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The rush of success

'Rush Hour' screenwriter living the Hollywood life

Web posted on:
Friday, October 30, 1998 4:27:03 PM EST

From CNN Interactive Writer Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- It's the dream of every screenwriter -- write an original script that is scarfed up by a major studio for a mid-six figure price, then watch as two stars are attached to the project, the script successfully navigates the minefield of production, and the finished film opens to the sounds of ringing cash registers and shattering box office records.

Ross LaManna is living that dream. He's the screenwriter who came up with the script to "Rush Hour," the Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker action flick from New Line Cinema that has had audiences laughing and cheering since its August release.

During the film's debut weekend, "Rush Hour" raked in $33 million, the best start for any film that has premiered in the months of August, September or October. It is also the largest-grossing film for those months, topping $117 million.

LaManna, who slowly worked his way up the Hollywood food chain, is now experiencing those surreal, land-of-dreams moments that come with having a hit film in theaters: things like watching his son and daughter, ages 4 and 7, perform Chris Tucker impersonations in his living room; or having his wife come home to tell him that their son was playing "Rush Hour" with a friend.

"It's heady," LaManna says. "I haven't quite figured it all out yet."

But that's the business of being a screenwriter. Even the best never quite figure out what makes for a hit film. They can only create a marketable script, hope it sells, then pray that the powers-that-be don't screw up the story as it is transformed from the printed page to the big screen.

Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker on the set of "Rush Hour"

Getting wise in Hollywood

The process by which LaManna made it to "Rush Hour" acclaim is pure Hollywood, but not the kind of Hollywood that most people are accustomed to hearing about. Instead of becoming an overnight success, LaManna worked for years honing his craft, enduring a stream of less-than-blockbuster projects.

Originally from New Jersey, LaManna went to film school at the University of Southern California with the intention of making it in the film business.

"For about two weeks I wanted be a director, then I got wise to that," LaManna says. "I changed my emphasis from directing to writing, because when you're a director you need actors, equipment. Being a writer you need a pen and paper; there's no overhead."

But there's plenty of competition. LaManna remembers classes where the instructor told the 30-plus students that, on average, only one of them would make it in show business. (This was long before the recent Writer's Guild study that says unless you're a white male in your 20s, you have little chance of being a successful Hollywood screenwriter; when asked his age, LaManna says it's not an issue.)

After finishing at USC, LaManna went to work on the business side of Embassy Pictures before one of his scripts sold. Taking on writing full-time, LaManna worked on several rewrites and assignments from studios, including "Cliffhanger" with Sylvester Stallone, and "Universal Soldier" with Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Perhaps his first big break came when his original screenplay, "Arctic Blue," became an HBO World Premiere Movie starring Rutger Hauer.

A few projects later, LaManna had finished "Rush Hour," and his career would soon change.

"Rush Hour" kicked around its competition in the box office

The price of success

Now comes the overnight success part of the story. Actually, it didn't even take one night. LaManna's script was released on a Tuesday afternoon at about 2:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., he got a call from a friend in the business.

"He said, 'So I heard Disney is going to buy your script,'" LaManna recalls. "How can they read it that fast?"

A mid-six figure deal was worked out by week's end, and soon LaManna was engaged in that Hollywood tradition: rewriting a script he just sold to tailor it to the needs of the actors and producers.

Another writer, Jim Kouf, was also brought in and did enough work to get a screenwriting credit.

By the time production was underway, LaManna's baby was out of his hands. It's the price screenwriters pay for selling their work.

"I think unless you're someone like Gary Ross (writer/director of 'Pleasantville') where you're at the point where you can direct what you write, there are going to be changes to what you do," LaManna says. "As nice as the job is, you're still the bottom person on the rung as far as money and power go."

'The gods are smiling'

Fortunately for everyone involved, the production of the movie experienced that elusive state of good fortune where every decision that was made seemed to be the right decision.

"The history of 'Rush Hour' was the history of dodging bullets," LaManna says. "One bad move by a producer or one bad casting call ... one wrong move and we would've been dead. Everything fell into place. It was just one of those things."

LaManna watched with great satisfaction as martial arts action-hero Chan and comedian Tucker were attached to the flick. And each actor seemed to understand the role he was to portray.

"(Chris Tucker's) like thanking me for the script," LaManna says. "I'm like, thank you. You've got everybody thinking I'm really funny."

And now LaManna is on a short list of hot Hollywood scribes. He's currently finishing up work on his first novel, a political-military action-thriller. And he's talking with various studios about script ideas, while considering a new original screenplay. He calls the experience "gratifying."

"I think people are interested in anyone who's involved in a hit," LaManna says. "Not so much because you're a good writer, but maybe because you're lucky, too. Maybe the gods are smiling on this guy."

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