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Born in Boston in 1951 and raised in Rye Beach, Rodman Philbrick is an eleventh-generation Seacoast NH local, and the author of the critically acclaimed book "Freak the Mighty," now a Miramx film. Originally promoted for its stars -- Sharon Stone, Harry Dean Stanton, Meatloaf, Gena Rowl and Gillian Anderson -- the film really succeeds on the compelling story and the acting of two boys -- Eldon Henson and Kieran Culkin. Despite excellent reviews and a loyal following, the film was not widely distributed. Having profiled Mr. Philbrick prior to the filming of his novel, it seemed only fitting that we follow-up with a more detailed interview. Rod is an occasional reviewer on our FILM & VIDEO pages as well. He lives with his wife writer Lynn Harnett. We caught up with them in Florida. (JDR)

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Mighty Poster
Rod, after 13 novels you're suddenly an overnight success. How has your life changed by the film production of "The Mighty?"

Lynn and I did have a great time going out to Los Angeles for the premiere, but aside from getting more mail from kids and posing for a photo with Meatloaf, my life hasn't been changed much by the movie version of "Freak The Mighty'", I still have to live by my wits (i.e., write for a living) and that's just fine by me.
Come on, don't you think the tectonic plates of your life have shifted significantly? You're not yet a household word, but you've crossed a line most writers are still running toward. Your routine is the same, but what about your soul?

Tectonic plate shift? I didn't feel a thing. And I'm still getting things rejected, as before. Example, 'Dark Matter', two years in the writing, has failed to find a publisher. So apparently word on my exalted status hasn't reached the publishing world.
What have your wits dealt you lately? Isn't there a book on cats, a sequel to Freak, a screenplay?

"Max The Mighty", the sequel to "Freak The Mighty" was published in May 1998. So far there's been no movie interest, which may have something to do with 'The Mighty' failing to earn big bucks. My proposal for an illustrated book on cats has been sitting on my editor's desk for two years, which may reflect, her lack of enthusiasm for the idea, if not for feline critters. I do have a couple of screenplays making the rounds. One of them, "Winning Ticket," has attracted director Ken Kwapis and a possible star (Randy Travis), but hasn't yet been picked up by a studio. There's still hope. Heck, there's always hope!
You may be replacing Thomas Bailey Aldrich as the best known writer in the Seacoast. His 1869 "Story of a Bad Boy" is full of childhood mischief. We're you a bit of a bad boy in your youth?

I was a little angel. Like Lucifer was a little angel before he got cast down.
Tell us about the starving artist years in the Seacoast. What were the worst of times and what made you persevere as a writer?

There were, of course, some very lean years -- years where I didn't seem to get much accomplished in the way of writing. In my early 20's I worked as a longshoreman -- actually that was great fun and the money was good. Later my pal Arnet Taylor and I briefly owned a small boatyard in Dover Point. Dryrot and rats, that's what I remember, and pipes freezing in the winter. It wasn't so much a matter of persevering as surviving. I kept writing because that's the only thing I really wanted to do. My license plate in those days should have read "Write For Living Or Die".
More please. Writers love managed to eke a living out of writing for 20 years. Was there a point at which you hit bottom?

Okay, okay. Low point was 1978. I was 27, had written nine or ten novels, and had never published a word. Never even received a "personalized" rejection letter. In a moment -- a very long moment -- of crisis, I decided to try something new. So I put aside my literary experiments, my 'difficult' novels (difficult to publish, no doubt about that) and started learning how to tell a story. Some literary critics scorn the idea of mere "story-tellers", but story telling is what I do, for better or worse.
"Freak" was visualized in the Seacoast NH region where you grew up and live. How do you think the story al when moved to Cincinnati?

I dislike the fact the movie was supposedly set in Cincinatti. "Freak The Mighty" was not intended to be a big city story. In the novel Max and Kevin have been aware of each other all their lives -- their mothers were friends when the boys were infants, Max remembers Kevin from pre-school. Locals will recognize the Portsmouth area setting.

On the other hand, the producers managed to find a pretty cool bridge that crosses a river, and that sort of hit my internal images of the story. Although, come to think of it, I'm not sure the river was ever mentioned in the book.
The movie runs very close to the feeling and plot of your novel. Does it live up to the film you imagined?

Except for a few niggling details (Cincinnati, the wild sled ride, etc..), I was surprised and pleased by how closely the movie reflected the novel. In all the essentials they got it right.
But what about Kevin's wild sled ride? We found it contrived. You wanted to write the screenplay, but didn't. Is it difficult to see something you wrote altered badly in spots, or do you still feel thrilled, like "Thank God, they really made the movie?"

The sled ride was added by the director after the rest of the movie was in the can. He wanted a "pump your fist in the air" scene for the kids, something exciting. It seems to work for kids better than it does for me. Despite that, yes, I still feel thrilled by the quality of the movie. It works. Sure, I wish they'd used more of my original screenplay, wish I'd gotten screen credit, etc,. but the country is filled with grumbling screenwriters, and anyone who's been as lucky as I've been has no cause for complaint.
You knew a boy with Morquio's Syndrome, the condition that afflicts Kevin in the movie. Was that the seed of the story for you?

Yes. And as everyone who knew the boy is aware -- and he had many, many friends in Portsmouth - his mother loathes the idea of any publicity concerning the life of her late son. So the less said the better, except to stress that the book was entirely fictional, despite being inspired by a real situation.
When you write about young boys, you must tap into a young Rodman Philbick. What was he like -- more Kevin or more Max?

Max and Kevin, c'est moi!

Rod photo
You attended a shooting session in Toronto and the grand opening in Hollywood. What are your best hobnobbing memories?

Visiting the set in Toronto was, for me, fascinating. For the outdoor scenes -- the fireworks and chase -- several hundred extras were employed, as well as a large film crew. I stood around freezing my butt off (it's cold up there in the Far North) smoking cigars and watching all these industrious folks putting a story I'd written - with no greaat expectations -- on film. When Lynn and I visited the sound stage we got our pictures taken with Gena Rowlands, Harry dean Stanton, and Sharon Stone. A glance at the picture reveals when they're all movie stars and we're not. The first time I spotted Elden he was leaning against a wall, smoking a cigarette and reading a paperback copy of "Freak The Mighty". I'll always love him for that, and for his great and generous performance as Maxwell Kane.

For the pond scene the boys -- Elden and Kieran -- donned wet suits under their clothing, and between takes they reclined in a hot tub fully clothed. The fireworks, radio controlled, went off two or three times and looked spectacular. This scene was, by happy coincidence, very close to what I'd imagined in the book.

The premiere was a gas. Miramax flew us out First Class, assigned us a limo and driver (it was car 54, believe it or not!), and put us up at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. We saw Natasha Kinski swimming laps in the pool, and Stanley Tucci and Liam Neeson lapping up drinks at the bar. The Culkins were in residence, including Macauly and his new wife -- they were obviously smitten with each other. Mac is a sincere and serious young man, not at all the spoiled child star, and I expect he'll have an interesting and possibly very successful career as an adult actor. His younger brother Kieran, who played Kevin in "The Mighty", is a young sixteen with oodles of talent. All of the Culkins we met were nice, not Hollywood types at all.

At the premiere we were escorted along the red carpet, interviewed a couple of times, and felt like stunned mackrel in the barrage of lights. Then inside the crowded lobby to a 1500 seat theater. Sitting immediately to my left was Meatloaf and two of his daughters. Tom Arnold was across the aisle, dressed in t-shirt and jeans. Meat is a cool guy, very down to earth, and seemed delighted to meet me -- but then he's a pretty good actor and knows how to flatter a writer. At the reception Gary Busey wandered around with an unlit cigar and told me how impressed he was with Elden's performance. Tickets to this affair -- to raise money for Sharon Stone's favorite charity -- were going for five hundred bucks! Lots of food, three bars, a band, all out under the starlight at Century Plaza.

The Hollywoodniks seemed to like the flick, but to tell you the truth the screening at the Music Hall (Portsmouth, NH) in September was at least as much of a kick for me. Even if a limo wasn't included.
Now that you write mostly work for juveniles, do you miss writing detective stories?

Actually, I'm still writing for adults. Not straight detective fiction at the moment, although I may get back to that some day. I just signed a contract to write a gothic horror tale called "Coffins". It's set in a seaport village in Maine just prior to the Civil War. I'm about a hundred pages into it, with three or four hundred to go.
Good title! A coastal Maine town like, say, Kittery? And how have you researched the Civil War era?

No, White Harbor has very little in common with Kittery, except for being located on the coast of Maine. Imagine a very prosperous village of more than a hundred sea captains. Imagine a powerful family of mariners named Coffin. The patriarch of the clan is Cassius "Cash" Coffin, who made a fortune in the slave trade, and whose youngest son Jebediah is an abolitionist. I've got a lot more research to do, but my "Bible" has been contemporary newspaper accounts.
The film sat on the Miramax shelves for more than a year before distribution and then, despite critical raves, was not widely circulated. What happened there?

Alas, "The Mighty" didn't exactly take off at the box office. Miramax wanted to 'stage' the release, much as they did with 'Good Will Hunting'. So they opened it in forty cities and got a lot of nice reviews but the audience just never showed up -- apparently they'd already seen enough 'freaks' in "Simon Birch", which was released earlier. That meant the movie pretty much died in a few weeks.

We're hoping it will do better in England, Europe, and Japan. It did get a couple of Golden Globe nominations: Sting for "Best Song" and Sharon Stone for "Best Supporting Actress". My producer, Jane Startz, hasn't given up -- she's trying to convince Miramax to re-release the movie. The chances are pretty iffy, unless it gets an Academy Award nomination, which is like saying "I'm broke unless I win the lottery."
You've seen Ed Wang's incredible tribute web site to The Mighty. He thinks Miramax bungled the release. What was your reaction to such an extensive fan site?

Amazement. By the way, Ed is an assistant to a producer at Columbia Pictures. And obviously not afraid to speak his mind.
You co-write books with your wife Lynn Harnett. How do you manage to live and work together in harmony?

Lynn and I managed to collaborate on 10 mass-market paperbacks for kids without having a serious disagreement, which is something of a miracle. Basically I had to learn to shut up and let her do her thing. We discussed the story ideas, then I did the outlines and she did almost all of the actual writing. Lynn just finished a first draft of a young adult novel without any input -- or unwanted advice -- from me. She hasn't let me read it yet, but I'm betting it's very good.
You divide your life between the Portsmouth area and Key West. Are you losing your Yankee edge?

I'm not sure I ever had much of a Yankee edge. And our little one bedroom place is about fifty miles east of Key West.
But how can you say that? Yours is one of the oldest families in the Seacoast region. A few of your ancestors were drowned in a storm off the coast here in the mid 1600s! How more Yankee can you get?

The good thing about being a Yankee is never having to admit it. By the way, I also had a couple of ancestors who drowned fording a river in Hampton on New Year's Even. I assume they were both full of rum. Which explains that old Rye saying, "rum did it."
"Freak the Mighty" remains enormously popular with children across America. When you travel for Scholastic Books, as you often do, to meet them, what is your primary message? What are their primary questions for you?

I try not to have a 'message' when I talk to kids. They get plenty of messages without me putting in my two cents worth. Mostly I talk about the writing process, and encourage them to start early and develop the necessary discipline. I dunno, maybe that's a message.
So you are a fan of constant student writing -- brainstorming, Journals, that kind of thing in classes? In essence the whole book is about a poor student learning to find his "voice" as a writer, isn't it?

Yeah, I think the trend toward creative writing at an early age is great. And yes, "Freak The Mighty" is about a writer learning to find his voice. An old story, but a good one -- if you're interested in books or writers, which I obviously am.
Finally, the inevitable request for tips to wannabe movie writers. You're on the other side now, what did you learn that they can learn from?

I've been paid to write two screenplays, one for "The Mighty" ( as the first screenwriter, I tried for screen credit and failed.) and one for "The Fire Pony", which has yet to be produced. I've written half a dozen other screenplays, none of which have sold, so I don't feel qualified to give advice on the craft of screenwriting. Guess I still need a few pointers myself.
We understand that the secret to your writing is fishing. You have fishing boats here and in Florida. Do you recommend fishing for all writers? If so, what lures should we use?

Fish is my thing. I like the quiet and the solitude. Lures? I don't need no stinking lures! The fish attach themselves to my bare hook and reel themselves in.
Thanks for your time away from writing and fishing, and best of luck with the film on video.

See you guys in the spring, when the stripers are running.

© 1999

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The Might photo The ULTIMATE "The Mighty" Fan Page
A stunning and frustrated tribute by Ed Wang to the film includes a hundred photos, tons of film reviews, background details, interviews with cast members, box office statistics and original screenplay. Wang believes Miramax bungled the release and promotion of one of its finest films ever.

The Official Miramax Web site with Rodman interview and promo on home video release profile of Rod Philbrick

Exclusive excerpt from "Dark Matter" by Rod Philbrick

Philbrick Report on Toronto Film Shooting

The Mighty movie trailer on Hollywood Online

Our first-ever-on-web display of film photos a year before release

Our bibliography of Philbrick's Books

Philbrick on

Read "Max the Mighty" Excerpt

Star Pages Award © 1999 All rights reserved.

Voted 3 stars by Star Pages

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