Nearly all of the 13 boys in the team photo stare straight-faced into the camera — except Rick Stempson and Andrew Stock. The two stand side by side in the back row — Rick sporting a short, sun-bleached haircut and Andrew a 1980s mullet — grinning from ear to ear as if they’re in on a joke that no one else knows about. And, in this case, they are.
Before the photo shoot, the pair convinced their Lincoln East High School teammates they needed to take a serious photo — like the kind the football players do.
But just before the camera clicked, Stempson’s and Stock’s faces lit up like light bulbs.
“I don’t why we did it,” Stock said. “We thought it would be funny.”
According to Rick’s mother, Tani Stempson, the stunt was typical of the duo. Since becoming fast friends at age 12, they have shared a unique — some would say strange — sense of humor.
“That is so them,” Rick’s mom said. “They’ve done (stuff like) that their whole lives.”
And soon, it appears, everybody will be in on their joke.
Within the next few months, filming is scheduled to begin on their prize-winning screenplay, “Gary The Tennis Coach.”
Danny Leiner (“Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle”) will direct the dark comedy starring Seann William Scott (“American Pie,” “Dukes of Hazzard”) as a down-on-his-luck janitor who coaches a Nebraska high school tennis team.
It’s a subject the writers know well, having played on two state championship tennis teams at Lincoln East.
Today, Stempson, 33, is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln assistant men’s tennis coach, while Stock, 33, is a law student at the University of Texas.
A year from now … who knows? The screenplay could be the start of a dream career.
They already have a team of agents from United Talent Agency, the same company that represents Johnny Depp, M. Night Shyamalan and Harrison Ford.
They also have an entertainment lawyer and — here’s the cool part — another filmmaker is interested in their services.
“It’s funny,” Stempson said, “our hopes from the beginning … they weren’t even hopes … we were just trying to crack each other up. I don’t think we ever thought this would get as far as it has.”
Last July — 4½ years after Stempson and Stock first put pen to paper — their script, then called “Man Among Boys,” won the national BlueCat Screenplay Competition.
In its seventh year, BlueCat is run by screenwriter Gordy Hoffman, whose brother is Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. Gordy Hoffman penned “Love Liza,” the 2002 drama starring his brother.
The contest had a $5,000 prize, but better yet was the promise that their script would be made available to literary agencies, management firms and production companies.
Just days later, independent producer Peter Morgan — now a senior vice president with O.N.C. Entertainment, a production house at Sony — called to say he was extremely interested in their screenplay.
“Despite it not being in the most developed state, it was unbelievable,” Morgan said. “It was totally brand new with a fresh voice.”
Morgan, best known for executive producing the “Poison Ivy” trilogy, equated the writing in “Gary” to Nebraska native Alexander Payne’s screenplays and the recent Steve Carrell hit “The 40-year-old Virgin.”
“It has this incredible sense of humor and this completely subversive character,” Morgan said. “It had a quality that I hadn’t read in years.”
Leiner had a similar reaction.
“I found myself laughing out loud when I read it,” said the director, who reads many scripts but likes very few of them.
“It has an offbeat indie sensibility mixed with broad comedy you expect out of a studio movie,” he added. “It’s an unusual combination.”
Stempson and Stock met on the tennis court when both were 8 years old.
“He was my nemesis,” Stempson recalled. Until they were 11 or 12, when one of them — neither remembers who — finally broke the ice.
“We didn’t speak to each for three years, and then we were pretty inseparable,” Stempson said.
They were two peas in a pod. Andy was the outgoing one, while Rick tended to be more quiet, more shy.
“Their personalities just clicked,” Tani Stempson said. “It was totally amazing.”
Andy’s younger sister, Kim, remembers the two friends “always doing funny things.”
“They liked embarrassing somebody else in public,” she said.
Stock said they developed their sense of humor together. Once, in ninth grade, Stempson spent the weekend at Stock’s house, and they watched and re-watched “Raising Arizona.”
“By the end of the weekend, we both knew every single line, every little reaction,” Stock said. “To this day, we still love the Cohen brothers.”
The pair graduated from Lincoln East in 1990 after helping the Spartans win state boys tennis titles in 1988 and 1989.
Their high school coach, Jeff Hoham, remembered the twosome were as mischievous as they were athletically talented.
“They liked to pull pranks on their teammates and their coach,” Hoham said, chuckling. “They were playful. It doesn’t surprise me they’re pulling a Matt Damon and Ben Affleck now.”
Damon and Affleck launched their acting careers with their Academy Award-winning screenplay, “Good Will Hunting.”
After high school, Stempson went on to play tennis at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, where Stock joined him after National Guard training.
After two years, Stempson transferred from UNK to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he played tennis and earned an English degree. He became UNL’s assistant men’s tennis coach after graduating in 1995.
Stock earned his bachelor’s degree in Spanish from UNK, a master’s degree in political science at UNL and his doctorate in political science from the University of Colorado. He is now a law student at the University of Texas.
Writing a screenplay started rather innocently.
“We both have the same taste in movies, just these dark comedies,” Stempson said. “We would go see everything. I remember Andy saying, ‘I think we can do just as good as these guys and we should do our own.’
“I’m, like, ‘Yeah, yeah whatever,’” he added. “I just thought it was another crazy idea.”
That is, until Stock came home from Boulder, Colo., during the holidays and the duo sat down and wrote 20 scenes of what they thought would be in a movie.
“The key was it had to make us laugh out loud,” Stempson said. “I mean, we smile a lot, but it takes a lot to make us laugh out loud.”
The idea for “Gary the Tennis Coach” stems from a prank tennis video Stock and Stempson filmed in the spring of 1996 and sent to NU tennis coach Kerry McDermott.
McDermott routinely receives videos from potential recruits. This one, he said, was different. Quite different.
“ This kid is so bad,” McDermott said. “He’s hitting a ball off a wall and things like that, and I’m thinking, ‘What’s going on. This can’t be real.’ About halfway through, I see Rick kind of starting to laugh.”
The video has taken on a life of its own. It continues to make the rounds among the tennis team.
“It’s become a cult classic kind of thing,” McDermott said.
Stock and Stempson patterned their hero after the character in their video. Gary is unorthodox, intense and a tad off-kilter.
“We really like the subtleness of the Cohen brothers,” Stock said. “On the other hand, we fully appreciate things like ‘Jackass.’”
They spent the next two years writing, primarily by e-mail. They sent each other scenes and dialogue, with Stock in charge of piecing it all together. They finished it in May 2003 and began sending it to contests they found online.
But nothing happened — an oversized-racket kind of nothing. And because they received no feedback, they didn’t know what, if anything, they were doing wrong.
Finally, a judge sent them a not-so-nice e-mail, saying he didn’t care for their screenplay. He also told them to purchase some screenwriting software because some judges won’t look at a script if it’s not formatted properly.
“I was so happy,” Stock said. “He took the time to send us this very terse e-mail, and it saved us a lot of future frustration.”
But with each rejection, their desire to enter contests began to wane. They chose Hoffman’s BlueCat contest because it guaranteed feedback.
“We were ready to give up on it, to be honest,” Stempson said. “We thought we would give it one last shot. We loved his brother. We thought he might get our humor a little bit.”
He did, and life for the duo hasn’t been the same since.
The ball really started rolling when Morgan landed a job at O.N.C. and showed the script to company founder Michael Nathanson, who liked it as much as Morgan.
Stempson and Stock began thinking of this as a career when United Talent Agency’s Tracey Jacobs took them on as clients sight unseen. She based her decision on the script and phone conversations she had with them.
“She told us, ‘I’m here to build a career for you guys,’” Stempson said. “That’s what she said.”
In November, the dynamic duo landed their second gig. After reading “Gary,” Hollywood producer Kevin Messick (“Batman Forever”) wanted them to pen a script about used-car liquidators.
Meanwhile, they continued with rewrites on “Gary.” There have been a lot of them. It’s the nature of the business.
“We naively thought it was perfect the way it was,” Stempson said. “We started realizing after these rewrites it was getting better each time we did it. I think we opened up to suggestions more.”
“Gary’s” producers started pitching the film last fall. Some studios passed immediately, while others said to come back when an actor and director were attached. The producers secured independent financing just last month.
Stempson and Stock have found the entire experience exhilarating and a bit overwhelming.
“I speak with Andy every day and you almost forget what you’re talking about sometimes,” Stempson said. “We were talking with (director) Danny Leiner on the phone … it hit me later that night this is surreal, totally surreal.”
Their family members feel the same way.
Stock’s sister Kim admitted she didn’t think the screenplay would amount to much, especially since so much time had passed since the pair started working on it.
“The rest of (the family) would talk back and forth,” she said. “We didn’t understand why he was spending all this time on the screenplay when he needed to finish his dissertation and get a job. We really thought this was just a little hobby of his.”
Stock and Stempson haven’t quit their day jobs just yet. Stock is furiously trying to finish his law degree. He expects to graduate in December. Stempson continues to coach tennis at Nebraska.
They declined to say how much they will make from “Gary.”
“We’re not getting rich off the deal, but it helps us get our foot in the door and try to develop a career out of this.”
Their agents already have urged them to move to Los Angeles. But both are a tad resistant to the idea.
“Maybe down the road, but we can’t afford to move out there right now,” Stempson said. “To me, you don’t have to be in L.A. to write. L.A. isn’t funny to me. The Midwest is where the funny things are.”
Like a high school tennis team in Nebraska.
Reach Jeff Korbelik at 473-7213 or email@example.com.
How ‘Gary The Tennis Coach’ came to be
Spring 1996 — Rick Stempson and Andrew Stock make prank tennis video and send it to Nebraska tennis coach Kerry McDermott.
December 2000 — Stempson and Stock begin writing “Man Among Boys” based on their tennis video.
May 2003 — Screenplay finished and submitted to contests.
July 2005 — Screenplay wins BlueCat Competition, submitted to independent producer Peter Morgan (“Poison Ivy”)
September 2005 — Rewrites begin
October 2005 — Tracey Jacobs of United Talent Agency takes Stempson and Stock on as clients sight unseen; rewrites continue.
December 2005 — Seann William Scott (“American Pie,” “Dukes of Hazzard”) agrees to star in the movie
January 2006 — Director Danny Leiner (“Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle”) agrees to direct
April 2006 — Financing secured and filming scheduled to begin after June