Neal Jimenez, a screenwriter and filmmaker whose credits include “River’s Edge” and “The Waterdance,” died of heart failure on Dec. 11 in Arroyo Grande, Calif. He was 62. His works were favorites on the awards circuit, attracting wins in screenwriting categories at ceremonies such as the Independent Spirit Awards and the Sundance Film Festival.
Jimenez wrote and co-directed “The Waterdance” with director Michael Steinberg, and alongside the recognition the film received on the awards circuit in 1993, the autobiographical film was included in the book “The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.” He shared writing credits on five other films: “Where the River Runs Black,” “For the Boys,” “The Dark Wind,” “Sleep With Me” and “Hideaway.”
For more than a decade, he was a sought-after script doctor in Hollywood, being commissioned to write scripts for Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, Wolfgang Peterson, Atom Egoyan, Robert Redford, Madonna, Tom Hanks and many others.
“His writing voice is seductive, powerful, and wholly unique,” Steinberg said. “Like a complex minor chord with a range that could move in any direction. Dark, hilarious, romantic, political, gritty, fantastical, poetic. In the 40 years since meeting Neal, I’ve worked with dozens of big names and huge talents. But only a handful of true, genius-level artists. Jimenez, like Tarantino and The Farrelly Brothers, had a voice strong enough to bend cinema.”
Jimenez was born in Sacramento, Calif., to Joe and Marcille Jimenez, writing plays and making Super 8 films from an early age. He began writing professionally at 17, landing assignments for LA Weekly and California Magazine while he majored in English at Santa Clara University. At 21, he transferred to the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, where he wrote “River’s Edge” while in film class.
“My brother had a passion for writing and creating,” his sister Elizabeth Rathjen said. “The clack of typing seemed to daily come through his bedroom walls. He had drawers full of typed pages and journals filled with his words and ink doodles. He wrote then because he had to, he needed to and he wanted to. I always imagined walking into a bookstore and seeing books authored by my brother. Instead it was a video store and movies.”
“As far back as I can remember, my brother would make short movies on Super 8 with his friends,” Rathjen continued. “He spent hours cutting and splicing film together. He seemed to know how he wanted the film to look. Neal had an easy intelligence and a great wit. He enjoyed movies, books and music and wanted others to enjoy those things too.”
The release of “River’s Edge” in 1987 put Jimenez on the map as a notable screenwriter, with its dark subject and tone influencing indie films and music across the forthcoming decade, marked by examples such as the 1991 Nirvana album “Nevermind.”
At 24, Jimenez went on a camping trip with friends and had a fall on a midnight hike that changed his life trajectory, and he subsequently used a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Tony Garnett, a BBC movie producer and director, optioned one of Jimenez’s scripts and managed a Warner Bros. development deal after hearing about his accident. Jimenez was tapped to write a screenplay about his five months of spinal cord rehabilitation at Rancho Los Amigos — the result was “The Waterdance.”
“Only a handful of people know the true level of cinematic vision Neal carried in him, because his best scripts did not get made,” said Steinberg. “He and I had a deep connection from the moment we met at UCLA Film School in 1982. We loved the same authors, movies, music. He crewed on my student film and we began collaborating on a number of projects we wanted to co-direct.”
Jimenez is survived by his sisters Kathleen and Elizabeth.