As a Hollywood screenwriter, Morro Bay resident Anthony “Tony” Peckham is accustomed to criticism.
“Screenwriters are very good at taking abuse,” he said. “We’re very used to that. We’re not used to being rewarded or awarded in any way.”
So Peckham, 56, was surprised to discover he’d been selected as the recipient of the fifth annual Spotlight Award at the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival.
“It’s wonderful,” said the Academy Award nominee, whose film credits include “Don’t Say a Word,” “Invictus” and “Sherlock Holmes.” He’ll accept the Spotlight Award on March 17 at the Fremont Theatre in San Luis Obispo.
Created in 2012, the Spotlight Award honors professionals working behind the scenes in the film industry. Past recipients include John Milius, the Oscar-nominated writer and director of “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn,” and five-time Oscar winner Richard Taylor, the special effects supervisor behind “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
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Originally from South Africa, Peckham came to the United States in 1981 to attend film school at San Francisco State University. His screenwriting career brought him to Southern California.
In 1995, shortly after the Rodney King riots and the Northridge Earthquake left Los Angeles in shambles, Peckham and his family moved from the city to the Central Coast.
“It was a very easy professional decision for me to move (here),” said Peckham, who was eager to escape the pressure-cooker atmosphere of California’s show business capital. “Being up here is actually healthy for me.”
Peckham, who works in a home office surrounded by avocado and fruit trees, is adapting two best-selling books for the screen.
His adaptation of “Killing Patton: The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General” by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard will air as a four-hour movie for National Geographic Channel.
Peckham is also writing the screenplay for “The Divergent Series: Ascendant.” It’s the second of two feature films based on “Allegiant,” the third and final novel in Veronica Roth’s science fiction trilogy.
The first of the two, “The Divergent Series: Allegiant,” will be shown March 17 before the presentation of the Spotlight Award. After the screening, Peckham and “Allegiant” production designer Alec Hammond, whose screen credits include “Donnie Darko,” “Red” and “Men in Black 2,” will participate in a question-and-answer session onstage.
Peckham recently chatted with The Tribune about his career, his work ethic and his upcoming projects.
Q. Most of the time, you’re working by yourself. How do you stay focused?
A. It takes discipline. … I’ve got a routine, and I stick to my routine unless the surf’s really good. (laughs)
I have goals for each day that I like to hit and goals for each week that I like to hit.
I’ve never been late, ever. I’ve never missed a deadline.
Q. How do you select your projects?
A. At this point, 80 percent of what I do (is) I get source material from a producer or a studio, and then I react to that.
My agent has gone out and said, ‘That’s a Tony Peckham project,’ and I’m hired to write that screenplay.
Q. What is the general process for you?
A. Every project starts as collaborative.
The first thing I do in any project is get in a room together (with the parties involved). I’m breaking down the story with the producers and hopefully the director. I’m writing treatments and getting feedback and making changes.
At a certain point, everyone goes, “We like this. It’s time to write it.” … For me it’s the best moment, because I get to go, “All these voices need to go away now. I need to make this thing my own.”
Q. What attracts you to a project?
A. For me, the source material has to evoke something.
… It’s almost instantaneous. If the material doesn’t immediately start throwing out sparks for me, it’s not going to work.”
I choose what I do first based on material and second on who’s offering it, who I’ll be working with … and what are the odds are that it’s going to be made. … I can’t tell you how many projects are within weeks of going into production and don’t get produced.
Q. How does that affect your approach?
A. You have to make whatever you’re writing into your child.
You have to love it as much as your children. … Once I’m done I have to basically put it in a basket and put the basket in the river and push it into the current, and then turn my back and walk away and look for the next baby. (chuckles)
Q. What attracted you to “The Divergent Series: Ascendant”?
A. First of all, I liked the notion of a heroine rather than a hero.
I liked the notion that she was very much an every-girl, an every-person. … I have a daughter of that age. I was looking at (the book) through her eyes as well and seeing how powerful it was for her to relate to someone who is quite heroic.
(Plus) I loved the ethical landscape. I like science fiction. …
The dystopian Chicago setting was fun. The artificial notion of factions was interesting. The notion of a crew of kids making their way through this dystopian world appealed to me.
Q. What about “Killing Patton”? What inspired you to take on that project?
A. I fell in love with the history and I fell in love with the character of Gen. (George) Patton. …
He’s interesting as a general because he was the first to realize that the Russians were going to be our next enemy. He wanted to go straight into World War III. He didn’t want to stop fighting. …
He was a loose cannon. He demanded absolute loyalty from his men and was completely disobedient to those above him. … He was politically disinterested to the point where he was almost self-destructive. He almost had to have enemies to feel alive. …
He was dyslexic. He was a poet. He wrote home to his wife every day very indiscreet letters that are a screenwriter’s best friend. … He believed he was reincarnated from a previous warrior, that he’d been in Carthage with Hannibal and Gaul with Caesar. …
He’s a really fascinating person.
Q. It sounds like you’ve been doing a lot of research.
A. At National Geographic, their watchword is historical accuracy.
… Anything I take from any source I have to annotate. I like that challenge.
Q. What’s your approach to “Killing Patton”?
A. I’m writing it as a character-generated murder mystery.
It’s not going to be a war movie. There won’t be huge battle scenes and tanks lumbering across the landscape. It’s all going to be interesting, because he was crazy.
Spotlight Award and ‘The Divergent Series: Allegiant’ showing
7 p.m. March 17
Fremont Theatre, 1025 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo
$11.50, free with Movie Mogul film festival passes
546-3456 or http://slofilmfest.org