Friday, February 23, 2018
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'Identity Thief' started with Osceola High teacher's script

ST. PETERSBURG — It would make one heck of a movie pitch. Guy tries to make it in Hollywood. Flames out, moves to Florida, marries a childhood friend, has a couple of kids, becomes a beloved high school teacher.

And just when life finally makes sense, Universal Pictures turns one of his scripts into the major comedy Identity Thief, with Jason Bateman and Bridesmaids' star Melissa McCarthy.

Pretty cool twist, huh?

"It's surreal," laughs Jerry Eeten, a business and technology teacher at Osceola Fundamental High School who also happens to be the idea man behind the film, opening nationwide Feb. 8.

"I don't consider myself a screenwriter," says the 44-year-old, who wrote the script about six years ago. "I always tell people I'm a teacher. I love teaching. I moonlight as a screenwriter."

Nevertheless, if Identity Thief triumphs at the box office — "It's tracking well," says Eeten — he could finally be accepted by the town that once spurned him.

And that might change things.

"This could be a really good start for me," Eeten says.

"Or it could be the pinnacle."

• • •

Eeten grew up in Illinois, "in the middle of nowhere." He never thought of himself as a writer, especially not a comedy screenwriter. "I'm not really a funny guy," he says. It was a job with Marriott, not a desire to be the next Woody Allen, that brought him to California.

He tried the insurance game. Kicked around here and there. Looking for something to do, Eeten signed up for acting classes, where he met one of his idols, Bull Durham writer-director Ron Shelton. He got the Hollywood bug bad, even going as far as writing, directing and acting in a small-budget $50,000 spoof of Quentin Tarantino movies called Elvis Took a Bullet.

Showtime showed interest in the rights to Elvis, but Eeten was "stupid" and tried to hold out for more money from HBO. Neither cable network picked it up.

"I was a mess," he says.

When things were at their lowest, a friend from his old Illinois days visited Los Angeles. Her name was Jaya and she now lived in St. Petersburg, working as a teacher. They hadn't seen each other in 10 years; she was his sister's friend, almost six years younger than Jerry. But they kept in touch, dated, fell in love. Eeten decided Jaya was more important than Hollywood. He followed her east in November 2000. "He's very Midwestern," Jaya Eeten says of her husband. "Very Illinois."

They got married, had a son and a daughter, now 8 and 5. He tended bar at Ferg's in St. Petersburg. One day one of his regulars asked how he felt about teaching. There was a position open. He said sure, why not, his wife liked doing it. Turns out, he was good at it, too.

"Jerry does a great job," says Osceola High principal Mike Bohnet. "He has a good rapport with his students."

"I'm the teacher that can hang," Eeten chuckles.

And only when he had finished his duties being a husband and father and teacher and basketball coach would he indulge that old itch.

"I wrote movies as a hobby," he says.

• • •

On the movie poster for Identity Thief, Eeten gets co-credit for the story. He won't disclose how much he was paid for the script but will allow that "it was well above the Writers Guild of America minimum, but not really life changing." He'll also get residuals from DVD sales.

The script was inspired by the John Candy-Steve Martin road comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, written and directed by another one of his heroes, John Hughes.

"It was originally a midlife crisis movie," Eeten says. "It was about a guy who had the same job at the same bank since he graduated. He's kind of a joke, in his kids' eyes, too. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting if an identity thief taught you how to live again?"

Identity Thief was optioned by Universal in 2008 as a project for Bateman. The script has gone through various changes, including a rewrite by noted screenwriter Craig Mazin, whose credits include The Hangover II and III and some Scary Movie sequels. The biggest plot switcheroo? Eeten's thief was a man; he had Matthew McConaughey in mind. Now the con artist in the R-rated film is a woman played by McCarthy.

"Jerry came up with a spectacularly good idea," says Mazin, calling from Los Angeles, "and you don't see that very often. It was about something. It had more to it than just the circumstances. There was wonderful potential in that idea, and that's what got me intrigued."

Eeten hasn't seen the final version of the film yet. He did visit the Identity Thief set last year, spending time with Bateman. "He asked me how I felt about them changing the sex," he says. "But Melissa is really fantastic."

Everyone on the set treated him well — and with a persistent, amused curiosity. "They all came up to me and said, 'Oh, you're the teacher.' "

He says he was lying low with all the recent Identity Thief news until one of his students started Googling him. "They said, 'Hey Eeten, this is a real movie!' "

He doesn't want to leave Florida. He doesn't want to stop teaching. "Jerry told me teaching is where he wants to be," says Bohnet. "All you can do is wait and see how things unfold."

Eeten has a couple of new scripts in the works, including a "romantic wedding comedy." His agent has been calling more, too.

"Keeping the family together is important," says Jaya Eeten about the possibility of her husband being lured back into the Hollywood game again. "It'd be hard for him to be gone, and hard for the kids, too. But I guess we'd get used to a new normal. We're pretty good at taking things as they come."

Mazin agrees that Eeten's re-entry into the movie biz could happen — but proximity to the action is an issue: "He's a great guy, but he's not really on the radar. They kind of forgot about him. You have to be out here."

On Monday, Eeten will fly to Los Angeles for the premiere of Identity Thief. His wife has been ill lately, so he will take his mom instead. "I'm not a star-struck person," says Jaya, "but I'd like to be there to support him."

She pauses then says: "I'll go to the next one."

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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