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Ghostwriter

A TASTE OF STARDUST: Screenwriter Mark L. Smith
By Scott Nicholson

Mark L. Smith has long been a fan of the "Hollywood ending." And though his new career as a screenwriter is far from ending, he’s got the first part of the equation already to his credit.

Smith’s movie script "The Devil’s Kiss" was recently optioned by Mel Gibson’s Icon production company. Though the setting is in the western genre, it contains elements of Shakespearean plays and touches on modern themes.
"It’s 19th Century Wyoming, and it’s about a sheriff whose town’s growing too fast, and he can just feel his life slipping away," he says. "His wife has run off with a salesman to New York City, so he’s left with his eighteen-year-old daughter who he’s raised for the last twelve years.

"The town’s changing, so he’s going to leave. As he’s waiting for his replacement, the day the guy arrives, there are a couple of grisly murders. The young replacement isn’t prepared to solve them. The sheriff stays on until, with a lot of twists and turns, they’re solved."
He wrote the script at a rapid rate, with the actual writing process taking around two weeks. However, he thought about the story for five years, building bits and pieces before everything fell into place.

"I hear the dialogue in my head as I’m going, and I get lost," he says. "I can sit down at eight o’clock in the morning, and the next think I know, my wife’s saying, ‘It’s two o’clock, aren’t you going to eat lunch?’ I can look back and see lines of dialogue that I almost don’t realize I wrote."

Smith initially envisioned Bruce Willis in the role of the sheriff, and Willis actually had the first opportunity to pitch it to a studio. Since so many factors are involved in getting momentum on a script, the deal fell through, but wound up with Gibson at Icon.

"It was very surreal," he says. "I was sitting in the offices of C.A.A. (Creative Artists Agency), and they were trying to get me not to go to other meetings (with competing agencies.) They told me, ‘If you sign with us, in a few weeks you’ll be meeting Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, and Brad Pitt, because those are our clients and we want you to write for them.’

"I was trying not to laugh, because I was sitting there trying to look calm and pinching my leg. They’re very serious, and they’re throwing these names at me that are unbelievable. A lot of it’s the salesmanship, but it was the place I’ve always wanted to be. I was almost giddy when I walked out. It was a lot of fun."

Smith had thought about writing, but never took the opportunity until he began making up stories for his oldest daughter. Smith’s wife sent one off to New York without his knowledge, and a magazine accepted the story. Though the magazine folded before the story ever saw print, Smith gained confidence that his writing could have an audience.

Since he already loved movies, he took a three-month course from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. He learned the proper formatting and story techniques for screenplays, and "just started writing."

His first script was a semi-finalist in a major competition, and was optioned by Disney. That led to more industry contacts, and though the film was never shot, Smith kept writing scripts and knew he’d found something that he loved doing.

When his script for "The Devil’s Kiss" was discovered on a website, the deal-making became fast and furious. Currently, Brad Pitt is reading one of his scripts because Paramount Studios is interested in buying it. He’s also adapted a novel for Simon & Schuster which is getting a lot of attention, and he just finished a psychological horror script involving ghosts. He also has six others that no studio has yet seen, as well as four more that he says "are so bad that nobody will ever see them."

Though Smith earned a six-figure paycheck for the script purchase for "The Devil’s Kiss," there’s still a long development road to go, and probably at least two years, before the movie makes the screen. The producers are already suggesting changes to the script, and Smith realizes that the script will become a little farther out of his control as the process continues.

He classifies himself as an "old school" movie fan, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford among his favorite actors. William Goldman, who wrote "Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid," "Magic," "The Princess Bride," and other classics in addition to novels, is one of Smith’s favorite writers, and Frank Darabont of "The Shawshank Redemption" and "The Green Mile" is his favorite director. Anything from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are also must-sees for Smith.

"In twelve of my scripts, somebody dies," he says. "It’s not just murder, it’s loss. I think family and loss and how people handle that are a major theme in what I write. The one that Brad Pitt has is about a man who loses his family in a car accident, and he has to try to get over.

"I wrote it because I have four children and a wife, and it was my worst nightmare. I just wanted to see what would happen, almost living through that. I have a tough time reading it. It’s very sad."

From telling bedtime stories to the children to gracing the pages of Entertainment Weekly, Smith has kept his new success in perspective. He simply loves telling stories, and has plenty more that he wants to tell.

"I love to write," he says. "I’m shocked that people actually want to give me money to do it."

-- copyright 2001 by Scott Nicholson

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