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MAJOR PAYNE behind-the-scenes: Part 1

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Meeting Damon Wayans

I first meet Damon Wayans in his cold, dark office on the Sony lot while he clips his toenails in silence. He does not seem pleased to see me. I’m very uncomfortable and I think: how did I end up here?

Months earlier, a Universal executive by the name of Barry Isaacson hires me to do a rewrite of a Charlton Heston movie from the fifties called THE PRIVATE WAR OF MAJOR BENSON. It’s a comedy about a tough major in the military who finds himself in charge of a group of kids. We talk about who could play Major Benson and think we’ve come up with the perfect person:

Clint Eastwood.

So it’s decided. I’ll write the movie with Clint Eastwood in mind in the hopes that we can interest him. The writing goes easily. I’m having fun and I think the script is pretty good. A month or so goes by and I get a call from Barry. Great news! We have a star!

“Clint Eastwood wants to do it?” I ask, excited.

“No,” Barry says. “Damon Wayans.”

Damon Wayans?

This comes as a shock. I have nothing against him but I’d be hard pressed to come up with someone more different from Clint Eastwood than Damon Wayans. He’s Homey the Clown! He’s Blaine from Men on Film! How is he going to play steely, tough as nails, gruff old Major Benson?

“Just meet with him,” Barry says. “He has some thoughts about the script.”

Which is how I find myself in Damon’s office, watching his toenails fly through the air. It turns out he does have some thoughts on the script. Major thoughts. The character of Benson is too Clint Eastwood-ish (surprise). Right now, the comedy is coming from Benson reacting to the situations around him. He needs to be the one driving the comedy. He needs to be broader, funnier. In other words, he needs to be the type of character Damon likes to play.

I digest this. We’re talking about a different movie. I don’t yet know if it’s a good one or a bad one, but it certainly means that all the work I’ve done up until this point is out the window. I give myself a day to recover from the shock and weigh my options.

Here’s what I know: Damon is hilarious, at least on TV. He didn’t seem all that funny when I met with him in his office, but I know he can be funny when he wants to be. Also, this is the road the studio has chosen to take, so I can either be on board or left at the station.

I decide to give it a go. Maybe it’s justification, maybe self-preservation. Probably both, but it doesn’t matter now. I’m going to go on this adventure and see where it leads.

Damon and I begin to talk about the script and the character and I suddenly discover something I didn’t expect to discover about Damon — I love the guy. He’s funny and engaging and warm and I realize that the person I first met was probably just as uncomfortable meeting me as I was meeting him. He had no idea how I was going to react to his ideas. Was I a friend? Enemy? But now we’re headed in the same direction, and I’m having a fantastic time talking about the story.

Finally, it’s time to start writing the script, but we feel like we need to do a little research first, so Damon and I head to the Camp Pendleton marine base just outside of San Diego for basic training…

Go HERE for Part 2 of MAJOR PAYNE behind-the-scenes! Basic training and writing the script…

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