Written by Dylan Callaghan
Sean McGinly’s screenwriting career began, as is too often the case, with a lie to his parents. In the fall of 1993, the writer-director of the new John Malkovich/Colin Hanks film The Great Buck Howard [watch the trailer] was supposed to be in San Diego finishing his first semester at law school, but he’d already moved to L.A. to pursue his forbidden dream of writing and directing movies.
“My dad basically insisted that I go to law school, and I didn’t have the balls to tell him I wasn’t going,” explains McGinly. Christmas that year was all but ruined when he went home back East and told his folks the truth. He was able to continue his non-sanctioned, but now at least open pursuit.
He got by early on working as a personal assistant to The Amazing Kreskin, a mentalist most renowned for his numerous appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Though the film, which features Malkovich as the mentalist Howard and a cameo from Colin’s father, Tom, is a largely fictional tale of a post-prime mentalist’s attempt at a comeback, it was born in the screenwriter’s real-life experience with Kreskin.
McGinly spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about his good fortune gaining the support of Hanks’ production company, Playtone, how this is the only script that has ever stemmed from his real life and why, despite hating his time as Kreskin’s assistant, he’s come to admire him.
You landed a great cast here. To what extent did your script drive that?
Hard to say. I know that a big part of it was the fact that Colin Hanks read it and really liked it. There was no offer on the table at the time. It was just sent to him and his interest got things going.
He showed it to Playtone, which is Tom Hanks’ production company. He kinda warned us and said, “I’ve sent a number of things to him over the years, and they never like anything, so don’t get your hopes up.” But Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks really liked it, and said they wanted to produce it.
How pleased were you when you got that news?
It was awesome. I went over to Playtone’s offices, and I thought I’d meet with a few executives... and then Tom comes in. It’s just so trippy. Here you’ve been a fan of his your whole life, and he comes walking in the room telling you how much he likes your script.
Photo: © 2009 Magnolia Pictures
Colin Hanks, Emily Blunt, John Malkovich and Steve Zahn in The Great Buck Howard.
I think the script was definitely helpful in getting Malkovich because he doesn’t need to do anything to impress anyone; he wants to like the script. Once Malkovich was on, then I think a lot of people came on board just for the opportunity to work with [him]. Emily Blunt said that to me -- she loved the script, but could not pass up a chance to work with John.
Where did this whole notion of the fading mentalist come from?
When I first moved here, I had been advised by people to get any job you can in the entertainment industry and learn whatever you can. I just started applying for jobs -- anyone that would pay me for anything. I came across this ad in The Hollywood Reporter for a road manager and personal assistant to a “celebrity performer.” I went in for the interview, and it turned out to be The Amazing Kreskin, who I’d never heard of. Went to work for him, it lasted about four months. I hated it. It was fairly miserable, but as the years went by, I would talk about it -- it always kinda stuck with me.
He was an odd character and people liked the stories I would tell about my time with him. A friend urged me for years that there was a script there, that I had a great character. One day I was sitting down with this friend, and he finally talked me into and I just started writing.
So a lot of this is obviously autobiographical?
The first 10 minutes of the film are basically straight from my life. After that, things veer off into stuff that never happened.
This movie has a great story, in a way you see less of these days. It just seems like a story-focused film. Is that something you’re conscious of as a screenwriter?
I think when I was writing it, I was just telling the story and following my instincts. But when I was directing, I was thinking of that aspect more. I wanted it to have a sort of old school feel. I wanted it to feel like the place I went to when I was working for Kreskin. We’d go to these old theaters that had seen better days. There were a million stories in these places, and I wanted that to come through in the filmmaking.
Before I started writing, I watched a number of films, and probably the one with the biggest impact was Sunset Boulevard. I think if you watch the film, you might be able to see that impact. So it wasn’t something I was consciously thinking, but I guess it was there.
So is this the purest example in your career of that old writing credo, “Write what you know?”
Yeah, this is really the only thing I’ve ever written that is, to a degree, directly from my life. As far as scripts go, it was fairly easy to write. It was by no means a breeze, but I was able to look to my own experiences and feelings. Whenever I didn’t know what to write next, I could go back to a time I’d lived through, and there were things to draw on there, if not actual events, emotions I was feeling at the time.
And in the end what did this story say to you?
On one level, it’s just the story of this young man who has this experience that impacts his life more than he ever thought it would when he first stepped into it. [But] another thing I tried to layer in [the script] that I hope comes through -- it might be a little too subtle -- is that I wanted to say something about art. Everyone is trying to figure out how to get noticed and how we can achieve either popularity or success. I think there’s a grace and honor in continuing to pursue your art even when you’ve had your moment in the sun and it’s over or when...
It’s not going well...
Yeah, or before you even make it. This is a journey I took in writing. For years, I struggled and nothing was happening. At some point, I just had to make peace with it and say, “You know, it might never happen, but I really love doing this.”
That’s something I took from my time working for Kreskin. When I worked for him, I couldn’t stand him, but years later, I came to admire him because he never gave up.