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CITIZEN JOURNALISM: The screenwriter’s dilemma

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"I received my entire musical education in the New York City public school system," composer Michael Kamen, who died in 2003, once said. "I had there my most incredible experience. While we were working on '[Mr.] Holland's Opus' I went back to [the] music and art [room] ... and in the room was a graveyard of musical instruments ... 400 or 500 violins, flutes, trombones, trumpets, oboes, everything piled up to the ceiling. And they were all broken and busted."

Enter Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation, founded by Mr. Kamen in 1996 and inspired by the movie about an inspirational music teacher. From coast to coast and border to border, the foundation puts musical instruments in the hands of youths. Sometimes the instruments are new, and sometimes they are refurbished.

Board member Patrick Sheane Duncan, screenwriter of the film, said the foundation's mission is neither politically motivated nor convoluted. The foundation's Web site (www.mhopus.org) is peppered with testimonials from youths who have given and received the gift of music.

"The Mr. Holland's Opus Foundation gets instruments to poor kids and schools that have lost their funding," he said. Arts funding "was really bad, and now it's gotten worse. One of the first to go is the music program. We give instruments and raise money at cost or less."

Philanthropy and youths are the central themes of one of Mr. Duncan's projects. He was hired by Philanthropy Project President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Guillen to write the screenplay for a feature-length film about Zach Bonner.

Zach, 11, founded the Little Red Wagon Foundation in 2005 to help underprivileged children. This year, he is completing the final leg of his My House to the White House walking mission from Florida to the nation's capital to raise awareness and money for homelessness. Zach is scheduled to arrive this week in Washington.

Mr. Duncan talks about the planned movie and his other work:

Q: Why the story about Zach and his Little Red Wagon Foundation Inc.?

A: I want to help. I thought it would be cool to do a film that would make people want to do philanthropic work. When they told me about it, I thought it would be a good project to do, and difficult. The challenge I learned with "Mr. Holland's Opus": It's hard to do people who do good things. I don't do the same thing twice. I just try to tell different stories. I'vedone a biography of Elvis, and that was really hard.

Q: You wrote "Courage Under Fire," which involved the Medal of Honor, and "Vietnam War Story." What research was involved?

A: I tend to absorb as much as I can and then try to let the story come to me. So you just do your research. I'm trying to tell the story about a good person, and there's not a lot of drama other than what he's doing. I couldn't make a wedding, nobody got killed, no car crash. That's why I took it.

Q: You have spent time with the Bonner family. What was that like?

"It was great. They let me spend a week. We were hanging out, asking questions. We need facts [like] what's the name of the dog. Zach made funny heads and faces with Play-Doh, and I'd talk biscuit recipes with his mother.

Q: Buttermilk biscuits?

A: Yes. The secret is half-flour, half-cake-flour.

Q: You've been an executive producer and held other jobs. Why writing?

A: I didn't start until I was 30. I had worked in a factory, been a pizza cook, ran a chain of movie theaters. I tried storytelling, and I loved it, although it took a while to make living at it.

Q: What else are you working on?

A: Autoworkers. I'm from Michigan and have a lot of family there. I want to show the impact of the downturn. The thing you have to remember is, and I'm sure it happened in [the] South with the textile industry, the steel industry people get dependent on the [auto] industry. Their future, their children - everything. And then the rug is yanked out from under them. It's devastating, and not just on a financial basis. You have to start all over. That's why i feel so bad for the people who lost everything in the [Bernard] Madoff crimes.

Q: You said it's hard to do movies about people who do good things. Is that why Hollywood doesn't make a lot of do-good movies?

A: Every three months or so, Hallmark does a film.

Q: So certain elements have to coincide?

A: We had a period in the '60s when [President] Kennedy inspired us to go outside ourselves to help others. There was the civil rights movement, the women's movement. People found a cause. People went outside themselves. Then we went inward. Zach could inspire other kids and adults to make the world a better place than the one we came into. He lives on the kindness of strangers and gets them to help somebody they don't know. It's inspirational, and it works.

About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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