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Ghostwriter

ROOM WITH A VIEW: "Vacancy" screenwriter Mark L. Smith
By Scott Nicholson

Mark L. Smith might make you think twice next time you pull up to a low-budget motel.

Smith, a screenwriter and director who lives in the North Carolina mountains, penned the script for a movie that’s getting a lot of buzz and may battle to be the box-office champ. Smith’s thriller “Vacancy” is being compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock.

The official synopsis for “Vacancy” is: "When David (Luke Wilson) and Amy Fox's (Kate Beckinsale) car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, they are forced to spend the night at the only motel around, with only the TV to entertain them... until they discover that the cheesy slasher movies they're watching were all filmed in the very room they're sitting in. With hidden cameras now aimed at them... trapping them in rooms, crawlspaces, underground tunnels... and filming their every move, David and Amy must struggle to get out alive before whomever is watching them can finish their latest masterpiece.”

Smith moved to Avery County in the fourth grade and graduated from high school there before attending Furman University and eventually heading west. He and his wife operated a “dude ranch” in Colorado, and it was there, during the long off-seasons, that he first began to write stories for his children. “It was either write or become Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining,’” he said.

Since he had a love of movies, he went to Los Angeles for a few months, where he took all the screenwriting classes he could find. One instructor at the American Film Institute told the class that none of them would ever finish a script and Smith took it as a challenge.

His first script finished in the top 10 in the Nicholl Fellowship, a major contest operated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He wrote a half-dozen more, most of which were optioned, but he broke through with a major sale to Mel Gibson’s ICON production company.

Even though he was achieving Hollywood success, he and his family moved to Valle Crucis because they thought it was the best place to raise their children. He was able to fly to Los Angeles five or six times a year for his business and studio meetings, but did most of his writing in the mountains.

He sold more scripts to major studios but they never moved from the printed page, one of the frustrations in a business that usually ranks the writer low on the totem pole. “They’re never officially dead but they just kind of sit,” Smith said.

He wrote “Vacancy” in 2005, gave it to a producer on a Friday and it sold to Sony Pictures on Monday. “I didn’t even know it happened,” he said.

Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson were attached as stars, and filming began last September. Smith has seen parts of the movie and he was on the set to help rewrite dialogue. He also had to come up with material for “snuff films” that appear on the couple’s motel television, and he got to delve into some darker imagery, though he said the movie isn’t really bloody. While some of the marketing suggests it’s a horror film, Smith sees it more as modern-day Hitchcock.

“It’s a very tense thriller,” he said. “It’s relentless. It just drains you. From everything I’ve heard, you’re exhausted at the end.”

He’s also excited about his directorial debut, “Seance,” which is being released in Europe and will likely open in the U.S. next month. As a smaller-budget, independent production, Smith had more influence over the final product but also had to stay in L.A. for six months away from his family. “Seance” was inspired by his daughter, who thought her college dorm room was haunted. It’s a horror film, but Smith he isn’t interested in the gore that seems so prominent in that genre today. “There’s not a lot of blood in it, but it’s a little more than I wanted,” he said.

He also has several other projects on the table, including a script called “The Revenant” that will star Samuel L. Jackson. It’s making the rounds of the A-list directors and should get a big-budget treatment. He recently finished an original thriller called “The Remains” that Julia Roberts is interested in, and he’s adapting a novel called “The Reckoning” to fit in with what he calls his “R” phase.

If “Vacancy” is as big a hit as expected, Smith will be in demand for script assignments and figures to get his choice of work. While he’s written a number of “spec scripts” based on his own ideas, he also likes adapting novels into scripts, though he feels like it’s cheating because someone else has already figured out the plot.

The sudden popularity could prove fleeting, but Smith has already ridden the ups and downs of the business and finds satisfaction in the process, not just the product. His biggest goal right now is for “Vacancy” to top the box office. “I won’t be any better of a writer than I was before, but studios will think I’m a better writer,” he said. “I don’t think there’s an end for it. You just try to have little moments.”

However, he does have one project that would probably complete his creative search: writing a script that stars Tom Hanks and is directed by Steven Spielberg.

-- copyright 2007 by Scott Nicholson

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screenwriter Mark L. Smith Vacancy Luke Wilson director Seance horror script horror movie The Revenant The Reckoning The Remains Kate Beckinsale horror screenwriting

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