In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, immediately there was an idea on how to try to make sense of it. Two co-screenwriters, Paul Tamasy and Eric Johnson gave it their all and helped craft a film that would not only reveal new things but uplift us as well.
However, the film based on the horrific event was complicated from the very start. Originally written to be a four-hour movie for three cable channels, it was supposed to air simultaneously. Then the budget was lowered, and the film was written to come in at three hours. Two directors were interested; then the plug was pulled when the executives couldn’t afford it. Johnson and Tamasy got the rights back and wrote a feature version, creating a bidding war again. Kevin Spacey (who had flown out to meet the victims on his own) became interested.
Then Fox came calling as they had a director in mind, but the director’s other film flopped and the director was fired, so a new director was needed. Meanwhile, over at CBS films, Peter Berg was working on a script called “Patriots Day,” which was another film entirely. Tamasy and Johson wanted Mark Walhberg, as did Berg. It all culminated in Fox selling the film to CBS films, combining the producers and scripts. It took three years, with trips back and forth to Boston, along with a ton of collaboration and negotiation, but it got done.
Tamasy and Johnson (who also collaborated on “The Fighter” and “The Finest Hours”) sat down with Moviehole to give an extensive interview on the finer details on “Patriots Day,” as well as advice about writing and a new project about the original James Bond.
Moviehole: How did you both get started writing?
Paul Tamasy: I got my break into the business with a project called “Airbud,” with Aaron Mendelsohn. But I was originally going to be an actor at UCLA and planned to write and act in my own projects.
Eric Johnson: I look a number of years older than Paul and people think we’re father and son, but I started out in journalism. I was at the “Brazil Herald,” I worked on that for a year-and-a-half in Rio. I had visited my father in Rio, and as a 19-year-old in Rio, you don’t want to leave. When I came back, I went to Berkeley and got a degree in journalism.Then I had a cousin in Hollywood who told me to come to Los Angeles and write movies. Even though I was done with school, I went back to school and took screenwriting 101 where I wrote a screenplay and it got optioned by Disney. It was years before another of my scripts was optioned. My script went into turnaround, and after a year they were not going to make it because of casting reasons, so it was up for sale to whoever might want to make it.It went through an office where Paul was working as an intern — he was working for Peter Guber and Jon Peters. They read it and passed on it and then Paul asked to go ahead on it. My agent called and said he’d set up a meeting, and I walked past this kid sitting next to door.
PT: I had not produced anything in my life at that point.
EJ: We hit it off from the beginning with Paul and his wife, we worked really well together. We just sort of gelled, and after that the script was never made.
PT: I was working with Aaron Mendelsohn, working on “Airbud,” then we (he and Eric) ended up working years later on “Toad Trip,” inspired by the Frog Prince story which was live action. It’s actually seeing new life right now and we’re meeting with Adam Sandler. I think it’s one of the best things we worked on.
EJ: We sort of resurrected it, it’s a fairy tale in a lot of ways. We wrote it for both kids and parents to enjoy.
PT: It is in turnaround at Paramount, it’s a comedy; we wouldn’t mind going back to comedy. Then “The Fighter” took eight years to make, it was our first foray in this Boston-based film — we met a lot of interesting people on that one, of course, Micky and Dicky and their families. We spent a lot of time researching that one. We took two trips to Boston about “Patriots Day.” The movie “The Finest Hours” was a bit watered down, the second part of the film captured the story really well. Massachusetts has become second homes to us now, so everyone expects us to have south Boston accents.
Moviehole: Tell us more about “Patriots Day.”
PT: “Patriots Day” was one of the hardest things we’ve ever worked on.
EJ: Talking to those families who have lost loved ones or limbs, it was an emotional wrenching experience. The toughest one was the family of Shawn Collier, the MIT police officer who was executed by the brothers while trying to steal his gun. We went to meet Shawn’s sister and his parents came also. We were in the lobby of this hotel and we were all in tears. It’s a hole they will never be able to fill in their lives.
PT: Even the people who didn’t lose limbs were affected because they witnessed it.
EJ: We saw a lot of footage that was not released. We talked to people who ran toward the people and started applying tourniquets and pulling grandstands off people. We wanted it to be as detailed as possible.
PT: One guy was investigating it and was writing a book about it. He asked us about adapting it, but we said no way, then they kept calling us and sending pages about approaching it, he said we’re going to call it “Boston Strong,” and it’s going to be about the people’s resilience.We learned about other projects, and then we decided to do a project. My son came out of his room and said “Dad, I heard you’re one of the most hated people in the world.” We were going to go on with Jake Tapper on television and met with agents and they said not to.
EJ: This movie moved very fast, now it’s ironic because we’re working with Jake Tapper about something else.
PT: Jake Tapper worked on the book “The Outpost” (“The Outpost: An Untold Story about American Valor”), about the 53 guys at Combat Outpost Keating (Afghanistan) and how they managed to defend the outpost, it’s like the movie “Zulu.” We’re out right now trying to set that up, we are getting letters from the parents of soldiers.Going back to the film, we heard about other projects about the Boston bombings and zeroed in on a real-life cop named Sgt. Danny Keeler; he’s the inspiration along with two others that make up the character that Mark Wahlberg plays.
EJ: This happened in three years. Even “The Fighter,” fell apart many times along the way. But “Patriots Day,” had a crazy path from where it started to where it ended up on screen (see beginning of article).
Moviehole: Would you do this again, knowing what would happen?
PT: It has been painful for many reasons.
EJ: This story was bigger than us, it’s important to the entire nation, that’s just business. To get something made, you have to go through a lot.
PT: The message of the film is, “don’t f–k with Boston and don’t f–k with America.” If these people could pick up their lives and go on, anybody should be able to do this. I think this is what’s going on around the world, that this story is what is going to resonate with people.
Moviehole: What was the most challenging thing about “Patriots Day”?
PT: Figuring out how to tell the story, there was a lot of information.
EJ: There were lots of little pieces to it, it was a big mosaic puzzle, no-one had done an overview. We read lots of news articles and pieced things together.
PT: The cop Danny Keeler who was at the finish line, we spent a lot of time with him. The more we spoke to Danny Keeler, we combined him with two other characters.
Moviehole: What was it like working with Mark and the rest of the cast?
PT: We didn’t really work with them, we were jammed on other movies. We were on the way to the set and then I came down with a bad sinus infection — we were going to be there the last week of production and didn’t make it.
EJ: We didn’t have time. We saw Mark at the closing night of AFI, we hadn’t seen him in awhile. Paul had a conversation with him about something else to do together.
Moviehole: Did you talk to the survivors? Did making this movie help them, you think?
PT: I think for some it will help, but some people won’t want to relive the event in a two-hour film.
EJ: Everyone has a different way on how they experience things, for some of them it will be cathartic but for others it will be too painful.
Moviehole: Do you have a writing method?
PT: We work on a story together, and do a combination screenplay and map out scene-by-scene and split up the work, we do passes on the work.
EJ: I usually take the front half while Paul seems to be able to jump around a bit. It’s just the way my brain works, I like the start to finish, but then we put two halves together and it feels like one voice and we pass it back and forth, we each take a pass polishing and working on characters and the theme until we’re satisfied.
Moviehole: Can you advise new writers trying to break in?
EJ: It’s such a catch-22.
PT: My first agent helped, he was a bottom feeder, but he got me in some doors. The Writers Guild provides a list of agents who will take queries. Also relationships with people – if you like a script, ask your friend to please show to his agent.
EJ: You need to be here to build relationships in L.A. My first success helped, it made me think “I can do this, I can compete on this level,” it helped me about the first script. It was a long time before that happened again, but I stuck with it and worked hard because of the early success.
PT: Before “Airbud,” I had written a spec script for “The Simpsons,” and I got a call at home from Matt Groening and Matt Selman — they said how much they loved the script but they were working on a similar storyline. I thought if they are calling me and telling me they like it, that’s something.
EJ: Personal stories are a tough sell. My script that got optioned by Disney was as brazenly commercial as it could be. There was a genre at the time I felt I could at least emulate; it was a big buddy adventure. Hollywood is driven by box office, there’s no way around that. It’s this clash of creative and business, and it is a business and you have to be cognizant of that.
Moviehole: Who are your writing idols – books and films?
PT: Filmmakers – Spielberg and Sam Raimi, they inspired me to get into the business.
EJ: Robert Towne. I’m a fan of him, if there is a writer like that you like, study their work, see what makes it work. The first writer I liked that I saw on television was “Some Like it Hot,” a great movie. Billy Wilder wrote the script with his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond. I was just a kid but I thought it was perfectly constructed.
PT: No-one knows who screenwriters are – I’m having a hard time remembering who is out there.
Moviehole: How about advice to new writers about writing or breaking in?
PT: Keep writing until you run with something that works. A lot of mistakes come from people trying to write quirky, personal things. I always say write high concept. If you want to write that quirky drama, you need to sell a few things first.
EJ: A manager once said, write something that actors really want to play. Paul always told me it’s about controlling good materials – if you see a good story, go after it and get the rights. Don’t be afraid to cold call. You can get rights without putting out any money and have a really good take on the story. That’s really important.
PT: If you have the talent, the cream will rise to the top, as they say in the UK.
EJ: And work hard every day.
PT: We drive our reps crazy because we have a lot of projects, we’re always juggling things.
EJ: You have to have a lot of balls in the air — it’s to improve the odds.
Moviehole: What about future projects?
PT: I just adapted the book called “The Painter,” by Peter Heller, his last book got snapped up. Gabriela Cowperthwaite (“Blackfish”) came to me with the book and there’s already three offers. “The Painter” is the name of the book, it doesn’t sound like it but it’s actually a thriller.It’s inspired by a true story, about a man who became a famous painter and went to jail for killing a man. Jim Stegner is his name. He killed a pedophile, he was in jail and his paintings now sell for thousands of dollars.We’re also working on a true story about Churchill’s secret warriors – the British government opened up files recently about an operation conceived from Churchill’s idea and it’s about Ian Fleming and the real M. We sold it as a franchise for three movies, where these people changed the course of the war.
EJ: We read the book, there was so much in there, and we realized there were three great movies in it — we take it as a true story franchise. The film is one of three to come out of this book, but there are further adventures of these guys by a book by Damien Lewis (“Churchill’s Secret Warriors: The Explosive True Story of the Special Forces Desperadoes of WWII”).Anders Lassen, who was part Swedish and part American, was the inspiration for James Bond. Ian Fleming has a big part, and you realize that Anders was the real Bond character, there’s statue of him in Scotland. They were incredible fearless secret warriors, they really impacted the war. Only two years ago the files became unclassified.
PT: We got a jump on the book. I was on a soccer team with BAFTA LA and this guy was telling me about this book. Eric and I immediately tracked down the book author and snapped up the book rights. Nice to get a jump for once!
EJ: Especially on a property like this.
PT: We also have a few projects going on in England. We wanted to write a story about Jamie Vardy, about a little soccer team and a guy plucked out of a pub team and how they went all the way to win the world premier of the British Premier Soccer League. All the international players come to play, it’s a rag-to-riches story that Eric and I like to tell. They rose all the way to the top, and the guy managed to fight his demons so they could win.
EJ: There’s a lot of similarities with the “The Fighter,” where everyone was an underdog. Jamie and the players on the team, they had unspectacular careers. The team was around 131-years-old without ever winning a title.
PT: When we worked on it, the team was popular around the world. While we were working on it, the team came over here and it was like travelling with rock stars. Leicester City is the soccer team. Jamie Vardy had a cast on so we sat with him, the stadium was packed, a lot of kids from ages 12-18 were there.
EJ: Jamie is so popular with American kids – I went outside, and one kid looked into door and saw Jamie Vardy in there and became unglued. The kids waited for Jaime to come out, and he was swarmed by these kids.
PT: My wife and I went to meet Jamie out for dinner, we ended up at Chateau Marmont and saw all these press and it was madness, all the photos made it around the world.
Moviehole: What about other projects?
PT: We have 42 (UK management company) with Josh Varney and Ben Pugh, the biggest managers in UK – I’m attached to “Depravity” (based on the book “Since We Fell”) by Dennis Lehane, which has Ben Kingsley and is at IM Global.
EJ: I have no attachment but I think it’s great, a real page-turner.
PT: It’s a cross between “Rear Window” and “Shallow Grave,” taking place in one building. A producer is attached who worked on “Boston Strong,” “Finest Hours,” and “The Fighter,” she’s Dorothy Aufiero and Boston-based.
EJ: There’s a lot of great stories there in Boston, it’s rich in history.