Alex Pettyfer stars as an alien on the run from ruthless enemies… (John Bramley, DreamWorks…)
Maryland native Alfred Gough may be the most popular purveyor of small-town drama, comedy and romance since Frank Capra. He and his writing-producing partner, Miles Millar, developed TV's "Smallville" series, about Clark Kent's Kansas youth, then stayed with the show for seven years. They also wrote the current big fantasy film, "I Am Number Four," about a virtuous alien hiding in Paradise, Ohio, from some dastardly extraterrestrials.
"Smallville" and "I Am Number Four" derive suspense and humor from the friction between otherworldly mayhem and cozy Americana. Gough didn't research the heartland to flesh out hayrides and high school cliques and Main Street parades. He drew on his memories of growing up in Leonardtown in Southern Maryland.
Gough was born in Towson. He also lived in Catonsville, his mother's hometown. "But when I was 7," he recalled over the phone from Los Angeles on Tuesday, "my father wanted to move back to Southern Maryland, where he was born. He was a country boy who wasn't comfortable raising kids in the city. We moved to Leonardtown, which seemed to my mother's father like it was across the world, though it was only a couple of hours away. It was rural then, full of farms and woods, not a D.C. bedroom community. My dad worked in the legal department of Southern Maryland Electric; my mom taught school. I worked on a farm in the summer."
His youth, he said, was "idyllic, real Spielbergian, right out of films of the '70s and '80s. We rode bikes and hung out and had all sorts of adventures as long as we got home in time for dinner." (Gough's parents had four kids in all.) He saw "E.T., the Extra-Terrestrial" when he was 14. "It made me want to go into movies. I had everything in my room that Elliott had in 'E.T.': the Star Wars figures, the spilled-over-Coke that was really made of plastic."
Gough's parents supported his dreams, "partly because they had no idea how I should go about achieving them." He majored in finance and ran theater companies at Catholic University of America and (during the summer) in Southern Maryland. After graduation, he toiled in public relations in New York. He feared getting stuck "on the periphery of what I really wanted to do." So he applied to the Peter Stark Producing Program of the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. That's where he met Millar. They collaborated on a treatment and first act for a screenwriting class and sold it as a "spec" script. "We used the money as our tuition to learn how to write. We wrote every day from 9 to 6." When they graduated from USC, their idols, Spielberg and George Lucas, handed out diplomas.
They eventually landed a TV development deal at Warner Bros. When Warners TV inherited "Superman" from the features division, they embraced the task of reworking the Man of Steel's mythology straight up from the foundations. The hero's space capsule from Krypton would now crash into Kansas in a meteor shower that kills Lana Lang's parents, makes Lex Luthor lose his hair and laces Smallville with kryptonite. Nuggets of this glowing green astro-rock would not only weaken Clark but also give otherwise "normal" humans super-villainous powers. Clark would save the day as predictably as Lassie, but would also have to recognize that his wild ride to Earth is what turned Smallville upside down.
In "Smallville," Clark's shutterbug friend, Chloe, erects a "Wall of the Weird" chronicling the freaky goings-on. "If I were a character on the show," quipped Gough, "I would be Chloe!"
The original novel "I Am Number Four" contains elements freakily similar to "Smallville," including a feisty girl photographer. Gough and Millar tightened the novel's action and timeline and threaded one or two ambiguous characters in and out of the narrative. They also turned the alien hero's high school sidekick into a boy whose biological father, a UFO believer, mysteriously disappeared years before. "There's something Spielbergian about a kid who thinks his father might have been a crackpot, then learns from this alien that his father was right."
Gough and Millar also set a climactic battle in a high school. "It gives the fight an architecture, but it's also a kind of wish fulfillment. What if you went to high school one day and found that aliens had destroyed it the night before? We were tempted to do a morning-after scene with a kid who didn't finish his homework. He'd show up and see the wreckage and say to himself, 'Thank God.' "