Will Conroy -June 2007

Education of a screenwriter

by: Terry Pommett

Will Conroy is on a roll. As an unsung member of Nantucket’s Artistic Elite, he is making a name for himself as a screenwriter beyond the world of independent films.

“Transsiberian,” a thriller he co-wrote with Brad Anderson (“Session 9,” “Next Stop Wonderland”), is finishing production and will be released in the fall. Included in the cast are heavyweights Ben Kingsley, Woody Harrelson and Kate Mara.

He’s been hired by Filmmax to write an adaptation of mystery writer Robert Wilson’s “The Blind Man of Seville.”

In addition, he has taken responsibility to run the family business, the 75-year-old Arizona Inn, a hacienda-style oasis in the heart of Tucson, Arizona. Most importantly, he gets to spend every free moment helping his artist wife Julia care for their two beautiful children Liam and Eleri.

From his perspective, the only thing wrong with this picture is that he’s not on Nantucket.

“We’ve been lucky, but we really miss the island. Julia and I were contemplating living there full-time, but once she got pregnant, it was time to get a day job. The transition to innkeeper has been smooth, mainly because the staff is fantastic and the guests bring their own momentum. They tell you how things are going. Nevertheless, I learned to swim in Quidnet, body-surf in Cisco, watch movies at the Dreamland, eat breakfast at the Downyflake and I can’t imagine my kids not experiencing that,” Conroy said. “It’s not just the sandy towel and ice cream summer. Winter is important as well. We hope to return for at least three months a year for the time being.”

Conroy’s first job out of college set the stage for his love of film. With the help of his stepfather, John Doar, the lead federal prosecutor in the “Mississippi Burning” trial, he landed a position with Blackside Productions in Boston.

“I came in as a production assistant during the second series of Henry Hampton’s civil rights documentary, ‘Eyes on the Prize.’ In some way I don’t think I’ll ever top that job. I worked with intelligent people who cared passionately about their film,” he said. “They worked around a script, which is unusual for a documentary. They had to tell a good story without reenactment. It was storytelling shown through first-hand accounts and archival footage. The film is riveting from the opening frame and still holds up 20 years later.”

Blackside gave Conroy a glimpse into the art of filmmaking in a way Hollywood commercialism could not. In Hollywood, shooting is often 90 percent of the work, with editing and writing making up the remainder.

“I think of it as three equal parts; scripting, shooting and editing. If any one falters, the film fails,” he said.

After three years at Blackside, Conroy moved out to Iowa City where his father, acclaimed author Frank Conroy, had recently become director of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was a natural process for him to pick up the pen but not because of his lineage.

“If I ever thought of myself as Frank Conroy’s son, I probably wouldn’t have written in that context. Writing came out of my experience with editing. As an editor, you’re given footage to work with and you resent being dictated to. You want to go back and affect the footage, to pre-edit.”

In 1988, he wrote a baseball comedy, “Opposite Field,” followed by his first short film, “One Way Glass,” which he also directed and edited. A truth vs. reality mystery set in a pre-“Clerks” video store environment, it screened at the first Nantucket Film Festival. He made it on a shoestring budget of $29,000, raised mostly from family and friends, the sale of his car and maxed-out credit cards.

“It showed at a number of film festivals and the Boston Globe and Herald said some nice things about it, but I think of it as my film school project,” he said.

Conroy wrote and directed his first feature film, “Catalina Trust,” in 1998. It was shot at the Arizona Inn and is semi-historical, drawing on characters and events both past and present. “I wanted to express my love of the inn and since my mother was running the operation, what better way than to make a film there?”

The story revolves around a New Yorker who inherits an inn from a grandfather he believes abandoned him after his parents died. As he attempts to sell the property in the face of a staff that is kind and civil despite impending unemployment, his cynicism gradually melts away. Conroy admitted he was influenced by William Forsythe’s “Local Hero” in his plot development.

“I’m proud of ‘Catalina Trust.’ It was a competent film with a lot of good people working on it. Any of its flaws are mine,” he said.

Terry Pommett is a freelance photojournalist and a frequent contributor to Nantucket Today.

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