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'Mad City' screenwriter will take your questions

1997 film written by Tosan to be shown at Times Cinema

April 13, 2011

"Mad City," a 1997 film starring Dustin Hoffman and John Travolta didn't exactly break box-office attendance records. But more than a decade after its debut, its screenwriter, Wauwatosa resident Tom Matthews, hopes to introduce the movie to a new audience during a screening at the Times Cinema this weekend.

"It's a film that many people didn't see," he said.

Matthews attended film school in southern California, then took his chances in Hollywood. After 12 years of writing unsold screenplays, he and his wife decided to move back to Wisconsin, where he grew up. Then he found a buyer for "Mad City."

The flick was inspired by a 1950s film, "Ace in the Hole," written and directed by Billy Wilder and starring Kirk Douglas. It was the story of former big-city journalist now working for a small-town newspaper. He exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave to try to get his career back on track.

Matthews' version brought the idea of sensational journalism into the television age by focusing on a compromised television reporter (Hoffman) who perpetuates a hostage situation at a museum so he can get air time.

"I actually sold the script twice," he said.

Initially, it was optioned in 1994, but after it sat on the shelf for more than a year, it ended up back on the market and found another buyer in 1995.

The years between completion of the writing and the silver screen debut made his film look realistic rather than sensational, he said. The O.J. Simpson trial and Princess Diana's death trumped what he had come up with, Matthews said.

" 'Mad City' was kind of ahead of its time," he said, adding that he would call it a period piece because shortly afterward the Internet age began taking media coverage to a different level.

He wrote the original script, which went through a series of rewrites before the finished product hit the screen, and he worked with the director.

"At some point I was sort of excused, as often happens in this business," he said. "The final product wasn't entirely my own. But I was kept up to date all the way."

Still, it was pretty exciting to see A-list talent like Hoffman, Travolta and Alan Alda sign on for his film. He made visits to the movie lot - home to classic films like "Gone with the Wind" - where a massive museum set was constructed and most of the movie was shot. He also spent three nights watching the filming of outdoor scenes in San Jose.

"It was pretty unbelievable to have an image in my head and all of the sudden it's there in three dimensions," he said.

Matthews got the red carpet treatment during the movie's premiere, but by that time he was settled in Wauwatosa. His friends and family duplicated the Hollywood scene with a party at a local theater.

After leaving L.A., Matthews stayed involved in screenwriting for another five years, working from his Wauwatosa basement. He adapted novels, rewrote other writer's scripts and sold another original screenplay - none of the works have been turned into films.

"Hollywood options probably 10 times more than it produces," he said.

Since then he has written a couple of novels and works as a grant writer for COA Youth and Family Centers in Milwaukee.

Matthews is going to participate in a Q and A about the movie and his work as a writer as part of the screening.

AT A GLANCE

WHAT: Wauwatosa resident Tom Matthews will answer questions from the audience during a screening of the film, "Mad City," which he wrote in the 1990s. Rated PG-13.

WHEN: 3:30 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Time Cinema, 5906 W. Vliet St.

COST: $5

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