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Two young American office girls write a script; it’s a ripper and a young Aussie actor is cast as the male lead; the film is directed by a man who has never directed a film before; the film is a hit. ANDREW L. URBAN reports.

The Hollywood debut of young (born April 1979) Perth-born actor Heath Ledger, 10 Things I Hate About You, is also the feature film debut for director (not as young) Gil Junger – a veteran tv director with several hits and awards under his belt, including Dharma & Greg, Ellen,, The Golden Girls, Empty nest and It’s a Living.

"a sophisticated, sharp character comedy"

But it was the fresh, funny and engaging script by two young women – Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith – which provided the trigger for the film, as executive producer Andrew Lazar readily admits. "This movie was generated by the two very talented writers," he says. "I fell in love with their script. It’s very interesting, with modern characters and a fresh setting. It’s a sophisticated, sharp character comedy – very different from the average teen movie."

When Junger was approached to direct the film, he turned it down. "My agent said it was a high school comedy based on Taming of the Shrew; I said absolutely not. I had no interest in doing a typical high school film. I wanted to do a romantic love story." Junger finally gave in to his agent and read the script – and loved it. "The depth of it surprised me. It really is a romantic love story. The plot is beautifully interwoven and the humour works because it comes from the characters."

Since selling their script, the writers’ own lives have been changed. At the time, McCullah Lutz was working as a temp in Denver, doing a great job filing folders. Kirsten was an assistant to a talent manager in the San Fernando Valley. They had met earlier when karen submitted a spec script through Kirsten to an indie film company (who wish to remain anonymous).

"It makes him more interesting, mysterious and sexy."

Since 10 Things … was picked up for production, Karen and Kirsten have written a teen surfing movie, Girl in the Curl (United Artists); a romantic comedy, The One You Want (Disney); and are working on a comedy for producer Donald DeLine (Paramount). Oh yes, and also developing a half hour comedy for the WB Network called The In Crowd, while nurturing a development deal with 20th Century Fox Television.

In their bios, they say they share a passion for coffee, margaritas served by hunky cabana boys and vigorous sunbathing. Karen lives in the Hollywood Hills with hubby Walter, who is "immensely relieved that people are willing to pay her." Kirsten lives in the flatlands of Los Angeles, anxiously waiting for Marky Mark to realise she’s available.

Then came the casting - and here’s how showbiz works: it’s 1996/97 and a US action series is being shot in Australia, called Roar. The outline tells us that it’s set in the year 400 A.D., when a young Irish man, Conor, is destined to unite the clans to rid the island of the invading Romans. Ledger is cast as Conor, and the series gets pulled off air after a few eps – but not before several industry people take note of Ledger’s screen presence. Come casting time for 10 Things…, Ledger is called in. "My goal was to cast really good actors and not necessarily stars," says Junger. "My first reaction to Heath Ledger was this guy is great looking, I hope he can act. When I talked with him I realised how bright he was. Then he read for me and after about three minutes and 40 seconds, I knew that he was the right actor for the role. There was initial concern over Heath’s Australian accent but I said, Why? It makes him more interesting, mysterious and sexy."

"a Jack Nicholson edge"

Ledger says of his character, Patrick Verona; "Basically he is an adaptation of the classic character, Petruchio. I’m using bits and pieces of Richard Burton’s portrayal of that character in perhaps the best known The Taming of The Shrew film, but my Patrick has also got a Jack Nicholson edge to him with his cheekiness and his smiles."

And there was no question, the filmmakers all agree, that Ledger and his co-star, Julia Stiles, share an undeniable screen chemistry. "We were just firing back at each other," says Ledger, "we saw it in our eyes."

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Following his US debut in 10 Things I Hate About You, Heath Ledger has landed the title role in Gabriel, starring Mel Gibson, directed by Roland Emmerich (Godzilla, Independence Day, etc), written by Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan). Production begins in July/August 1999. The 20-year-old plays Gabriel, son of Gibson’s character, a farmer who reluctantly takes up arms against the British when the fighting reaches his town. The two end up battling side by side in the quest for U.S. independence.

10 Things I Hate About You opens in Australia on July 24, 1999.


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