Wednesday, September 26, 2007 Updated: September 27, 9:45 AM ET
How to write a sports movie
By Sam Alipour Special to Page 2
Someone once said, "Less is more."
That person was a loser -- and clearly not a fan of sports movies. Whether you like the product or not, according to many movie execs you have one man to thank for the proliferation of inspirational sports films in today's movie houses: Gregory Allen Howard. Who? Right.
Howard is the original writer on "Ali," an uncredited scribe on "Glory Road," and the author of several upcoming sports flicks. But to understand why 21st century moviegoers are now wading through a vast pool of true sports stories -- from "The Rookie" to "Pride" -- you need to go back to 2000, the year "Remember the Titans" hit the big screen.
"Titans" was the true story of the triumphant 1971 season of the T.C. Williams Titans, a racially integrated high school football team in Alexandria, Va., led by black coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington). "Titans" killed at the box office, grossing $115 million, doubling that total on DVD and, ultimately, outearning all sports dramas not named "Rocky," proving to studios that such inspirational (or is it "cheesy"?) fare can, indeed, lure today's jaded moviegoers to theaters.
While producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Pirates of the Caribbean") should be recognized for gambling on a script that most of Tinseltown passed on, it was Alexandria-based screenwriter Howard who unearthed the local story, garnered the subjects' life rights, and wrote the script on a lark before pitching it to producers. It's made him one of the highest-paid scribes in the business.
The none-too-bashful Howard took a break from writing to share his process, his own hard-learned lessons and explain in his own words how you, too, can write a sports flick.
TRY TO STICK TO REALITY
"I was talking to an executive at a premiere recently and he said, 'They should all be sending you checks.' Speaking honestly, I created an industry. I ushered in the modern sports blockbuster. Before 'Titans,' it was thought that you can't make money on sports films, and you had all types of sports movies -- 'The Natural' is my favorite, and that's fictional -- but the movies we're seeing now are what we call 'true inspirational sports stories.' They're essentially chick flicks for guys. Nothing can replace a true story. It happened. That gives it some real power that fiction can't touch."
"I'm doing my polish on a script called 'Knockout,' a true story I wrote for Jerry [Bruckheimer] about Dmitry Salita, a Russian-Jewish teenager who hooked up with a 60-year-old black trainer, Jimmy O'Pharrow. Salita won the [New York] Golden Gloves in '01 and he's now 27-0-1. He'll get a title shot in the next year. Eminem wants the role. I found 'Knockout' when I read a story about Salita. When I was starting out, I'd read everything that's written in the sports page, beyond the scores. If you read something about a 'guy who ' or a 'girl who ' that's potentially a story. They wouldn't be writing it if there wasn't something significant about that person."
FORGET THE SPORTS
"Sports should always be the backdrop. Sports movies are bad when the sport is in the front. They say 'Raging Bull' is a boxing movie, but it had only two full fights and two partial fights. It was a character piece. The less sports, the better."
AND LOOK FOR A HERO WHO'S UNAWARE
"The first thing you look for is an underdog who overcomes great odds. But you're also looking for someone who's not a conscious hero. Herman Boone from 'Titans' was not trying to bring the civil rights movement to Alexandria. He wasn't into any of that s---. He'd tell you, even today, 'I just tried to win football games.' His intentions weren't particularly noble."
DON'T START UNTIL IT ENDS
"When you're looking at a sports story, make sure it ends with something climactic. Someone recently pitched me a true story about three guys from the ghetto who become doctors and help the community. That's great, but it's not a movie because there's no ending. Now, if the three of them died tragically in a car crash, then you've got an ending."
DANIEL WITHOUT MIYAGI? THINK MENTORS
"What's fascinating about 'Knockout' is the relationship between Salita -- this kid who looks Russian, trains Jewish [observes his religious customs]" -- and this old black man living in Brooklyn. Jimmy O is one of the most colorful people I've ever met. He could make a dog laugh. They have a father-son relationship like no other. That's the real story. I also have a finished script for Disney and Jerry called 'We are a Chain,' another true story about a group of Mennonite kids, the Hiland High [Berlin, Ohio] Eagles, who rise from obscurity to win the state [basketball] championship. The key to that story is head coach Perry Reese Jr. He was a failed coach who became an unlikely leader for this Amish community. He's loud, colorful, and the only black man in the county."
GET THE RIGHTS, THEN THE DETAILS
"Before anything else, once I find the story, I negotiate and make a deal with the subjects. Then, I get the details. The details are how you can tell a good historical drama from a bad one. And to get the details, you have to interview these people. Trust me when I say this, no professional writer would do anything as asinine as write a script based on a true story before talking to the subject. I must have interviewed Salita and Jimmy O for about six months."
BE A PAL, BUT BE BRUTAL
"I'm friends with all my subjects. I tell my subjects: 'This isn't an interview. Pretend I'm an old high school buddy who you haven't seen in 10 years and you're bringing me up-to-date about what's going on in your life.' I befriend them, but that doesn't mean I won't cut them up. At the end of the day, you have to tell a compelling story, so you have to be ruthless in running over their feelings. You've got to represent the spirit of what happened, not what literally happened. That's the golden rule in true stories: If you violate their spirit, you're wrong. If you're faithful to the spirit, you're good."
HAVE A STRONG TAKE, OR YOU'LL END UP WITH "ALI"
"I was hired by the guys who ran Columbia Pictures to write 'Ali.' Then they hired a couple of writers to rewrite me, and then Michael Mann [director of 'Heat and 'The Insider'] and Eric Roth ['Forrest Gump' screenwriter] came in and eventually told their version of the story. Will Smith was amazing, but I thought the movie was dreadful. I defy anyone to tell me they came away with more knowledge about Ali as a person after three hours of sitting through that than they had going in. And that's a screenplay problem. See, biographies are the easiest movies to write poorly. They fail if you merely answer the 'what' question. They succeed if you also answer the 'why' question. Don't tell me General Patton drove across Europe. Tell my why. 'Ali' didn't even begin to answer the 'why.' My script had that on the page."
DON'T FORGET TV, WHERE IT'S ALL ABOUT THE CHARACTERS
"I'm working on a 'Titans' TV pilot. I haven't started writing the script but I'm looking at what's going on with 'Friday Night Lights.' Lemme tell you something: 'Friday Night Lights' was a good movie, but it wasn't iconic. 'Titans' is iconic. People fell in love with those characters and want to see them again. It's indestructible. It's won in every single platform it's ever been in: DVD, TNT, ABC. And it'll win as a TV series, too, because TV is about the characters."
Sam Alipour is based in Los Angeles. His Media Blitz column appears in ESPN The Magazine and regularly on Page 2. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.