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This Screenwriter Finds a Miracle

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This much can be said about Mike Rich, author of the screenplay for “Finding Forrester": He has a fertile imagination. How else to explain how this fresh-faced guy from northeast Oregon--who never once set foot in New York, let alone the Bronx, before putting pen to paper, and whose alma mater’s students as well as football team are referred to as Beavers, for gosh sakes--could presume to tell a believable story about the goings-on at a Manhattan prep school, a reclusive novelist and a hip-hopper with a genius-level IQ and a mean jump shot?

Yet that’s exactly what Rich has done with “Finding Forrester,” which opened Tuesday. The 41-year-old Portland radio host has hit a long home run with his first-time story about opposites attracting in a most unlikely place.

“There’s an old rule that you should write what you know, but I’ve never believed in it,” Rich said. “I think you should write what moves you.”

Directed by fellow Oregonian Gus Van Sant, and starring Sean Connery in a robust performance, “Finding Forrester” tells what happens when worlds collide in a bleak corner of the Bronx. Connery plays the secretive one-hit wonder, Forrester--loosely patterned after J.D. Salinger--who becomes a reluctant mentor to a gifted 16-year-old writer and basketball star, Jamal (Rob Brown). Although his grades border on mediocre, Jamal’s writing catches the eye of an observant teacher and a recruiter whose prep school could use another good hoopster. With full-ride scholarship in hand, Jamal blossoms in the classroom and on the hardwood.

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Meanwhile, after Jamal and Forrester meet under awkward circumstances, the eccentric Scotsman helps Jamal turn his writing from merely promising to unbelievably good--so good, in fact, that it raises the suspicions of his famously snooty English teacher (F. Murray Abraham). Not surprisingly, Jamal ultimately is forced to defend his honor in a dramatic classroom showdown. This confrontation also tests Forrester’s commitment to the boy’s future.

“Finding Forrester” will remind audiences of a dozen other inspirational high-school-based stories, including “Dead Poets Society” and, most recently, “Good Will Hunting,” which also was directed by Van Sant.

‘Just Trying to Create Great Characters’

“I got the idea for ‘Forrester’ from a discussion we had on the radio about famous authors and how some of them were so reclusive and odd and eccentric,” Rich said. “For me, it was interesting to speculate on what would happen if someone was able to break through that barrier. I was never intimidated by the fact that I had never been to New York. . . . I was just trying to create great characters, within a great story.”

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Although it would not be surprising come Oscar time for him to find himself in some pretty heady company, Rich’s route to success was deceptively smooth. “This was my first everything: my first screenplay, and my first produced film, et cetera, et cetera,” said Rich, whose voice was well known in the Northwest by virtue of years spent hosting shows on Seattle’s KREM and Portland’s KGW and KINK. “I tried other screenplays, but would run out of gas by the time I’d get to Page 50. That experience was valuable, but it also was important for me to study a lot of screenplays.”

Downtown Portland is blessed with one of the best bookstores in America, Powell’s, and Rich logged a lot of time in the section devoted to cinema.

“At first, I couldn’t get anyone to read my screenplay, of course . . . nobody can,” Rich continued. “That’s the miracle. Up until the time I entered the contest, mine was a typical screenwriter’s story: finished the screenplay, couldn’t get a call back.”

In 1998, a friend encouraged Rich to enter his work in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ prestigious Nicholl Fellowship competition for first-time screenwriters. That year, 4,500 scripts were submitted from all over the world, and his was one of five winners. “I didn’t use the available screenwriting software, and the version of ‘Forrester’ I submitted was all wrong. . . . It was a train wreck,” Rich said.

Nonetheless, the fellowship judges must have seen something they liked, and it changed Rich’s life. “The day before the announcement, my phone was quiet. . . . The day after, there were 50 messages.

“They were from agents, and small- and medium-size production companies. On the one hand, I had production companies saying, ‘Send me your screenplay,’ and on the other, I had agents saying, ‘Don’t send anyone your screenplay.’ ”

Within a week, Rich had secured an agent, who almost immediately sold the script to Columbia. After a couple of rewrites, one of the producers faxed the entire “Finding Forrester” script to Van Sant, who was in India.

Upon the director’s return to the States, he set up a meeting with Rich in the Bijou Cafi restaurant in downtown Portland. The story didn’t change much in pre-production, and the author was welcomed on board when the filmmakers set up shop in the Bronx.

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“I actually went there two days before rehearsals started, and I was very pleased, because I felt as if my words actually reflected what I was seeing,” Rich said. “The other thing I was struck by, and I was so glad Gus took this approach, was that he didn’t present it as . . . ‘OK, here’s the despair of the ghetto, and you should feel bad for these characters.’

“No, this was home for Jamal and Forrester, and that’s what I was trying to get across.”

Refining the Details With Actors on Location

Somehow, Rich also was able to capture the jagged rhythms of urban street lingo and inherent poetry of hip-hop. The author credits MTV with helping him get a grasp on the language.

“I wrote it for my own ear,” Rich said. “When I got to New York, though, [cast members] Busta Rhymes, Rob Brown and Lil’ Zane all said to me, ‘I can’t believe it, but you’ve actually got this pretty close.’ ” Van Sant also decided to call for three weeks of rehearsal, which tightened the script--Forrester wasn’t quite as reclusive in earlier drafts--and enhanced the performances.

“Sean suggested little things, like wearing his socks inside out . . . because that’s the way he wears them himself,” Rich said. “It was on the second draft that we decided to create one of those urban legends around Forrester and have the kids call him Window.” Rich’s choice of a name for the title character was his way of paying homage to one of the screenwriter’s favorite teachers.

“We only had 200 kids in the whole school, but I had a wonderful English teacher by the name of Sharon Forster, and she was the one who inspired me,” he said. “She would take us to Shakespeare festivals and really challenged us. So, in effect, this film is a tribute to her and what she meant to me.”

Even though he’s already working on another screenplay, for Disney, Rich insists he’s trying to keep everything in perspective.

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“I don’t scour the Internet now for reviews and gossip, and won’t do it after the movie opens,” he said. “I understand that it’s extremely rare for a film to get uniformly positive reviews, and this one will be no exception. What I concerned myself with from the moment I knew this was going to be made into a film was to stay on the project by writing the best shooting script that I could, and, hopefully, landing a good director who could turn out a good product, and that happened.” In a season that’s already produced such inspirational tales as “Remember the Titans” and “Men of Honor,” “Finding Forrester” echoes their messages of hope when it comes to dealing with racial stereotypes and fear of the unknown.

“I never wanted this to be a story about a gallant white guy, Forrester, coming in to save this young black man,” Rich said. “He does do that, but, more so, Jamal saves Forrester. In an ordinary world, he found someone extraordinary. That applies to both characters.”


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