Celebrity Interview: Brian Banks Screenwriter Doug Atchison Talks on the Process Behind the Compelling True Story

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Doug Atchison, screenwriter for the recently released film, Brian Banks, which tells the story of a wrongly conviction and the attempts to clear his name, recently participated in the media day and spoke with Haute-Lifestyle.com Publisher Janet Walker.

From Bleecker Street films, Brian Banks brings to the screen the story of the Long Beach football star, who spent eleven years fighting a wrongful conviction, and his story from USC committed to convicted rapist and felon to finally a free man.

Doug is a wealth of information and I found him engaging, generous and full of interesting stories on the process, and specifically on building a screenplay with so many working parts.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation.


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Janet Walker: Congratulations on the film, its fabulous and very nicely done. I want to jump right in so could you describe a little about the selection process and how you were awarded the screenwriting job?

Doug Atchison: Sure. Amy Baer, with Gidden Media, had purchased Brian's life rights from him soon after he was exonerated, and the story went public. I met with her initially and we talked, and I presented my ideas about how we should approach the story. Brian and I then met, and he was a producer on the film as well. It turns out that a movie I made called "Akeelah and the Bee" he watched while he was in prison. He was allowed to check out DVD's and he watched this film and it had an impact on him. So that became a foundation for us to establish and build trust with each other.

I knew somebody, close to me, that had gone through something similar to what Brian had gone through and we talked about and that just started a series of conversations where Brian became very comfortable with me and he liked my approach to the material and what I suggested we could do. When I received the assignment Brain and I continued to talk, and I listened to him. He doesn't just tell you what happened he tells you what happened and how it made him feel. He was very good at mapping out his emotional journey. Which was valuable in building the script.

JW: It is an emotionally packed film. As I was coming up with questions, I wondered with more than a decade of disturbance, disconnect, prison and all the injustices, how did the two of you decide which of the worst of times were included or what was the narrowing process?

DA: When I first sat down with Amy It feels to me, I mean I knew the story at that point, I got to know the story much better after talking with Brian and talking with Justin, I did know the story. I went to USC, Brian was going to go to USC, I remember when this happened, and I knew the story.

It was my instincts to start the story when he was already out of prison trying to forge a life for himself discovering that that was impossible to do when he was still on parole and he had this crime hanging over him, trying to get work, trying to be a friend, trying to have a girlfriend, all this stuff wasn't possible.

We needed to start the story when he is most pro-active trying to clear his name and I spent a long time with the case file, I had twelve hours of recorded interviews with him, three hours with Justin, I had every police report, every transcript, every deposition, every lab report, and two boxes of information. It was voluminous. And my early drafts were longer than the movie is now, but I did figure out and you've seen the film, there are dramatic twists and turns and those are all true.


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Everything in the movie happened to him, legally, happened. And it was just a process, a creative process of figuring out the mental relationship with Justin and the relationship between his mother and the girl and navigating the twists and turns from past to present and the process of writing it, not just imagining it.

But as you go through the material it occurs to you, this plays well here, I knew that this mentorship in prison with Mr. Johnson, was important. It was always about Brian's agony and his own effort to liberate himself. He was motivated to do this. The California Innocence Project was a way to this end and as you see in the film, they only represent people who area already in prison, not people who are out. Brian's case was very tricky.

There were all these reasons that it didn't make legal sense for them to represent him but he was able to surmount them and that became the structure of the movie, him having to meet each of these roadblocks and find a way around them and to the end that the information from the past needed to be explored in order to do that gave me a narrative.

It was a shuffling act in my earlier drafts it was much more of what happened to him legally. We culled it down to the essentials and through the process of rewriting and filming and then editing, we are getting it to what works best for the goals.


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JW: How many drafts did you go through?

DA: Well it was an off and on process over a couple of years, the film started with Amy and then with Shivani [Rawat], came on board and then Tom [Shadyac, the Director] came on later plus all the drafts I wrote for myself. I don't know it may have been ten, or twelve. You know, during production they were in Memphis and I was here in LA and I would get calls, this scene needs to be rewritten because of location changes so I was re-writing and emailing. It's a process of mining.

JW: So how long from concept to completion?

DA: I'm trying to remember when that was. It may have been three years maybe four. We were talking before I met with them. It may have been as early as 2014. I started writing in 2015.


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JW: That was an amazing film. Do you still speak with Brian?

DA: I saw him yesterday. We were at a place called "Home" in South LA that I have supported for years. We screened the film there for them and held a Q&A with kids who were growing up similar to the kind of environment he grew up in. A lot of them have friends or family who have interacted with the criminal justice system. They asked the best questions, I've heard.

JW: What were they?

DA: What can we do as young people to change the system?

JW: And what did he [Brian]say?

DA: How many of you are thinking of becoming lawyers? The system needs more defense attorneys, he said, become politically active, you should be aware of what's going on, and unexpected piece of advice, I suggest you get to know your local police officers. Let them get to know you. They are supposed to be protecting you.

Brian Banks opened August 9, 2019 and is theaters everywhere. Check local listings.

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