What a concept! Over-the-hill Hollywood comedy writer (Robin Williams?) comes home to Chicago to start a new career. Hooks up with a Second City writing guru (Steve Martin?) who soon loses his job. They form a company to develop local talent and produce movies, but the only project they can get funded is bankrolled by a businessman who wants to get his son into film school. The terms: the film must be made by the kid, a high school senior. The hard-pressed duo accepts. The writer feeds the kid a low-budget scenario, the kid writes most of the script in a week, and they shoot with novice actors in 11 days. Then--surprise! It's hot! A major studio pays big bucks to distribute it! The kid gets a multipicture deal! The duo builds a Hollywood production house right in the heart of Chicago!
And it's a true story--right up to the surprise. The rest is still taking shape, according to Steve Zacharias, whose Hollywood writing credits include Revenge of the Nerds and episodes of All in the Family. Zacharias, a Highland Park native, spent 30 years in Los Angeles--sitting down each day to write "the stupidest thing I could think of," he says--before returning to Chicago in 1997. "I hated it there," says Zacharias. "It's like hell. They throw you out when you're 50 years old. I was a top comedy writer. You know what my last project was? A rooster that could predict the future. They were looking for writers; the agent said, 'Zacharias is your guy.' We researched it, came up with a story line, and pitched it to Disney. Charles Hirschhorn, who went to New Trier and runs a lot of Disney stuff, said, 'Even if I loved this, I wouldn't make a movie about a rooster.' Six meetings later we sold it to TriStar. I wrote the script and they loved it, but then they didn't know what to do with it, so they fired us. I went on spring vacation in Lake Tahoe and thought about it and said, 'You know what? My career's over.' I went back, sold my house, and moved."
Back in Chicago, Zacharias created a distribution company that marketed the locally produced sports show Adrenaline TV, and when that business folded he figured he'd help Second City launch a screenwriting program. Kim Clark, who headed up the writing program there, recalls picking up the phone to hear, "I'm Steve Zacharias, I'm famous, and I want to work with you." According to Clark, he was interested but Second City wasn't. The next thing he knew, they didn't want him either: he was fired one cold February day two years ago. He says he called Zacharias to tell him, and that by the time he got home Zacharias was on his doorstep, brimming with plans. Clark, who also co-owns and runs a theater in Three Oaks, Michigan, opened a writing studio--a single room in a building at Armitage and Halsted--and the two of them formed the Chicago Talent Authority. CTA is intended to skim off the cream of Clark's crop of writers and develop their projects, producing at least one film a year in Chicago and marketing scripts, actors, and anything else they can come up with, including TV game shows, in LA, where Zacharias says he knows "everyone." Clark says he's picked up about 50 students without advertising, and that several of their scripts have been optioned.
CTA held a screening of its first completed project, a feature-length film titled All Good Things, at the Gene Siskel Film Center last month. Written and directed by Francis Parker School senior David Silver, it was paid for by his father, Larry Silver, a Chicago entrepreneur. The elder Silver was looking to boost David's chances of getting into film school. But what's a vanity project to a guy who survived a prognosticating rooster? Fortunately, Zacharias says, the kid--who could have been an "idiot"--turned out to be "brilliant. I said, 'Here's the idea, you can do what you want with it. It's gotta be four kids go to a club on a night.' If he
didn't write such a great script, I would have improvised it. But his concept of this movie was so brilliant. Basically, it was to do Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with teenagers. I knew, from my 30 years of experience, there's nothing cheaper you can do than four characters. And I knew we could cast kids from Chicago." Zacharias hired Duke Hillinger, Adrenaline TV's producer, telling him, "I want 90 beautiful minutes so if the plot doesn't work, I can put a great score on it and we'll be fine." It was Hillinger's idea to shoot the movie in high-definition digital video.
Because of technical limitations at the Film Center, All Good Things showed there at a fraction of its potential resolution, but even so it was visually striking--Chicago at night, in highly saturated color. It's a cusp-of-college coming-of-age piece, with liberal doses of the old sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll: an inexperienced narrator takes a first hard look at his shallow high school buddies and is inspired to throw away his cell phone. CTA screened it in Los Angeles just before the Chicago showing, and Zacharias (who won't divulge the final budget) says a major studio official "flipped out for the movie" and is pitching it for distribution. The four local stars (one of whom, spotted by Zacharias's cousin as she boarded a bus, had never acted before) are headed to California for pilot-season auditions under CTA's auspices. And David Silver has been accepted to NYU's film school.
"People are saying I should put an ad in the Wall Street Journal: 'Give me $200,000 and the kid's got a shot at NYU or USC,'" Zacharias cracks. "I used a student project to show what we can do. Now we're off to the races."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.