BURBANK. Calif. -- Mel Gibson and Danny Glover are standing in the corner, alongside Dennis Quaid. A set of still photos chronicling the demolition of a house in the movie "Lethal Weapon 2" is framed on the wall next to the actors, and bears the handwritten inscription: "Jeff, we did it. Next time, go easy. Love ya, Donner."
Jeffrey Boam sits in the opposite corner of the room, which happens to be his office, ignoring Mel, Danny and Dennis because they are made out of cardboard; the life-size figures are theater lobby advertisements for two of the movies he's written. And the set of framed stills is a gift from "Lethal Weapon 2" director Richard Donner.
You wouldn't be alone if you admjtted Jeffrey Boam's name doesn't ring a bell. But if you go to movies. you've probably seen it on the screen. Boam's job is done behind the camera, off the set, in an office at his home. It's where the 41-year-old screenwriter has penned such familiar movies as "The Dead Zone," "lnnerspace," "Funny Farm," "The Lost Boys," "Lethal Weapon 2" and "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."
The former art student has consented to talk for an hour on this hot September afternoon. Dressed in black pants, matching shoes and an oversized tan shirt -- sleeves rolled up -- Boam half reclines on a couch, feet resting on a wrought-iron-and-glass coffee table. Posters of his movies line most of two walls, a bookcase crammed with screenplays obscures another, and a large window facing the courtyard of Producers Building on the Warner Bros. lot dominates the wall behind his desk.
These days, Boam is clearly at the top of his game. He scored screenwriting's grand slam in the summer of 1989, when two of his pictures -- "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and "Lethal Weapon 2" -- combined to gross more than $300 million at U.S. boxoffices. And this from a guy who didn't seriously considered a career in movies until after obtaining an art degree from Sacramento State College.
"I just always have loved movies," Boam explains: "As a kid, I always responded to them, and was turned on by film. Well, not film, but movies. I never really considered it as a career. You just don't grow up in New Jersey and Sacramento and think that you can have a career in Hollywood."
Initially, he thought his artistic credentials might land him a job as a movie art director or production designer.
"But I quickly dismissed all those ideas and decided that the best thing (to be) would be a director," he says. "I didn't really just want to serve in the ranks, I wanted to be a general, and wanted it to be my movie."
But making the leap from art student to movie director required some additional training. So he began graduate studies in film at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. There, he discovered writing for the screen might be the route to go. Although he regards his training in screenwriting at UCLA as impractical -- "watch movies, get together in little groups over coffee and talk about film, look cool, hang out" -- he set out to impress a professor, succeeded, and co-wrote a script with the man, who later helped him find an agent.
Boam continued to write scripts, and while they circulated through Hollywood, he made ends meet as a film booker for Paramount -- keeping track of movie prints, getting them to the right theaters on the right days.
"It gave me some satisfaction that I felt like I was, in some tangential way, part of the film industry," he says, quickly adding, "I was in the worst kind of Siberia in Hollywood."
Still, he began meeting with people who liked his scripts, one of whom was director Tony Bill ("Five Corners"). Director Ulu Grosbard, a friend of Bill's, was then on the lookout for a writer who could handle a biographical movie on the life of Huey Long, and Boam got the job. But soon after, in 1977, Grosbard was called on to take over direction of "Straight Time" after Dustin Hoffman walked off the picture. Hoffman returned, Grosbard tapped Boam to do the necessary rewrites and the rookie writer had his first screen credit.
Having established his name with a critical hit, it looked like Boam was on his way.
"I was a new writer and everybody was trying to come in and get a piece of me," Boam recalls. "There's nothing better in town than a new writer with talent because they're cheap, they're talented and they're inexhaustible. So you're very much in demand."
This period in the Rochester, N.Y., native's career was a whirlwind of activity -- "To tell you the truth, sometimes I can't even remember what happened back in those days." It culminated in the signing of a contract with Warner Bros. And while he didn't realize it at the outset, it was also the beginning of a long dry spell.
"That was just a very depressing, frustrated period when I was writing a lot of scripts and they just weren't getting made," he says.
The drought lasted from 1978, when "Straight Time" was released, to 1983, when Boam's adaptation of a Stephen King thriller, "The Dead Zone," hit theaters. The screenwriter still smarts from the author's unkind words about his efforts; in 1989, Boam called King "a jerk" for lumping "The Dead Zone" -- a movie Boam believes to be a cut above most other screen versions of King books -- with lesser-quality efforts.
"I did care about what he thought," Boam admits, but says the notion of a screenwriter winning an author over is "ultimately naive."
"I sent him the first draft of the script. And he was very nice, we talked on the phone. And I think he called me and said he liked it. Then somewhere after that, in print, he started talking about how awful it was."
No matter. "The Dead Zone" opened the floodgates, as it were, and Boam's career exploded. Soon he was called upon to perform extensive rewrites of initial scripts for "The Lost Boys" and "Innerspace."
'''Lost Boys' had no humor in it," Boam explains. "'Innerspace' had no humor in it. They were not funny -- either one of them -- especially 'Innerspace.' It wasn't a comedy at all. That's the most major reconception of anything I've ever done. I took the basic idea -- a guy is miniaturized, somehow gets inside another guy -- and from there ... all that was my own."
Boam's reputation in the business is as a writer who knows action -- things have a tendency to crash, burn and explode in his movies -- and can punch up a script with humor. As such, Warner Bros. occasionally asks him to perform rewrites of other, troubled scripts.
"Reluctantly, I have been sucked into some -- like 'Tango & Cash.' I did a long, incredible, awful rewrite on (that one). ... I didn't try for credit, and I don't even know whether I would have deserved credit. Even though I did a lot of rewriting on it, I didn't change it conceptually."
His reputation notwithstanding, Boam has written movies without the mayhem of a "Lethal Weapon 2" or the gritty realism of a "Straight Time." For example, "Funny Farm," a film starring Chevy Chase, was a light comedy.
"'Funny Farm,' actually, is like a dream come true for me, even though the picture wasn't received too well," Boam says as he plants his feet on the floor, leans forward and gestures with his hands. "That story and those characters to me -- that was the most fun I've ever had writing a script. I got to live out the fantasy of doing a kind of a '30s Cary Grant screwball comedy. I just loved the characters. I just loved Chevy and his wife, and I loved all those weird people out in the country. I just felt so right about that whole script; I felt that's more like my sensibility than anything I've ever done."
After the success of the summer of '89, though, Boam is currently in a give-them-what-they're-screaming-for mode. After all, that's what being under contract is all about.
"There are certain projects that we have kind of agreed on I would do -- like 'Lethal 3.' It was always a given that I would do this. I mean, I could have said to them, 'I just don't want to do this. I don't want to try and top myself or compete with myself.' ... It would have been difficult for them to accept, but they could have accepted that -- and I still could have had a deal with them."
Boam's contract also affords him the opportunity to pitch projects to the studio. And he does, along with his partner, writer-producer Carlton Cuse, under the banner of Boam/Cuse Productions, the pair's production company. Among other things, the two worked on a TV pilot based on the movie "Witches of Eastwick" and are currently developing a comedy series titled "Cat Canyon."
The contract with Warner, Boam says, is more attractive to him than freelancing, like some screenwriters do. As a family man -- Boam is the father of three children and his wife, Paula, is a photographer -- he enjoys the relative security of a signed deal. Even the recently reported $3 million purchase price another writer, Joe Eszterhas ("Jagged Edge"), nabbed for a single script doesn't make him want to light out on his own.
"It makes me feel good," Boam explains. "It makes me feel that I'm a bargain, I don't really want to be considered the highest-paid writer ... because I think there's just too much pressure.
"I'm happy with the amount of money I'm making. And when Eszterhas makes $3 million for one script, I say, 'Boy, you know, they can get maybe three scripts out of me for that much.' So now I don't feel so beholden to them. Now I am a bargain and they know it and so I don't have to feel like I'm overpaid -- which is the worst feeling in the world."
Boam's brother, Peter, who hosts the midday show at KALL-AM radio in Salt Lake City, says all that money flying his brother's way hasn't gone to his head.
"The only thing that's different about Jeff is that now he wears silk shirts," Peter says, laughing. "And his shoes are nicer."
Currently, Boam is writing two scripts: "Lethal Weapon 3" and "Sgt. Rock," the latter at the request of its intended star, Bruce Willis. Boam rises from the couch, walks over to his
briefcase and retrieves a "Sgt. Rock" comic book.
"There's nothing in those comics that makes a movie, except the main character of Sgt. Rock," he says. So he's been researching histories and reviewing films about the war. With
no more than that to go on -- he says he liked nothing about a previous draft of the 'script when Arnold Schwarzenegger was set to star -- Boam will endeavor to create a script
for "Sgt. Rock." His job is to craft a screenplay that will make the studio, the star, the director, the producer, himself, critics and the American public happy.
Simultaneously, he'll attempt to do the same thing with "Lethal Weapon 3." And all this by Christmas. Pressure? you ask. Certainly. But the man has bucket-loads of confidence.
When Steven Spielberg asked him to write the script for "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," Boam's response was not an immediate "thank you" and a licking of the director's
boots. Instead, he remarked, "'I just don't know why you didn't come to me before."