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He did most of his dreaming from 4 – 6 a.m. ... when he was awake.
Tampa native Matt Lopez would wake up every morning at 4 a.m. in his L.A. home, hours before he was scheduled to arrive at the law firm employing him, sit at his computer, and write scripts, dreaming of the day he could leave his life as an attorney behind him and become the Hollywood screenwriter he knew he was talented enough to become.
“It was the only time I had time to write,” explained Lopez. “The law firms I worked for took up most of my life.”
In 2003, shortly after slipping a script he’d penned to an executive at Dreamworks, he finally heard the words he’d been craving to hear for so many years.
“The executive told me I wouldn’t be an attorney much longer,” remembered Lopez. “It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me.”
Today, the 36-year-old Lopez has his own office on the Disney lot in Hollywood and is one of the hottest screenwriters in all of Hollywood, writing the screenplay for "Bedtime Stories," which stars Adam Sandler and will be released on Christmas Day; and "Race To Witch Mountain," a film currently in production that is based on the 1970s Witch Mountain classic films and is slated to star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Lopez is currently working on a script called The "Sorcerers Apprentice," which will star Nicholas Cage and is a live action story based on the animated story of the same name from the Disney classic "Fantasia."
“It’s absolutely surreal,” said Lopez of his success. “I went on the set of Witch Mountain recently and they had 50 or so guys building a set that resembled the inside of a mountain where some of the movie takes place. It was weird to walk onto set and see people building something that came out of my head. It’s kind of a trip.”
An even bigger trip is the fact that just a few years ago he was earning a living in Hollywood working against the screenwriters who are now his peers. While practicing law for Dreamworks, he negotiated studio deals with screenwriters, often having to put the studio’s bottom line ahead of what he thought the writer’s really deserved.
“I was a lawyer, but in the back of my mind I kept hoping that I’d one day be on the other side of the negotiations,” said Lopez. “As a lawyer you pride yourself on the ability to put that stuff away, but it was really hard because studios are very bottom line oriented businesses and sometimes do what is best financially, not creatively, which often means taking stuff away from the writers. It was unusual to work for the studio while feeling sympathy for the creative types. So it was a tough job.”
But it was also rewarding. Working so close to the creative people inspired Lopez to continue to wake up every morning to write. And, if not for the contacts he made in the movie business as an attorney, he may have never received his shot.
“This is a difficult business to break into,” said Lopez. “Last year, I think the statistic was that 5,200 people in the entire United States were employed as screenwriters, with half in television and half in film. That means I’m one of only 2,600.
“And right now, with two movies coming out, it’s a big deal. I’m a hot writer, but it took me a long time to get to this point. I like to joke that it took me 10 years to become an overnight success.”
Actually, Lopez has been working towards realizing his Hollywood dreams since he saw 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' when he was 10 years old.
The Tampa native said he remembers walking out of the movie theatre and telling himself that one day he would go to Hollywood and make movies like that.
He wrote his first screenplay when he was 12 years old and while attending Jesuit High School would often take his family’s video camera, recruit his friends as actors, and make short films he wrote.
“Writing has always been my true interest,” said Lopez. “I’ve never had interest in being a cinematographer or working in any of the technical fields."
He was part of the first graduating class at Florida State University Film School, but upon graduation pursued a career in law rather than film.
“During my senior year [at FSU] I took a class at the law school in entertainment law and received a better grade than the law students,” said Lopez.
It was at that point that he hatched his plan for breaking into the screenwriting industry. He earn a law degree from New York University Law School, move to Los Angeles, find work in the legal affairs department at a movie studio, write in his spare time, slip an executive a screenplay, and get signed as a screenwriter.
“I guess it worked out perfectly,” laughed Lopez.
Of course, it was not as easy as he thought it would be. For starters, he quickly realized there was no such thing as “free time” for an attorney. Twelve to 14 hour days were not out of the ordinary. He would often get home around 9 or 10 p.m. and fall right asleep.
“Finally I said if I’m going to try to become a screenwriter I have to find time,” he said. “I said to myself that I may fail, but failing won’t be as big a disappointment as waking up in 10 years knowing I am still a lawyer because I never tried to become a screenwriter.”
The script that finally got an executive’s attention was titled "Amazing Heroes." It was about 15-year-old twins. The brother was a geeky outcast who dreamt of becoming a super hero. The sister was the popular girl in high school who actually possessed super powers, but considered them to be a curse. The story revolved around their sibling rivalry and how the brother becomes his sister’s super hero coach.
“Ultimately, the script was doomed, though,” explained Lopez. “The executive who really loved it was fired and whenever that happens at a studio it’s bad news for any of the former executive’s projects.
They become radioactive and nobody wants to touch them.”
The screenplay may never have been made into a movie, but it did launch Lopez’ career. It got him an agent, an attorney and membership in the Writer’s Guild.
Soon after, his career began to pick up. Disney hired him as a screenwriter and put him to work as a script doctor on a few projects, such as 'Sky High,' 'The Wild' and 'Enchanted.'
“A script doctor basically writes jokes or scenes for a script,” explained Lopez.
His big break as a solo writer came with "Bedtime Stories," the Adam Sandler movie about a hotel handyman whose life changes when the lavish bedtime stories he tells his niece and nephew start to magically come true.
Following completion of that script, he lobbied Disney for permission to write Race to Witch Mountain, which Lopez stressed is not a remake of the 1970s classics, but another film based on the plot of the famous book that inspired the originals.
When he is finished writing the "Sorcerer’s Apprentice," he already has his next writing job lined up, but cannot talk or announce what it is yet.
“If there is one thing that bridges all my stories, though is a sort of fantasy element,” he said. “My favorite movies to watch are the ones that make me feel like I have been transported to somewhere I’ve never been before and never could have imagined being.”
This Christmas, when "Bedtime Stories" holds its world premiere in Hollywood, Lopez will walk the red carpet, have his photo taken with celebrities and watch a story unfold on the big screen that came from his mind.
Matt Lopez is proof that you don’t need to be a character in a movie to see your dreams come true.
"Filmlook" is ©2008 by Paul Guzzo. All graphics unless otherwise noted are creations of Nolan B. Canova. All contents of Nolan's Pop Culture Review are ©2008 by Nolan B. Canova.