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How the other side works

Special to The Times

Screenwriters with law degrees aren’t as rare as you’d think. But Matt Lopez may be the only one who once made a living using his to make sure screenwriters got as little as possible in their contracts.

Before his writing career took off at Disney, the 36-year-old Lopez spent three years as a business affairs lawyer on live-action features for DreamWorks, where he negotiated the studio side of deals for the writing services of scribes such as John Logan (“Gladiator”) and Jeff Nathanson (“Catch Me If You Can”). But like a bouncer who really just wants to ditch the velvet rope, go inside and dance, Lopez was constantly nurturing his desire to flip to the creative side.

“I was a lawyer for a studio, but my sympathies really were in line with the artists,” says Lopez, who also brokered actor and director deals while he surreptitiously worked on his own screenplays. “I would be arguing for the studio why an artist couldn’t have something, and I would be hearing the argument from the lawyer or agent on the other side. And in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, he’s the writer, he should get that, he made the whole thing up. . . . ' But you have to be the voice of ‘No.’ ”

The Tampa, Fla., native graduated from New York University law school in 1996 and practiced corporate law for a few years before moving to DreamWorks. Eventually, Lopez negotiated a scaled-back work schedule that allowed him two days a week off to write. Soon enough, he was passing a screenplay called “Amazing Heroes” to development executive Adam Goodman (now head of production at DreamWorks), who called and said, “I don’t think you’re going to be a lawyer much longer,” Lopez recalls.

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That script (which was later renamed and disappeared into development) brought Lopez to the attention of Disney in 2003, where he was recruited for its writer-in-residence feature program. He spent several years there punching up Mouse House scripts like the animated, talking-animal movie “The Wild” before moving out on his own once his work began getting traction.

“Bedtime Stories,” which Lopez wrote while in the Disney program, began shooting Monday with Adam Sandler as a father whose nighttime tales start coming to life. And his draft version of the long-gestating revamp of “Escape to Witch Mountain” (this time titled “Race to Witch Mountain” and starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) starts shooting at the end of March. Post-strike, Lopez walked back into two other Disney projects, a pitch he sold right before it began called “My Samurai” and a live-action re-imagining of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” that he’s rewriting for producer-star Nicolas Cage.

Now that his career is taking off, that look behind the studio curtain has had its advantages.

“It gave me a really good understanding of the workings of a studio and the business as a whole,” says Lopez, who admits that he fields questions from peers who know about his background. “I read a contract, and I know where all the bodies are buried. That does not always translate into being able to get any changes to a form that essentially has remained unchanged for 30 years.”

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That experience also crystallized for him the humorous but exasperating disparities in the status accorded different parts of the talent community -- and underlined his incentive to move on.

“Writer deals vary very little from one to the next,” Lopez says. “They are remarkably uniform as opposed to, say, an actor deal, where, really, every actor comes with his own perk list and his own approval rights. You’d spend an hour getting screamed at by an agent because a star isn’t happy with what video game system they’ve got in their trailer. And there comes a point where you’re like, ‘I can’t believe I went to law school for this.’ ”

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She’s tender under the bravura

Even with its air of inevitability, Diablo Cody’s summons to the Oscar stage Sunday night to accept her original screenplay award still somehow prompted wonder and amazement.

“What is happening?” she said after Harrison Ford, of all people, handed her the heavy gold statuette.

By now, we all know Cody’s story. And she knows that we know it. She’s been an active and willing partner in publicizing it herself by publishing a book and a blog with all the explicit details.

But a grueling internal conflict probably has been dogging her for the last few months: The thing that made her a unique “story” was threatening to cast a shadow all the way to her eventual obituary as every mention of her or her work (including Jon Stewart’s monologue) made mention of her past as a stripper and sex worker (I’ve done so myself).

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It’s clear that she’d love for everyone to drop the back story and focus on her talent as a writer -- winning an Oscar will go a long way toward accomplishing that. (Cody had also picked up the Spirit award for best first screenplay the day before; asked after her profane acceptance speech whether she would also drop the F-bomb at the Oscars, she said, “Hell, no! No, I’m gonna go all classy-like to the Oscars -- I’m gonna wash under my arms.”)

But her appearance on Sunday signaled that this is something she continues to struggle with herself. The vulnerability she showed in her acceptance speech was a peek at the authentic, bruised heart beneath all the glibness and hip wit -- the same emotionally complex gift she bestowed on her creation Juno, both the character and the movie.

“I don’t know what kind of girl I am,” is how Cody had Juno express her struggle to absorb the self-identifying meaning in her choices. It’s hard not to see the self-reflective angst in that line, and Cody’s exposure of it is why the film resonates with so many people.

Cody’s body language as she approached and left the stage, the kudos she immediately gave to her fellow writers and nominees -- it was easy to empathize with how out of place she must have felt, and how much she still must feel like the outsider Midwestern music geek, no matter how deserving of the honor she is.

It was apparent that, in a way similar to outsider compatriots Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who won the original song Oscar for “Falling Slowly,” Cody was astonished by recognition of her creative achievement on such a ludicrous scale. And being accepted in this way triggered a moving moment of openness as she closed her speech.

“Most of all, I want to thank my family for loving me exactly the way I am,” Cody said, as she walked away from the microphone to stifle her crying.

That sentiment had nothing to do with screenwriting or cinema and everything to do with a complicated human being trying to accept her own jagged story line. You’d have to be Anton Chigurh not to feel that in your heart.

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


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