Palisadian Screenwriter William Blake Herron Surfaces with New Series on TNT
By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
To casual cinephiles, the name William Blake Herron (sometimes credited W. Blake Herron) may not register on their radar. Yet for more than two decades, the longtime Pacific Palisades resident has quietly led a stealth career as a writer for hire in Hollywood, helping to launch “The Bourne Identity” blockbuster franchise along the way.
This weekend, after working in relative anonymity, Herron may soon become a household name thanks to a new show he created, “Agent X,” debuting Sunday night on TNT.
Produced by TNT Originals and Beacon Pictures, “Agent X” unspools the story of a secret agent (Jeff Hephner) who not only remains out of the public eye but is also unknown to the President of the United States (John Shea).
Agent X springs into action only upon the orders of the Vice President, played by Sharon Stone in her first-ever regular television series.
Herron shorthands the TV series as “National Treasure meets Bourne with a little bit of the [Christopher] Nolan Batman. We strive to make patriotism cool without making it simplistic,” he said.
One cannot help but connect a few dots between this series about a stealth agent working in the government’s shadow world and the showrunner himself.
Ostensibly, if one is to believe IMDB, which only posts the credits of produced work, Herron’s career amounts to originating the screenplays for “The Bourne Identity” and “Role Models.”
In fact, Herron has been a very successful freelance scribe for hire.
“There are 10 to 15 [unrealized] projects for every credit,” Herron told the Palisadian-Post.
On the feature side, he has seen multiple cast-and-financed projects fall through last minute.
“On the pilot side, it took me 10 pilots” before landing one—“Agent X”—on the air. Several were on the bubble, but then redacted.
“People hear that and go, ‘Oh, what a nightmare.’ But really, it’s ‘Oh, that’s the norm [in Hollywood],” Herron said.
THE HERRON IDENTITY
Twelve years ago, Herron and wife Erin moved from Venice to Pacific Palisades, where they have raised son Cole, 12, and daughter, Sophie, 9. (Sophie, a Junior Reporter for the Post, appeared on the front page of the Post when she tried to save Baskin-Robbins from closing in 2013.)
Herron had met Erin when she was head of development and a producer for Terrence Malick’s Sunflower Films. As a result of Herron’s indie film, “A Texas Funeral,” famed filmmaker Malick offered Herron one of his company’s scripts to direct. The project didn’t materialize, but Herron’s budding relationship with Erin did.
They relocated to the Palisades when “we were married all of two months,” Herron said. “We were a hip young couple in Venice.”
Echoing many a Palisadian’s sentiments, Herron enjoys his neighborhood’s provincial vibe.
“It’s the closest thing to a small town in L.A.,” said Herron, who lives in the Village near developer Rick Caruso’s proposed Palisades Village project. “There’s maybe an illusion of safety here, but the community provides the perfect lifestyle. You can walk to the beach. You’re in Los Angeles, but you’re kind of not.”
When starting a script, Herron can be found at one of a few Westside cafés, from his local Starbucks to Santa Monica’s 212 Pier (formerly the original Novel Café), which borders his previous neighborhood.
“I like writing in coffee shops,” he said. “But when the show is rolling, I work at my office [on the studio lot].”
Born in Texas (where his family hails from), Herron grew up in Lake Bluff, Illinois, a small town of not more than 6,000 people near the Wisconsin border.
The Herron family eventually relocated to Chicago and later Faribault, Minnesota, where Herron graduated valedictorian of Shattuck School. He spent a summer season working at the Guthrie Theatre for directors Liviu Ciulei and Richard Foreman before matriculating to Middlebury College in Vermont.
Entering the institute’s elite Russian program, he spent his junior year studying at the Pushkin Institute in Moscow, where he received acting training from members of the Tagantka Theatre, among other companies.
Post-Middlebury, Herron returned to New York, where he fronted and played guitar in a rock group called Neon Scream.
“We were terrible, but we got booked all over,” including the legendary CBGB’s, The Pyramid Club and the Bitter End, Herron said.
To support himself, he worked as a paralegal. Rather than continue down the law school path, Herron made a hard left and applied to New York University’s esteemed graduate film program “on a lark. I got in, I got lucky, won a bunch of awards.”
At NYU, “you learn everything,” he continued. “You learn to write, direct, work with actors, edit your own movies. You get to own your own movies.”
In fact, his NYU experience foreshadowed what he’s doing now at 20th Century Fox.
“It’s actually what a showrunner does,” Herron said. “You’re the final decision maker on the creative decisions. Post-production is almost entirely in my hands.”
In all, Herron won more than a dozen national and international awards for his film shorts, including the Princess Grace Award for Emerging Artists.
Fueled on the films of Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Alan J. Pakula, Herron spent his lean years in New York immensely prolific, drafting two screenplays, which simultaneously placed in the semifinals of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Nicholl Fellowship while a third script cracked the Sundance Writer’s Lab’s top 20. All this led Herron to Hollywood, where he landed a writing assignment at Warner Brothers and embarked on a steady career in Hollywood.
Early on, Herron directed a pair of independent feature films he wrote: 1993’s “Skin Art” (“My [Roger] Corman experience, just to get something done”) and 1999’s “A Texas Funeral.”
“That was a valentine to my family that did a lot to launch my career,” he said of the latter, which Starz picked up after it premiered at the Venice Film Festival.
By the time “The Bourne Identity” came out in 2002, Herron’s script had been reworked by Tony Gilroy. However, Herron proved an effective tool in weaponizing Jason Bourne for the big screen.
“My job was to break the ‘Bourne Identity’ curse,” Herron said of Robert Ludlum’s source “monster novel,” the inspiration for a forgotten 1988 TV movie starring Richard Chamberlain. “I kind of had to structurally break it.”
If spy fare such as “The Bourne Identity” and “Agent X” ring with echoes of authenticity, consider the source. While at Middlebury, Herron was courted by the government’s biggest security agencies.
“It was common during the Cold War for the NSA, CIA and State Department to recruit Russian majors from Middlebury,” Herron said.
Herron is also an avid martial artist who holds expert-level belts in two fighting systems.
Essentially, he said, jokingly, “Bourne Identity” represents “the life I could have led if I were cool and good-looking.”
TURNING TO STONE
Herron has earned a reputation as a kind of go-to espionage entertainment guy.
“You definitely get typecast in the spy thriller kind of milieu,” he said.
That said, he’s not so sure it was the subject matter of “Agent X” that necessarily got his show on the air.
“It’s all this metaphysical convergence of elements,” he said of his new show. “We had the right executives behind it. We all had to find the same vision. It’s really the right cast. That’s what makes it work on a week-to-week basis. Incredible chemistry.”
Star Hephner, Herron noted, is “the highest testing actor in TNT’s history. He’s the real deal. He’s going to be snapped up by features in the blink of an eye.”
Herron added how, in pure Jackie Chan or Jason Statham fashion, “he did 75 percent of his own stunts” and in real life, Hephner is as unaffected by Hollywood as an actor gets. “He still lives in Chelsea, Michigan,” Herron noted.
Yet if Hephner is the show’s apparent secret weapon, Sharon Stone—making the leap from features to television with her role as the tenacious Vice President Natalie Maccabee—is the clandestine one.
Stone has evolved into a seasoned actress since her early 1990s pop culture-defining moments in “Basic Instinct” and “Total Recall.” She has worked with Albert Brooks (“The Muse”) and Jim Jarmusch (“Broken Flowers”) and has proven herself a canny actress with range.
Stone recently told Extra TV that, as a single mom, she wanted to do a series for quite some time but was waiting patiently for the prime opportunity. She added how she was happy to play the Vice President “during this prescient moment when so many women are in political positions…it’s a very exciting time in the world to play someone in that historical moment.”
Herron has been very impressed with Stone.
“When you get to know her a bit, she has a very strong intellectual presence,” he said. “She’s a total nerd. Extremely, extremely devoted to her craft. Half of our conversations are about acting. She has such deep range.”
THE HERRON LEGACY
Outside of “Agent X,” Herron would love to realize his passion project, “The Remarkable Fall and Rise of Emperor Norton,” an original script he wrote based on a true historical character whom Herron likens to “an American Don Quixote from the 1860s.”
Likewise, as Herron would surely love to pursue more personal projects in the future, he has made peace with the art-versus-commerce imbalances of Hollywood.
“Supporting a family in the Palisades, you can’t expect to go off to do an independent film,” he said.
So sometimes, when writing studio assignments that end up twisted like a pretzel by the Hollywood machinery, he takes it in stride, as it affords him to live in the Palisades.
“It’s a Faustian deal,” he said. “They drop a bag of money on your doorstep and they can do what they want with it.
“Having been written and rewritten, at the end of the day, when you’re a writer for hire, you can live with the outcome,” he added.
Overall, he is proud of his role in bringing features such as “The Bourne Identity” to life. Given that Matt Damon returns in 2016 for a fifth Bourne movie, Herron is thankful “to be a part of something that had longevity.”
For now, Herron trains his sights on “Agent X.”
As for fellow Palisadian Damon, Herron doesn’t know the actor, despite their professional links.
“I met him for all of two seconds at the [‘Bourne Identity’] premiere,” Herron said.
Chalk it up to a pair of Hollywood’s stealthiest Palisadians, crossing in the night…
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