A Screenwriter Shoots His Own Unproduced Scripts, With a Gun
by SHARON WAXMAN
From THE NEW YORK TIMES
INGLEWOOD, Calif., Sept. 2 - In the dim light of a shooting range, a figure clad in black baggy trousers and a black T-shirt is carefully loading a .45-caliber pistol. He adjusts his glasses, plants his feet and aims straight ahead.
Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Pow! Five ear-splitting cracks ring through the cavern, and a flurry of paper - like tiny white feathers - wafts to the floor.
"That's 'Ivory Joe,' " says the screenwriter Tom Benedek, who has just pumped bullets into one of his 22 unproduced scripts. "It's a rewrite of an adaptation I did after 'Free Willy' for Lauren Shuler Donner," he adds, referring to a well-known producer. "A romantic comedy-drama."
Many a Hollywood screenwriter has bemoaned the brutal Darwinism of the movie business, has felt the dull pain of too many pages and too many years of orphaned work unproduced and unrecognized. Few, however, have found the path of catharsis and creativity discovered by Mr. Benedek.
After 20-plus years of a middling career as a Hollywood screenwriter, Mr. Benedek, 56 - the brother of Peter Benedek, a partner in the United Talent Agency - is forging a new path in the field of fine arts, using the raw material of his past failures for a canvas. Having shot the "Ivory Joe" script, which he wrote in 1992, Mr. Benedek will make it into a bronze sculpture, or take photographs with a special camera for striking jumbo prints. He will show these and other pieces this month in an exhibition at the Frank Pictures gallery in Santa Monica titled "Shot by the Writer - Works on Paper: 1982-2004."
In an era of self-referential entertainments like "Entourage" and "Fat Actress," it all seems somehow appropriate. With his shuffling gait, hangdog air and dark-rimmed glasses, Mr. Benedek might be the contemporary answer to the Michael Douglas character in the 1993 vigilante drama "Falling Down." In that film, Mr. Douglas was an otherwise peaceable Everyman who, after being fired from his white-collar job and suffering other indignities, takes control of his life by shooting his way across Los Angeles.
In the Hollywood hierarchy, the screenwriter is Everyman, an undervalued cog - albeit a well-paid one - in the whirring entertainment machine. Mr. Benedek's move to take control of his own work sounds like a dark fantasy for many of the movie world's ink-stained wretches.
But he prefers to call it closure rather than catharsis. "Sometimes it's fun," he said, as the harsh smell of gunpowder still lingered. "Sometimes it's sad. When I look at the exit wounds, and the paper and the words exploded by the bullets as I photograph them, it feels like I'm taking the words back."
Mr. Benedek said the project started when he realized he had run out of storage space in his garage, which was filled with 20 years of script projects, both produced and unmade. Among those that did become films were "Cocoon," "Free Willy" (for which he did not receive a credit) and "The Adventures of Pinocchio."
But there were nearly two dozen other completed scripts that never got a green light: An adaptation for Sydney Pollack about mental health. A drama about the Israeli spy Elie Cohen for Martin Scorsese. A comedy about a Soviet collective for the producer Ray Stark. There were stacks of boxes filled with drafts and notes, movies "that remain on paper and nowhere else," Mr. Benedek recalled.
Before throwing out some of this paperwork, he said, he felt he needed to "memorialize" the work. "Mentally, I was as encumbered as my garage."
Initially, he considered chopping the scripts into small cubes with a table saw and filming the process. Then he had a vision of one of his scripts, riddled with bullets, bronzed.
Somehow, that image stuck. He hired a shooting coach and the project grew into a serious endeavor, step by step. "It started as 'I'm just going to do one for myself.' I'd do it, and have it bronzed like a baby shoe," he said.
But it turned out to be complicated to make a bronze sculpture out of paper, and every two or three weeks Mr. Benedek would explore another step to make it work. He tracked down a foundry that could perform an age-old process, eventually using a wax mold and a rubberlike cast as preludes to pouring the bronze. And he found that the objects he was creating - the shot-up scripts - were visually intricate and often quite beautiful. A local gallery owner suggested he photograph them.
"It just snowballed," Mr. Benedek explained.
The artistic experience connected to a long-neglected interest in photography. Born and raised in Great Neck, N.Y., Mr. Benedek pursued fine-art photography as an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He entered the movie business because he wanted to be a cinematographer. But his first break in the industry, in the 1970's, came from writing a screenplay, so he took that road instead.
It has turned out to be a path of only intermittent satisfaction. But the photographs and sculptures - those have turned out to be exciting, and deeply satisfying. The poster-size prints are exotic swirls of torn paper and random words like "love" and "time." The 30-pound bronze sculptures, pockmarked with holes, have their titles etched in gold letters: "Viagra Falls," a comedy written for the production company Working Title in 2001; "Spells," a 1986 rewrite of a horror film.
After two more rounds, Mr. Benedek reels in the script, now puckered and swollen by the force of the bullets. He flips it over to shoot the other side. "I feel like I'm creating something new from something old," he says, refilling the clip.
But is he still a screenwriter? Mr. Benedek hesitates before answering, as if weighing how prospective employers will perceive his response. Finally, he answers glumly: "Yeah. I just got a call to go to a meeting."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
ADDITIONAL WORKS BY TOM BENEDEK
HONEY WE ALL