Culture: Birth of a biopic

Photo Credit: Illustration by Dave Cutler

We spent months conceiving our baby. Exciting work, but scary, too, especially when our inkjets dried up.

We were writing a movie together. But I thought of it as our baby, something we dreamed up together, labored over, primped and fussed with, and finally sent out into the world.

It started when a producer called about a book I wrote. “I love Tommy’s Honor,” he said. “Have you thought about turning it into a film?”

The book told the true story of “Old Tom” Morris and his son, Tommy, who pioneered modern golf in Scotland in the 1860s. More than a golf history, it was a family drama featuring a love story – Tommy’s doomed romance with the lower-class woman he married. The book won a couple of awards and some hard-core fans who kept asking why nobody had made a Tommy’s Honor movie.

As I learned, there were good reasons. For one thing, it was a period piece, and they’re expensive to make. Filmmakers would have to re-create Scottish towns and golf courses of 150 years ago, complete with vintage costumes, horse-drawn carriages, even computer-generated imaging for a key scene in a blizzard. For another thing, the only golf movies that made money were comedies like Caddyshack and Tin Cup.

“I don’t care,” the producer said. “We can do it, you and me.”

It was a risk. I had never worked on a film, never tried to turn a book into a script that would be less than half as long, with fewer characters and utterly different ways of telling the story. Turning out a script would mean months of work for next to no money. But then I was never risk-averse. Not to get too golfy about the whole thing, but many of the best holes in the sport are known as risk/reward holes – if you take a chance, you might knock one out of bounds or in the water and make an 8. But hit a good enough shot and you might make a 3. After seven books, I was ready to take a shot. But not without a partner.

“OK,” I told the producer. “Me and Pamela – and you.”

My wife, Pamela Marin, and I came from the world of print journalism, but by the time the producer called, Pamela already had spent years learning the screenwriter’s craft. She wrote a script that got some attention in Hollywood. That picture didn’t get made, but it showed what she could do. So we teamed up to write Tommy’s Honor, the movie.

Friends warned us not to try it. “You’ll be at each other’s throats,” they said. We said no, not us. But it turned out they had a point. I never expected to say this, but when we agreed to work together I had no idea what a moody, petty, thin-skinned, overemotional head case I could be.

“Tommy would never say that,” I fumed one day. Fortunately I lost that argument, and one of the best lines in the script stayed in.

After three months of give and take, we had a first draft. It caught the attention of Jason Connery, the son of Sir Sean, the most famous Scot of them all. Jason joined me on sales trips to rich golfers’ mansions. Our pitch: “Give us millions of dollars so Jason can direct the best golf movie ever.” Our secret: It wasn’t really a golf movie. The script focused on relationships: Tom and his rebellious son Tommy, Tommy and the “woman with a past” he fell for.

One potential backer was a wealthy golfer with a full-length par-3 hole in his backyard. We were pitching like crazy – “Yes, it’s golf’s Genesis story, but that’s just the start” – when I noticed that the millionaire had fallen asleep.

In the pre-financing stage, where scripts go to die, Pamela and I learned a few lessons about real-life moviemaking. We had written a spectacular scene in which Prince Leopold of England makes a royal visit to Scotland, where Tom Morris gives him a golf lesson. It really happened – a pageant of marching soldiers, white horses, and trumpet players leading the prince’s carriage through streets jammed with citizens decked out in their Sunday best.

“It’s a colorful scene,” Jason conceded. “And those three pages would cost more to shoot than most of the rest of the film.”

“OK,” we said. “No prince.”

Finally the producers raised the roughly $7 million it would take to make the film – thanks largely to an executive I’ll call Mr. Fancy Pants. Having provided much of the money we needed, he seemed to think his financial wizardry gave him other talents. He wanted to act in the movie, and write some of it, and play casting director, too. He was sure we needed “big names” in the cast. Who did he think should play our 19th-century Scottish heroes?

Bill Murray and Justin Timberlake.

I thought about that for a tenth of a second. “Why not Sylvester Stallone and Tiger Woods?”

“Could we get them?”

Thanks to Jason, Scottish film legend Peter Mullan came aboard to play Old Tom. Rising star Jack Lowden agreed to play Tommy. Several other superb actors joined a cast that elevated our dialogue, and by some miracle it rained only once during Jason’s six-week shoot on location in Scotland. Pamela and I spent a few days watching the action. The wind blew so hard that my baseball cap flew off my head toward Norway, but the rain held off. A friend of ours took a photo of us, the movie’s proud parents, standing on a hillside with the cast and crew in the background. “Mom and Dad on location,” she called it.

In June we returned to Scotland for the world premiere of Tommy’s Honour (British spelling) – the gala opener of the 2016 Edinburgh International Film Festival.

What a night! Jason Connery, looking sharp in a kilt, addressed an opening-night audience of more than 1,000 while Pamela and I held hands onstage behind him. Leading man Jack Lowden slipped through the crowd, looking as dashing as Jason’s dad in his prime. Peter Mullan, an avowed socialist with no patience for ruling-class manners, wore a T-shirt and a black leather jacket. Then the lights went down and we saw our names on the big screen for the first time.

It’s surreal to watch a movie you wrote, fought over, and fought for, as it finally unspools for a living, breathing audience. My heart skipped a beat when the crowd laughed at jokes we had laughed at while sitting side by side at a computer three years before. And we heard sniffles toward the end, as the Morrises’ true story wound its way toward the credits.

The after-party at Scotland’s National Museum was champagne and merriment. Pamela and I watched the pageant go by: revelers on two floors of the museum, dressed in opening-night finery, with music, videos on jumbo screens, spotlights picking out Jason and the actors. A scene far too expensive to put in a script! Quite a night for a couple of Midwesterners who fell in love with Scotland long ago.

Next morning, we waited for the reviews. Here was a risk I hadn’t really considered: public humiliation. A couple of Americans had dared to dramatize a vital part of Scottish history. Would the Scottish press object? I had been ready with my sound bite (“Hey, an Australian made Braveheart”), but nobody asked me. The reporters were all chasing Jason and the actors.

The Scotsman hated our movie, ripping it as “stilted Sunday-night TV drama.” But other critics were kinder. The National called it “engrossing, quietly passionate … poignant, often heartbreaking.” The BBC praised it. The actors got the raves they deserved.

Now Pamela’s working on her next script. This one’s for TV, which some say is even riskier than movies. But she’s going to take her best shot. And I’m on to my next book, a vintage baseball story.

As for Tommy’s Honour, I look back on all that script work as one of the best risks I ever took. Like every movie, the film’s a different critter from the book it was based on – like apples and haggis. But there are ways in which it’s better than the book. The next time somebody asks me to try something scary and new, I’ll probably say yes. The reward was worth the risk.

Regular contributor Kevin Cook’s latest book is The Dad Report: Fathers, Sons, and Baseball Families. The movie Tommy’s Honour will appear in U.S. theaters soon.

The Rotarian