The few and the proud

Only a handful of scribes who don't also direct are getting awards shots

About 15 years ago, writer Stuart Beattie took a cab ride home from the airport in his native Sydney. He wasn’t packing a gun, or in town on a mission of death, but after his conversation with a trusting cab driver, that wild possibility occurred to him.

“By the time I got home it seemed like we’d been friends for years,” Beattie recalls. “I remember having one of those weird thoughts. ‘He doesn’t know me.’ The idea sprang from there.” It became the story behind “Collateral,” Michael Mann’s thriller about a contract killer and a cabbie starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, respectively.

This awards season, relatively few of the screenplays drawing attention were written by someone other than the director. Beattie is among the few screenwriters who either championed the script solo, or were entrusted with the task by the producers and the director. Others include John Logan for “The Aviator”; David Magee, “Finding Neverland”; and Larry Gross, “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.”

Beattie’s tale is a lesson in perseverance. He wrote the first draft of his screenplay — at that time he called it “The Last Domino” — around 1991, and rewrote it two or three times on his own. In 1998, he was waiting tables at a Century City deli and happened to see Julie Richardson, a producer friend, seated nearby.

“I hadn’t seen her for a few years, and it was one of those things where you say to yourself, ‘Do I go up to her and let her see I’m waiting tables? Or do I sneak by?’ ” he remembers. “I said, ‘What the hell.’ ”

They chatted. She mentioned she was looking for thrillers. He pitched his script. Richardson then pitched it to her producing partner, Frank Darabont. They then sold the idea to HBO, which eventually gave up on it. DreamWorks bought the project in 2000; Russell Crowe became involved, and he brought in Michael Mann. Crowe dropped out and Tom Cruise signed on.

“I’m pretty sure we had a blinking greenlight with Michael,” Beattie says. “When Tom came onboard, there was no turning back then.”

Mann also played an integral role in the development of “The Aviator,” in which Logan was involved from the beginning. “I was living in Chicago, and whenever I was in L.A. I would meet with Michael to talk about different projects,” says Logan, whose credits include “The Last Samurai” and “Gladiator.”

“One day he discussed the possibility of doing the Howard Hughes story for Leonardo DiCaprio. Without blinking I said absolutely yes.”

The process took about five years. Logan researched Hughes, developed a detailed outline and then started writing. He churned out roughly 15 drafts. In the interim, Mann dropped out because he had done “The Insider” and “Ali,” and decided he wasn’t keen on doing another fact-based picture.

Since DiCaprio was attached, he recommended Martin Scorsese, who had just worked with the actor on “Gangs of New York.” Scorsese read Logan’s script. “To put it mildly,” Logan says, “Marty was wildly enthusiastic.”

Logan says he worked closely with Scorsese and DiCaprio on the script, and was welcomed on the set to polish dialogue. He even wrote voiceovers up until a few weeks before the film was completed. “It was without a doubt the best experience I’ve had as a screenwriter.”

“Finding Neverland” is Magee’s first and only screenplay thus far. He was a playwright in a New York theater collective and a member friend, Nellie Bellflower, told him she had optioned a play by Allan Knee about “Peter Pan” author J.M. Barrie and was looking for a screenwriter to adapt it.

“I read the play that night,” Magee says. “Essentially it was a spec writing assignment. I had never written a screenplay for anyone before. She was giving me my shot. I wrote it over the course of the next five months or so.”

Magee says the path to his first screen credit was remarkably smooth. He wrote only three major drafts. Miramax acquired the project, then attached director Marc Forster, who was coming off “Monster’s Ball.”

“I don’t think at any point I felt like I was on the stereotypical Hollywood ride,” Magee relates. “I was anxious at certain points, like waiting to find out if Miramax wanted to buy it, or getting a director or actors. But I was treated with tremendous respect by everyone. After I got notes, I felt I had tremendous freedom in how I executed those notes. I felt from the beginning a very collaborative feeling with Miramax and the producers, and when Marc came on it just continued.”

Gross became involved with “We Don’t Live Here Anymore” in 1979, when he optioned short stories by Andre Dubus. Eventually, though, he lost the rights. “The script was dead,” Gross says.

Then actor-director Todd Field revived it — indirectly. After “In the Bedroom” was released to critical acclaim in 2001, it rekindled interest in Dubus. Gross was able to re-acquire the rights again to “We Don’t Live Here Anymore.” Then director John Curran assembled a top-notch cast consisting of Mark Ruffalo, Naomi Watts, Peter Krause and Laura Dern, and Gross’ 20-year-plus quest was complete.

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