- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Screenwriter Jeff Nathanson wasn’t exactly dying to get his turn behind the camera.

“I was very happy being alone in my little dark room,” says Mr. Nathanson, best known for penning Steven Spielberg’s past two films, “Catch Me if You Can” (2002) and this year’s “The Terminal.”

When Nina Jacobson, president of Disney’s Buena Vista Motion Pictures, called him one day and suggested he direct his script for the Hollywood satire “The Last Shot,” he “thought she was joking and sort of hung up on her.”

“I suddenly had the thought of 200 guys standing around, staring at me,” he says. Fortunately, a higher power stepped in.

“My wife said she’d leave me if I didn’t beg for it,” he says.

The ultimatum spurring Mr. Nathanson’s unlikely elevation to the director’s chair forms a fitting prelude to “The Last Shot,” a good-natured jab at our collective movie obsession.

Alec Baldwin stars as a gruff FBI agent who concocts an imaginary movie project in order to nab a relative of New York mobster John Gotti.

The fake film’s script comes courtesy of a flailing novice filmmaker played by Matthew Broderick, who, no matter how preposterous the circumstances, refuses to believe the entire operation is a ruse.

Based on a true story — Mr. Nathanson learned about it from a Details magazine article on the late 1980s sting — “The Last Shot” trots out exaggerated archetypes but rarely bites the hand that feeds it.

“There’ve been so many cynical movies made about Hollywood — ‘The Player,’ ‘Sunset Boulevard,’” says Mr. Nathanson, who studied at the American Film Institute’s screenwriting program. “They’re great movies, but I wanted to do a movie that was about my own experiences during the years and years when I was struggling.”

Mr. Nathanson, whose less flashy credits include “Rush Hour 2” (2001) and “Speed 2: Cruise Control” (1997), remembers the years spent getting doors slammed in his face as a time of — if you can believe it — optimism.

“You have this strange feeling of hope every day when you’re living in L.A., that your telephone is going to ring and someone’s going to say they like your script,” he explains.

Mr. Nathanson remembers his phone call well. He was working as a personal assistant in Hollywood when Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment called with an interest in his work.

“There’s nothing like telling your family, ‘I just quit my job because I’m going to write a movie for Ron Howard,” he says. That call never led to a finished script, at least not one with his name attached, but his career had begun.

Now, as he assumes the godlike powers of the director, Mr. Nathanson’s Hollywood career enters a new phase.

Thankfully, “The Last Shot” didn’t demand any complicated chase sequences or require a massive budget.

Even so, the neophyte director found he had a lot to learn.

“The hard part was I knew so little about the terminology for cameras,” he says. “It was truly a film school for me. I sat the camera crew down and said: ‘I’m not gonna know all the terms. You’ll have to bear with me.’”

His inexperience behind the camera did help Mr. Broderick’s performance.

“Matthew would say, ‘How am I supposed to look here?’ I said, ‘Look at me.’ He knew how scared he was supposed to look.”

The excitement of his first directing assignment notwithstanding, Mr. Nathanson’s professional high point came a few years earlier, when he began writing for Mr. Spielberg.

“It’s life-changing for me to do one Spielberg movie,” he says. “He’s someone who likes collaboration. He surrounds himself with people who can make his movies the best they can be.”

Not that Mr. Nathanson’s past projects were all as memorable as the two Spielberg projects he worked on.

He recalls working on the script for “Speed 2,” a doomed project he can laugh about — now.

“I was so naive at the time,” he says of the Sandra Bullock bomb. “After that movie came out, my phone didn’t ring for a year,” he says.

Mr. Nathanson, whose comedy sensibility was shaped, in part, by the George Carlin and Richard Pryor albums his father brought home to him as a young man, says he can “pick and choose” what he works on these days. Expect him behind the camera if the powers that be will let him.

“I’m very much bitten by the directing bug,” he says.

How very, very Hollywood.

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