Rochester native Joe Syracuse pens Billy Crystal film Parental Guidance

05:00 AM, Dec 23, 2012

Billy Syracuse with Joe Syracuse and his wife, Lisa Addario. (Provided photo)/

Written By Jinelle Shengulette

Joe Syracuse didn’t make the best first impression on Billy Crystal.

Syracuse — a 45-year-old screenwriter who grew up in Rochester — was about to begin writing on Parental Guidance, which opens Christmas Day and stars Crystal as a baseball announcer, alongside Bette Midler and Marisa Tomei.

In order to get a feel for the profession before writing began, Syracuse told Crystal, who came up with the idea for the film, that he’d visit a nearby baseball stadium.

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

Then, as Syracuse told it during a phone interview from his Los Angeles home, “Billy said, ‘It’s December.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s December but it’s not cold. I can just go down there.’ And he was like, ‘It’s December. Baseball season is over.’ “

Syracuse called the conversation “terrifying, because (Crystal) immediately got off the phone. … The person who works for him called back, and she was like, ‘Billy’s concerned.’ “

Syracuse and Lisa Addario, his wife and writing partner, were certain they would be fired.

Syracuse quickly called the actor back and promised that he would study up on the sport to learn as much as he could. Crystal agreed to let him do his homework, on the condition that Crystal would send one trivia question per day to gauge his progress. The questions came in every day for six months.

It took Syracuse and Addario five years to finish writing the script about Artie and Diane Decker (played by Crystal and Midler), who agree to babysit their three grandchildren while their daughter (played by Tomei) is away for work.

The writers drew from real-life experiences while penning the script. One scene was inspired by their son’s first Little League game, where Syracuse found that no one was keeping score. The kids didn’t strike out — they hit until they got on base. In the film, Artie is the irate grandfather in the bleachers who finds out that no one’s keeping score.

Syracuse said that many things in the move were inspired by real life. “We’re in a culture now where you have to ask children permission to change their diaper. That was something they were teaching at my preschool, and the kids are 1 or 2 years old and can’t speak. … You couldn’t have written this movie unless you’d lived all of those things that we did. It was a great chance to make fun of our generation and how we parent.”

This holiday season will be filled with a healthy amount of anxiety for the Syracuse/Addario family, since Parental Guidance opens on Christmas Day. This could be the movie to change everything for the family and possibly land the writing duo more jobs in the future.

Having a potentially big movie on the horizon … (is something) we haven’t had in the past,” said Syracuse. “So for this whole year, that has really been a driving force. We just have to make it to this finish line and then, fingers crossed, people will go see this movie.”

The first big project for the couple was a film they wrote and directed in 1997 titled Lover Girl. It showed at the Sundance Film Festival, but didn’t get released in U.S. theaters. And Syracuse admitted, it “didn’t feel like us. It takes a while to be able to express your personality in your medium.”

But that debut did get the writing duo an agent, and it got them to make the move to L.A. The couple didn’t know anyone in the movie business when they arrived, and it took them several years just to get the names and numbers of people to call. But eventually they were able to pitch story ideas to producers. And they were hired to write a number of screenplays, most of which were never made into movies or TV shows.

Out of 15 pitches this year, only one has sold.

The thing that is crazy about being a screenwriter is that you really get paid, like, two or three times a year. It is really stressful — I won’t lie to you,” he said, laughing. “Especially because we have a mortgage, car payments and two kids, one of them is in private school … so there are a lot of bills.”

He jokes that friends and family in Rochester think he and his wife are “destitute” because they haven’t seen any movies or TV shows written by the couple. But Syracuse says he and his wife have been “mostly gainfully employed” since moving west.

Syracuse grew up in Rochester, attending city schools until he was accepted to the Harley School. He was awarded a scholarship, but keeping it wasn’t easy after “mixing with the wrong elements” and letting his GPA slip.

A pivotal moment came when he rode his bike to school one day to meet with the headmaster on the status of his scholarship. Syracuse fell off his bike, got pretty scraped up and was bleeding when he arrived 30 minutes late for his meeting.

The headmaster was initially furious, until he saw the mangled bike and Syracuse’s injuries. He helped clean up Syracuse and let him know he would get his scholarship back on academic and social probation.

For the rest of my time at Harley … I had to meet with the headmaster once a week to discuss anything he’d found out about me that week, which usually was a lot,” he said, laughing. “I don’t think I would be here writing movies had that not happened, because I had so many teachers there — especially English teachers — who kind of changed my life.”

Connecticut College followed, where Syracuse started making short films. There he also met Addario, who began working with him on his films. In true Hollywood fashion, after a few years as friends, a romance developed. They were soon spending every dime they had on making movies.

At first, the writing process for the duo involved sitting down together with a blank page, penning an entire screenplay together. The process proved painful, according to Syracuse, so today, the two will come up with a story and outline together. Then Syracuse usually comes up with the first draft, and the duo passes the script like a “hot potato” back and forth, making changes.

I work upstairs (in our house) and Lisa works downstairs, and we’re sending each other stuff on email all day long. Sometimes it’s really nice notes, like, ‘This is for you, honey,” or it can be, “You suck, I can’t believe you erased all those funny jokes I wrote!” I have a back problem, so — this is going to sound crazy — I work laying down. I have a special table that I made that I can strap my computer to so I can work laying down,” said Syracuse.

The goal is to get back into writing and directing — which they haven’t been able to do since Lover Girl — to maintain total control over an idea or story.

The writers have developed a script that they want to direct, called Drive, She Said. The story is loosely based on a real experience Syracuse had when he first moved to L.A., about a man who drives prostitutes to their gigs for a living.

When we first moved here, we were researching a movie on prostitutes but had never actually met one. My brother had some very sketchy friends at that time and one of them had this job driving hookers to their gigs,” said Syracuse. “I became a driver. … I learned a ton from these women. I did the job for about 10 months and then it got too intense, so I had to quit. But the experience of being in that world and not really belonging in that world seemed like it would make for a good script.”

That’s a far cry from the family comedy due out this Christmas. But the hope is that one success will lead to another, with a happy Hollywood ending.