Sunday, August 17, 2008
Life, In this Issue..., Movies
When Hollywood calls
Local novelist Mitchell Graham partners up with Steven Spielberg
By Walt Lawrence
Hollywood isn’t always what it seems. For Marietta resident and novelist Mitchell Graham, it started out as a good news-bad news thing. First the good news: Steven Spielberg wanted to make a movie out of his "Fifth Ring" sci-fi fantasy trilogy. The bad news: Spielberg threatened to kill him—literally. Of course, that was after Graham’s apology.
After a lengthy legal career (lawyer, judge, professor), Graham completed a doctorate in neuropsychology and began seeing patients. Making hospital rounds one afternoon, he received a phone call from a man claiming to be Steven Spielberg. “I’m interested in the rights to your trilogy. I want to make the movie of it,” the caller said. The disbelieving Graham retorted, “Look, pal, I’m busy and don’t have time for your bulls**t” and hung up.
Minutes later, the man called back, still claiming to be the famous director: “No seriously, I am Steven Spielberg.” He was told by Graham to f**k himself. Graham thought no more about it until a nurse handed him a note telling Graham to call the given number collect. He did. Dreamworks’ main switchboard answered. “Please hold for Mr. Spielberg,” he was told. Graham did. Coming on the line, the now-familiar voice just said, “Well…” and waited. What followed was Graham’s heartfelt apology and the beginning of his ongoing relationship with the master director.
Mitchell Graham had little intention of being a writer, even though he was an undergraduate English major. But the literary seeds were sewn when, at age 9, Graham wrote to C.S. Lewis to compliment him on “The Chronicles of Narnia.” A threee and a half year correspondence between them followed. On one occasion, Lewis wrote Graham “commending a closer study of the grammatical niceties of the English language.” When the letters from England stopped, Graham’s last post was answered by a Lewis colleague informing him of Lewis’ death. “I know this is a poor substitute, but I am sending you a copy of my book, 'The Hobbit,'" it read. It was signed, “J.R.R. Tolkien.”
In high school, Graham turned to athletics. “I demonstrated that I was the world’s worst quarterback.” They suggested he try another sport. It turned out to be fencing, where he became a Junior Olympic champion. “It’s like a chess game at lightning speed,” he says.
Graham only began to write when his son gave him a sci-fi book to read. He decided he could do a better job. “The most writing I’d done until my first novel were checks and prescriptions,” he says. The manuscript for the novel was entered into the prestigious Delmont-Ross Literary contest by a friend, where it won best fantasy and best overall novel. It was published soon thereafter to rave reviews and sales. Graham became a sought-after writer at Dragon*Con in Atlanta and ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas.
“The Emerald Cavern” and “The Ancient Legacy” followed “The Fifth Ring,” but while living in Florida, Graham decided to switch genres and write a mystery thriller about a female attorney. “How tough could it be for me to write courtroom scenes? I sat on the bench. I know how lawyers talk.” The result was “Majestic Descending,” slated to be made into a movie starring Diane Lane with Bruce Willis as her romantic interest.
Graham found Hollywood interesting, if somewhat of an enigma. “Nobody can explain exactly how movies get made, they just do,” he says. On Broadway the playwright is a god; in Hollywood it’s the director who is god. The screenwriter is merely a demigod, and the writer who wrote the novel is a minor player. Spielberg told Graham that if he interfered with the way the actors did their roles, “I’ll have you killed. No, seriously, I’ve got the money to do it.” Graham vowed never to find out if that was just director humor. He determined that if an actor asked him the time, all he would allow himself to do would be to point at a clock.
When asked as a neuropychologist whether writing is actually therapy for most writers, Graham reflects, “As for myself, I don’t feel any better or any worse. I feel great when the writing’s good.” And for others? “I look at some writers as future patients.”
Graham believes the success of his books is due to the character development as well as the action. For him, characters must overcome their own shortcomings as well as overcoming the antagonist. “If a writer can take you out of your world and into their world for a period of time, they have done their job.” SP