Getting his big `Break'

Dulaney grad goes to work for Farrellys and ends up a screenwriter

Kevin Barnett

October 05, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporter

Kevin Barnett was never much of a film buff. But he liked funny.

The work of Bobby and Peter Farrelly - the determined moronics of Dumb and Dumber, the overwrought rivalries of Kingpin, the strange hair gels of There's Something About Mary - now, that was funny! Wouldn't it be something if he, a frustrated twentysomething financial adviser riding out the 1990s, could work with them?

Dream on, right?

Fast-forward eight years. The Timonium native, thanks to equal measures of persistence, grit and plain dumb luck, is indeed working alongside the Farrellys. Go see their latest film, The Heartbreak Kid, and there's Barnett's name among the five-person writing team. He's writing and producing a TV show for Fox (which the Farrellys are executive producing). And he has a handful of scripts in various stages of development within the Farrelly empire.

"Peter and Bobby have been kind of big brothers to me," Barnett, 31 and single, says from Los Angeles, where he's supervising the editing on Unhitched, a series he expects will show up on Fox early next year.

Not above prancing around naked for a laugh, the Farrellys "are hilarious every day," Barnett says. "They're constantly pulling gags on you. It's always interesting, but it's also such a learning experience."

And quite different from his education at Dulaney High School (Class of '94) and the college in New Zealand where Barnett enrolled with vague ideas about working with numbers - or maybe something even more noble. "If I could have been anything," he says, "I would have been a doctor and tried to save people's lives. But I can't take blood and guts."

While nominally a film student (he double-majored in finance), Barnett had no aspirations of a career behind the camera. "It was just the easier course, going and watching films all day," he says.

And yet, when a brief stint as a financial consultant for sports figures and other celebrities didn't pan out - "It was just not for me at all," Barnett says - he decided to put the other half of that double major to use. His father, Tom, a director for the news division at Baltimore's WJZ-TV, knew John Waters and had worked with Barry Levinson. Barnett wrote to them and sent 20 more letters to various folks in show business - including a pair of brothers he looked on as the ne plus ultra of Hollywood employment possibilities.

"I remember when I was taking film courses, and I had to write a paper, and the only guys I was interested in doing a report on, and looking into their work, were the Farrellys," Barnett says of the New Englanders who ditched their 9-to-5 jobs in the early 1990s to jump into the comedy writing-and-directing biz. "In doing the research on them, I found out that they were very similar to me. I could relate most to them. And I liked their films."

A few weeks later, the phone rang. Barnett's dad said Peter Farrelly was on the phone. Barnett was sure he was kidding.

But it was no joke. "He told me, `Listen, if I had anything to offer you job-wise, I'd love to have you. But unfortunately, I don't have anything to offer.'"

Barnett hung up, impressed that the Farrellys even called back (they were the only ones who did). On an impulse, he called right back, said he was flying to Los Angeles the next day anyway (he wasn't) and suggested they meet. Sure, he was told, come on over.

"I got off the phone, panicked, called US Airways, got a flight, took the red eye out and met with them the next day," he says. "They weren't lying - they didn't have a thing for me. ... But the meeting went great."

Barnett started trolling for a job and landed an internship with Levinson's production company. A few months later, he ran into fellow Marylander David C. Robinson, vice president of Morgan Creek Productions, who hired him as an assistant. That proved just the job until six more months rolled by and the Farrellys called.

"They offered me two jobs," Barnett says. "I could be an office guy or I could work as an assistant to J.B. Rogers, who was the director on a film, Say It Isn't So. I wanted to get out on the set, see the whole shooting process, so I went with Rogers," sticking with him through his next film, American Pie 2, as well.

Meanwhile, Barnett began working on scripts of his own. He eventually got one into development, a comedy about a college student who goes away on spring break and doesn't come back for 10 years. The Farrellys liked the idea and were ready to start working with him on rewrites when The Heartbreak Kid dropped in their laps.

A studio had signed on for the film, screenwriters Scott Armstrong and Leslie Dixon's remake of a 1972 comedy about a newlywed who falls in love with another woman while on his honeymoon. But the studio ended up passing on the project. Barnett says that he and the Farrellys liked the script but wanted to tailor it more to their sensibilities.

"We started looking at all our past relationships and pulling comedy from that," he says. A year and a half later, the movie, starring Ben Stiller, went into production. It opens in theaters today, and Barnett, who admits he was "never the guy who stayed to watch credits," won't mind if his audiences do the same - as long as they continue following his example while the movie is playing, and afterward.

"I would just laugh and laugh," watching a Farrelly film, he says, "and then go and tell people about it."

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