Six or so years ago, I sat in the TGI Fridays on East Colonial Drive, listening to a server named Rob McKittrick talk up a feature-film script he had written, Waiting … . It was "Clerks in a restaurant," he told me, impressing me equally with his pitching skills and lack of artistic pretension. He asked if I would look at the script sometime and tell him what I thought. I said sure.
McKittrick never got me that script, but as it turned out, he didn't have to. I mentioned the project in print anyway, and not long after, Waiting … was optioned by a white-hot Hollywood studio. (I'd like to think the two were related, but sanity will out.) McKittrick high-tailed it to Los Angeles, seemingly destined to become the second homegrown success story in what was then considered the Blair Witch era. His movie was even being released by the same people, Artisan Entertainment.
More than half a decade later, Artisan is history and McKittrick has a litany of Hollywood nightmare stories to tell but his movie is finally making it to screens nationwide Friday, Oct. 7. He was even allowed to direct, a dream he had fought for and apparently lost several times during the picture's painfully long gestation.
"It's such a weird mixture of happiness and weirdness and a little sadness and separation anxiety," McKittrick says, describing his reaction to the film's impending release. "It's been through so many stages, starting back in Orlando and trying to make it for no money and go the Clerks route, and ultimately to be able to make it for three million bucks but to have it take five years. It's very strange that it's actually almost over."
The half-decade to which he refers was eaten up by collapsing studios, legal battles, Sept. 11-related delays and the coming and going of a director (Russell DeGrazier) whom McKittrick found less than ideal for the material. Out of it all has come a finished film that reportedly hews closely to that early script I never saw. Now as then, Waiting … is a dialogue-driven comedy about a bunch of rowdy tip slaves working in a chain restaurant. Though their exploits aren't as wordy and visually static as in McKittrick's original conception, "[t]he overall feel of the movie is really unchanged," he says. "I still got in virtually all of the restaurant truisms that I possibly could." From managers lusting after underage hostesses to servers terrorizing customers with shrill birthday songs, this is dysfunction any veteran of the food-service industry should recognize.
It's a wonder, then, that McKittrick's crew received permission to shoot in a real Bennigan's. (On the screen, it's called ShenaniganZ.) The restaurant, McKittrick says, was scheduled for demolition anyway, and its owner was a former waiter with "a great sense of humor." Great indeed: The footage he allowed McKittrick to lens at his establishment depicts cooks shooting snot rockets into entrees sent back by bitchy customers.
A great sense of humor would be a fine accessory for just about anybody else McKittrick worked with. His blog (www.robmckittrick.com) presents a detailed history of the movie, including its circuitous path from Artisan to New Line and now Lions Gate. He tells the tale with a hilarious candor that borders on venom: One running gag concerns a certain "shitbag producer" he hooked up with during his Orlando days. Isn't McKittrick worried that this enfant terrible act could end his career at the starting gate?
"I'm just choosing not to think about it," he deadpans. "I'm choosing to bury my head in the sand and hope that nothing bad … no, I don't know. I try to be careful. If you read my blog, I say a lot of caustic things, but it's usually to the end of [telling] a joke. [But] I want to be truthful. I don't want to give the bullshit version of a story. I don't want to just give the featurette, behind-the-scenes version that you always see on the DVDs that everybody had a wonderful time always and nothing ever went wrong, ever."
One subject he has to address gingerly perhaps because there's a Lions Gate representative close at hand is an 11th-hour corporate decision that almost postponed the release of Waiting … from this weekend until next spring. McKittrick professes not to know what was behind that mulled strategy, dismissing it for now as "par for the course" considering the film's turbulent genesis.
"If I had a nickel for every time the movie started and stopped, I'd probably have $1.50. Which is quite a few nickels, frankly."
With Waiting … finally out cross fingers he can devote 100 percent of his energies to his next project, Man Crush, a comedy that lampoons "the balance of power in male/female relationships" by applying the same dynamic to the nonsexual friendship between two men. It's only the second script ever penned by McKittrick, who says he has a "very hate/hate relationship" with the process of writing.
Frankly, I'm surprised. Every time I meet a TGI Fridays waiter who's about to sell a script to Hollywood, he's merely writing what he knows (and what he knows will sell) so he can get on with his real business of changing the world. One would think McKittrick would be churning out earnest art-house musings like lobster poppers by now, but maybe it's just not the way he's made.
"I would hate to change the world from a script," he says. "I wouldn't even know what to change."