With the success of last year’s Oscar-winning film The Blind Side, it seems Hollywood is taking note of America’s burgeoning interest in college football. “It’s a billion dollar industry,” says screenwriter Graham Gordy, who recently pitched the TV show, The Wreck, to AMC. The idea, one developed with his writing partner Michael Fuller and Blind Side director John Lee Hancock, follows the trials and tribulations of a Southern football coach who’s dealing with a world of corruption, power, greed and fame. Script sits down with the The Love Guru writer to see how he went from writing comedy with Mike Myers to tackling college football in episodic television.
SCRIPT: Where’d you get the idea for The Wreck?
GRAHAM GORDY: My writing partner is Michael Fuller. He’s from South Carolina. We’ve been buddies for a long time. His initial idea was about a TV show set in the world of college football that deals with the ins and outs of the business. You’re talking about is a field that made $3.5 billion last year. Coaches get paid $5 million a year. The only people not getting paid are the kids out there doing it. They get education and room and board, and that’s all and good. But college football is becoming less of an athletic competition and starting to become more of an economic one. We went to AMC because we want this to be less of a show about college football and more about the collision of different social classes in the South. You have a millionaire coach who’s taking calls from billionaire boosters and simultaneously begging a 17-year-old kid who lives below poverty level to save his job. There was some statistic we read, although I might be getting my figures wrong, but to give you an example… In the state of Alabama, 75% of people can tell you the governor’s name, but 97% percent can tell you who coaches the Alabama Crimson Tide. They are the highest paid and most recognized public figures in the state. That not only affects you, it affects everywhere you go in the community.
SCRIPT: What was it like working with John Hancock?
GRAHAM GORDY: Hancock brought so much to our pitch in terms of everything but especially in terms of the characters of these coaches. When you think of a football coach, especially a Southern one, you may think of a good ol’ boy. But over the past decade, there’s been a transformation from good ol’ boys to CEO types. These are multi-million dollar organizations and the schools and fans need someone who doesn’t care what they have to do to win. At the same time, the CEO of Goldman Sachs doesn’t have to sit down with his janitor about getting his girlfriend pregnant. Imagine an 18-year-old having a child and being terrified. Imagine having an 18-year-old and being terrified of all the trouble they can get into. Now, imagine having 85 of them on scholarship and your job depending on them staying out of trouble. What happens the week before the season is going to start up and somebody gets a DUI? That’s the kind of tone we’re talking about.
SCRIPT: What’s it like writing with a partner?
GRAHAM GORDY: I’m happy to write alone, but it’s a tremendously lonely situation. The great thing about Michael is that he loves this world as much or more than I do. He’s a very thorough researcher. We’re treating this as if we’re going to be writing it for years, because it’s fun. There are very few subjects that I would want to write about for five or six years. But if this goes, I am in it for the long haul.
SCRIPT: How do you maintain a strong voice when writing with a partner?
GRAHAM GORDY: For comedy, it’s good to be in the same room. We plot out the story in agonizing detail. Then, I’ll write five pages, send it to my partner. He’ll edit my five pages and add five. I’ll edits those 10 pages and add five. Outlines are a good source of structure, but they shouldn’t be the bible. When I’m starting on page one, I want to know what happens on page 30. But if I get there the exact way I thought I was going to, it’s probably not going to be as interesting. We also spend a lot of time discussing tone. Michael and I, and frankly all the other people I’ve worked with, do that. We ask, “What is this like? Do we want to go that dark? Do we want to go that light? Do we want to be that commercial, or do we want to go more commercial?” We give examples of what the show will look like and feel like.
SCRIPT: How did you become a screenwriter?
GRAHAM GORDY: I started out as an actor, and I moved out to LA when I was 19. I was out here for a little bit and did sketch comedy and improv, but then I moved back to Arkansas to finish up my education. I started writing plays at that point. My undergrad majors were philosophy and English. I was applying for a master in philosophy when my teacher said, “If you can do anything else, you should do it.” So, I applied to Yale and Brown and NYU and Columbia. I got into NYU and moved to New York and was up there for eight years. I felt like I came to a crossroads. There are only four playwrights in the world who make a living at it, and they’re all over 70 years old. So, I decided to give screenwriting a shot. My mentor was Frank Pugliese. He’s a playwright. He taught me as much about playwriting as anybody. He teaches at Columbia. He’s one of my favorite human beings. I started working for him and he needed an assistant. I learned a tremendous amount. Then, I started working for Mike Myers. I started out as a writing assistant and eventually became his writing partner. I helped him do punch ups on Shrek II and Shrek III and then we wrote The Love Guru. I learned a lot about comedy.
SCRIPT: What’s your advice to undiscovered screenwriters?
GRAHAM GORDY: People tend to try to get into the film industry because it all looks very leisurely. Dramatic writing is dramatic. It’s a lot more of a struggle than you think. The thing that’s missing from most beginners’ screenplays is structure. The ability to sustain a single conflict for 90 minutes or more is nearly impossible. It’s really easy for 30 pages and doable for 60, but then that second half of Act 2, if you’re still keeping people engaged, you’re doing it. That’s the difference from people who make a living at writing scripts and those who don’t. As audience members, that’s when everyone gets up and goes to the bathroom. We’ve all been in movies where we’re about to pee in our pants because we can’t miss what’s about to happen next. That’s the mark of a very good screenwriter.