Daniel James Brown talks George Clooney adaptation and the enduring power of 'The Boys in the Boat'

Moira Macdonald, The Seattle Times on

Published in Entertainment News

SEATTLE — Ever since local writer Daniel James Brown's megabestselling nonfiction book "The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics" came out in 2013, there's been a constant question: What about the movie?

There's no question that the book's true story — of the young University of Washington rowing team that made its way to the Berlin Olympics in the shadow of Hitler, and miraculously prevailed — is incredibly cinematic. But despite the movie rights being sold even before the book's publication, it's been a long wait. Now things finally seem to be moving ahead. George Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov are set to co-direct, the young British actor Callum Turner ("Emma," "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald") is announced to star as rower Joe Rantz, and shooting may begin in England as early as this spring.

Brown, in a telephone interview from his home in Carmel, California (he's still based in the Seattle area, but now spends winters down south), has watched the nearly decadelong movie development process with interest — but from a distance. Because of the contract signed long ago, he has no script approval or formal involvement with the movie. "We sold the movie rights the day after we sold the book rights, and we had no idea really how successful the book would become," he said. "If I could go back in time, if I had known all that, I think I would have lobbied for script approval, or at least some formal script review."

It's been a rocky saga: The initial rights were bought by the Weinstein Company before Harvey Weinstein became a Hollywood pariah and was convicted of criminal sexual assault in the first degree and rape in the third degree. In the intervening years, a couple of versions of a screenplay were written, but the project had little momentum, Brown said. "I think the Weinstein Company, unbeknownst to us, had no money and were trying to get by on as little as possible." Of the early screenplays, he said, "Authors probably always feel this way, and I'm no expert in reading scripts, but it just didn't seem like much magic was going to come out of this."

Though Kenneth Branagh at one point had expressed interest in directing the project and playing the role of legendary boat builder George Y. Pocock — it was Branagh, Brown said, who called him on the phone and convinced him to sell the rights to Weinstein — things just never got off the ground. Years went by, the Weinstein Company went bankrupt and was liquidated, and the movie rights were eventually picked up by Clooney's Smokehouse Pictures production company, which is attached to MGM Studios.

Since then, Brown's been more encouraged. Clooney gave him a call, about a year ago, to discuss the project. "I was really impressed by how well he knew the book — he had not only read it but he really seemed to sort of get it," Brown said. "I don't know what's going to come out of the sausage machine, but I was heartened by the things that Clooney had to say about it."

And he's had a few conversations with the current screenwriter, Mark L. Smith, whose credits include "The Revenant" and Clooney's most recent directorial effort, "The Midnight Sky." Though Brown hasn't seen the whole script, he's hopeful. "I liked the way he was talking about the story."

So, when might cameras roll? It's not at all clear. Clooney's currently in Australia shooting the comedy "Ticket to Paradise" with Julia Roberts through the end of January; in a recent interview, he said he'd be shooting "The Boys in the Boat" "right away" after that. But what Brown has heard via his agent is that April is a more realistic date. It's also possible that the pandemic, or the typical unpredictability that surrounds Hollywood film projects, may cause further delays.


And, despite the hopes of many local fans of the book, it's unlikely that very much of it, if any, will be shot here. "My understanding is that most of it will be shot in the U.K.," Brown said. Murphy Gilson, creative director of university marketing and communications at the University of Washington, said that the studio had shared with them that "they are not planning to do principal photography in Washington." His office has been serving as a resource for the production, answering any questions about the UW settings.

"I think they're still figuring things out and sorting through things," Gilson said, saying the filmmakers have asked for details about history and some specific photographs. He did not know whether any second-unit filming might take place at the UW, nor did he have shooting dates. "They don't tell us much," he said.

An MGM publicity representative, asked about shooting dates and locations, declined to comment, saying in an email: "It's too premature at this point regarding any production news."

Brown said that he had been lobbying for the filmmakers to come to the UW and "at least shoot some establishing shots, the old shellhouse and the fountain or things that make the viewer feel as if they're on the campus ... I know they were asking for measurements and dimensions of the shellhouse, so I think they might be considering doing some of that with CGI. It seems like it would be easier to fly to Seattle!" He was quick to say, though, that this is "all speculation on my part." (Gilson, when asked about this, said that it's standard for filmmakers to do at least some re-creating in a context like this, but that "I don't know anything specific.")

It's been a long journey for "The Boys in the Boat" to the screen, but Brown is hopeful that his latest book will have a shorter trip. "Facing the Mountain: A True Story of Japanese American Heroes in World War II," the story of young Japanese American men who volunteered for the U.S. Army even as the government uprooted and incarcerated their families, is currently in development as a television series. Director Destin Daniel Cretton ("Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings") is working with Brown and a writer on creating a pitch and a pilot script.

"Originally we were talking about just a single season series, maybe eight episodes, but the vision keeps growing larger and larger, so now maybe a multiseason series now," Brown said. He's excited about the prospect, and about Cretton's preference of working closely with authors (as he did in the film "Just Mercy," based on Bryan Stevenson's book). "I do want to be involved in that one deeply," Brown said, of "Facing the Mountain." "If we in fact put together a deal and it moves forward, I'm expecting that to be my full-time job over the next couple of years."

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