It started on a fateful day in July of 2015, when we stumbled upon the story of Ron Stallworth, a black man who managed to successfully convince the Ku Klux Klan he was a white supremacist. Ron had penned a memoir about his experiences called “Black Klansman.”
We both had the same reaction to Ron’s story: “This should be a movie.” It had a hooky high concept, the potential for both suspense and comedy, a compelling lead character, and political undertones.
The problem was, the story was written about in several major publications. We presumed that Hollywood had already gotten its sticky paws on this one, and that inquiring about the rights would be a hopeless venture. We scoured the internet to see if the story was set up with a studio. We didn’t see any news. Still, many projects in development don’t get announced in the trades.
Inside the sleeve of the book was a contact email for the publisher who printed the book: Police and Fire Publishing, an independent outfit specializing in law enforcement literary works. We figured “why not” and sent the publisher an email. The publisher passed our email along to Ron’s manager, and we found out, to our surprise, that the rights were in fact available.
If you take away anything from this piece, let it be this: reaching out to ask about the rights of a story is the smartest thing you can do in the early stages of pursuing intellectual property. This entrepreneurial attitude not only offers you peace of mind, but it presents a chance for you to cement your involvement with the project. It costs you nothing to ask.
David Lee/Focus Features
Finding out that the rights were available was a small victory in our minds. Yet, we still had to prove ourselves to gain Ron’s blessing. After all, to him, we were just a couple of young, idealistic strangers with a Hollywood pipe dream. We had no track record.
So we drew up a one-pager that summarized our vision for how we would adapt Ron’s book into a feature-length screenplay. In this one-sheet, we wrote a proposed logline, brief synopsis, and a list of key characters. We also communicated our desired tone — we wanted the story to be suspenseful and tense, while preserving some of the story’s natural comedy. Some of the comps we included in this sheet were “Argo,” “American Hustle,” “Inglourious Basterds,” “Do the Right Thing,” “The Informant,” and “Donnie Brasco.”
The one-sheet landed us a phone call with Ron himself. Our first series of calls with him were very choppy, as Ron had lived in a mountainous section of the country. While having our calls cut short several times, we kept calling him back. We stayed persistent and managed to sell our passion to him. He ultimately gave us permission to adapt his life story into a feature script. Still, we knew the only way we could tell Ron’s story in both a responsible and entertaining manner was if we had the creative license. We felt we needed a contract to acknowledge this creative liberty.
But we didn’t have an agent. And we couldn’t afford a lawyer. So we found a template for a contract online. It basically said that we had permission — the non-exclusive permission — to adapt the book into a screenplay. Any production company that would want our script would also have to separately acquire the book rights. We never actually had the rights to the book.
This was scary for us. We had to put our trust into Ron and his manager. What if they ended up selling their rights and we got cut out of the process somehow? This was a real fear in our minds. But it also lit a fire under us to get the script written quickly, written well, and to the liking of its subject and author, Ron.
Reading the memoir, there were certain challenges of adapting it into a film: it read kind of like a police report, and was in need of more Hollywood-style conflict. We knew that it would take a lot of convincing from our end to persuade Ron to allow us to take liberties with the material.
Not long after our agreement was signed, Ron happened to be visiting the Los Angeles area for a book signing. We seized on the opportunity to meet him, driving to Newport Beach, where we interviewed him extensively. After a few hours, during which Ron shared some amazing stories with us, we established a mutual trust and it became clear that we were on the same page.
Over the next couple months, we had lengthy — often hours-long — conference calls with Ron, where he would comb through our drafts line-item by line-item, offering comments and suggestions. We were pleasantly surprised that Ron gave us freedom at times to deviate from true events. And yet, strangely enough, the most unusual parts of the script were largely true!
Being fully transparent with the author whose work you’re adapting might seem like a chore, or a hurdle, to a screenwriter. But we viewed it as beneficial. Ron knew what it was like to be a cop, and we didn’t. So he was an expert resource for us. Also, we were sensitive to the fact that this was his life story — every detail was on the table for conversation, and he had to be okay with everything.
We also were very much aware of the elephant in the room — we were a couple of white guys writing about the experiences of an African-American man. Seeking his approval and having his voice represented on every page was the only way to tell his story responsibly.
Eventually we pitched the script to producers Shaun Redick and Ray Mansfield, who at the time were in early pre-production on “Get Out.” They loved the pitch and told Jordan Peele about it, who then came aboard as a producer. In September of 2016, we had a surreal meeting with all of QC Entertainment and Jordan Peele himself, where he gave us excellent notes that we used for a rewrite. With our rewrite taking place during Trump’s rise to power, we also knew we couldn’t ignore a changing America. Finding small ways to keep the script contemporary was a priority for us.
And five months later, “Get Out” came out, and everything changed. Jordan and QC were suddenly on top of the world. Soon after, Blumhouse got involved. And later that Summer, both QC and Blumhouse offered Spike Lee the chance to direct. Once Spike said yes, it was clear the movie was going to happen.
So at this point we have legendary filmmaker Spike Lee in our corner, making our movie. Only months earlier, we had joked that Spike Lee would one day be directing our script. Now it was a reality. It isn’t often that you find the absolute perfect director for your script, but we lucked out big-time. After months carrying the weight of the project on our back with the constant fear of it all falling apart, we handed the baton to Spike, feeling a profound sense of relief that it was in the best hands. We had relinquished “our baby” to Spike and to Focus Features. Our job was done.
Ultimately, from the time we discovered “Black Klansman” until the time we received an offer on our spec script, it was only seven months. Looking back at all the small decisions we made along the way, which proved to be major decisions, we appreciate how much could have gone wrong and are grateful for the way things have turned out.