Adam Herz: His Piece of the Pie
He's 26 years old. He calls Porky's a "classic movie." He wrote and sold his first screenplay in six weeks. And now American Pie writer Adam Herz is one of the hottest young guys in Hollywood.
Even jaded Hollywood executives sat up and took notice when an unknown screenwriter's spec script called "Unfitted Teenage Sex Comedy Which Can Be Made for Under $10 Million That Studio Readers Will Most Likely Hate but I Think You Will Love" hit their desks. They actually read the raucously potty-mouthed, sexed-up Porky's
meetsFast Times at Ridgemont High-style tale of four high school seniors who vow not to be virgins after prom night. It soon became a hot property in Hollywood and a bidding war broke out. Universal came out the winner, paying $650,000 up front, plus another $100,000 down the road, and Antz screenwriters Chris and Paul Weitz were signed to direct. The finished film, now titled American Pie, tested through the roof with market screening audiences. And so, screenwriter Adam Herz is no longer just a 26-year-old Michigan transplant with unpaid bills.
When I meet Herz at the hillside Valley home he's currently leasing, he strikes me as a shy, pleasingly quirky, stare-of-into-space kind of guy who is simply stunned by his good fortune. "It's like living out that question everybody asks themselves," he says. "What would I do if I won the lottery? I mean, I graduated in 1996 from the University of Michigan as a film studies and communications major. I never even considered writing for movies. But I started writing the script on December 6th of last year and it was sold on January 23rd. It's been like a cliché because it's gone so smoothly. I've tried to keep cool, thinking, 'This is the way it's supposed to happen.'"
How exactly did Herz, the oldest of two sons of a Grand Rapids, Michigan, brain surgeon and a homemaker, get so lucky? "Halfway through my first year in Hollywood I was doing production assistant TV work on shows like Sweet Valley High and Team Knight Rider. A friend of mine gave [film producer/manager] Warren Zide's office two spec scripts I'd written for The Larry Sanders Show. Zide and the others wanted to sign me, but they make movies, not TV shows. The only idea I had for a movie was about the shit real high school kids do. When I asked Warren, 'Where did those great party movies go?' he said, 'Great idea! Let me show you Porky's, it's right here on my shelf.' I went back to Porky's over and over and studied Bachelor Party beat by beat to see how the jokes worked. The secret of classic movies like those is that they don't apologize. They just go for it."
Still, Herz found the prospect of sitting down to write his script daunting. He worried that spending the time on it would put him deeper in debt. Plus, he was suffering from writer's block. Finally a Zide Entertainment manager told him, "Look, Adam, you're sick, you're disgusting. Why don't you write the sickest, disgustingest thing you can?" During a '97 Christmas skiing trip with his family in Colorado, that's what he did. "I'd work one day, ski the next," he says. "My original intentions were completely exploitative. It's a formula movie, right? Except that everything I do in comedy is by gut reaction. My approach was, screw analyzing anything--if it makes you laugh, it's funny. By the time I came back from Colorado in January and handed in the script, I thought what I'd written was very funny, but I'd also come to care about the characters. By March or April, I was listening to the first read-through with the directors and the actors and laughing out loud. It was mind-blowing for me that everybody who read it knew right away what this movie had to be. I mean,_ Saving Private Ryan_ it isn't."
American Pie has some of the raunchiest scenes since There's Something About Mary--from a hilariously ill-timed whack-off sequence featuring Herz's screen alter ego, played with winning nerdiness by Jason Biggs, to a hilariously voyeuristic whack-off sequence featuring curvy Shannon Elizabeth. And, if those don't grab you, there are enough jokes about penis size, condoms and various bodily functions to keep frat boys howling for weeks. "I set out to do a classic, no apologies teen film," says Herz, "and surprisingly, the only thing Universal kept hammering on about was that women had to like the movie, too."
Speaking of females, has Hollywood fame heated up the soft-spoken, offbeat Herz's sex life? "Hey," shoots back Herz, "you've seen the movie--I'm the guy who can't talk to girls." Then, laughing and staring at his shoes, he says, "People who wouldn't give me the time of day still won't. So the whole, 'Hey babe, I'm a writer/producer' approach is not for me. Though maybe I'll test it out." At least he's not a virgin like the guys in his movie, right? "I am one in spirit," he smiles.
With American Pie behind him, Herz is writing a movie version of the British adult stage farce Run For Your Wife for Fox 2000, for which he's receiving a six-figure payment. He's also landed a directing deal. And he's talking to studio execs about reviving some of those nose-thumbing Smokey and the Bandit flicks of the '70s and '80s (Burt Reynolds, expect a call). He can reasonably conclude that he's on a roll. Still, he's hedging his bets. A bit. "I haven't changed anything in my life except to get the bumper reattached to my car," he says. "Oh, and I've hired an accountant."
Stephen Rebello interviewed Melanie Griffith for the April 99 issue of Movieline.