“I was just a guy with a pen and paper and an idea for a book.”
Author of The Perfect Storm
“Writing is sweat and drudgery most of the time. And you have to love it in order to endure the solitude and the discipline.”
Author of Jaws
Yesterday I had a video shoot in Cedar Rapids and ate lunch the Irish Democrat Pub & Grille which is the kind of local, non-chain restaurant many people hope to find when they stop in a new town. I’m not sure if their cheese wontons are Irish but they were good. The place has been around for more than 20 years and taps into that whole John F. Kennedy thing for their theme.
Somehow Kennedy, a Harvard grad, got me thinking about screenwriters from Massachusetts. A lot of talent has flowed through that state because of the colleges. In fact, look at this list of writers who’ve attended Harvard alone and have had their books and screenplays made into movies:
Frank Pierson (Dog Day Afternoon) 1976 Oscar winner
James Agee (The African Queen) 1952 Oscar nomination
James Torback (Bugsy), 1991 Oscar nomination
Whit Stillman (Metropolitan) 1991 Oscar nomination
Ron Bass (Rain Man) 1988 Oscar winner (shared with Barry Morrow)
Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) 1989 Oscar Nomination
Erich Segal (Love Story) 1971 Oscar Nomination
Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line) 1999 Oscar Nomination
Douglas Kenney (co-writer Animal House, Caddyshack) Co-founder of National Lampoon magazine
Norman Mailer (The Executioner’s Song) 1983 Primetime Emmy Nomination
Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream)
Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!)
William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch)
John Updike (Rabbit, Run)
George Plimpton (Paper Lion)
Ben Mezrich (21)
Ethan Canin (The Emperor’s Club)
Scott Turow (Presumed Innocent)
Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park)
Peter Benchley (Jaws) Novel and co-wrote script that became the first film to make over $100 million
Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting) 1998 Oscar winner
Robert Rodat (Saving Private Ryan) Oscar-nomination
Eugene O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey Into Night) winner of four Pulitzer Prizes for drama studied playwriting at Harvard and honed his craft writing one-act melodramas for the Provincetown Players on the northern tip of Cape Cod. From there he became one of a handful of giants in American theater.
While he was born in New York and found his greatest success on Broadway, O’Neil is one more example of someone developing their talent in smaller towns.
But not all writers from Massachusetts have had the benefit of a Harvard connection. In fact, there is one writer from Belmont, Massachusetts who is a nice role model for this entire blog. Sebastian Junger was armed with a degree in cultural anthropology (from Wesleyan College in Connecticut) when he kicked around as a freelance writer until he had an accident while working as a tree cutter in 1991.
In just so happened that at the same time a six fishermen who had left Gloucester on the Andrea Gale died at sea. Junger became fascinated by what happened and used his down time recovering from his injury to write an article, that became a book, that inspired the movie The Perfect Storm.
Junger writes in the introduction of The Perfect Storm:
“My own experience in the storm was limited to standing on Gloucester’s Back Shore watching thirty-foot swells advance on Cape Ann, but that was all it took. The next day I read in the paper that a Gloucester boat was feared lost at sea, and I clipped the article and stuck it in a drawer. Without even knowing it, I had begun to write The Perfect Storm.”
But what really separates him from everyone else who heard about that story is he followed his curiosity and eventually did the research, wrote the article, then the book that became a #1 New York Times Bestseller and a George Clooney movie. He ended up on Oprah, with a career as a writer, and even part owner of The Half King bar and restaurant in New York.
Of course, Massachusetts has a long literary tradition going way back to the Puritans founding the Massachusetts Bay in Colony in 1630, and then with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson that I won’t touch on here. I’m not as interested in an exhaustive history lesson as much as encouraging you to write.
But the well does appear deep in Massachusetts. And here’s one more example for you to focus on your writing not where you live:
“New York’s playwright find of the year (Eugene O’Neill) lives obscurely in a clean little cottage, miles from nowhere on Cape Cod.”
Boston Sunday Post (August 1920)
Update November 2008: Screenwriters from Boston may be interested in the Screenwriting Certificate Program at Emerson College and the group that calls itself New England’s oldest screenwriters network is the Harvard Square Scriptwriters. If you are interested is shooting in Massachusetts contact the Massachusetts Film Office. Paul Sherman has a book out called Big Screen Boston that goes into detail about some of the many movies that have been made in the Boston area.
Update June 2010: Just learned that two-time Oscar winner Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) is from Rockport, Massachusetts.
Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith