GREGORY ALLEN HOWARD
SCREENWRITER RUNS LONGEST YARDS

October 1, 2000, Chicago Tribune by Gary Dretzka

Gregory Allen Howard looks as if he could go nose-to-nose with any defensive end in the NFL and live to tell the tale.

His Hollywood story may have a distinctly familiar ring, but the retelling hardly diminishes it.

"Nobody wanted to make this movie," says Howard, who graduated from Princeton with a degree in history, then took a gig on Wall Street before moving to Los Angeles in the mid-'80s.

"I pitched the idea to every single buying entity in Los Angeles - the studios, HBO, TNT, the networks - and then, came back to them months later with a spec script. It tanked both times."

The 38-year-old stepson of a career Navy submariner considers himself to be living proof that contrary to what anyone might think, Hollywood really isn't all that desperate for stories in which Average Joes valiantly challenge the status quo and succeed against all odds."

Unexpected hits like Rocky, The Dead Poets Society, Shine, Mr. Holland's Opus - any film whose climatic scene begins with the lonely sound of two hands clapping in the void, and ends with a full-blown standing ovation - are harder to sell than tear-soaked audiences can possibly imagine.

"Every year, our industry does one inspirational story," Howard says. "They don't even do one per studio. I was so happy when Disney bought it, because I'd already racked up a lot of time in this thing and had no money to show for it."

In fact, the studio had passed three times on Howard's true story of a hard-nosed high school football coach whose desire to win helped bridge a racial chasm many believed too wide to cross. Set in Alexandria, Va., in 1971, Remember the Titans recalls how coach Herman Boone (Denzel Washington) was brought from a winning program in North Carolina to help smooth the integration process at T.C. Williams High School.

Besides having to teach the athletes how to succeed as a diverse, unified body, Boone had to cope with angry white parents, backstabbing administrators and an existing staff of coaches who had maintained a championship tradition without benefit of his counsel.

Not surprisingly, Remember the Titans concerns itself as much with being tolerant to other folks' beliefs and values as any decisive playoff victory.

This struggle is personified in the often-fragile relationship that develops between Moore and his immediate predecessor, Bill, a potential hall-of-fame coach who's been reduced to defensive coordinator.

It the end result of this forced marriage is predictable, the route taken by Howard and director Boaz Yakin is remarkably devoid of false sentimentality and cliche.

"Yoast is one of the sweetest, nicest men I've met in my whole life," says Howard, who, after fleeing Hollywood in 1996 for the suburbs of Washington, D.C., discovered the story of the Titans there.

"For this genteel Southerner to have to work under a megalomaniac like Herman was extremely difficult. When I asked this man how he was able to deal with this demotion, he said, 'Greg, I just had to get over the ego trip of being a head coach. Yeah, it hurt, but I had an obligation to my boys.'"

Yoast had known many of those players since they were 10 or 11 years old, Howard adds. "So, it was a sacrifice, and, believe me, it wasn't easy working under Herman, who has a scar on his head from when he got in a fistfight with the Klan back in North Carolina. ... He wasn't a 'We Shall Overcome' kind of guy."

Again, sounds like the perfect scenario for a Hollywood studio ... right?

Think again.

"My black friends would tell me that I was out here fighting racism, but, more than anything, I was fighting cynicism." says Howard. "Even executives in Hollywood that I was close to told me that no cared about this kind of movie ... that it was too small and not a star vehicle. It was depressing."

Fortunately, the spec script for Remember the Titans caught the eye of Chad Oman, head of production at Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Bruckheimer, known mostly for his flashy action pictures, was impressed enough to purchase it out of his discretionary budget.

Bruckehimer convinced incoming Disney studio chief Peter Schneider to take a look at the script, and he fell in love with it. Remember the Titans became the first live-action project he would "green light," and it recently premiered before a Rose Bowl audience of 50,000 high school football players.

"It's a very personal story, and I was attracted by the core emotions of two men trying to make a difference at a difficult time," says Schneider, prior to the gala premiere.

"It was more than a story about kids playing football. It was about these two coaches who didn't think they were racist but were."

As for why everyone else in town passed on the project, Schneider speculates, "I suppose people thought it was cliched and predictable. Well, it's never cliche, and I think audiences will get so carried away by the emotions that they will forgive the predictable moments."

Actually, Remember the Titans really didn't get anyone's pulse going at Disney until it started testing through the roof with audiences.

"We had to do the movie on a budget, and Denzel had to take a cut from his usual salary," Howard says.

"We didn't even get jackets ... or T-shirts. That's how tight our budget was before the test screening.

"Then, the doors were flung open."

On this gray September afternoon, Howard may look refreshed and full of energy, but this experience of getting Remember the Titans made clearly has taken its toll.

"If people only knew how difficult it is to get a small human drama made in Hollywood ... that's why I'm hoping it does well, not just for selfish reasons," he says. "Have we ceded the human drama to HBO? Is that just not what we do anymore? Or, when we do them, are they going to cost $130 million ... for a simple human drama?

"In the '50s, Hollywood used to crank out 30 of these pictures a year. Now, it's all about artistic laziness and cynicism."

Howard isn't likely to move back to Hollywood any time soon, but his name is on the lips of many more studio executives.

He's currently working on a screenplay for Miramax about ballet star Jacques d'Amboise, founder of the National Dance Institute.

Soon, Howard also may finally see if his scripted ideas will get anywhere for a remake of Ali Star is Born"; the courtroom drama Main Line; a mini-series focusing on an African-American tank division in World War II; and the Ali biopic.

A stickler for research, Howard spent a year traveling with the beloved former heavyweight champ before turning in his first script to Columbia. Under director Michael Mann, it has undergone at least one major rewrite, but Howard thinks he found the key to Muhammad Ali.

"His father, a sign painter, was the first one to say. "I am the greatest," he says. "Cassius esteemed himself to be a great muralist, and would sit in his basement, painting signs, telling his son, 'I could have been great. I could have been the greatest one ever ... greater than Michelangelo ... but the white man was on my neck.'

"And he was a narcissist. Ali had 108 amateur fights and his father didn't attend one."

Once he learned that, Howard says, "I knew I had a movie. After Ali left home, he continued to seek false fathers, who would give him approval ... Malcolm X, Elijah Muhammad, Herbert Muhammad, Don King.

"I don't know how much of that will remain in the script, but I've read everything about Ali and no one's written about Cassius Sr.. But that's the key."

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