Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Tuesday, January 17, 2006
Steve on writing movies
The New York Times
January 15, 2006 Sunday
Late Edition - Final
Section 2A; Column 3; Arts and Leisure Desk; THE OSCARS; Pg. 10
For Those Who've Tired of Glory and Riches
By ROSS JOHNSON
IF the current awards season produces a Cinderella story, it may have less to do with Ron Howard's still-slugging ''Cinderella Man'' than with Dan Futterman.
Mr. Futterman had never written a screenplay before he optioned a book by Gerald Clarke about Truman Capote, the writer and bon vivant. By trade, Mr. Futterman was an actor, best known to television audiences as Amy's brother in the CBS series ''Judging Amy'' or through appearances on WB's ''Related.''
Yet Mr. Futterman's screenplay for ''Capote,'' an intricate character study that stars his friend Philip Seymour Hoffman, has already won a couple of critics' awards and is clearly in the Oscar race.
While Mr. Futterman might seem to have come from nowhere to a favored position in the scramble for writing prizes, he is hardly alone as an actor taking control of the writer's craft.
This year's field is peppered with writers who happen to hold down day jobs as performers -- some of them as seasoned as Woody Allen, with ''Match Point,'' and Steve Martin, with ''Shopgirl''; others as surprising as Mr. Futterman or the actor Grant Heslov, who joined George Clooney in writing the script for ''Good Night, and Good Luck.''
In the long view, actors who write can lay claim to a tradition dating at least to Shakespeare, and they are a perpetual favorite of academy voters. Mr. Allen, for instance, has been nominated for 13 Oscars as a writer and has won twice, for ''Annie Hall'' and ''Hannah and Her Sisters.'' The actress Nia Vardalos was nominated for ''My Big Fat Greek Wedding,'' as was Sylvester Stallone for ''Rocky''; Billy Bob Thornton won the Oscar for adapted screenplay for ''Sling Blade.''
Particularly charming, of course, is the thought of a struggling actor writing his or her way to stardom from a Hollywood or New York tenement apartment.
Witness the oft-told tale of Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, who wrote the script for ''Good Will Hunting'' and sold it on the condition that they play the lead parts. Mr. Damon and Mr. Affleck won an original-screenplay Oscar in 1998, and, like Mr. Stallone and Mr. Thornton before them, almost immediately disappeared from the screenwriting business into pop culture stardom.
What makes this year's contenders unusual is that their work is not full of monologues -- often the trademark of actor-written scripts, as with ''The Apostle,'' which got Robert Duvall an acting nomination, though no writing nod, in 1998.
And with the exception of Mr. Martin, the actors who wrote the screenplays drawing attention this year don't even appear in the films.
Mr. Futterman, for instance, felt that Mr. Hoffman was the perfect choice to play Capote during the years the author researched and wrote ''In Cold Blood.''
Mr. Futterman, 38, said his years as an actor helped him immeasurably when he finally took up the pen. ''I was in touch with what would be fun to play about Capote,'' he said. ''There's something inherently dramatic when someone is manipulative and self-serving, and I just knew that Phil Hoffman could bring a clarity to Capote.''
Mr. Futterman said that he had no illusions about the comparatively modest money to be made in Hollywood as a character actor, and that he was looking forward to any artistic and financial opportunities that come with being a sought-after Hollywood writer.
By contrast, Mr. Martin, who adapted ''Shopgirl'' from his 2000 novella and previously wrote the screenplays for films like ''Roxanne'' and ''L.A. Story,'' will not be abandoning on-screen stardom any time soon -- though he regards writing as a primary pursuit.
''One of my first jobs in Hollywood was as a staff writer on 'The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour,' '' Mr. Martin said in a recent interview. ''It's all part of the same process for me, and I'm always amazed that a nonactor can write so well for an actor.''
As he explained it: ''Actors need great lines, but actors also know that in film acting, a look or an attitude can sometimes take the place of a line. And actors know that sometimes all an audience wants is a simple moment of truth, and that truth can move the story along as well as any plot point.''
There is often a purity about the filmmaking process when actors have written the script, said Todd Garner, a former production president at Disney Studios and Revolution Studios and an executive producer of the upcoming ''Little Man,'' which was directed and co-written by the actor Keenen Ivory Wayans.
''If an actor gives you a script that he wrote for himself, you're either going to make that script with that actor or you're not,'' Mr. Garner said. ''You're not going to waste a lot of time developing the story with other writers, and that's often a good thing.''
Mr. Allen, who is being promoted by some critics as a favorite in the Oscar race for original screenplay for ''Match Point,'' declined, through a representative, to be interviewed. But when he spoke to a ''Match Point'' screening audience at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, Calif., last month, he discussed how he was helped as a writer by understanding the importance of casting the right actor.
Mr. Allen noted the predicament of his film's tortured lead character, played by the Irish actor Jonathan Rhys-Meyers. ''Jonathan is an actor who turns going to the corner drugstore into a Eugene O'Neill moment,'' Mr. Allen said. ''You can't write that.''
FOR Mr. Heslov, the co-writer of ''Good Night, and Good Luck,'' an opportunity to audition for a part in a Woody Allen movie 10 years ago led to a career change; he wrote and directed ''Waiting for Woody,'' a short film about the audition experience.
''I realized that the rest of my life could be spent scraping around for bit parts,'' said Mr. Heslov, who plays the CBS newsman Don Hewitt in ''Good Night.'' ''Or I thought I could try to create stuff that I had some control over. Just trying to get that control can be an empowering experience.''
Mr. Heslov and his co-writer, George Clooney, define the two ends of the actors-who-write spectrum. Mr. Clooney is a matinee idol who put the ''Good Night'' screenplay in motion because of a long-held interest in the life of Edward R. Murrow. Mr. Heslov, who first met Mr. Clooney 23 years ago in an acting class, described himself as a longstanding member of a virtual floating tribe of character actors pounding out scripts.
''You go onto any set in Hollywood, and there's a character actor writing a script in between setups,'' said Mr. Heslov, who is now developing an HBO project with Mr. Clooney's company, Section Eight. ''And some of those actors eventually get a lot more money and success writing, and they dump acting. But I don't think anyone ever really loses the acting bug.''
One of those who hasn't lost the bug is Mr. Futterman, who has found that his growing renown as the writer of ''Capote'' has created a pleasant and supportive stir on the set of ''Related.'' Still, he said, it has also had unforeseen effects on his work as an actor.
''You need tunnel vision to act,'' Mr. Futterman said, laughing. ''Now I find myself reading the whole script and looking at things besides my part.''
''It's just a disaster,'' he added, ''because I can't put the blinders on and worry just about what my character wants.''