East Brunswick screenwriters win ‘Grand Prix’ award at Cannes festival


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EAST BRUNSWICK–What started with two friends from East Brunswick writing a screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman” continued with the film winning the Cannes Film Festival’s “Grand Prix” award.

Based on the autobiographical book written by Ron Stallworth, “BlacKkKlansman” is about a detective who is the only black officer in his police department in Colorado Springs in the 1970s, and skillfully deceived the then-local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan and Grand Wizard David Duke, according to Charlie Wachtel, who co-wrote the screenplay with David Rabinowitz.

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“This all resulted from [Stallworth] discovering a klan recruitment ad in the paper and deciding to just courageously pursue membership to that, even though for obvious reasons he couldn’t directly go in and join the klan,” Wachtel said. “He ends up getting a white detective from the department to go in pretending to be him as he continues his conversations over the phone with them. Their work together led to him being elected head of the chapter of the Colorado Springs Ku Klux Klan.”

Rabinowitz and Wachtel are credited as the writers of the screenplay with Spike Lee and his writing partner, Kevin Willmott. Wachtel and Rabinowitz are also credited as co-producers on the film.

Screenwriter, actor and comedian Jordan Peele is one of the producers of the film.

John David Washington plays Stallworth; Adam Driver plays Flip Zimmerman, the white Jewish man who goes undercover pretending to be Stallworth; Topher Grace plays David Duke; and Laura Harrier plays Ron’s love interest Patrice. Alec Baldwin, Corey Hawkins, Paul Walter Hauser and Harry Belafonte also appear in the film, according to Wachtel.

The film premiered worldwide on May 14 at the Cannes Film Festival in France.

“It’s not the final cut of the film. The film needs to go through focus groups and some editing sessions before its release on Aug. 10 nationwide,” Wachtel said.

At the festival, the film won the Grand Prix award, which is the second highest honor, according to Wachtel.

“Cannes was magical. It was such a thrill to be able to see our film on the world stage,” he said.

“Going to Cannes was a crazy experience. We rode in a sort of motorcade, which pulled up to the red carpet. Then we walked the red carpet, just behind the cast and Spike Lee, surrounded by shouting photographers. Seeing the film for the first time in that context was wild. And the fact that the film played well was great. At the afterparty, the initial reviews were starting to come in, which were mostly positive. And because of this positive reception, everyone was in a great mood at the party. The rest of Cannes we mostly had meetings, went to parties to network and ate some good French food,” Rabinowitz said.

Wachtel said he discovered Stallworth’s book “Black Klansman” in July 2015. Scrolling through Facebook one day, Wachtel said, “… coincidentally somebody had shared a news story about this guy who pretended to be a white supremacist [who was a] black detective. I read it and I shared it with David and we both agreed there was a story here, even though at the time we didn’t know exactly what the story would be for a film.”

After reading the book, Wachtel said he and Rabinowitz got in contact with Stallworth and his publisher.

“We sent one sheet with sort of our vision as to how we wanted to adapt the book into a movie and that got us a phone call with [Stallworth] and his manager and we sold our passion,” Wachtel said. “At that point, we embarked on what would be a journey to getting this thing made.”

On Feb. 1, 2016, Wachtel and Rabinowitz were given an offer for their script.

Writing individually for years, Wachtel said “BlacKkKlansman” was the first script he and Rabinowitz wrote together. They worked with Stallworth in calls and interviews so he was comfortable with every word in their script.

Wachtel and Rabinowitz grew up in East Brunswick and graduated from East Brunswick High School in 2005, and currently live in Los Angeles, having known each other since the sixth grade.

With the film premiering in the United States in less than two months, Wachtel said he and Rabinowitz “are working on several projects and pitches.”

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.

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