A typical meeting between director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Paul Attanasio takes no more than 15 minutes. ”Barry will say, ‘The thing with the…you know…and then the other thing,”’ says Attanasio, who wrote the first draft for Levinson’s Disclosure — based on Michael Crichton’s best-selling novel — in just nine weeks. ”We speak in shorthand. That’s the meeting.”
Attanasio’s rise to Most Favored Writer status in Hollywood seems just as swift. Unknown outside the industry six months ago, he’s responsible for scripting two of this year’s highest-profile movies: Disclosure, which explores gender role reversal — casting Michael Douglas as the sexual-harassment victim of his boss (Demi Moore) — and Robert Redford’s critically acclaimed Quiz Show. In fact, Attanasio’s overnight success took more than seven years. In 1987, Attanasio, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was then the film critic of The Washington Post, quit his job, moved to New York, and simply started writing. His unproduced screenplay about a real-life undercover agent in the Mob was preempted by Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, but Levinson asked him to write the Quiz Show script. Nearly three years passed before Redford stepped in to direct.
”As a journalist, I’d had my byline on 750,000 breakfast tables every morning,” says Attanasio, 35, an easygoing, thoughtful man who mentions both Dr. Seuss and Bertolt Brecht in the course of conversation. ”To go from that to anonymity…was very frustrating.” His partnerships with Levinson and Redford, however, have more than made up for the psychic pain.
”I agonized about (doing Disclosure),” says the Tenafly, N.J.-bred writer. ”But if it’s simply the story of a woman harassed by a man, you’re in the social-drama category that has been co-opted by television. It’s got to have some kind of spin or gimmick to make it into a movie. My hope is that this is not sexist or retrograde.”
Attanasio is now working on a screenplay set in New York’s publishing world, to be produced next year by his wife, Katie Jacobs (Getting Even With Dad), for Fox. While Jacobs has an office at the studio, he works out of their Hollywood Hills home, doing lunch daily with 18-month-old daughter Annie. ”Writers should go to their room every day and work from 9 to 5 like a banker or an insurance man,” he says. And Attanasio, who tried the corporate route one summer at a law firm, will take sitting alone with his PowerBook and his imagination — ”playing with my toys all day” — over toiling in the boardroom any day.