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Sunday, June 01, 2008 

Write Different

Whether it was a load of creatively pretentious b.s. or whether he cribbed it from someone else, a friend once told me that everyone has one great idea; everything they do afterwards is just a variation of that original idea. I thought it an impossibly preposterous notion when I first heard him say it but nowadays, the more music I listen to, the more movies I watch, the more I’m inclined to believe him. Not that this is necessarily always a bad thing.

It’s not uncommon to find folks who are fans of their favorite actors and if you’re lucky enough, you may even be able to find someone dedicated or educated enough to follow certain directors. But how many people observe the career path of screenwriters? Sure, there are a few that nearly everyone knows but for me, the late ‘80s and the late ‘90s respectively belonged to two guys who inspired and continue to inspire me and not only redefined but completely owned the genres they specialized in.

While it may have originally debuted in the US on January 20, 1998, episodes from the first season of DAWSON’S CREEK didn’t make their way to Misawa, Japan (where I was stationed as a Marine at the time) until much later that year. Seeing as how network television wasn’t readily available to us, we had to rely strictly on word of mouth, videotapes sent by family or hope AFRTS (which we affectionately referred to as “A-Farts” but actually stood for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service who, of course, tended to only show the most boring, family-related programming) picked a show up to see it. I didn’t even figure I was missing anything much until September 17, 1998. That was the day I walked by a local newsstand I frequented and saw a 19-year old and tanned brunette enchantress, wearing only a tank top and denim cutoffs, her body inserted through a tire swing, a quiet sea of blue serving as the backdrop. And I immediately fell in love with "…those eyes, those eyes just stained with loneliness." That girl was Katie Holmes and that quote about her eyes was from DAWSON’S CREEK’s creator, writer Kevin Williamson. Now I HAD to watch.

And watch I did. The most common criticism leveled against the show is the reason why I fell in love with it. The teenagers on DAWSON’S CREEK didn’t talk like teens at all (one mag went so far as to say they “talk like they came from a planet ruled by Manhattan psychologists, one where small talk is punishable by death."). Or maybe most people tend to sell teenagers short because to me, the characters didn’t speak a lot differently from myself, just a little better scripted, of course, but there wasn’t a huge or dramatic disparity.

As it turns out, Williamson single-handedly breathed new life into the "teen horror" genre in the late ‘90s and set new standards for what was considered typical adolescent dialogue. In 1996, a screenplay he had written and sold to Miramax back in ’94 originally titled “Scary Movie” was directed by Wes Craven (A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) and released as SCREAM (ironic that the Wayans’ SCREAM parody ended up being called SCARY MOVIE, a title they likely knowingly stole seeing as how they don’t seem to have a single original idea). I shouldn’t have to describe at length how popular SCREAM was and what it started. 1997 brought I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER (which starred, in another bit of irony, Sarah Michelle Gellar who was best known as “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”, a role that Katie Holmes had reportedly turned down) which Columbia Pictures rushed out and shamelessly touted as being “from the writer of SCREAM”, despite having purchased the screenplay from Williamson before he sold SCREAM to Miramax. To counter, Miramax hurried SCREAM 2 into production (in addition to filing a lawsuit against Columbia), which also came out in 1997. However, I had no idea that Williamson was responsible for any of these movies at the time of their release.

The first movie I went to see that I was actually aware that Williamson wrote was the first movie I saw when I landed back in the US after being in Japan for nearly three years. That movie was THE FACULTY and I remember having the most girlish conversation ever for a former Marine to have on my way home from the airport with my girlfriend’s younger sister, trying to catch up on what I had been missing on DAWSON’S CREEK (AFRTS had only aired four episodes before I put Misawa in my rearview). I’d love to say that Williamson’s script was the main reason for me being excited about it but the truth was yet another young bronzed brunette named Jordana Brewster (D.E.B.S.) caught my eye on the movie poster and Robert Rodriguez (DESPERADO, FROM DUSK TILL DAWN) was directing, which inevitably meant the inclusion of Salma Hayek as part of the cast. A Williamson script with Rodriguez behind the camera? A match made in heaven, right? Well, not quite. But it was still great fun (Famke Janssen has a small part and Piper Laurie, best known for her roles in THE HUSTLER and CARRIE, also appears) for a movie that Williamson himself pitched as Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Breakfast Club (In fact, Williamson has a great affection for John Hughes-like conventions that are very evident in his work. Just see Episode 7 of Dawson’s Creek's first season, “Detention” and his casting of Molly Ringwald in TEACHING MRS. TINGLE). It was also the movie where I started to recognize that at least one of Williamson’s lead characters are almost always named Casey, except on DAWSON’S CREEK where Joshua Jackson’s character is named PACEY.

Unfortunately, screenwriters don’t always make the best directors. Stepping behind the camera for the first time in 1999, Williamson directed TEACHING MRS. TINGLE, which starred guess who, Katie Holmes, in a screenplay Williamson penned as a student at UCLA that was originally titled ”Killing Mrs. Tingle” but renamed due to the massacre at Columbine High School. I don’t recall the movie doing brisk business or reading a single favorable review. I didn’t see it in theaters but instead opted to rent it when it dropped and I don’t remember a single thing about it; a sure-fire personal sign that there wasn’t anything special about it TO remember. It did, however, show itself to be a writer's movie with Helen Mirren's and Katie Holmes' characters more than once clashing over the meaning of the word "irony":

Mrs. Tingle: Always the victim, aren't we, Ms. Watson?
Leigh Ann Watson: Well there are certain similarities between society today and seventeenth century Salem. I guess that would be the irony of it all.
Mrs. Tingle: Irony is the opposite of what is or might be expected. For example, if Ms. Watson was expecting an A on her history project, she might find the actual result to be rather ironic.


Mrs. Tingle: Always the salem witch, completely innocent, wrongly accused.
Leigh Ann Watson: Ironic, isn't it?
Mrs. Tingle: You still don't know what that word means. Metaphoric, yes. Symbolic, maybe. But there's no irony involved. Would you please look that word up?

I’m not sure what he’s up to today (other than a few assorted projects here and there and the fact that he came out of the closet in 1999) but Williamson had one hell of a run while it lasted. Nothing like the next writer I’m going to discuss but awfully close...

It's funny, I had always assumed Williamson's other movies were just straight Scream rip-offs. Not that that stopped me from seeing them.

I owned the soundtrack to Teaching Mrs. Tingle for years, I think because of the Eve 6 song (ahh, one/two-hit wonder go-nowhere '90s bands...). I also remember the "ironic" exchanges, and nothing else. I don't even remember why the apple on the poster was so important. Probably just because Mrs. Tingle was a teacher, and instead of sucking up for a good grade, they kidnapped and played funny games with her. Or something like that.

Actually, The Faculty soundtrack was pretty bad-ass as well. The Offspring, "The Class of '99" (a random '90s rocker supergroup, I think the guys from Alice & Chains and Rage Against The Machine were in it), Stabbing Westward, and even Creed produced a decent Alice Cooper cover (blasphemy? now that's ironic).

You know, all the time I know you, I've never heard about your time in Japan. Any other interesting stories or cultural tidbits?

Have a great 4th, man.

I should amend that first paragraph by saying "without even knowing they were written by the same guy". Less confusing that way.

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