Do Have More Fun
IN LAST SUMMER'S HIT COMEDY LEGALLY BLONDE, THE JOKES ARE ON HARVARD, but the brains behind the wildly successful screenplay come straight from JMU.
Take, for instance, the movie scene in which sorority president Reese Witherspoon asks her sisters to vote on whether or not to accept a switch to generic toilet paper.
"That came from one time when ... we were denied our toilet paper [at JMU]. I offered my sorority sisters activity points for stealing replacement rolls from the administration building," laughs screenwriter Karen McCullah Lutz ('88).
In fact, moviegoers benefit a great deal from Lutz's JMU experiences. "People who read our scripts always say that [my partner and I] write good guy characters. I think that's because of my time as a little sister at AXP fraternity. It's easy to 'write' cool guys when you know a lot of cool guys."
Life has taken some dramatic turns for Lutz since her JMU days. She has moved from a 10-by-10-foot room in the Alpha Gamma Delta house (now the Alpha Phi house) to her 3,000-square-foot home in the Hollywood hills. She's traded studying and sunbathing on the "Hill" for writing screenplays while sunbathing by her pool. And the 1972 Plymouth Duster she used to drive up to Reddish Knob has been replaced by the black stretch limo that MGM Studios hired to escort her to the premiere of Legally Blonde.
But the road to screenwriting success was not a straight one. After she graduated from JMU with a marketing degree, Lutz bounced from job to job at various Washington, D.C., companies -- five in all the first year. "It was horrible," she remembers. "The only thing that would get me out of bed in the morning was thinking, 'I can quit this job, too!'"
When her husband, Walter Lutz ('86), was transferred to Albuquerque, N.M., with his job in 1992, Lutz tried a variety of jobs there until one day she picked up a book on screenwriting and something clicked. "I thought, 'Oh my God, this is totally what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life. It sounds so fun.'"
The next day she saw a newspaper ad for a screenwriting workshop in Santa Fe, and she was on her way. Soon she joined the thousands of amateur writers sending scripts to Hollywood. And, like most of them, she got no bites, although she did occasionally receive an encouraging note in response. Two years later, when her husband was transferred to Denver, she continued to send out scripts.
Finally, someone took notice. Kirsten Smith, a reader at an independent film company in Los Angeles and an aspiring screenwriter, called after reading one of her scripts. "You're my new favorite writer," she told Lutz. After a meeting over margaritas, Lutz suggested they try writing something together. United in their mutual admiration of John Hughes, king of the teen genre in the '80s, they decided to try their hand at a teen movie.
Four months later when the partners finished their script -- a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew set in a modern day high school -- Lutz sent it to a successful manager she often read about in Daily Variety. It was a good move. He called back quickly and said, "I can sell this right away!"
Three weeks later, his prediction came true. Touchstone Pictures, owned by Disney, called with an offer. "All of a sudden everything changed," Lutz says. "Disney flew me first class to L.A. to meet with them, and we signed with William Morris, one of the Big Four agents."
Five and a half years after her first screenwriting class, 10 Things I Hate About You hit screens nationwide on March 31, 1999. "I just kept telling myself, 'It's gonna happen, it's gonna happen.' And my twisted imagination was finally validated." The movie stayed in the top 10 for five weeks.
With one success under her belt, Lutz quickly moved from being the pursuer to the pursued. Disney immediately signed the partners to a blind script deal, meaning they paid in advance for their next script, sight unseen. Lutz and Smith delivered Public Displays of Affection, a film about a dating school that has not yet begun production.
The next call came from 20th Century Fox, which hired the partners to develop sitcoms. "They called me on a Wednesday and wanted me to move to L.A. by Monday," Lutz recalls. She did.
Their first assignment was Getting Personal, which aired from February to October 1999. Lutz describes the 14- to 16-hour days on the set as "sit-com boot camp." "It becomes your whole life. You barely have time to take a shower, much less write an-other movie. When it was canceled, we did a dance of joy."
The partners were then free to take on other feature assignments. After writing scripts for Paramount and Columbia, they started on Legally Blonde, which MGM rushed into production. The movie placed No. 1 at the box office on opening weekend, making it the studio's highest-earning nonsequel opener ever.
Lutz's parents and sister flew in to join her as she walked down the pink carpet at the premiere, which included an after-party with an all-blonde wait staff and close to 3,000 guests. Two weeks later, the writing partners hosted their own party after taking 150 friends to see the movie on opening night.
"At about 11 p.m., the director got a call on his cell phone, letting us know we'd already sold enough tickets to be No. 1 for the weekend. Most of the cast was at our party, and we all just went crazy. Lots of screaming and hugging."
The next morning, the producer woke Lutz with a 7 a.m. phone call and even better news. "Everyone was shocked. The studio had expected us to open at maybe $12 million, but we opened at $20 million. It's [during] moments like that that I can't be-lieve this is my life."
These days, Lutz has the luxury of picking and choosing the projects she'll take on. Her dining room table is piled with scripts that studios have sent, hoping she'll apply her magic touch to make the characters and dialogue more "hip." Next to them is a stack of foreign videos, which the studios want the partners to rewrite into American hits.
They are currently working on a project for Miramax called Honey West, based on a series of 1950s books about a female private detective, which will reunite them with Blonde star Reese Witherspoon.
They are also writing The Miranda Obsession, a project Lutz was especially excited to land. As producer and director on the project, Robert DeNiro put out a call for "A-list" writers only to contact him with their pitch for the project, which is based on a Vanity Fair article. Still beaming over the partners' work on Legally Blonde, MGM agreed to set up a phone interview. Lutz recalls, "So I'm lying on my bed in my tie-dye pajamas at 8:30 in the morning, talking to Robert DeNiro." Her agent called back that afternoon. He said, "I don't know what the hell you said on the phone this morning, but you got the job."
Success on this scale has its rewards. The partners' scripts draw mid-six figures, and with the success of Blonde, their agent will now ask double that. Perhaps even more rewarding is the freedom it brings. "We don't take projects now unless we can really fall in love with them," says Lutz. And they will act as producers on future projects, including Honey West, which will give them more control over casting and other production decisions.
"I'm definitely living proof that you don't have to be connected in Hollywood to be a screenwriter. When I graduated from JMU, I didn't even know that you could be a screenwriter. It never occurred to me. It was the '80s, all business and corporate America. I just thought that's what you did. I wouldn't change a thing, though," Lutz says. "I had a great time at JMU. ... And my movies are getting made and they're doing well."
Just like her days at JMU, when she proudly bore the titles of AGD's "Most Laid-Back Sister" and "Biggest Partier" four years in a row, Lutz maintains her unique approach to life. "My basic mantra is that I've always, no matter what I've done, tried to make it fun. I remember my dad told me, 'Karen, the world does not owe you a good time.' And I was like, 'What? Yes, it does!' So, I've pretty much orchestrated my entire life so it's always a good time."