Swarthmore nurse-turned-writer figuratively caught Spielberg's eye

Posted: June 26, 2002

There's weird stuff going on in Swarthmore: black-market eye transplants, the unearthing of skeletons, a scientist messing with the body of a dying indigent.

And it's all happening in the third-floor office of a nice little house on a nice little street in this nice little college town on the SEPTA R3 commuter line.

Jon Cohen, a bespectacled former nurse (thick as bottles, his lenses are) who shares the screenwriting credit for a thing called Minority Report, is the guilty party. The high-profile (cover of Time!) Tom Cruise sci-fier, about a cop on the run in the year 2054, comes from director Steven Spielberg and opened Friday to a slew of rave reviews and a solid $35.7 million in its first three days of release.

Cohen, 47, bears none of the attitude and few of the trappings of a big-shot Hollywood screenwriter. Nonetheless, he is just that. Though Minority Report, which Cohen adapted from a 1956 short story by Philip K. Dick, is the first of his projects to reach the multiplexes, his work - much of it in the fantasy-mystery vein, with elements of time-travel, the macabre and, almost always, optical themes - has created a buzz, and earned him bucks, for years now. His screenplays Old City (skeletons found in old Philadelphia), Double Vision and Ripple are all at studios, and the latter looks likely to get going this year.

"Jon is utterly unique," says Howard Sanders, who, as one of Cohen's reps at United Talent Agency (M. Night Shyamalan is a fellow UTA client), is expected to say such stuff. "He has a vision unlike anyone else I work with. And it's interesting because vision is a big part of the theme that runs throughout all his screenplays."

In fact, Sanders says the original title of Cohen's Minority Report script, whose story hinges on retina-identification and features a comically gruesome eye surgery, was Second Sight.

Last week, Cohen - who is co-credited on Minority Report with Hollywood scribe Scott Frank (Get Shorty, Malice) - attended the New York premiere of the sleek thriller that had its genesis in his computer. Wearing his trusty blue blazer from Macy's, Cohen hobbed and nobbed with Spielberg and Cruise and Cruz (Penelope, that is). Accompanying him were his wife, Mary Hasbrouck, a systems engineer at Swarthmore; their teenage son, Ben; and Cohen's mother, brother, sister-in-law, and a few old friends. Their daughter, Molly, missed the event.

"It was strange," says Cohen, whose group was put up in swank hotels and had limos at its disposal, and invites to the private post-premiere bash. "It was much like being at your own wedding, because I had a lot on my mind other than the experience itself . . .. We definitely treated the night as, you know, 'white trash get to go out and try the good stuff.' "

As for seeing the movie, that too was odd for Cohen, who banged out the paranoid futuristic thriller in 1997, met with Spielberg in California, and then watched as Frank came onboard. The scribes have since become friends, "a rare thing to occur in these circumstances," Cohen says. "Usually you just sort of harbor a quiet bitterness about the fact you've been rewritten."

"Obviously, I'd never seen the movie before," says Cohen, eating blueberry pancakes in the Reading Terminal Market as he recounted the New York premiere. "But I was intimately connected with every inch of everything, plus I'd seen a lot of the previews and all the rest. It was a very disorienting experience."

Though much is changed from Cohen's version, much remains - all the eye business, those cool, spiderlike robots, and the Pre-Cogs, mutantlike prescient beings who foresee crimes.

"The hard fact is, I met with Spielberg and I was soon replaced by Scott Frank, and they went through and changed so much," he says. "It's this weird thing where there's much of my structure, some of my scenes, but there's a new plot overlaid on the top of what was once mine . . .. It's this thing that's my movie and not my movie at the same time."

Understandably, he's looking forward to seeing Ripple - which he describes as "a sweet little sci-fi love story" and which his agent says is on the fast track - actually getting made. In the meantime, Cohen is dreaming up new ideas, weighing assignments, and, right now, watching the numbers on Minority Report.

Cohen segued from intensive-care nursing (at Jefferson and Lankenau) to short-story and novel writing. He's published three books: Max Lakeman and the Beautiful Stranger and The Man in the Window, both sold to Hollywood, and Dentist Man. For a time, after he quit his hospital jobs, he went to live with his parents, Hennig Cohen, a literature professor at Penn who died in 1996, and Merrie Lou Cohen, a school librarian.

"When a child gives up his nursing career and comes home and says, 'I'm going to be a writer and I'm going to live with you again,' and he's in his 20s, your heart sinks," says Merrie Lou, now retired.

But Cohen's parents supported him nonetheless, watching as their son began publishing in magazines and winning literary contests.

"Everybody wants to be a writer, and so you worry, and hold your breath until that first publication," says Merrie Lou, happy to play the role of proud mother. "But he never faltered. He knew he had it."

Jon Cohen calls it "stick-to-it-iveness," but he's not immune to doubt. "I'm fragile," he warns. "Many things sort of defeat me in the day."

But it's safe to say that seeing his name on the big screen, in the company of Cruise's and Spielberg's, isn't one of them.

Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com.

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