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This Screenwriter Finds a Miracle

Mike Rich couldn't get a call back on his script. Then he won a prize for 'Finding Forrester.'

December 21, 2000|GARY DRETZKA | 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.

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."

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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