Los Angeles Times, September 3, 2004

By James Verini

Here’s the plot of “Paparazzi,” which Fox is releasing today: A newly minted action movie star moves to Hollywood, gets hounded by four irredeemably villainous paparazzi and, after they nearly kill his family, resolves to exact bloody revenge.

That synopsis might have been prefaced with “In a nutshell,” except that, in this case, there is no nutshell. That is the movie, in its entirety, all nuance and subtext included. Oh, there are also some entertaining cameo appearances (watch for the shucking and jiving pizza delivery guy toward the end).

“Paparazzi” is, in other words, “Dirty Harry” for the Malibu gated-estate set, a revenge fantasy of the simplest sort. “The Count of Monte Cristo” it is not.

What’s going on behind “Paparazzi’s” camera, however, is richer and quite a bit zanier. It involves the ongoing legal troubles of blustery character actor and former Heidi Fleiss paramour Tom Sizemore, a former NFL wide receiver turned screenwriter, prison, an enraged British photographer and Mel Gibson’s sometime hairdresser.

The adage “only in Hollywood” is shopworn, but in this case it really may be apt.

The movie is absent of marquee names, aside from its producer — Gibson. Made by his company Icon Entertainment and distributed by Fox, “Paparazzi” is Gibson’s follow-up to “The Passion of the Christ.”

After the controversy surrounding that movie, Gibson has been famously disgruntled — or, at least, not particularly gruntled — with the Fourth Estate in general. Case in point: It took his publicist, Alan Nierob, all of two seconds to summarily dismiss a request to interview Gibson.

The director of “Paparazzi” is Paul Abascal, whose handiwork you’ve likely seen, even if you don’t know his name. For years, Abascal was one of the most sought-after hairstylists in Hollywood.

He did Gibson’s increasingly pouffy bouffant through the first three installments of the “Lethal Weapon” quadrilogy. He’s been a favorite of Bruce Willis, preparing the actor’s ever-scanter follicles across the “Die Hard” trilogy (“Sometimes you have a period epic you’re dealing with and other times you’re there just taking care of a cool guy who doesn’t have that much hair,” Abascal said) and of Sylvester Stallone in Stallone’s midcareer sci-fi period (“Judge Dredd,” “Demolition Man”).

Things get weirder.

By dint of the subject matter, “Paparazzi” is generating a lot of buzz around town. A private screening of the film on the Fox lot Aug. 25 was filled with agents and executives. There were cheers going up from the crowd followed by impassioned clapping at the end, according to several sources in attendance. “It’s like ‘Death Wish’!” Creative Artists Agency agent Fred Specter was heard gushing to Sizemore’s publicist.

But Specter might have done better with a more realistic comparison. For in addition to the other odd factors surrounding “Paparazzi,” its cast has been afflicted with some very serious legal trouble.

Sizemore, who plays the head bad-guy paparazzo, was arrested Aug. 11 on charges of drug possession after police raided his home in West Hollywood. (No court date has been set.) If it sticks, according to a Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman, the charge will represent a parole violation for Sizemore, who in August 2003 was convicted on seven of 16 misdemeanor counts, including physically abusing and harassing Fleiss. Mike Rovell, Sizemore’s lead criminal attorney, said they are appealing the conviction. As to the most recent arrest, Rovell said, “I’d hate to see [Sizemore] shunned by the Hollywood community because of an unproven charge.” Sizemore’s publicist, Nancy Seltzer, said of her client: “He’s at a place that it’s wise to let his work speak for itself.”

In the film, that work comes in the form of a guy who’s not only a paparazzo but also an accused rapist who was acquitted thanks to the help of a disbarred lawyer-turned-paparazzo who turned to tabloids after being brought up on drug charges. (The later is played by English character actor Tom Hollander, who you may remember from such fare as the recent BBC production of “Nicholas Nickleby.”)

Another paparazzo is played by actor Kevin Gage. When his manager, Tim Taylor, was contacted for an interview request, an awkward moment ensued.

“Kevin isn’t really … in the business anymore,” Taylor said.

Not in the … business anymore?

“Well, to tell you the truth, he’s in prison,” he said.

In 2003, it turns out, Gage was sent to prison with a sentence of 41 months for cultivating marijuana. The actor has been a public proponent of medical marijuana production and use.

Fox had no comment on Sizemore and Gage.

“I’d heard about Sizemore — he’s in the news all the time for this stuff,” Abascal said. “I had no idea about Kevin. I feel bad for both of those guys. In my opinion, they’re both major talents who have no business having to deal with the law in that way.”

Moving from the law to his career, Abascal was asked whether there are similarities between hairstyling and directing.

“Not many,” he said, adding that his focus in recent years has been on directing. He started with a pair of video diaries chronicling Gibson on the set of “Lethal Weapon 3″ and progressed to television. “Paparazzi” is his first feature.

“The film sort of asks the question: What would you do? How would you feel right now?” he said. He hastened to add that he is not advocating the at-will offing of paparazzi by movie stars and was careful to stress that the movie depicts “a renegade group of guys.” But he observed: “No matter who you are or how much money or power you have, you can become a victim of these guys.”

Did Abascal know of any celebrities who’d visited the dish best served cold upon paparazzi foes? “No, we’re just trying to have some fun here. I’m curious if maybe some of them have considered it, though.”

The reaction to “Paparazzi” from the paparazzi, who have been watching trailers and online teasers aghast for a few weeks now, has not been as enthusiastic as that of the execs on the Fox lot, as you might imagine. (And the reaction from critics has been nil: Fox is refusing to show them “Paparazzi,” typically not a good omen for a movie’s prospects. The Times’ review of the movie will run Monday.) Among the most enraged is Frank Griffin, a prominent and notorious paparazzo and co-head of the celebrity photography firm Bauer-Griffin. He may have been part of the inspiration for the movie. Griffin is famous for wielding his camera from a Harley-Davidson; in the movie, Gage does the same.

“It was made out of spite, not creative foresight,” Griffin said of the film. “Does this mean that an illegal killer is a step above a paparazzo? In my book that puts you not much above the level of primordial slime if you’re suggesting murder, as they are.”

“Paparazzi’s” writer is Forrest Smith, a onetime wide receiver in the National Football League (he played for the Buffalo Bills in O.J. Simpson’s last season and later for the Seattle Seahawks) who moved to Hollywood and became a character actor in the 1980s (he had a recurring role as detective Reese Walker on the soap opera “Santa Barbara”).

It was his good fortune to be cast in a bit part opposite Gibson in the Vietnam picture “We Were Soldiers,” where he and Gibson got to talking about Gibson’s problems with the paparazzi and Gibson agreed to read a script on the subject if Smith were to ever write one up.

“Mel said he just didn’t have any privacy with his family,” Smith said. “I just based the character on Mel, Tom Cruise — anybody who would garner the attention that would make four paparazzi box them into a car.

“Mel and I thought it would be a comedic indictment on these guys,” he went on. “We didn’t want the star to be a victim. I’m from Iowa, and nobody in Iowa is going to feel bad for a movie star who makes $25 million a movie.”

Like Abascal, Smith was eager to point out that he wasn’t endorsing celebrity vigilante justice.

“It’s not a message movie,” he said, adding that he didn’t interview any paparazzi while writing the “Paparazzi” script.

Griffin, for his part, doesn’t believe this. He thinks “Paparazzi” is a concerted attack on his profession.

“They can talk louder and longer and from a much higher pulpit than we can,” he said.

The photographer said that the filmmakers approached him for advice and material, but he refused. Abascal said his art department may have asked Griffin for photographs to use for set dressing.

It should be noted that Griffin expressed only slightly more admiration for himself than he did for the celebrities he hounds.

“What kind of photographer am I?” said Griffin, who had just gotten back from spying on Hugh Grant and his new girlfriend in St-Tropez. “The nastiest of them all. I have no limits, no holds barred except personal injury and children. I get whatever stories I can legitimately get. I don’t have any conscience in terms of exposing people’s strengths and weaknesses.”