Rugged terrain. Chilly conditions. Natural disasters. Title changes. Roving release dates. Every major movie hits a few bumps in the road, but when you’re a first-time director, they all hurt — and SwitchBack, a relatively low-key $37 million road-picture thriller that stars Dennis Quaid and Danny Glover, immersed Jeb Stuart in one trial by tundra after another.
A North Carolina minister’s son-turned-successful screenwriter (The Fugitive, Just Cause, Another 48 Hours, Die Hard), Stuart, 41, was already familiar with the hard knocks of Hollywood. He’ll tell you in his born-storyteller style about the first time he met Die Hard producer Joel Silver, and Silver said, ”Nice to meet you, great script, but I just want to tell you you’re fired.” (He was soon rehired — and ultimately fired again — by the volatile producer.) He’ll recall the afternoon that producers sent him to calm an Academy Award-winning actor who tends to throw furniture and was seething over a rewrite. He’ll replay the time then-Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg hired him to rewrite a movie that had already been shot and was five weeks from release. But nothing prepared Stuart for the humbling twists of hope and heartache he suffered while nurturing his script from page to screen, a tale of talent and turnaround that began 13 years ago.
Stuart, then a 28-year-old postgraduate screenwriting fellow at Stanford, attends a lecture about the business given by agent Ben Benjamin, who says the two best ways to get a script read are to write a thriller or a road movie. With more than $100,000 in school loans on his mind, Stuart hunkers down to write Going West in America, a road movie and a thriller. ”I figured if one was good, two was better,” says Stuart of his spider-and-fly story involving an FBI agent and a serial killer who has abducted his son.
Stuart stays home playing Mr. Mom while his wife, Anne, supports the family. ”Our son Baker had been born in February, and I had to get a job,” recalls Stuart. His anxiety is eased when his ex-Stanford adviser sends the script to Benjamin, who calls to say it’s the best he’s read in a year. He asks Stuart to come to his agency, International Creative Management.
Stuart heads to L.A., puts on his suit, and goes to ICM. Immediately a senior agent hands him some folders and says, ”Get these to the mail room by 10:30.” ”Apparently,” says Stuart, ”none of the writers ever wears a suit to ICM.” He bypasses the mail room and minutes later arrives at his first big Hollywood meeting. ”The room is filled with all these top agents blowing smoke up my ass, saying this is the greatest script of all time, blah, blah, blah. Then Jeremy Zimmer walked in and said, ‘I don’t think we’re gonna sell this script. It’s got problems in the third act, and it’s a little dark, but it’s a great calling card, and it will get you tons of work.’ He’s been my agent ever since.”
Later that month, Going West is optioned by then producer Mark Tarloff at Columbia. Stuart gets $10,000, plus $35,000 for a second draft and a set of rewrites. At one time it’s packaged with Robert Duvall, Sidney Poitier, and Kevin Bacon as the first feature project of ultrahot Miami Vice director Thomas Carter, but nothing happens. When Columbia chief Guy McElwaine is fired in 1986, the script goes into turnaround.