June 27, 2002
The Accidental Screenwriter
Jon Cohen, co-screenwriter of the noirish sci-fi thriller "Minority Report," has the perfect headline for recent events in his life. "Ordinary guy sits in room and writes Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise flick by accident," he says with a laugh.
It's an apt way to describe the ascent of a former registered nurse who taught himself to write movies strictly from books. In fact, Cohen, now 47, never had a screenplay produced until Cruise read his "Report" and sent it off to Spielberg in the late 1990s. The Swarthmore, Pa., resident was suddenly meeting with Spielberg -- which felt as trippy as the Philip K. Dick stories that inspired "Report," "Total Recall" and the seminal sci-fi film "Blade Runner."
If Dick virtually invented the humanistic-but-paranoid parable now de rigueur in science fiction, Cohen is a little more grounded. "I didn't freak out," he says of his Spielberg meeting, "because I was a nurse for many years, and I had people die and blood and weirdness and big situations, so I know what matters in life."
Cohen's life changed in 1997, when director Jan de Bont asked him to rewrite a screenplay based on Dick's 1956 "Report" story (he now shares screenplay credit with "Out of Sight's" Scott Frank). The plot revolves around a futuristic police squad that uses seers to predict murders and bust potential killers before they act. Everything goes haywire when "Precrime" Chief John Anderton (played by Cruise in the movie) gets fingered and goes on the lam.
Dick's bare-bones story had already boggled several screenwriters, but Cohen discovered an affinity with the late author. Not that he had popped pills, guzzled scotch and burned through five marriages like the notoriously tormented writer -- who claimed to be channeling a medieval rabbi before he died in 1982 at 54. "But Dick had, among other weirdnesses, a vertigo problem, which gives you a kind of dizziness, a skewed reality," Cohen says in a telephone interview. "And I have double vision, multiple vision, a slight genetic abnormality that makes things look a little weird to me. So I identified with Dick's sense of feeling uncomfortable, that something's not quite right with the world."
Cohen, who wears thick glasses, invented optic imagery to compliment "Report's" concept of visionary seers -- resulting in some of the film's coolest eye-candy. The fictional Anderton hides out in a gritty city where retina scanners track your every move. To fool the scanners, he has eyeball surgery and dodges spidery robots bent on prying his eyelids open. Meanwhile, the seers, known as "Precogs," view future murders as prismatic visions -- much as Cohen sees the world. "'Minority Report' is the perfect story for a guy who's obsessed with eyes," he says. It's also perfect for a post-Sept. 11 world where people are willing to give up personal freedoms to feel safe.
The screenwriter's childhood was more about Moby Dick than Philip K. Dick. Cohen's father, an English professor, was a Herman Melville scholar. Professor Cohen was also a Southern-born Jew whose German grandfather immigrated to South Carolina around 1890.
A relative put together an exhibit on Southern Jewry -- including a cousin's basketball jersey that read, "Jew Boy" -- but the Cohens initially experienced more anti-Semitism up North than down South. When the professor and family relocated to Swarthmore in 1960, the real estate agent refused to show them around the restricted gentile neighborhood.
Cohen eventually earned an English degree but -- in a move he describes as "both cowardly and practical" -- he became a nurse and toiled for a decade in Philadelphia hospitals. A low point: applying wriggling medicinal leeches to a patient's severed-but-reattached fingers.
One day in the 1980s, the creatively frustrated nurse came home from work and began typing a short story. After years of hard work, he wrote a couple of novels that were optioned by Hollywood producers.
His big break came the day he turned in his "Minority Report" draft; while Frank overhauled the script, he reportedly kept Cohen's structure and eyeball imagery.
Though Cohen's career has since skyrocketed, he likes to point out he still shops in thrift stores and writes in an attic study where water stains discolor the 1940s-era wallpaper. Then he has a surreal, Dickian moment: "I've made a movie with Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg," he marvels. "How impossible is that?"