Variety has put out its annual “10 Screenwriters to Watch” list. This year’s group is:
This year’s Sundance winner, “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” is Geoffrey Fletcher‘s first produced feature script (under pseudonym Damien Paul). “But the irony,” he says, “is that I feel like I’m a veteran at the same time.”As a psych major at Harvard, he made noirs and docs. And as a graduate film student at NYU, he made short “Magic Markers” that caught the attention of both John Singleton and “Precious” director Lee Daniels, who asked him to adapt the Sapphire book.
“I thought that writing was not only a good way into the industry, but probably a good way to stay there,” says Fletcher, who was working as an adjunct professor at Columbia U. and NYU when Daniels came to him.
With exactly one produced script to her credit (a TV pilot called “Sluts”), Liz Meriwether has found herself in a position the average screenwriter could only dream — or write — about: She’s got four major projects in development, one of which — female spy caper “Honey Pot” — sold for six figures to Paramount off a one-sentence pitch.”Friends With Benefits” (aka “Fuckbuddies”), Meriwether’s romantic comedy script written for Ivan Reitman‘s Montecito Picture Co., is set to star Natalie Portman.
“She has a very fresh and very original voice,” says Reitman. “I’ve been trying to find comedy voices for my entire career of making movies, and I think her words utterly represent the craziness of relationships amongst 20-year-olds today. It’s fairly unique, but also insightful.”
Most recognized for her own performance on TV’s “The Office” as the chatty, needy Kelly Kapoor, Mindy Kaling says she’s increasingly identifying herself as a writer and a performer.
“It comes from this impatience that I just wrote this and now I want to see it on its feet,” she says.
It also comes out of necessity. “Being Indian and a woman,” admits Kaling, born Vera Chokalingam, “there’s not a ton of parts that I can really go out for.”
Raised in “staunchly middle class” Southern California, Morgan never felt at home in the “world of tract houses and TCBY franchises,” she says. Rather, she prefers “commiserating with others” in Manhattan the setting for her spec script “Imogene.” Currently set up at Anonymous Content with Kristen Wiig, the zany, class-conscious romantic comedy is, Morgan admits, “more or less about me.” In the script, even the protag discovers she’s a “Playwright to Watch.”
After being rejected at her top choices of UCLA and USC film schools, Morgan says she learned all she needed to know about screenwriting from Cal State Northridge professor Eric Edson. For a few years, she spent time acting “a random departure,” she calls her roles in TV’s “Nancy Drew” and “American Dreams” though rewriting her audition sides helped cultivate her voice.
Alan Yang knows desperation. “Early last year, things were bad. I thought I might take the LSATs,” says the screenwriter, with a shudder, referring to the Law School Admission Test. “I even got on the website and was ready to register.”
Instead, Yang deftly avoided a life in law by nabbing a staff writer slot on NBC’s “Parks and Recreation.” Previously, he had written for Carson Daly‘s latenight show and consulted on “South Park.”
As the gig didn’t start for six months, he focused on a spec screenplay, “Gay Dude” — a “Superbad”-like comedy about two high school seniors on the prowl for a one-night stand — that became a favorite among executives around town.
And what a difference a hot screenplay makes. Shortly afterward, he signed on to rewrite “Boss Go Home” for Warner Bros. and his pitch for comedy “White Dad” sold to Sony.
Not unlike the ordinary-guy protagonist in many an American comedy, Phil Johnston worked for nine years as a regional TV news and weatherman in the northern Midwest. “I didn’t know a fucking thing about the weather,” he admits.After realizing his passion was “a different kind of storytelling,” Johnston applied to Columbia U.’s MFA film program and moved to New York in 2001. Through connections at the school and the success of his 22-minute thesis film “Flightless Birds,” Johnston met Eryn Brown at Industry Entertainment. “She was an early supporter and introduced me to this brave new world,” he says.
His earlier scripting efforts haven’t seen the light of day. He wrote “A Friggin’ Christmas Miracle,” for Imagine/Universal and believes it won’t be made. His first script, “Jeremy Orm Is a Pervert,” a Wisconsin-based comedy about a preacher’s kid who sells pornography and destroys his father’s career, was in pre-production for ThinkFilm, but that fell apart when the company collapsed. “It’s still absolutely something I want to do and direct myself,” he says.
Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins met as undergrads at Harvard. They went their separate ways after college and just recently reunited to write a spec script, “Book Smart.”The script is about two overachieving high school seniors who, after realizing the only thing they haven’t accomplished is having boyfriends, resolve to find ones by the prom.
It was snapped up by Fox in February; Natalie Portman‘s shingle, Handsomecharlie Films, has come aboard to produce.
“Sarah and Emily create funny, smart, unself-consciously strong female characters,” says Portman. “When I read ‘Book Smart,’ it was as though the script we always talk about wanting to find for our company suddenly materialized.”
When they began writing “The Oranges,” Ian Helfer and Jay Reiss had been friends for 15 years but had never worked together. The timing was right: “We knew each other so well by then, we were willing to go to war and knowing that was OK,” Helfer explains. “I think teams that have a strictly professional relationship have to be a little more polite.”Lack of politesse apparently worked, because “Oranges” — about a young New Jersey woman who has an affair with her parents’ best friend — not only was a favorite among Hollywood execs, it has a start date (April 6).
The scribes, both transplants from New York, also have had their separate careers. Helfer has been a sometime actor and writer for the comedy group Stella and old college roommate/helmer John Hamburg. Reiss sold his screenplay “Lonny the Great” to Warners and is writing the feature adaptation of Chris Waitt’s docu “A Complete History of My Sexual Failures.”
Don’t date Emma Forrest if you’re afraid to see yourself immortalized in her next script.”I’m from the Nora Ephron school,” she confesses. “Everything is copy. Every guy I get involved with for five minutes knows I’m going to write about him.”
She wrote “Liars (A-E)” this spring in just three days following the breakup of her yearlong relationship with actor Colin Farrell. A couple of weeks later, the script was sold to Scott Rudin and Miramax. Richard Linklater is attached to direct, and shooting is slated for fall.
“It came like a fever dream. I was afraid to stop writing because I was so afraid to lose it,” she recounts.
Most fledgling scribes find anything to keep the landlord away, churn out as many specs as possible, then hustle every industryite they can find in the hope of being taken seriously as a writer.David Leslie Johnson decided on a more old-fashioned path: He apprenticed with a master, then diligently developed his craft until the boss felt it was time to help him transition. Johnson’s patience, discipline and humble approached paid off — after years answering calls and freshening up coffee cups, he’s now a go-to scribe for high-concept studio thriller assignments.
In 1993, Johnson was fresh out of the Ohio State U. film program when he heard that a pic called “The Shawshank Redemption” was about to start shooting in his hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. He promptly moved back in with his parents and scored a job screening dailies for the film’s director, Frank Darabont. The two hit it off, and the following year, Darabont lured him out to Hollywood to be his assistant.
“My first break came from Frank, absolutely,” recalls Johnson. “For the first five years, I was constantly giving him scripts, all of which he read. “Then I (along with Brett Z. Hill) came up with a treatment based on a pulp novel series called ‘Doc Savage’ for Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Frank decided to go to bat for me. He went to Castle Rock and basically said, ‘I vouch for this guy, and if he screws it up, I promise to fix it.’ “
And here is last year’s Variety Top 10.