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HOLIDAY SNEAKS : THE WRITERS

Sick of doing nothing

Six years ago, Matthew Carnahan was a healthcare advocate. Now he channels his anguish over the state of the union into screenplays.

November 04, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

LOVE of USC football has probably caused any number of unexpected things: impulsive marriage proposals, canceled family vacations, kids named "Traveler." It's unlikely, though, that the Trojans previously have factored directly in the conception of a Robert Redford-Meryl Streep movie.
Some two years ago, screenwriter (and USC alumnus) Matthew Michael Carnahan was channel surfing, desperate to find a football game featuring his alma mater. As he searched for the contest, Carnahan clicked on a cable news report about five U.S. soldiers drowning after their Humvee crashed into an Iraqi river.
"I don't even know if it was the Euphrates or the Tigris," Carnahan says, "and I thought it was an awful way to die. But I couldn't get past it fast enough. I wanted to get to the football game and my pizza and my beer and plant my ass and watch SC destroy whoever they were playing."
Not long thereafter, Carnahan's indifference started nagging at him. "I'm the first to complain about a president who doesn't read or understand military history and I can't even get up to write a letter to the editor?" Carnahan recalls thinking. "I had this mounting guilt about talking so much and not doing a damn thing."

Rather than let his frustrations serve no use, Carnahan poured his personal anguish into "Lions for Lambs." What started out as a play turned into a movie centering on a new U.S. military strategy against the Taliban in Afghanistan. While the film, which Redford both directed and starred in opposite Streep, is ostensibly about combat tactics, it is fundamentally a drama about apathy, and how someone can choose to do something that matters, either on the battlefield or in the classroom.

That "Lions for Lambs" attracted not only Redford but also became the first production under Tom Cruise's management of United Artists (Cruise also plays a senator in the film discussing the war with Streep's journalist character) should not surprise those who have followed Carnahan's rapid ascent.

While his older brother Joe (the director of "Narc" and "Smokin' Aces") is for now the better known of the Carnahan siblings (sister Leah is not in the movie business), that is starting to change. Matthew Carnahan's first produced screenplay was the Pete Berg-directed Saudi Arabian bombing drama "The Kingdom." The screenwriter also was hired to adapt two high-profile works. The first, an adaptation of the British miniseries "State of Play," will star Brad Pitt and Edward Norton; the second, a movie of James Ellroy's novel "White Jazz," was to star George Clooney, who recently dropped out.

Given what the 34-year-old was doing not that long ago, his story is even more remarkable.

A CLINTON WHITE HOUSE INTERN

Six years back, Carnahan was in a local hospital, not as a patient but as a speaker. Representing a think tank called the Advisory Board Co., Carnahan was talking in Riverside about nursing practices.

As a USC political science student, Carnahan had interned in the Clinton White House, answering phones in a war room defending Hillary Rodham Clinton's healthcare plan. That experience helped steer him toward healthcare advocacy, a job that had him crisscrossing the country and living out of a suitcase seemingly all the time.

Right after that Riverside visit, the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and Matthew found himself in a car with his brother Joe, driving to visit their parents in Northern California. "And Joe said, 'You have to get out of that line of work.' "

Joe promised to shepherd his screenwriting, putting him up for a mob drama movie called "Soldier Field." "Joe said, 'Let my little brother write it. If it's terrible, I'll rewrite it for free.' " So in early 2002, Matthew Carnahan, with some unpublished short stories under his belt but a complete Hollywood novice, bought some screenwriting software, sat down at a computer and fell in love with his new calling. His brother helped with structure but didn't need to bail him out. While "Soldier Field" was never made (although its sale did cover Carnahan's student loans), it did find its ways into the hands of director Pete Berg, who liked it so much that he later brought his idea for "The Kingdom" Carnahan's way.

As often happens in Hollywood, Carnahan's "Kingdom" script was read all over town, which led to his being hired for "State of Play" and "White Jazz." But even with all the offers coming in, Carnahan refused to move to Los Angeles; he recently moved from Chicago to Alexandria, Va.

"I truly believe this, and it may bite me on the ass, that writing in Chicago and now Virginia gives me a degree of naivete that is self-serving: It helps me write things that I think are compelling, rather than what I imagine other people in the business would think is compelling."

NO EASY ANSWERS

Because "Lions for Lambs" is an original work, it probably best represents Carnahan's view of the world.

The film features three loosely intersecting stories. A college professor (Redford) is trying to reengage a potentially talented but listless student (Andrew Garfield). A senator (Cruise) wants to persuade a skeptical journalist (Streep) to write an "honest to God" story about how his new Afghanistan tactics against the Taliban will, and must, work. And two of Redford's students (Michael Pena and Derek Luke) stake much more than their schoolwork on a courageous personal decision.

The plots are all about tipping points, the difference between ennui and action. Yet "Lions for Lambs" (the title is from a World War I comment about British soldiers being lions, their superiors lambs) does not try to present easy answers; indeed, distributor MGM suggested (unsuccessfully) that Redford and Carnahan resolve the movie's ambiguous conclusions much more neatly than how the film now ends.

Says Carnahan: "I just want to add some greater level of depth to the debate."

--

john.horn@latimes.com

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