Homecoming: Attorney finds true calling in writing movies and TV shows?

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By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When he became an attorney, Jonathan Goldstein – the co-writer of the new movie, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” – wasn’t driven to become the next Clarence Darrow.

“I think, like a lot of people who don’t find their path, (law) felt like a way to have a potentially interesting life. I was interested in international law to some extent. That was where I thought I’d end up,” said Goldstein, 48, who lives in Los Angeles with his wife Adena Halpern, a novelist, and their child.

A New York City native who grew up in Ohio, Goldstein earned his undergraduate degree in German literature from the University of Michigan in 1990. Five years later, he graduated cum laude from Harvard Law School in 1995. 

“Coming from U-M with a degree in German literature doesn’t lead to a plethora of career options as you can imagine. I spent a couple years bumming around. I went to Berlin right after I graduated where I taught English in what was East Berlin. It was a very fascinating place in time to be there because the Berlin Wall had just come down,” he recalled.

Upon returning to the United States, Goldstein taught English and German. He also took the LSAT and applied to several law schools. He was accepted to Columbia Law School in his native New York City before ultimately deciding to go to Harvard.

It was during his law school days, Goldstein discovered that writing was his true calling. Goldstein and fellow classmate Ted Cohen – who’d later become the executive producer of NBC’s long-running sitcom “Friends” – wrote a tongue-in-cheek restaurant review for The Harvard Law Record, the oldest, independent law school-affiliated newspaper in the U.S.

“It was an outlet. I felt more stimulated doing that than the other work I was doing,” said Goldstein. “I’d always enjoyed writing. I’ve always loved books from early childhood and I was always obsessed with movies. I grew up watching a ton of television, especially comedies; I was always drawn to Monty Python and Woody Allen. I’d write silly essays in school.”

In his second year at Harvard Law, Goldstein learned Cohen was working on a spec script. Goldstein didn’t know what a spec script was, but learned quickly thereafter when he read Cohen’s spec script for “The Simpsons.”

“It gave me an idea and I had one of those epiphany moments – this is what I should be doing. Ted was really an inspiration for me to say, ‘I have to try this.’ And that’s what I did,” said Goldstein. 

While working as a corporate litigator at the New York office of Jones Day, Goldstein wrote spec scripts in his spare time. After two years at the law firm, Goldstein gave notice on September 2, 1997 – his 29th birthday – and informed his colleagues he was moving to Hollywood.

For 10 years, Goldstein wrote for a slew of TV shows – the majority of them sitcoms – including “The PJs,” “The Geena Davis Show,” “Teachers,” “Four Kings,” “The New Adventures of Old Christine,” “$#*! My Dad Says,” and “Bones,” among others.

“Most sitcoms don’t survive very long. I’d bounce from one to the other almost every year,” he said. “I made the transition from television to features.”

It was on “The Geena Davis Show,” he met actor/writer John Francis Daley. The two became fast friends and writing partners.

“He was a younger version of myself and we both had a similar sense of humor. He showed me these short films he’d been working on, which were just like the ones I had made when I was in school. We actually came up with a television show that he could act in. We didn’t end up selling it but it led to an ongoing collaboration,” said Goldstein.

They sold their first movie script, “The $40,000 Man” – a prequel/parody of the 1973-78 TV series “The Six Million Dollar Man” – to New Line Cinema. While the movie was never made, it opened up plenty of doors for them. One such door was rewriting 2011’s “Horrible Bosses,” starring Jennifer Aniston, Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, and Jason Bateman, which grossed approximately $210 million at the box office.

“That was just a really good experience. It attracted such a great cast so quickly. It had been kicking around for a number of years. We were able to get it off the ground and it turned out to be a big hit. When your first movie is a big success like that, it sets a high bar for everything that comes after it,” said Goldstein.

From there, they went on to write 2013’s “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2,” 2013’s “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone,” 2014’s “Horrible Bosses 2,” and 2015’s “Vacation,” which they also co-directed. Their current writing project debuted July 7 in theaters: “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the third time the popular Marvel Comics character is being rebooted/retooled for the big screen. This time around, Tom Holland plays Spider-Man and his alter-ego Peter Parker, reprising his role from last year’s “Captain America: Civil War.”

“I’ve always loved Spider-Man. He was the one comic book character who was like those of us reading the comics. He was this kid who’s a bit of a nerd,” said Goldstein. “I met with (Spider-Man co-creator) Stan Lee before we even started writing. He was a sweet, charming guy, and so smart. You can see how he was so influential; he just had his finger on the pulse of what kids wanted to read.”

Although Spider-Man’s a Marvel character, Sony Pictures Entertainment had the creative rights to the character, releasing five movies between 2002 and 2014. Tobey Maguire played the titular character in three of them, while Andrew Garfield took over when the movie franchise was rebooted with 2012’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

Since the rights to the character were tied up with Sony, he couldn’t appear in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – which began with 2008’s “Iron Man” – the movies released by Marvel Studios where their characters occupy a shared universe. In 2015, Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige and Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal announced both entertainment companies would collaborate on a new Spider-Man movie with Sony financing and distributing.

All the behind-the-scenes scuttlebutt didn’t intimidate Goldstein. If anything, it excited him because Marvel wanted a new take on Spider-Man.

“We don’t revisit the origin story, which happened in all the prior movies. We picked up from where we left off in the ‘Captain America’ movie that introduced this Spider-Man where he’s already got his powers,” explained Goldstein. “It was a direction where we felt it was the right way to go. Specifically, to portray Peter Parker as a real kid in a real school with real-world problems. And those problems don’t go away just because you get super-powers. In some ways, they exacerbate your teenage problems – you’re more of an outcast, more isolated. I think the movie does a nice job of capturing the most realistic high school experience we’ve seen in any of the (Spider-Man) movies.”

Originally, Goldstein and Daley wanted to co-direct “Homecoming.” Their pitch was portraying Spider-Man as more of a John Hughes character getting super-powers, referencing the late filmmaker who was born in Lansing and responsible for many popular coming-of-age teen comedies, such as 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” 1985’s “The Breakfast Club,” and 1986’s “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” In the end, Marvel executives chose Jon Watts to direct. However, they liked Goldstein and Daley’s pitch so much, they asked them to write the screenplay.

“I think (the Hughes reference) helped us get the job because we approached it with this humor. We were a little bit tongue-in-cheek about the parallels of puberty and super-powers,” said Goldstein. “We chose to steer clear of the more somber, melodramatic kinds of storytelling. We want it to be fun and light. There are emotional stakes, but it never gets too grim. Since this is the introduction to a new (incarnation of) Spider-Man, we want him to be learning; he’s really not that skilled yet, so it’s a coming-of-age story in some respects.”

Before Goldstein and Daley even began writing, they spent a month hammering out ideas with Feige and Watts.

“It was great. We spent many weeks in a room with (Watts) and the Marvel guys, including (Feige),” said Goldstein. “It was a very collaborative process of what we wanted the story to be, what we wanted in the movie, what we didn’t want in the movie. So that was very satisfying.”

 

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