Before I take a circuitous route to point out yet one more connection between Youngstown and Hollywood let me first thank everyone for reading this screenwriting blog as it’s given me much encouragement in my quest to post daily. It’s not easy to write something original daily and finding odd connections really is a fun part of the process. Today is a good example.
My favorite movie with a Thanksgiving theme is Pieces of April. Granted, I don’t think there is a long list of films with Thanksgiving themes. So let me add that it’s also one of my favorite low-budget films of all time. Odd or relevant connection to Screenwriting from Iowa? Number one: Pieces of April writer/director Peter Hedges grew up in Des Moines, Iowa. Number Two: My recent posts have centered around Ohio, and Pieces of April stars Katie Holmes who grew up in Toledo.
But can I get from Toledo to Youngstown which has technically be the focus of recent blogs? Yes, but I have to take the indirect route via Cincinnati. Katie Holmes is married to Tom Cruise who lived for a time in Cincinnati as a teenager. The agent that got Cruise his breakout role in Risky Business was raised in Youngstown. That agent Paula Wagner, eventually became Cruise’s producing partner including all the Mission Impossible movies, Vanilla Sky and The Last Samurai.
What prepared Wagner to become one of the most powerful women in Hollywood? Being born Paula Kaufman in Youngstown back in 1946 didn’t hurt. Just this month she returned to Youngstown for the first time in 30 years to give a talk at Youngstown State University and said, “I really attribute so much of what I’ve done to having grown up in this city…Youngstown is very much a part of me.”
Her father was a fighter pilot in World War II and also a prisoner of war, and went on to run a steel mill in Youngstown. “Youngstown was founded on steel and we all have a spine of steel,” said Wagner at her Youngstown talk. It was at the Youngstown Playhouse where Wagner began acting as a child. (The same place advertising giant Mary Wells began acting at age 5.) She was known as a talented actress at Hubbard High School and then earned a BFA in theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh (just a little over an hour’s drive from Youngstown).
Wagner performed on Broadway and off-Broadway before heading to Los Angeles with $500. to her name. She ended up being an agent at Creative Artists Agency where her clients included Demi Moore, Val Kilmer and Oliver Stone. She formed Cruise/Wagner Productions in 1993 and the films they have produced together have earned around $3 billion at the box office.
And I thought it was impressive that former Youngstown resident and current producer/director/writer Chris Columbus (The Goonies, Home Alone, and the first two Harry Potter movies) had a box office total over $1 billion. Is there another small city in America where people raised there went on to have a key role in movies that have earned around $4 billion?
Most recently Wagner has started a new company Chestnut Ridge Productions and is slated to produce the film version of Miss Saigon. What’s the significance of the name of her new company? Guy D’Astolfo reports, “Paula Wagner’s Hollywood career has taken her around the world, but she keeps coming back to Chestnut Ridge. That’s the road she grew up on in Hubbard Township”
So if you’re a screenwriter from the Youngstown area use that back of steel to get connect with Wagner. Remember, there’s no place like home.
By the way, if you’d like to see what Youngstown looked like back around the time Wagner was born watch the 15 minute movie Steel Town that Mike Gaunter, a news producer in Youngstown sent my way via You Tube.