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Tuesday, April 27, 2004
Loving the Hollywood process

By Rob Ryder
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The best athletes have a mean streak, a killer instinct.

Jim Brown. Roger Clemens. Marion Jones. Oscar De La Hoya. Luc Robitaille.

Isiah Thomas

1989 NBA Finals
Isiah may kiss you before the game, but when the ball is tipped he's out for blood.
I talked to Isiah a while back about the 1989 NBA Finals when they swept the Lakers 4-0.

"How'd you guys pull that off?"

"We knocked them down, put a foot on their neck and stuck a knife in their heart. Four straight games," he said and smiled that choirboy smile of his. "They never knew what hit them."

This is that same smile that New York Knicks fans will soon grow to detest.

How do I know? I've got friends in the Continental Basketball Association which Isiah single-handedly destroyed a few years ago. Greed and hubris. Killer instinct run amok.

But that attitude will serve you well in Hollywood. Out here, the competition is fierce. Every year film schools turn out thousands and thousands of ambitious young filmmakers.

Now let's be real, these people don't head for Des Moines upon graduation.

(Although they'll probably end up there. Producing commercials for the local merchants: "Ready, Mr. Whipple? And action!")

No, these young hotshot auteurs get out of film school and head straight for Hollywood. Throwing their scripts against the wall just like the rest of us.

And some of them are sticking.

Patty Jenkins, the young woman who wrote and directed "Monster" with Charlize Theron, came right out of AFI (The American Film Institute) and straight to the Academy Awards. My wildman screenwriter friend George taught her there. "She had one movie that she was determined to get made," says George. "She grabbed this thing and wouldn't let go. She broke through to Charlize Theron, found the financing and pulled it off."

It's an interesting strategy. Probably the smartest one to follow.

Single-minded mania.

There's a danger to having too many watches in that overcoat you're throwing open.

Charlize Theron
You want a sign that you were right about your movie? How does an Academy Award sound?
Go into a meeting, my best advice is to say, "Here's a movie that I am absolutely determined to get made."

If you start by giving executives choices, you're hurting your own cause.

Larry Gordon is one of the most seasoned movie producers in the business. He produced "The Warriors", the first studio movie I worked on. I recently saw an interview where he said, "At the end of the day it's not who you are or who you know. It's the script. It's the story."

Talk like that makes screenwriters take heart. But still, you've got to fight through the thousands of others who know that they, not you, have written the next hot screenplay.

It's like sports. When I tried out for the freshman basketball team at Princeton (no scholarships, remember) there must have been 50 guys there. Our young coach, Artie Hyland, asked how many of us had been captains of our high school teams. At least 25 of us raised our hands.

We all looked at each other, some thinking, "I was the captain of my high school varsity and there is a distinct statistical disadvantage to me becoming even the 12th man on an Ivy League freshman team."

While the rest of us, the actual dozen who made the team, were looking over the group thinking, "Screw these wimps."

It's like that. "I'm gonna make it, and you're not."

And know this, if you decide to give Hollywood a shot, you've got to deal with guys like Peter Bellwood.

Peter's a silver-haired Brit who came up through improvisational theater ("Beyond the Fringe," "The Establishment"). He had a great run in London and New York then wrote "Highlander" and found his way west to plunge into the life of a Hollywood screenwriter.

For a while there, Peter had the questionable fortune of being married to the television star, Pamela Bellwood.

For those of you under 16, Pamela Bellwood was the Pamela Anderson of the '80s only way more (fill in the blank).

Peter and I were working on a script together. One day, we ran into a wife-husband writing team in a coffee shop. They'd recently had a script produced by HBO and we offered the customary congratulations. They were gracious. They asked how I was doing and I said fine. They asked how Peter was doing, and he answered (in his grandest English accent).

"Fine as well. But you must understand that for me to be truly happy, not only must I succeed, but you two must fail."

We all laughed. But the lucky couple looked a little skittish as we walked away.

Get it? Sports and Hollywood. Sports -- for every winner, there's a loser. Hollywood -- for every winner, a thousand losers.

A thousand scripts in the crapper.

A thousand actors on the bus back to Atlanta.

Killer instinct.

I'm looking for a director for my college basketball movie, "94 Feet." A director with credibility who hasn't hit the big time yet (meaning he's still approachable). Plus a guy who really understands hoops and has some real maverick in him. Paul Johansson fits the bill. He's got the confidence, the swagger of a smart jock.

We ran together at the Hollywood Y. He's got some size and he's strong and quick. He played on the Canadian National Team and he's kept his game sharp. He's relentless. Hard to guard. Hard to beat.

Paul Johansson
Will Paul sign on to "94 Feet" when he switches to the other side of the camera? Stay stuned.
He's been acting for years, "Lonesome Dove," "Beverly Hills, 90210" and most recently, as the nasty father on the WB's "One Tree Hill."

But directing is his new game, and his first effort "The Incredible Mrs. Ritchie" just landed five Daytime Emmy nominations.

We're sitting at Jerry's Deli on Beverly Boulevard, wolfing down pastrami sandwiches, talking through the challenge of making a movie about a single game. A movie that shows each team's point of view (POV in script language). I relate what Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham" "White Men Can't Jump") says again and again, "Show the audience the game they can't see from the stands. Show it from the inside."

When you're in a game and you're exhausted and the score is close and the crowd is screaming, it can get very weird out there.

Time can speed up or slow down. The rim can look as big as the ocean or as small as a sand dab.

How do you show what it's like when you're guarding their best shooter and he's quick and moving without the ball and you're fighting your way through staggered screens?

Johansson talks about putting a hand-held camera right on the floor. You make the cameraman the defender. You put the audience right inside the action.

We riff on other techniques. The use of light, of sound. How sometimes during a game a screaming crowd can grow abstract. How you can bleed out the image, warp the volume.

Moments like this -- sitting with a director, sharing ideas, getting excited -- is Hollywood at its best.

I don't know if Johansson will end up being the director. But I am absolutely determined to get this movie made.

And determined to enjoy the process along the way.

There's this Bulgarian artist Christo who's famous for creating huge environmental pieces like "Running Fence" and "The Curtain at Rifle Gap." He wraps buildings and landscapes with miles of colorful fabric. It's great stuff. But to get it done, he and his team have to deal with ranchers and environmentalists, school boards and zoning regulators. It's one hassle after another.

Someone asked him, "Don't you wish you were simply free to make your art? To not have to go through all this difficulty?"

Christo's answer, "No, no. The difficulty is the art. The process is the art."

The process.

The process of work. The process of life.

A sudden shout from my wife. Our six-year-old has somehow lost a stick of butter. That's a first. That's my process for the next 30 minutes as we turn the house upside down.

Sadly, this process of work and life is one that more and more young Americans will never have the chance to experience.

Last week a former football player was killed overseas while serving his country. He was caught in a firefight while coming to the aid of his sergeant.

He was recently married and his young widow just learned she is pregnant. This brave football player hailed from West Virginia and his obituary appeared in the Wheeling News Register.

And no where else.

He was Lance Corporal Michael J. Smith Jr.



Rob Ryder played basketball at Princeton and works in Hollywood as a screenwriter and sports advisor. He can be reached at