Saturday, August 29, 2020

CRC BLOG FEATURE on Michael Lee Simpson and his screenplay WORTHY OF GOLD based on the life of Olympic Gold winner Pete Mehringer

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****Michael Lee Simpson’s screenplay WORTHY OF GOLD is based on the life of his great uncle Pete Mehringer who won the Olympic Gold in wrestling in 1932.

Name of screenplay? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? Worthy of Gold. Because the Olympics is the climactic part of the story, everything the protagonist (my great-uncle, Pete Mehringer) (LEFT) goes through leads up to competing in freestyle wrestling at the 1932 Olympic Games, I originally titled my historical drama The Olympiad.   

          The poster for that particular Olympics features a delicate, angelic-looking blonde-haired boy in a white outfit and white shoes staring skyward with a wreath wrapped around his shoulders, mouth gaping, left arm reaching high against a rocky blue backdrop. “OLYMPIC GAMES—July 20—August 14th 1932” spreads across the top. Midway down by his legs, “CALL TO THE GAMES OF THE X OLYMPIAD” in dark red lettering. At his feet, “LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA” on a broad orange banner right above the iconic Olympic rings. 
          This always stood out to me because it hung on the wall of the guest room at my grandparents’ house, which was in the same town the story took place in almost a century before. I fell asleep many nights with that poster lit up by a dim lamp on the bedside table. Being a family story, it was always there and stayed there until my grandma died and my family sold the house. “Olympiad” surfaced in my mind when my grandpa (Above Left)  suggested I write a screenplay about Pete’s journey to the Olympics.
Although that sounded bold and cinematic, my mom (Right) suggested Worthy of Gold. It fit because the obstacles Pete overcomes to win that gold medal—poverty, an alcoholic father, the tragic death of his sister who burns to death in the family fireplace, facing people with a strong hatred towards him—naturally make him question his worth and purpose in the world.
What is the date you began writing this screenplay and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I’ve always loved storytelling, particularly films rooted in screenplays pumping with creativity. When I hear “creativity,” my mind goes to fantasy—Alice In Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz

          At age thirteen in 2002, I was curious about the nuts and bolts, the blueprint of a production before the actors stood on set and cameras started rolling. I picked up Syd Field’s “The Foundation of Screenwriting” and studied it, reading about format, dialogue, plot points and story arcs. Thinking I knew everything about screenwriting just by reading that book, I embarked on a new writing venture. 
     I wrote my first screenplay, an organized crime thriller called Blackstreet. Other than the opening scene, it said “amateur” on every page. Accepting it for what it was, I took my grandpa’s idea of writing about my great-uncle and wrote Worthy of Gold starting in 2004. After that, the screenplay became a semi and quarterfinalist in the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, as well as winner in the Austin Film Festival and Worldfest Houston.

Where did you do most of your writing? And please describe in detail. In a room by myself where there were no distractions. Oftentimes that lights would be off so I couldn’t see anything but the screen.

What were your writing habits while writing this screenplay - did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I started not with an outline, but a timeline—a huge piece of construction paper on the living room floor with a line drawn from one side to the other—an A to B-style thing. Worthy of Gold takes place in the years 1919-1920 and then a separate timeline covering 1930-1933. That laid everything out from the beginning. 
          Sitting at the computer once the whole timeline was established, using the screenwriting program Final Draft, I sat in silence as I wrote. At all hours of the day, but nighttime I was most focused. I didn’t listen to music, the only sound in the room was my fingers typing on the keyboard.

What is the summary of your screenplay? A true story of human courage, Pete Mehringer’s (RIGHT and BELOW LEFT) life is the quintessential American dream: born in dirt-poor western Kansas, learns how to wrestle from a book, boxes illegally in the carnival circuit to save his family farm during the Great Depression, hitchhikes to the Olympic Trials and becomes the youngest American of his time to win an Olympic gold.

What’s written above is the logline. The first plot point comes when Pete moves to a big university from a small town in western Kansas; his scholarship depends on continuously winning wrestling matches.

Phog Allen, a pioneer of basketball and the athletics director at the University of Kansas, is a villainous figure. For some unknown reason, he wants Pete to fail. This is superimposed upon in a flashback on the balcony of Allen’s Victorian mansion; the Ku Klux Klan torches a wooden cross on the lawn of Pete’s childhood home, men chanting in conical hats, masks and white robes. They’re protesting against Catholics and immigrants. This is significant because it’s symbolic of all the incredible difficulty our protagonist is up against.
Labeling Worthy of Gold a “sports drama” or “sports movie” is inaccurate. It’s about a young man who is a wrestler, but it’s not about wrestling. So much more happens in the story besides wrestling, to the point where you could take that out and put in a completely separate element and it would be very similar.

Please include just one excerpt.  This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer.


MOVE IN on a door sheathed with bronze, towering so high it could be the very gate to King Solomon’s temple. It incrementally opens. Hinges CREAK and the doors separate to unmask the first crack of light:


A 1930s weight room and gym.

The place is so worn with grime we can smell the stench from years of sweat. Soft afternoon light filters in from a high bank of windows, contrasting with the din of CLANKING metal and macho camaraderie.

The SOUND of HEAVY BREATHING, THUDDING BASKETBALLS, and VIBRATING BELT MACHINES makes this gym come alive as we float inside. Basketball players, wrestlers, sprinters and trainers sway back and forth like snakes amid the loudness and thickness of steam.

On the wall is a banner that reads: “Pay Heed, All Who Enter: BEWARE OF THE PHOG.” Pete enters the gym, dressed to work out. As he walks, many ATHLETES greet him.

Men are bench pressing, curling, doing push-ups, sit-ups and stretches on a floor scattered with canvas mats.

Why is this excerpt so emotional for you as a writer to write?  And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? *and humor is one of many emotions. This is one of the most revealing excerpts in the script, not because anything substantial happens, but because it establishes an environment that we’re going to keep coming back to. 

          Like Mighty Mick’s Gym in Rocky or The Hit Pit in Million Dollar Baby, The Robinson Gym in Worthy of Gold has its own atmosphere that’s special to the story.
Has this screenplay been made into a film? And if NOT which actors would you like to portray your characters in this screenplay? It was optioned by a producer, but he failed to get it made. Because of some life challenges, I took a break from pursuing filmmaking Now that I write for Creative Screenwriting Magazine, I’m meeting all kinds of people and could see myself crossing paths with someone who could make Worthy of Gold along with other projects. 

          As far as an actor I could see playing Pete, it used to be Jake Gyllenhaal but he’s too old now. The adult version of him in the film is between the ages of twenty and twenty-two. Now probably Tom Holland or Alexander Ludwig. For Frances, the romantic interest, I could see Emma Stone or Emmy Rossum.

How many pages?  What does that equate to how long the film would be? 119 pages so a minute shy of two hours.

Michael Lee Simpson is a multi award-winning writer with accolades in some of the top film festivals and contests in the entertainment industry. He was a semifinalist and quarterfinalist in the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, as well as winner in the Austin Film Festival and Worldfest Houston for his historical drama, Worthy of Gold.

In addition to working as an optioned screenwriter, script consultant, ghostwriter, published author, film critic and magazine editor, he branched out to explore other ventures as a photographer, editor, graphic designer, short film director and video engineer for IMAX.
          His book and screenplay about the untold story of Judy Garland, Lost on the Yellow Brick Road, was published by Troika Publishing; co-written by Michael Selsman, ( former agent to Garland and legends such as Marilyn Monroe, Orson Welles, Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant and Truman Capote.

              Michael also served as a film critic for NightlifeKC and The Kansas City Star, an editor for Ocala Magazine, and is now a contributing writer for Creative Screenwriting Magazine. He is a graduate of the University of Kansas and was born and raised in Kansas City.

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