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On The Scene 3/1: Jersey natives win Academy Award for best adapted screenplay

East Brunswick natives Charlie Wachtel and David Rabinowitz brought home the king of all awards this past Sunday as their adapted screenplay for “BlacKkKlansman” won the Academy Award. I had the opportunity to sit down with the two of them and discuss what went into putting everything together.

Can you start off by telling me how you came across the story of Ron Stallworth?

CW: I came across an article about Ron Stallworth on my Facebook feed. A former classmate of mine had posted about it and David and I at the time were looking for another project to write together. So, we ordered the book on Kindle, we read it and it spoke to us. We immediately reached out to the publisher. We were lucky it wasn’t in bookstores, it was from a small-time publisher. The publisher put us in touch with Ron and his manager, and we just took it from there.

DR: Basically, Ron Stallworth gave us permission to adapt his memoir into a script on spec. So, the three of us – me, Charlie and Ron – worked together to develop a script. We sent Ron every draft of the script and got feedback from him. While we were in the middle of this process, which was in 2015 by the way, Charlie having worked in the industry as an assistant knew a producer named Shaun Redick. He mentioned this idea [to him] and Shaun got interested and brought us in to pitch it to him. When we pitched it, Shaun said, “I am very interested in this and I am also working on this project called ‘Get Out’ with Jordan Peele. Jordan might be interested in this.” So, a couple of months later, we had a completed draft of the script, gave it to Shaun and his company that he was working with, QC Entertainment, who was doing “Get Out.” They gave the script to Jordan Peele, Jordan read it and he came on as a producer. Of course, when “Get Out” became a huge hit, Jordan was able to basically take the project to anyone and Spike Lee was at the top of that list.

How does it feel that you went from finding this story on Facebook to going through this journey to potentially being Oscar-winning writers?

CW: It has definitely been surreal, but I wouldn’t call it a journey, by any means. We discovered this in 2015 and anyone, if you were to ask, will tell you, it never happens like this – not as quickly. Especially with your first movie getting produced, it doesn’t happen like this, with all of these incredible pieces just coming together.

DR: It actually, in the grand scheme of things, happened very fast. At the same time, we did write the bulk of it in 2015 and parts of 2016, so it was a relatively long time ago when we were actually working on it. So, it does feel a bit weird to have all of this stuff happening now when we have worked on so many things since then. It does kind of feel like a long time ago.

What does it mean to you to win the Academy Award for your writing?

DR:I know we have a lot on our plate right now, but right now we are just going to enjoy this. We will spend the next few days soaking it in. It’s so cliché to say that it was an honor just to be nominated, but it really is. Because of all of these events, we have met a lot of the people who are nominated, a lot of people who are in our category. So, it makes it a lot easier when it’s someone who you know that would win instead. It’s all about getting invited to the dance, it’s not so much about the statue at the end of the night.

I saw that you both have three other projects you are currently working on, do you mind me asking what’s next?

DR: We are writing a movie for the studio Fox 2000, it’s another book adaption, it’s another true story. It’s called “Thatcher Island.” It’s about the origins of the Witness Protection Program. It’s based off of the book “Animal” by Casey Sherman. We are also developing two different television series: one, about Operation: Mongoose, which was the CIA’s secret operation to eliminate Fidel Castro in 1959 when Castro took power after the Cuban revolution. The other is called “Madness” and that’s set in the world of college basketball.

Being that you are both from East Brunswick, is there anything you want to say about your hometown?

DR: Let me say that Central Jersey does exist! We like to go back whenever possible.

CW: We know everyone who is from there – friends, family, teachers and former classmates – are cheering us on and watched the show, and we appreciated everyone’s support over the last few months.

Ken Downey Jr. is the Features Editor for Time OFF and Packet Publications. This is the sixth in a series of weekly columns focusing on arts and entertainment. He can be contacted at kdowney@newspapermediagroup.com.

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