Zackham takes a trip 'Upstate'

Follows 'Bucket List' with high school-set dramedy

Justin Zackham was just another unknown screenwriter until such Hollywood royalty as Rob Reiner and Jack Nicholson lifted him and his screenplay "The Bucket List" to prominence.

With the movie recently closing after tallying $91 million in domestic receipts, Zackham has set his next project — only this time he'll put down his pen.

Zackham will produce the dramatic comedy "Upstate," described as "The Ice Storm" meets "Election" set in an upstate New York bedroom town, via his nascent banner Two Ton Films. Jessica Goldberg will direct from her own script.

The movie is casting and begins shooting in June (the production has a SAG waiver). Greenwich, Conn., where Zackham and Two Ton producing partner Clay Pecorin grew up, will stand in for the fictional New York town of New Hudson.

Set mainly against the backdrop of the 2004 presidential election, "Upstate" follows a group of high-schoolers conducting a mock election at school while facing dysfunctional families at home. The dramatic comedy will explore such subjects as postadolescence and failing marriages and also use politics as a force and character. "The movie's really about how politics intersects in personal lives and how people use politics to band-aid personal problems instead of facing them," said Goldberg, a scribe who currently has "Absent Hearts," a U.S.-set Iraq movie based on a Buzz Bissinger article, set up at Imagine.

With a budget of $5 million-$10 million, "Upstate" is being financed with equity and tax-rebate money. Zackham and Pecorin are producing for Two Ton; Costa Theo and Joy Mellins also are attached to produce.

Zackham's personal story is the kind of fairy tale that could have been a script in its own right. The scribe had written what he describes as a "lot of awful screenplays" and directed a low-budget frat comedy for Showtime until one day, motivated by the creation of his own life's to-do list, he came up with the idea for "Bucket List," about two older men who break out of a cancer ward for a series of life-affirming adventures.

The script took Zackham to Reiner, whom Zackham on a lark suggested to his agent was his dream director. A short while later Zackham found himself at Nicholson's Hollywood Hills home, and less than a year later the movie began principal photography.

When Warners released the movie at the end of last year, many expected it to stay in theaters a few weeks and earn a modest return. But the picture became a contemporary distribution anomaly: a star-driven, top-grossing movie with legs. The movie earned its money over a remarkable three-month run, never exceeding $3 million in any given weekend but still drawing more dollars in 2008 than any picture outside of "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!"

Zackham said that he'd like to write about two scripts per year — "for me and for them," as he calls it — essentially, one for the studios and one indie that he could either direct or produce. He's currently holding onto his script "Monkey Fist," based on his experience on a rough-and-tumble Caribbean ship when he was a teenager, as a potential directing or producing vehicle. "As a director, I have to do some fighting; people are not coming to me," he acknowledged. "I'd like to write and produce or write and direct. But I've also got a mortgage and a kid on the way in August, so I know I have to keep a balance."
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