10 Screenwriters to Watch

“Witty, dry, understated comedy is a rarity,” says producer Ron Yerxa. “It’s just really hard to pull off.” And it’s exactly this kind of writing that drew Yerxa and his Bona Fide Prods. partner Albert Berger to Bob Nelson’s work. “Nelson’s a true craftsman,” Yerxa continues. “He’s got all the comedic qualities of someone like Jim Jarmusch without the obscurity.”

For Nelson, much of that craft was honed during the decade he spent working on Seattle-based sketch comedy show “Almost Live!” It was there that he turned his early childhood love of Bob Newhart, Woody Allen and Billy Wilder into his own brand of humor. “Wilder really impressed me,” says Nelson. “Both he and Hitchcock found a way to make very, very good films with a broad appeal.”

It was also through “Almost Live!” that he met Bill Nye (who developed his Science Guy persona for that show). Through a roundabout series of steps, it was Nye who helped launch the scribe’s bigscreen career. He got Nelson’s spec “Nebraska,” about a son who takes a roadtrip with his sweepstakes-obsessed alcoholic father, to Yerxa. “I still have relatives in Nebraska, so it’s the most personal of my scripts,” Nelson notes.

Nebraska native Alexander Payne has signed on to direct the project. Nelson, who can’t believe his luck, admits he’s still saving a recorded message on his answering machine from Payne, “So I have something to laugh about, if all of this blows up in my face.”

Meanwhile, Dean Parisot is set to direct another Nelson script, “A Bill From My Father,” which is based on a “This American Life” segment by Bernard Cooper about a son who receives a tab from his father for the cost of his upbringing.

And Nelson has also met with Steven Spielberg about producing an English-language remake that Nelson wrote of Patrice LeConte’s Gallic pic “Intimate Strangers.” “The meeting was pretty surreal,” he marvels. “Spielberg was great and down-to-earth.”

Currently, he’s at work on another spec script, this one about lost love, and is still trying “find a way to work in TV, which was my original goal.”

VITAL STATS

Age: 49

Birthplace: Yankton, South Dakota

Inspired by: “Sketch comedy with lots of character-driven subtlety,” says Nelson, “and films like ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘You Can Count on Me.’ “

Favorite unmade script: “Yearbook,” about a guy who returns to his hometown at age 30 and gets a second chance with the girl of his childhood dreams.

Reps: Agents, Todd Hoffman and Sophy Holodnik (Broder); attorney Bob Myman (Myman, Abell, Fineman, Fox, Greenspan and Light)

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