Greg Berlanti’s career seems to have the charmed story arc of a Hollywood movie plot. The writer-director isn’t yet thirty, but he’s already one of the chief writers and co-executive producer of the WB’s hit series “Dawson’s Creek.” One of his scripts, “Her Leading Man,” is being made by Kevin Williamson. And his own first feature, “The Broken Hearts Club,” is about to open across the country. How else to explain the success except movie-like serendipity, especially after some initial setbacks proper to a first act?
Berlanti talked about himself and his film during a recent Dallas interview. A native New Yorker, he applied to Cornell University’s drama program but was rejected. A friend persuaded him to apply to Northwestern in Evanston, Illinois, where he was accepted and quickly got involved in the school’s theatre life as a writer and actor. After graduating, he continued to work in the Chicago theatre scene, writing on the side. Then he moved to Los Angeles. It wasn’t something he’d wanted to do–“everybody was moving there,” he remembered–but one of his projects was an adaptation of a book whose author lived in southern California, and since there was a chance a filmization might pan out, he took the plunge. He also came out when a friend took him to a gay party where he felt completely at home.
For a few years, however, things turned bleak. Berlanti eventually found work in script development, looking at other people’s screenplays rather than seeing his own produced. “I hadn’t sold anything…as a writer, and I’d written lots of scripts–probably four or five plays and four screenplays–and I was working as an assistant in development, trying to make whatever money I could. Finally I quit and was going to write a big romantic comedy and sell it for a lot of money and start me career.”
But his own life drove Berlanti’s writing, sending him in a different direction. When he watched films about gays with his friends, he found them unreal. “Why isn’t there a film about us?” he’d ask his buddies. “I hadn’t seen myself on the screen.” So rather than trying to confect the big romantic comedy he’d envisaged, he recalled, “what I ended up working on was this little personal thing, and it mostly just came out of a few years’ experience in terms of coming out in L.A. and what happened thereafter…. It was born out of wanting to write a film that to me was about maybe the silent majority of gay men that I knew who weren’t like a lot of these men on the sceeen.”
The result was a script called “Eight-by-Tens,” about a gay photographer in L.A. searching for fulfillment in the company of a group of friends. “I really just wrote it for my friends,” Berlanti remembers. “My sense was that I would use this script as a sample to just go around and meet with as many development people as possible…and tell them my other film ideas and hope that one of them would want to buy one.” There was an element of pressure, too. “At this point I was so broke that…Christmas was a month away and I knew that if I made it to Christmas I could ask my grandmother for money so I could make it for another couple of months–I didn’t want to hit my grandma up before then.”
By chance, though, one of Berlanti’s friends was going to work at Kevin Williamson’s production company, and she asked if she could show Williamson the script. Berlanti agreed and soon got a call from Williamson offering him a job on “Dawson’s Creek.” Then he used his boss’ contacts to circulate “Eight-by-Tens.” One of the agents who read it, Mickey Liddell, happened to be on an elevator with Berlanti and mentioned how much he’d enjoyed it. “Well, why don’t you make it?” Berlanti immediately inquired; and after completing work on Greg Liman’s “Go,” Liddell decided to do just that.
Liddell was also instrumental in persuading Berlanti to direct the picture, eventually retitled “The Broken Hearts Club.” Another helmer had actually been hired but dropped out, and Liddell “said ‘I’ll make it, but you have to direct it,'” Berlanti recalled. “I said no two or three times over the course of a year because I was scared and didn’t want to do it. Finally he [Liddell] said, ‘This is the last time I’m going to ask you to do it, and you’re not going to get it made anywhere else.'” So the young writer agreed.
Casting proved surprisingly easy, largely because Joseph Middleton came aboard as co-producer, and his reputation as a casting director allowed him to approach likely stars. Soon Timothy Olyphant, whom Berlanti described as an “indie king in his own way,” agreed to play Dennis, the lead, and his commitment was “instrumental in attracting other people to it.” Dean Cain, who plays Dennis’ roommate Cole, read the script and pursued the role. The most difficult casting element was in finding the right Jack, the wise old member of the group who serves as a sort of father figure to the rest. “I really worshipped John Mahoney, and had never written [a role] with…a famous actor’s voice in mind. I did with this part,” Berlanti said. “I wanted someone who was avuncular and sort of warm…so I used his voice in writing the part [of Jack].” But Mahoney’s busy schedule, including his work on “Frasier,” seemed to exclude him. After looking at numerous other possibilities, Berlanti sent the script to Mahoney with a letter saying that he would “be the final linchpin in getting this movie made.” Mahoney agreed to take the role.
The shoot was a mere twenty days in October, 1999, following four rehearsal days; it averaged 18-20 setups a day, and 2-3 takes per shot. Immediately after completion, Sony asked if Berlanti could quickly put together an abbreviated cut for submission to the 2000 Sundance Festival, and the 67-minute version won the picture a slot. The acceptance, however, required Berlanti to complete his final cut in only six weeks: he persuaded his editor to work literally in a storage closet, where, after completing his “Dawson’s Creek” duties during the day, the writer-director would join him in working through the night. A last-minute roadblock came in January, when it was suddenly remembered that they had to secure clearances for all the songs used in the picture. The president of Sony Pictures accomplished the task over the course of two hectic days.
“Something like that has always happened [with this picture],” Berlanti said of the last-minute music intervention which allowed “The Broken Hearts Club” to have a well-received premiere at Sundance. And he hoped, almost mystically, that its success thus far presaged its future: “I can’t help but think that it wouldn’t have done all these things that it shouldn’t have done and not find an audience.”
Berlanti also looks back on his script as the thing that changed his life, earning him a plumb television job and the chance to direct features. (He’s starting his third year with “Dawson’s Creek” and has signed to helm a larger film project, a script he read years ago and loved. “I’ve found most of my happiness and joy in terms of participating in the process,” he remarked, “and I get to be most included in the process in TV as a writer and in film as a director.”) In a fitting summation, he said: “In the end it was just writing something really small and personal, that I thought no one would ever, ever read, that was the thing that sort of opened up all these doors for me.” It now only remains to be seen whether the same good luck that’s marked the last few years for Greg Berlanti will be seen in audience reaction to “The Broken Hearts Club,” too.