Saved by the Bell
08/04/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
WHEN SCOTT YAGEMANN BEGAN substitute teaching in Los Angeles seven years ago, the aspiring screenwriter was looking forward to the regular paycheck and reasonable hours that would let him continue writing on the side. Instead he spent his time wondering if he'd survive. Once, he recalls, the older brother of a boy he had disciplined in class followed him home shouting obscenities. Another time a student handed in a poem declaring his intent to "put the teacher in the blender and put it on mince." But the worst moment, says Yagemann, 43, who taught English and health science in 14 junior and senior high schools, occurred when "I had a kid threaten to kill me and my whole family." Only later did he learn that one year earlier the student had stabbed a teacher's aide. "A good person," says Yagemann, "could unravel and crack under that pressure."
But Yagemann did not. He turned his war stories into a screenplay called 187 (the California Penal Code number for murder), a disturbingly realistic drama about a substitute teacher who not only unravels but fights back against his students. Though his 13 previous screenplays failed to attract Hollywood backers, this one took off. "It was very different and touched me in a very real kind of way," says Samuel L. Jackson, who stars in the film, due July 30. His aunt is a teacher, he says, "so I have a lot of respect for [teachers] and what they go through."
Other actors reportedly passed on the role because they considered the film too dark. "It's nothing like To Sir with Love or Dangerous Minds," concedes Yagemann. Indeed the idea for 187 came to him on a day when a student was causing so much trouble that, he says, "for a moment I wished that kid was dead." Later he thought, "What if a good man is destroyed by this environment? What if I wrote a movie that's not Michelle Pfeiffer coming into a school and turning kids around by giving them candy bars?"
Yagemann himself is the product of private schools and an upper-class upbringing in the San Fernando Valley. As part of a showbiz family—his father, Bill, was a writer, director and producer for television and radio, while his mother, Elinor, was an associate producer for radio—he grew up wanting to be a director. At 14, he began shooting 8-mm films of his four siblings. "He drove everyone insane," says sister Kerry, 32, an actress who now lives upstairs from Yagemann's tidy one-bedroom apartment in Studio City. "My mom was like, 'Put that thing down.' " In 1975 he got a degree in communication arts from Loyola Marymount University in L.A., then for the next 15 years worked as a writer and segment producer for game shows while churning out movie scripts.
But in 1990 he decided to take a breather. "I can't take Hollywood anymore," he remembers telling himself. "The hell with it." An actor friend who worked as a substitute teacher suggested he try it as well. He did, and that ironically would lead to his big break. In 1994 he shared his 187 script idea with Steve McEveety, a friend at Mel Gibson's Icon Productions—and soon afterward the screenplay version of his life was being shopped around Hollywood. "When I read it," says director Kevin Reynolds, "it just had this ring of truth to it. In fact, when I called Icon, I said, This feels like it's written by a teacher.' And they said, 'Well, it is written by a teacher.' "
Yagemann admits to having spent little time on extracurricular activities in his life. "I'm basically obsessed with my work," he says. He hasn't had much luck with romance, he adds, because "it would be difficult to be with me unless you're as obsessed with movies as I am. This sounds crazy, but my scripts are like my kids."
He also has no intention of returning to the teaching trenches. For the entire three-month 187 shoot—except for a two-day break to have his appendix removed—he was on the set working with the director on script changes. "I don't want to be thought of," he says, "as some guy that taught and then wrote a script that by accident sold."
Still, Yagemann realizes that he owes his success to the same students he feared most as a teacher. "Without subbing," he says, "I wouldn't have had this story. It sounds corny, but by letting go of writing and going into something else, I was given this perfect opportunity. It all just came to me."
JEANNE GORDON in Los Angeles