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Exclusive Interview: Talking The Paterno Movie with Screenwriter David McKenna

by on March 01, 2013 1:00 AM

In early January 2013, the Penn State community heard the news that a still-fresh wound and ongoing controversy would hit the silver screen. Brian De Palma (Scarface, Mission: Impossible, Carlito's Way) will direct Happy Valley, the tentative title of the film, based on Joe Posnanski's best-seller Paterno.

De Palma has brought on board Al Pacino, who has agreed to play the role of Paterno, and screenwriter David McKenna (American History X, Blow, S.W.A.T).'s Ben Jones spoke exclusively with McKenna on Friday morning about his week in State College and the movie as whole.

SC: When I found out that the movie was being made, my question had always been "Why do it this early?" You can have a grasp on it one day and something can change the very next day. How do you approach this story while it’s still in motion?

DK: The answer is I don’t know. Still being in the research phase, I don't know if this is going to be a movie anymore, if this is going to be a miniseries, how we're going to sell it, because it's so extensive and there is so much going on. I'm going to go back and have some long talks with the producer and the director. This story has two very different sides, and so I'm in the process of navigating all of that and it's very difficult, so I'm going to have to see how everything plays out in the next couple of months.

Your other movies aren't really like this story, what was it about this story that made you want to do it? Was it being approached by the directors that made you want to do it, was it your interest?

DK: Well growing up, I loved Penn State. I loved Joe Paterno, and I think that he was a great man and I think that he did a lot of great stuff and as I learned more about him after I read the book about him by Joe Posnanski, I think that he was a hero in many respects and I think that the Paternos have a case.

I've read the critique of the Freeh Report and it's still a learning process. What I think happened to Joe is almost a mythical Greek tragedy, that's one thing, that kind of thing that attracted me to it, all the way to the statue being pulled down. It's pretty ridiculous that they would tear down a statue of a man [who] hasn't be afforded due process. Are you going to rip the library down too? So you have to draw the line on that. And you have villain and he's a truly compelling villain and what he did is truly diabolical. So those sorts of things attract you as a screenwriter.

Does it concern you that the trials haven’t started for the other players in this case? It always has the potential to throw the project in another direction.

Yes. And that's something that I have to talk to the producers about, this is still the information gathering stage here though and I'm thinking a little bit about how I'm going to write the movie and how I'm going to handle the grand jury testimony, and how to talk about Joe's life and his home life and all the good things he did, and Jerry and all that. It's truly in the infancy stages of, so to think about the final project is almost inconceivable at this point.

Have you found people to be receptive to you? There is a general skepticism inside of the Penn State community about making a movie at this stage. I think it has scared a lot of people in the sense that a lot of things have been misconstrued and now with a movie being made there might be some worry it'll happen again. Does that keep people guarded around you while you’ve been in town?

I think that it's natural after the pain everybody has been through, that its natural to be close-minded and not want to talk to somebody who is doing a movie. Talk to a reporter or something like that. But I just want to know the truth about what happened and that's all I can say to them at this point. I haven't made up my mind on everything. I need to go back and read the Freeh Report, speak to the Paterno family, and wait for all these other matters to conclude.

At the risk of summarizing 'American History X' in front of you, in some regards it's a movie about who we are as people, and that sometimes things that we do cannot be undone even if we change as a person. In terms of the Penn State story, Paterno on some level feels that he hasn’t been able to do what he should have, and he can look back and wish that he had changed the things that he did, but like 'American History X', he can’t stop what ends up happening. Is there something about that "who we are as people" that appeals to you?

You make a good point, and I had never even thought about that. There are similarities. I just feel like that movie was a lot different because it was fiction. Here, lives are being destroyed and friendships and children and there are so many deep seeded issues here. This is so much bigger than American History X and it's so important to me to handle it really, really carefully. I get what you're saying and I think deep in my subconscious I am attracted to these stories where you constantly walk the line, and this is a project where you are definitely walking a line.

The biggest issue is being right. There are going to be people that hate me, but the best thing we can do is get to the truth and do it exactly as we have it. For that to happen we might have to wait for all these reports to come out and these trials to conclude. There is a lot riding on this and I understand the pressure and I'm up for it.

Is there a timeline for this project?

Brian is a terrific filmmaker and next week we'll start having conversations about what we want to do and how we want to deal and handle the material. If we want to do it now fast, wait it out. It’s round one of a 15-round heavyweight battle. Seriously. So it's going to be an interesting ride.

Do you know why De Palma decided to make the movie? This story isn’t really in anyone’s wheelhouse but I was surprised he was the one to make this movie.

The guy is a legend. I truly feel fortunate that I'm in a position to work with him. I don't think anybody likes to be pigeon-holed in terms of style. I rewrote a Disney script last year because I have kids. I did American History X, Blow, and I'm interested in a lot of different subjects. I can't speak for him, per say, but I think what attracted him to this project is what attracted me. And we want to find out why and how and what's the process.

Is the movie scandal-specific?

It's not scandal-specific at this point. Because I almost haven't gotten there. I'm mostly learning about Joe, learning about Jerry, meeting with families, getting more information. And information on the Internet and piecing that together.

The truth is I don't know and I'm still in the gathering stages. I have a team and we'll take the information and work together to decide what we do with it. At this point we're being very very careful.

People might be concerned about this movie showing up down the road and having it be a gross misrepresentation of some of the facts. Basically, if people who are worried about what the movie is going to say walked in right now, what would you tell them?

That we all look at Joe as a great man that did a lot of good, and we're going to try and capture all of that as well as find out what happened.

I think that through our movie people aren't going to look at one particular thing, that one thing doesn't define a man and hopefully the world sees that and accepts that.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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