Stranger than nonfiction

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Special to The Times

There are more ways to get started as a screenwriter than there are actual original story ideas. But having an Oscar-winning writer seek you out and persuade you to give the format a shot -- before you’d even considered it yourself -- is certainly one of the more unlikely entrees to the field. Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List,” “Awakenings”) has just hired documentary filmmaker Alexandra Pelosi (“Diary of a Political Tourist”) to write the first project from Film Rites, his new production co-venture with Mandate Pictures.

In seeking out material for Film Rites, Zaillian had been meeting with filmmakers whose work he admires -- call it Zaillian’s List -- and decided that the voice and subject matter Pelosi brought to her 2002 Bush-on-the-campaign-trail HBO travelogue, “Journeys With George,” would adapt well to a strong fictional narrative, even if she’d never typed “FADE IN” before.

“I felt like one of those kids in ‘Willy Wonka’ that got the golden ticket,” says Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “He’s giving me a chance. I could still blow it, like that kid that ate the blueberry gum. . . .”


“I told her that I’d give her all the support and encouragement that I could,” says Zaillian, who will be a producer. “And my condolences.” The idea for Film Rites was born during a conversation Zaillian had with Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal after his “All the King’s Men” remake had bombed for her at Columbia last year. Zaillian says he was “moaning about the fact that studios were making fewer and fewer dramatic films. I felt that, both for myself and others, there’s got to be another way, and that’s probably going to mean lower-budgeted films where we all bid on the success of the thing rather than take home huge paychecks initially. And she agreed.”

So Pascal paired Zaillian with Mandate, which had partnered successfully with director-producer Sam Raimi (“Spider-Man”) on genre films like “The Grudge” and last weekend’s box-office winner, “30 Days of Night,” under his Ghost House Pictures banner.

“We took the Ghost House model and just stuck in the word ‘dramatic’ instead of ‘horror,’ ” Zaillian says. Kahane and Zaillian say that they plan to make two or three character-driven movies a year under Film Rites with budgets around $15 million that Sony has first option to distribute domestically. Of course, the types of movies Zaillian is drawn to as a writer -- “A Civil Action,” “The Falcon and the Snowman,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer” -- fall well outside of the reliable box-office models to which genre movies more aptly lend themselves.

And Pelosi, a former NBC producer who works in New York City, is, admittedly, an unproven talent, at least in the fictional arena. She talks about Hollywood like it’s a great zoo she visited once, speaking with the requisite combination of awe and disgust about a girls-dancing-in-cages L.A. premiere party she once attended. She’s thus far boycotted any screenwriting software (yes, she’s writing in Word) and admits that she had to look up Zaillian’s credits on IMDB when he first called to meet her (yes, she was dutifully impressed).

“This is the greatest opportunity in the world,” Pelosi says. “But I’m not quitting my day job.” Right now, that involves pulling together a nonfiction follow-up to “Friends of God: A Road Trip With Alexandra Pelosi,” her examination of evangelical Christians that aired on HBO in January. And at night, she turns to her “buddy film about a journalist on the road with a candidate” (or what Mandate President Nathan Kahane refers to as “ ‘The Candidate’ meets ‘Devil Wears Prada’ ”) with Zaillian providing detailed feedback as needed. “It’s a different thing sitting down with producers who are also writers,” says Zaillian, who has been the industry’s first-choice script surgeon for 15 years and most recently wrote the screenplay for “American Gangster,” opening Nov. 2. “It’s a lot more helpful than with a studio exec or a nonwriting producer. Obviously, they do what they do and they’re essential. But from a script standpoint, often it’s not that much help. So, we’ll see if this works.”

‘A contentious relationship’

“What Happens Next” is the title of the just-published history of American screenwriting written by Oscar-winning writer Marc Norman (“Shakespeare in Love”). But it may as well be Hollywood’s official slogan, as Norman and the rest of his Writers Guild of America, West negotiating committee colleagues try to hammer out a new contract with their employers before the current agreement’s expiration one week from today.


The two parties met again Monday for their 11th face-to-face dialogue, which apparently was characterized by a more realistic back and forth, but they still have a lot of distance to close.

Woven through the enlightening anecdotes and impassioned analysis of Norman’s book is a history of the writers’ struggle with their employers from the beginning of the 20th century, a cyclic chronology that underlines one essential truism relevant to the writers’ current impasse, according to Norman.

“What the book brings out is that screenwriters have never gotten anything without fighting for it, that it’s always been a contentious relationship,” Norman says. “Nobody’s ever given them a damn thing. To get residuals they had to fight, to get the pension fund they had to fight, to get their health benefits they had to fight. And it just looks like history redux here.”

Cobain biopic is nirvana for writer

Smells like David Benioff. The “Troy” screenwriter has just been hired by Universal Pictures to pen a feature film about the life, music and death of Nirvana singer-songwriter Kurt Cobain. Benioff (“The Kite Runner”) will draw at least partially from “Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain,” Charles R. Cross’ exhaustive 2001 book about the tortured icon.

Universal recently purchased the life rights of both Cobain and his widow, Courtney Love, who had already optioned the rights to the Cross biography back in January. She will be an executive producer on the film. Cross, who has also written or co-written biographies of Bruce Springsteen and Jimi Hendrix, conducted more than 400 interviews for the book and dissected lyrics, suicide notes and diaries (which Love made available to him). In the process, he dispelled many of the Cobain myths and mysteries, including the personal story that inspired Nirvana’s grunge anthem, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (it involves sex, graffiti and deodorant).

Musician biopics such as “Sid & Nancy,” “The Doors,” “8 Mile” and “Backbeat” always meet with deeply polarized response, both from critics and die-hard fans. Of course, they’ve also lately been Oscar bait (“Ray,” “Walk the Line”).


But the fanatical eulogizing of Cobain’s generational influence slipped into hagiography pretty much the moment he shot himself in his Seattle home in 1994. OK, OK, so I posted a line from a Neruda poem -- “Perhaps heaven will be, for suicides, an invisible star?” -- in the D.C. bookstore where I worked. What can I say? I was 22 and making love to my melancholy.

So any cinematic treatment of the Cobain legacy that deals truthfully with some of his massive contradictions will surely be controversial (as his suicide has somehow turned out to be). It should be interesting to see whether Love and former bandmates Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic return to their -- to borrow one of Cobain’s most sublime song titles -- “territorial pissings” over the storytelling and music rights.

Two years ago, writer-director Gus Van Sant made “Last Days,” which plays out an imagined version of Cobain’s drug- addicted endgame with the odd disclaimer that it is, in fact, “in part, fictional.” Benioff’s approach should veer more toward authenticity, as he plans to seek answers from Cobain’s old friends in Aberdeen and Seattle.

“You’re never going to make every fan happy with every decision,” Benioff says via e-mail. “. . . That said, we need to get the details and the spirit right, or else they’re right to blast us.”

Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to