offices at home or on the lot but who nevertheless still find themselves needing that elusive "room of one's own," as Virginia Woolf, in a somewhat different context, put it.

It was at the Office, says Aleks Horvat, the screenwriter-cum-entrepreneur who opened the place about two months ago, that Brooke Shields wrote the first words of her forthcoming book on postpartum depression. Other "charter members," as they're called, are Shields' TV-writer husband Chris Henchy, Joss Whedon (creator of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer") and screenwriters Blake Herron ("The Bourne Identity") and Jim Uhls ("Fight Club").

Hemingway wrote in Parisian cafes because he had no heat in his apartment, or food. The Paris cafe here has been transmuted into a quiet space done in tasteful earth tones, Enya playing softly on the iPod. The Office is on 26th Street between San Vicente and Montana -- a busy commercial stretch for Westside nannies, stay-at-home mothers and the SUVs that get them to the dry cleaners, the hair salon, to yoga.

Only in Hollywood, you could say, but Horvat would probably just smile and say he's feeding a need. His business venture, indeed, speaks to two very local obsessions: Hollywood screenwriter glory and proximity to the glorious. Also, the notion that creative inspiration is somehow embedded in where you work, how you work, who you're sitting next to when you work.

In a sense, the Office is a new Schwab's Pharmacy, only instead of a lunch counter the fantasy involves a T1 line and Aeron chairs by Herman Miller, and the prospect that you'll be writing your sitcom spec while sitting next to J.J. Abrams, creator of "Felicity" and "Alias."

"What's the golden dream here? To sell the million-dollar screenplay," Horvat said last week, sitting at a patio table in back of the Office.

Inside, business was slow, but Horvat, looking like a screenwriter (khakis, Nike Presto running shoes) seemed not to be worried. The Office could catch on, given time -- not just with film and TV people but with students and other professionals -- and that would create the need for more Offices: in Hollywood, in the Valley.

As conceived in Brentwood, the Office is a big, open room that has the feel of a lounge in an Ian Schrager hotel. There are 24 workstations available for rent, at $5 an hour (with a two-hour minimum) or $25 a day, or $496 a month, with discounts for students and Writers Guild of America members.

Your five bucks an hour buys a workspace, free wireless access to the Internet on your laptop (or Wi-Fi) and all the cappuccinos you can drink. You may have to feed the meter (during the day there are only a handful of parking spaces in back). But once inside, oh, the sanctuary: Bose noise reduction headphones are available, and there is also a reference library (its one shelf includes the trades, the Beverly Hills Yellow Pages and the book "10,000 Jokes, Toasts and Roasts," as well as such screenwriter necessities as the Visual Dictionary and the book "The Way Things Work").

You are asked to turn your cellphone to vibrate. On one of the bamboo-papered walls are the words "It was Written Here." Underneath this sign will go the names of the movies and TV series and books created at the Office. Thus far, the wall is blank.

Horvat, 46, is a Brentwood screenwriter himself (he wrote and directed "Sweethearts," a 1996 movie starring Janeane Garofalo). But like the customers he is hoping to lure, Horvat has yet to sell his million-dollar screenplay. Instead, he has made his money selling the dream to other dreamers.

In his 20s, Horvat said, he had ideas for screenplays but didn't want to write them. He was working as a production assistant on the Universal lot, which meant he could solicit help from a Universal address. So he took out ads in the UCLA and USC campus newspapers, looking for young, cheap collaborators who would write up his ideas in script form. One of these collaborations eventually produced "Campus Man," a 1987 comedy on which Horvat earned "story by" credit.

But the bigger score would come later, when Horvat assembled something called the Hollywood Creative Directory. It promised a Yellow Pages-like compendium of phone numbers, from studio heads to production offices -- the phone numbers and addresses of the initiated made available to those outside the gates. As Horvat conceded, his directory was often out of date, given the churn rate in the entertainment business. But the idea, anyway, took hold; in 1996, The Times reported, the Hollywood Creative Directory listed almost 1,650 companies and 6,000 executives. Others clamored to get a listing. In 2000, Horvat sold the directory to the Internet company Ifilm for what he said was in the "mid-seven figures."

For now, Horvat is offering the Office as an alternative to those who want to write in public but can't count on their favorite spot at the local coffeehouse to be free. Horvat is one of these people. "Sweethearts," he said, was set in a coffeehouse and written in a coffeehouse -- the old Gypsy Cafe in Westwood.

Writing at home, he has found, left him vulnerable to too many distractions -- the cleaning lady, the radio, the TV, the fridge. Plus, he found the enterprise "too lonely."

But, he was asked, isn't that kind of the point of writing?

"Says who?" he responded. "Writing is an internal exercise," but that doesn't mean you have to lock yourself in a room to get it done.

"It's not as bad as those places in West Hollywood, where people are writing and people are posing," screenwriter Marc Hyman said.

Hyman, who was working on his laptop midday last week, is sort of the prototypical Office regular: A successful 33-year-old screenwriter ("The Perfect Score," "Osmosis Jones") who has the happy problem of three different script deadlines and no oasis where he can escape the rest of his life and get the work done. In Hyman's case, this includes a pool-house office at home that his 2 1/2-year-old daughter knows how to access. He has had offices on the Fox lot and at the Writers and Artists building in Beverly Hills, but in both instances he found distractions amply available.

"The best place I've ever written is Las Vegas," Hyman said, describing a process in which he would take a break from work by going down to the casino with $200. If he lost, he said, he would go back to the room and write for another four hours.

What happened to the hard-boiled screenwriter hunkered down at his typewriter, suffering for his art, as portrayed darkly in such contemporary films as "Barton Fink" and "Adaptation"?

Or this scene, from Otto Friedrich's book of 1940s Hollywood, "City of Nets," in which the author describes how Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler collaborated on the script for "Double Indemnity":

"Chandler puffed on his pipe. Wilder went often to the bathroom, not to urinate but just to escape from Chandler. In Wilder's absences, Chandler would take a pint of bourbon from his briefcase and drink. Finally, Wilder would return to the smoke-filled office and cry out, 'For Chrissakes, Ray, open a window.' "

These are romantic constructs, sure -- more romantic than picturing Fink at the Office, staring at the bamboo walls, or Chandler in the parking lot behind Maha Yoga, sipping furtively at his bourbon.

Is this what ails the movies these days, why they've seemingly gone so soft and comfortable? Could it have something to do with mood fountains and bonsai trees?

Maybe, maybe not. "At the end of the day," Horvat pointed out, "we're just a place that rents you a table and a chair."

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