By the time Jerry Eeten’s screenwriting career took off with the new Jason Bateman-Melissa McCarthy movie, he’d already left Hollywood to fashion a new identity as a Florida teacher
Identity theft is no laughing matter.
“Identity Thief,” the new screwball movie comedy starring Jason (“Juno”) Bateman and Melissa (“Bridesmaids”) McCarthy, is another matter entirely.
It’s an R-rated romp about an uptight Denver banker who travels cross-country to Florida to confront the person who’s living large on his credit card. But there’s more than one case of mistaken identity involved in this movie, which opens nationwide on Friday.
In fact, students of Jerry Eeten, an affable 44-year-old business and technology teacher at Osceola Fundamental High School in St. Petersburg, Fla., couldn’t believe their iPhones when they discovered that their favorite teacher had written the original script for a major Hollywood film.
“My kids ‘outed’ me,” Eeten says, laughing. “They Googled me, put the IMDb (Internet Movie Database) page on the school’s Facebook wall and sent it to everybody in the school.”
Prior to moving to St. Petersburg in 2000 to marry his wife Jaya and eventually follow her into teaching, Eeten had spent a decade in Hollywood pursuing an acting career and screenwriting on the side. In true Hollywood fashion, his writing career took off as soon as he left town when Universal optioned “Identity Thief,” a script he wrote in Florida, ground zero for identity heists.
After years collecting dust, Eeten’s script finally won the green light after producer Bateman enlisted noted screenwriter Craig Mazin (“The Hangover II” and “III;” “Scary Movie” sequels) to make certain, ahem, changes to enable the red-hot McCarthy to channel her most unctuous Daisy Mae.
Happily married with kids 8 and 5 and a job he loves, Eeten finds himself suddenly faced with an identity problem of his own: answer the siren call of Hollywood a continent away or coach his daughter’s T-ball team?
Screenwriter Jerry Eeten
CreditCards.com: How did you come up with the idea behind “Identity Thief”?
Jerry Eeten: I was pushing 40 and I wanted to write a midlife crisis movie. My original script was more like the John Candy-Steve Martin movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” very much a two-handed buddy comedy where they hate each other for three-quarters of the movie and then realize that they’ve actually become unlikely friends.
CreditCards.com: How did identity theft figure in?
Eeten: I wrote the script in Florida in 2006 when identity theft was becoming a big deal; it was just everywhere. There had been a lot of movies made on identity theft but they were always darker movies, psychological thrillers, and I was thinking comedy. Then it hit me: What if your life was on hold and the identity thief taught you how to live again?
CreditCards.com: Did you base Denver banker Sandy Bigelow Patterson (Bateman) on your own experience?
Eeten: No, I based him more on my friends who had had the same job since we’d graduated. It’s funny; we were all business and finance and marketing majors, we all went on to take jobs in business and they all stayed with the same companies. But I quit all of that at 28, moved to L.A. and went off the deep end, as they would put it, to pursue acting. I was the gypsy of the group. And they basically always lived vicariously through me, so much so that they basically financed the first low-budget movie I did (“Elvis Took a Bullet”).
CreditCards.com: In the original script, your identity thief was male and modeled after Matthew McConaughey. What was he like?
Eeten: My character was named Leonard; the name Sandy came about when Craig (Mazin) changed it to a girl because it had to be a unisex name. But he was the same kind of Southern white trash character, obsessed with NASCAR. It was very strange when Craig sent me the script after he’d rewritten it because he really kept all the same themes and heart that I had, but added a lot more action.
CreditCards.com: Breaking into Hollywood is not for the faint of heart. What was your experience?
Eeten: I’m from the very conservative Midwest; I was raised to go to school, get the good job, get married, have kids. I was a banquet manager for Marriott when I got transferred to California, then I was an insurance agent and I just realized at 28 that I was not cut out for cubicles and corporate life. I was overweight, unhappy. So at 28, I just quit it all, got a job waiting tables and started taking acting classes. My parents freaked out. I waited tables for about five years, doing auditions.
CreditCards.com: How did screenwriting enter the picture?
Eeten: In acting classes, I would write my own scenes and my acting teacher would say, “Who wrote that?” I would say, “Well, I did.” And he was like, “You might want to start thinking about writing something.” So I wrote a couple things and people said, “Hey, you can actually do this.”
CreditCards.com: Enter the Quentin Tarantino spoof, “Elvis Took a Bullet.”
Eeten: It’s a low-budget B movie, don’t get me wrong. It’s a bad movie with a lot of really funny scenes in it. It does not work as a movie – I didn’t have the money to really shoot it how you should shoot it — but it played enough festivals that I actually started to get hired to write. I was cheap so producers who didn’t have the money to pay a big writer would give me $25,000 to go write a screenplay. So I started to make a little bit of money writing while I was waiting tables.
CreditCards.com: Did you ever run your credit cards up or get into money trouble?
Eeten: Oh no. Even though I’m not working in an office job, I’m too on top of things to ever be broke. A little bit when I made the movie; I put like $10,000 on my credit card. But with various writing jobs I paid it off. I’m just conservative.
CreditCards.com: Did you ever wish you’d stuck with your buddies in corporate?
Eeten: No. A lot of my friends are like (Sandy) now; they can’t start over; they make too much money. They would love to reinvent themselves but they’re locked in; they have houses and kids and their kids are going to go to college in five years. It’s tough.
CreditCards.com: After a decade, you left Hollywood. Why?
Eeten: It was a very weird thing. I got hired by Michael Phillips, who produced “Taxi Driver,” to adapt a short story by Richard Matheson (“I Am Legend,” “The Omega Man”), so I had some money when I’d just met Jaya and I could write from anywhere. She was established in St. Pete and loved at her school and I just didn’t feel like I was in any place to uproot her life. It would have been a different story if I already had a TV show or two movie credits and I was well on my way.
CreditCards.com: Then a funny thing happened…
Eeten: The funny thing is, as soon as I moved to St. Pete, I started to get work then. And when I sent “Identity Thief” up, it was a pretty big deal; Jason (Bateman) got attached, Universal optioned it and I was all of a sudden on the radar. Then the writer’s strike happened and in 2009 the economy went in the tank. So for people like me who were kind of on the edge, we’re gone; they’re done. It was really lousy timing. In 2006, Jaya got pregnant and I was like, I’ve got to get a job.
CreditCards.com: It could have been “cut to credits” at that point when teaching suddenly entered the picture. How did that come about?
Eeten: I was bartending and one of my regulars who was a principal said, “Look, I’ve got this gig. It’s a tough gig. It’s a rough school. Do you want to come in?” So I went in basically with these ghetto kids and I could handle them. The first couple years, I taught sixth and eighth graders who were low-functioning, at-risk kids who basically read at about a first grade level. I was teaching technology so I started to teach them how to make movies. I didn’t have any of the behavior problems with them because they loved coming to my class. I was doing some cool stuff with them, teaching them how to edit an iMovie, stuff like that. That’s how I got into teaching and I just kind of liked it. I don’t really think I’m a very good teacher but I’m good with the kids. They like to hang out with me.
CreditCards.com: Has the buzz surrounding “Identity Thief” changed your prospects in Tinsel Town?
Eeten: I’ve been up for a few jobs in the last couple months. It’s hard because I’m here in Florida. My agent finally called me two weeks ago and said, “Look, this movie is tracking well but we’ve got a problem: you’re not here. I can’t put you in front of people. For you to get hired to write a studio job, you’ve got to pitch the thing five times. That’s not going to happen for you in Florida. You’ve got to be in the room.”
CreditCards.com: Quite an identity problem. What’s the solution?
Eeten: We made a deal: if you set something up in the next four or five months, I’ll take a year sabbatical from school, come to L.A. every month for a week and I’ll make a go of it. I’m finishing up a new screenplay right now and he’s read the first few pages and he’s pretty happy with it.
CreditCards.com: That’s not quite the same as putting a For Sale sign in the yard.
Eeten: If I was 30 and this was happening, I’d move there and make a go of it. But I’m in my mid-40s now and it’s not as big a deal to me as it would have been then. I’m coaching both kids’ sports teams. That’s more of a priority to me. I worked out there for 10 years. It’s a rough business. Why don’t I want to go out there and go for it? Here’s what happens: I quit my job, uproot my family, we move there, I sit around for a year. It sucks. It sucks. Here, I have a life, a good job I like. If nothing happens for a year or two, it’s OK; I’ve got other things going on. Life is not bad.
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