by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Debora Cahn has written for some of the most beloved shows in the history of American television. Having written on The West Wing from 2002 to 2006, she followed with work on other juggernauts such as Private Practice and Grey’s Anatomy. Continuing her work dealing with complex situational dramas, Cahn is currently writing on Homeland. Most recently, she took a break from serialized content to write the HBO original film, Paterno.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Cahn to discuss how she approached a topic that was both historical and controversial, as well as what she advises writers to do who want to achieve the success she has enjoyed.
John Bucher: I’m not a sports person, but I really enjoyed that Paterno was a story about human beings rather than the game. It even made me interested in a sport that I had no interest in. Was that intentional on your part to draw in the non-sports folks?
Debora Cahn: Well, I am one of those non-sports folks, as well. There was a certain point when I was working on the film when I sat earnestly down with my husband and was like, “What is this first down you speak of?” I really did not have much of a vocabulary in football. But it seemed very much a universal story in terms of how interactions like this happen and how people who have a certain place in a community, and by virtue of that place, the rest of the community can kind of fail to see them clearly. This is a really obvious, legible version of that. It talked to me for that reason.
John Bucher: As a writer, how did you find your way into the material? Into who Paterno was?
Debora Cahn: I did a lot of reading about him and his life, and his family, and books by him, books about him. I felt like he was somebody that I knew. I think that my grandfather bore some similarities to him. He felt like a kind of man that I recognized. He was saying things that I have heard people say about similar circumstances and had the kind of an attitude that I found very relatable and also, ultimately, kind of culpable.
The reason that I was attracted to him as the lens through which to tell this story is that he was an educator and he was a really good educator and he was really, really committed to values that I myself hold dear. I think that he really cared about raising men to be good citizens and to be responsible in their community and to take the opportunity that they had to be part of a special thing — which was this nationally known sports entity — to take that opportunity to train them to be something bigger than that. And if that guy can get it wrong… fuck, we all can, you know? I really wanted to look at this series of events through the lens of, “How do good people get this wrong?” I was not as interested in Sandusky and I was not as interested in the nature of evil and what makes a bad guy like that. What I am interested in is how do really good people who really care about children and really are committed to them get this 100% wrong?
I think that happens a lot, and particularly in this case. It was not just Joe who missed it. A lot of good people who chose to go into the helping professions, be they educators or social service people or law enforcement people, a lot of different people got this wrong. And if all of those people got it wrong, then there’s something ineffective about the way that we talk about the abuse of children and particularly sexual abuse.
John Bucher: I was interested in the way you kept bringing the ancient classics into the dialogue of the film, with the nods to Virgil. Was there some connection to that material you were trying to bring in?
Debora Cahn: The story certainly has many of the hallmarks and much of the architecture of a Greek tragedy, but the reason that so many of those details are in the story is because Joe Paterno was obsessed with Virgil and with The Aeneid. That was the text that he most responded to as a young person studying the classics, which he did, and at a certain point he taught the classics and really wanted all of his students to read The Aeneid and study it and study Virgil. There seemed to me to be a tremendous amount of terrible irony in that, and because of that I tried to plant pieces of it in the movie. It was part of the vocabulary of the household, certainly. His kids had to read it and listen to him quote it at length.
John Bucher: How do you make those decisions as writer? How do you take all these episodes and things that happened and boil those down into what is really important to tell the story?
Debora Cahn: It’s hard when you are looking at a true event like this, but I have done relatively a lot of that — looking at non-fiction, true stories, and finding some way to dramatize them. Ultimately, what I find myself doing is I look at a series of events and there are a thousand stories that you could tell based on the events that took place at Penn State around Sandusky. There are a thousand different stories there and I’m only going to tell one of them. And once I figure out what that one story is, I’m going to tell that. I’m going to bring in as much texture and detail as I can to give a sense of this world and this community and this family and this guy, but ultimately my allegiance has to be to that one story, because if I don’t have clarity and simplicity, then the rest of it’s just going to get lost.
John Bucher: You’ve worked on a lot of diverse projects, everything from The West Wing to Homeland. What was different about this project? Did you learn anything or have to do anything differently as a writer in tackling this material?
Debora Cahn: I did have to learn a little bit about football, which I had not had to do before. When I’m working on something like West Wing or Homeland, there’s a little bit of protection in the fact that the characters aren’t real and the situations may bear some resemblance to what’s going on in the world, but our cast of characters is pure fiction. Doing something like this, I feel a responsibility toward the real people whose lives I’m talking about. I don’t love all of Joe Paterno’s decisions, but I certainly don’t want to slander him in any way or his family. I want to cling tightly to what has been established as true. And I want to give us, as a viewing community, enough meat on the bone to really talk about and think about what happened here and ask, “Is there anything that we can do to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again?” I’m writing about this family who was devastated by their peripheral relationship to somebody else’s crime. I don’t want to hurt them, I don’t want to bring on them any more distress than has already rained down on their lives.
John Bucher: How do you handle the complexity of a story like this? How do you know when you’ve got it right? Does it take draft after draft? Or do you get the story right before you ever type the first word?
Debora Cahn: It certainly goes through a lot of drafts in terms of the execution of the story once we know what the story is. I felt pretty sure from the get go that I understood what the right story was here. And I felt really sure that what mattered here was that good people got this wrong. And therefore, I wanted an audience to walk away with a sense that we all need to be more rigorous and more careful and more steadfast in our investigation of things that are unclear but suspicious in this arena. That to me is the story that mattered. And once that was identified, then it was just a question of which of these events do we add and which of these events do we take away in order to clearly tell that story.
John Bucher: What advice can you give to writers that want to one day be where you are, in terms of success?
Debora Cahn: Write a lot. And write a lot of scripts. Don’t get stuck writing one for too long. There’s a temptation to fall in love with one story. It’s so hard to find a story that you really feel like you can tell or that you really relate to and you find it and then you just want to keep writing it until you’ve got it, you’ve got it right. And that’s just a huge trap. You become a professional when you can tell any story, when you can tell a story that you don’t know why you’re connected to, when you can tell a story that doesn’t resonate with you at first. And you’ve got to go through the process from start to finish a lot of times before you start to get good at it. I wrote six really, really bad spec scripts before I wrote a good one and then had an opportunity to try and get a job and start really learning the ropes in a professional environment. But I talk to so many people who are like, “Well, I’ve been working on one screenplay for three years and it’s really getting there.” Well, don’t work on one screenplay for three years. That’s a trap you don’t want to be in.
Paterno is currently playing on all HBO outlets.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.