Howie Klausner flunked out of the seventh grade at MBA. He graduated from Hillwood, went on to USC film school, and cranked up a career as a screenwriter in Los Angeles. Then, nada. For a long, long, long time, he thought the people at MBA had been right.
“I just was kinda at the end of my rope,” he says. “I was doing it for eight years. I was not feeding my family with it. I had done one job for [producer] Johnny Bransford and had sold one episode of Weird Science, the TV show, and that was it for eight years of work. This was ridiculous.”
Writing on spec, or speculation, means you sit at home and write a screenplay that you think Hollywood will adore. Then, if you have an agent, you send it out and see what happens. If it sells, you pay the rent. If it doesn’t, you just wasted five months or a year of your life. After 12 screenplays, Klausner was sick of the whole thing.
“My wife and I had agreed that I was going to go back to schoolteaching. We pooled all of our money, which was about $3,000, to go on a last, blow-it-out trip to Europe.”
Meanwhile, across town, a project was bubbling. “Andrew Lazar, who produced Assassins, had an ideaold guys in space. He had been working with my writing partner, Ken Kaufman, and they pitched it all over town. Everyone thought it was cute, but it smacked of Grumpy Old Men in Space and didn’t get bought as a pitch.”
“The morning we were leaving, Ken called and asked if I would help him out. He said, ‘This is the one we’ve been waiting for, this one.’ Of course, I promptly turned him down. I said, ‘I can’t work any more on spec.’ After I said no about five times, Ken said, ‘I know you know more about space and pilots than I do. Can I just fax you the outline?’
“ ‘Yeah, go ahead and fax it.’
“I stuffed the fax in my bag. I don’t even look at it. We’re halfway to Europe, everybody’s asleep in the airplane. I read the outline he’s got. It’s Grumpy Old Men in Space, and I see why it didn’t sell, but the germ of the idea is cool. Then it dawned on me that it should be The Magnificent Seven in Space. It’s these guys’ last ride. That’s the deal. We got to the airport, and I called him up, and I said, ‘I’ll do it.’ ”
Klausner talks fast. He also writes fast. Space Cowboys took a little over two months to complete. When you’ve done it 12 times before, you know what to do. “I wrote the first draft in about three weeks, and Ken wrote the second draft in about three weeks. Then we kinda just sat together in a room for about three weeks, and that became the third draft, and that’s what went out.
“Most of the last part of Act 3, where Clint brings the shuttle in, was written at Bongo Java. Ken was on his way to Ohio, and I was visiting my mother. We got together in Bongo Java and drank coffee for two days. This was September of 1997.”
The finished script “went out on a Wednesday, bidding war on a Thursday, sold to Warner Bros. on a Friday. Screenwriter’s wet dream. Never happens that way.
“Warner Bros. wanted Clint Eastwood to play it all along, but Clint passed on it right after they bought it. He said, ‘It’s a pretty good script, but I think it’s a little implausible that somebody 69 years old is going into space.’ Five months later, John Glenn announced he was going up. We sent that day’s paper to Clint, with a little note, ‘Glenn’s 77What are you waiting for?’
“That did it. Everything came together pretty quickly. Clint didn’t do much in 1998 because he was shooting True Crime. And buying Pebble Beach! Then we went into active development.”
Development generally means rewriting a script until you get fired. And then your screenplay, which someone else botches, never gets filmed. That was not the case with Eastwood. “If Clint likes a script, that’s itit’s ‘Let’s shoot it,’ ” Klausner explains. “He shot what we wrote. When you see Space Cowboys, those words are all Ken and me.”
As of this week, the film has grossed $53 million and looks like it has a good shot at reaching the Valhalla of $100 million. Klausner’s feeling pretty good about his careerbut it wasn’t always that way.
“I knew I was gonna do this for a living when I wrote the majority of my ‘Senior Variety Show’ at Hillwood in 1977. It worked, I was hooked, but it was a long, long haul. Most of us end up washing out at some point, and it’s usually the beginning. I knew I had the goods, but that’s half the battle. You just have to become a known commodity. For the most part, the dream we all have of literally coming out of nowhere with a brilliant piece of work that changes your life overnight, that doesn’t happen. Space Cowboys was number 13 for me, and that’s about average.
“It’s almost always too early to quit at anything,” Klausner continues. “That was the appeal of Space Cowboys to me. It was never really a comedy to me. It was a redemption storyone last shot for these guys who’d about given up. And I love stories like that, because that’s my story.
“I had failure mastered when this project fell on top of me. I’m not one of the terrifically talented or even extraordinarily lucky. I realize that there is always some luck involved with success in any field, but I could lull you into a coma with [stories of] the seemingly endless down-on-his-luck days.”
For Klausner, there is a lesson in all this. “If it’s your passion,” he says, “if it’s the thing you must do in this life, just find a way...and keep doing it. And don’t put a time-frame on it.”
When Space Cowboys sold, everything changed for Klausner. “I’m writing my third movie for Warner Bros. right now,” he says. “We got hired pretty quickly after Space Cowboys sold to write another movie for Andrew Lazar, and right now, we’re writing one for Barry Levinson’s company.”
He’s also dusting off his old spec scripts, the ones Hollywood didn’t have the wisdom to buy when they were inexpensive. “I wrote a thriller about the death of Pope John Paul the first. Sede Vacante is about an FBI guy who’s a Catholic, who stumbles onto, ‘Hey they’re gonna kill this guy.’ And he tries to stop it. And he fails. That was the script I decided to quit screenwriting after. It was the best script I’ve ever written, and it just went ‘Thud.’ ”
Klausner’s agent is about to go out with Sede Vacante, and Space Cowboys is still in theaters. Klausner is glad he stuck with writing. He’s come a long way since he left Nashville, but this place is still part of who he is. “Everything you write is a love letter to your past. I failed seventh-grade English, flunked out of MBA, and was almost thrown out of Hillwood for performing a play that was a little racy. If my mom hadn’t fought for me, I could have been the first person to be expelled from Metro schools for a nonviolent offense. Plus, she’d never let me quit in peace. Now I live in California. I’m a screenwriter who looks like a surfer, and I’m just Hillwood High school, class of 1978. That has never gone away.”
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