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FINDING FORRESTER

THE CONNERY KEY
Screenplay writer Mark Rich, explains how Sean Connery's involvement at script stage meant his work had only just begun; and Connery explains why he wanted to not only star in Finding Forrester, but also to produce it.

The inspiration for Finding Forrester, a story about how an unlikely mentor helps a young man reach for his dreams, came from an observation by screenwriter Mike Rich.

"I was doing an interview with someone who had done very interesting profiles on some of America's greatest authors, and I noticed a trend emerge. So many of America's greatest writers, J. D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, for example, were eccentric, reclusive types," says Rich, a former news director and radio personality from Portland, Oregon.

"I thought a story that showed how someone helped a great writer break through that barrier of isolation and re-enter the world would make a terrific story," continues Rich. "It struck me that it would be even more interesting if the person who brings the writer out is someone young - a teenager, for example- who is also in some way gifted."

"dynamic"

Director Gus Van Sant was also intrigued by the relationship posed by Rich' s script. Van Sant, who saw Finding Forrester as a logical progression from and natural extension of his Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting, explains the dynamic of the central relationship between Forrester and his young friend, Jama1: "Jamal reads seriously and can write, but to make things simple for himself, he keeps his abilities and his interests secret from his friends. By chance he meets Forrester, a man who has actually accomplished in life what Jamal would like to do with his. Forrester takes an interest in the young man and what he is doing, and he helps him.

"Jamal finds a teacher in Forrester who not only instructs him in his work," continues Van Sant, "but also in life." Writer Mike Rich had faith in his completed screenplay and compelling storyline, but he wasn't sure how to get it produced.

"I faced the typical roadblock for any first-time screenwriter, which is getting somebody to read what you've written. A friend in the business suggested that if I really believed in the script, I should enter it into a competition."

"prestigious Don and Gee Nicholl writing competition"

Rich submitted Finding Forrester to the prestigious Don and Gee Nicholl writing competition that is sponsored each year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The only rule is that authors must never have sold a screenplay before. In 1998, the year of Rich's submission, there were an astonishing 4,500 entries. Forrester survived several cuts to emerge as one of the five finalists, with a prize of US$25,000 attached. The word was out in Hollywood about a terrific new screenplay, and everyone wanted to read it.

Jonathan King, president of production for Laurence Mark Productions, obtained a copy of Rich's screenplay on a Friday night. He was so captivated by the drama between the two leading characters that, after he finished reading the script, he read it through a second time. Early Saturday morning he gave his copy to Laurence Mark, who was also taken with it.

"totally perfect and a truly exciting"

Mark purchased the script for his company, which is based at Sony Pictures Entertainment's Columbia Pictures. Everyone at the studio was extremely pleased with the acquisition - so much so that when John Calley, Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, had lunch with Sean Connery soon after, he gave him the screenplay.

"This was a tremendous stroke of inspiration," Mark says. "Sean Connery is not someone you might immediately think of for the role of William Forrester, but if you ponder it for a moment, he's totally perfect and a truly exciting choice."

Connery's company, Fountainbridge Films, is also based at Columbia. He and his partner, Rhonda Tollefson, president of the company, are constantly on the search for good material that they can develop for the actor to produce and possibly appear in.

"a bit of a misanthrope"

"In the eight years that I've worked with Sean, I've noticed that seldom can you discover a role for him as an actor that isn't something he's already played before," Tollefson says. "The character of Forrester immediately stood out as something different. Sean loves literature. The idea of playing a Pulitzer Prize-winning author held a lot of appeal for him. The fact that the writer was a recluse and a bit of a misanthrope made it even more interesting."

But Connery's interest went beyond just playing the role of Forrester. Connery not only decided to star in the film, he and Tollefson agreed to join Laurence Mark as producers.

"a constructive story about friendship"

"This is the kind of film I like: a contemporary drama that tells a constructive story about friendship," continues Connery. "The last film I did about friendship was 'The Man Who Would Be King,' and that was more than 25 years ago. I also think the literary motifs original and very entertaining, too."

Connery looked forward to playing a significant role in the further development of the screenplay along with Mark, Tollefson and Mike Rich. "I thought writing the screenplay was the hard part. Little did I realize that my work was really just beginning," Rich says with a laugh. "I hadn't written the role with Sean Connery in mind. Now I had to further refine the character. The first thing to do was to fill in the Scottish background, but there were other aspects that Sean came up with that never occurred to me.

"We made him more reclusive, more eccentric, more compassionate. This is a guy who's ingratiating on one page and infuriating on the next," Rich says.

"tough, cranky, brilliant"

Connery wanted the secrets of the character's background and the conflicts he carries in his soul to remain unrevealed in the drama for as long as possible. And, as an actor renowned for playing powerful leading men - hardboiled heroes who beat the odds - he was intent on stressing Forrester's more vulnerable aspects. Yes, the character was tough, cranky , brilliant, hard-drinking - but he also had his fears.

"Sean is brilliant at nuancing character," Tollefson says. Mark concurs. "Sean's character notes were amazing," he says. "It was all in the details. For instance, it was Sean's idea to make Forrester a birdwatcher. Birdwatching is the reason he's always looking out his window at the world, and why the world below sees him looking and wonders why."

Published March 29, 2001

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