Luck of the Irish

With a hit movie just barely out of theaters, it’s hard to believe Brad Gann’s second feature film is already in the can. But as his script for Invincible, starring Mark Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear, was being shot in Philadelphia, Gann was busy on the set of the 24-day shoot for Black Irish, a movie he wrote, produced and directed. The film, which premiered at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October, is a heart-wrenching drama about an emotionally distant South Boston family whose youngest member’s love of baseball has become his only salvation, for better or worse.

So why make two sports movies in a row? The first-time director sat down with MM to discuss this, his writing process, the transition from writer to director and steering clear of stereotypes.

Katrin Frick (MM): What drew you to screenwriting in the first place?

Writer and director Brad Gann

Brad Gann (BG): I’m not really too sure, other than to give you the vague answer that I wanted to tell stories. About 12 years ago, I was an executive recruiter up in San Francisco, and one day I just literally couldn’t pick up the phone anymore. I couldn’t try and sell one more person. I was burnt out and I knew it.

I came home to my wife and told her I couldn’t do this anymore, and she said, “What do you want to do?” Out of nowhere I said, ‘I want to write.’ I’d never done it before. I don’t know where it came from. I’d taken one English course in college. Never kept a journal.  I never wrote more than a 10-page report in school, and when I did that was like pulling teeth.  But when I wrote my first script, it just flowed. Granted I had no craft at that stage, but the process itself was freeing. I’m still scratching my head over the answer to this question.

MM: What is your writing process like?

BG: It varies from script to script. In general, the more I write, the more I outline. For years I resisted outlining like hell because it was hard for me to beat out an entire story initially. I’d rather start with a character and a goal and see where it would take me.

That said, I’m not sure outlining is a better process. I do know that I can write more quickly now, but there are generally fewer discoveries, surprises or rough edges along the way. If you meander without a roadmap, you’ll turn out fewer pages, but you’ll have time to read other fiction that inspires you and time to research more. This can send you off into uncharted territory and that could be a great thing. I know that before I became sold or produced, it was just me, building my own characters and stories—it was more of an organic, solo artistic process.

After I’d had some success, you take tons of meetings (the majority of which go nowhere and take you away from writing) and you start developing material with producers. Once you start developing with others you then go off and write, and now you’ll have a few other voices in your head—those of development execs looking over your shoulder, wondering whether your lead character is likeable enough, or if you have your character at a sufficiently low point at the end of the second act. The usual shite you have to contend with. And it’s tough to drown those voices out, because you remember it wasn’t too long ago that you weren’t getting paid to write. But you have to find a way to, because without your voice, what have you got at the end of the day?

MM: Tell us about Black Irish. Did you write from any personal experiences? Do you normally?

BG: Black Irish is very near and dear to my heart—a passion play of mine. I didn’t think I was writing from personal experience when I wrote it, but when I was going through the process of scene analysis in preparation for the shoot, I realized that even though I came from a very different background, there were some startling similarities between some of the character relationships in the script and some relationships I’ve been through. Very different circumstances, but similar emotional terrain. It literally didn’t even dawn on me when I was writing it. So I’d say that normally I don’t write from personal experience, but how can you not? If you’re walking in a character’s shoes, you’re really filtering his experience through your own. I don’t think there’s any way around it.

MM: What influenced you to write Invincible? Are you an Eagles fan or did you just like the story?

BG: Executive producer Victor Constantino and I were at lunch, discussing another project, when he got a call and he mentioned this other project he was trying to get off the ground. He gave me the rundown on Vince’s story and I was instantly intrigued, but I’d never heard of the guy. When Victor sent me a videotape on Vince’s life from a show called, “Under the Helmet,” I was stunned. I could not believe his story had just been sitting out there for (at the time) 28 years. I knew it was a movie. I felt like I was handed this incredible gift.

By the way: I’m a lifelong Giants fan. When Vince and I started working together, I came clean about that fact. There was a long pause over the phone, then he verbally patted me on my head, saying, “Well… that’s alright,” as if I had an IQ of 70. We’ve been friends ever since.

MM: Both Invincible and Black Irish center on sports (football and baseball, respectively). Are you a big sports fan? Why do you think sport-themed movies are so well received?

BG: I have to say I’m a fan, but I’m not a diehard. I have friends who always tune into SportsCenter, who can cite you players’ stats and team histories chapter and verse. I’ve never been that guy. But man, you turn on a good ballgame, and there’s inherent drama. Sports are just a great arena for dramatic storytelling. Everyone can relate to the underdog. It’s an ethos that’s celebrated in American culture. There’s just something inherent in human nature that makes you want to root for David kicking Goliath’s ass.

I’m a Yankees fan, and I know this is blasphemy, but when the Red Sox came back in 2004 from a three game deficit to win the ALCS, I couldn’t help but root for them.

MM: Both Invincible and Black Irish rely on the personalities and socioeconomics of where they are set—Philadelphia and South Boston, respectively. How did you avoid the stereotypes normally associated with these areas in your writing?

BG: I grew up in West Hartford, Connecticut, in an upper middle class Jewish household, but I always gravitated toward more colorful characters when choosing my friends. I’m not sure why, but I hung out with a lot of Italian and Irish kids when I was a younger. So even though I never stepped foot in Philly or Southie, I knew these characters.

Irish in Boston is really similar to Irish in Connecticut. Same with Italians in Philly. Blue-collar east coast is blue-collar east coast. As far as avoiding stereotypes: I think if you invest your characters with heart as well as flaws that are particular or peculiar to that individual, that will dictate choices that are not ordinary or usual.
MM: What was the jump from writer to writer-director-producer like?

BG: It was a huge leap. As a writer, you sit in a room and write. The process is the same whether you’ve had some success or not. It’s pretty much banker’s hours. But there’s really no sufficient preparation you can undertake to get you ready to direct.

You can workshop your material beforehand, do scene analysis and get a handle on how to best tell your story, but until you’re making tough calls, trying to stay creative, stay in the moment with your actors while the money hasn’t come in and you don’t know if you’ll have enough to shoot next week and you’re losing your light or it starts to rain and you have no cover set and you wonder why you ever said you wanted to do this and realize that no one put a gun to your head, man, it’s just unbelievably stressful.

The wheels are constantly falling off the wagon and you have to continually improvise and stay loose. It’s a whole different set of muscles, and nothing prepares you for it. Even when you have control and are able to tell the story you want to tell, you’re subject to artistic limitations—time and money. And I know every director is subject to those constraints, whether they’re shooting on under $1 million or on a $100 million budget. That said, I absolutely do want to do it again.

If it’s your baby and mistakes are going to get made, let them be your own. Why turf it off to someone who may or may not share your vision?  You’ll know which projects you can let go of and hand off for someone else to direct and which ones you have to keep for yourself. Ideally I’d like to intersperse the writing and directing. I have a family, and it’s nice to see them occasionally!  On set that’s next to impossible. Black Irish was a 24-day shoot, where a studio film can shoot for four to five months. If you’re going to go that route and have people in your life, you better have to tell that story, because there are personal sacrifices that will have to be made.

MM: What’s next for you?

BG: A lot of writing in the very near future. I’m currently writing a pilot for NBC, and it looks like I’ll be writing another real life sports drama for Mark Ciardi and Gordon Gray, the same producers I worked with on Invincible. After that, with a little luck, I’ll be back in the director’s chair next year for a script I wrote entitled Once Was Lost, with Kelly Crean producing.

For more information, visit www.blackirishmovie.com.

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