Alumni Notes & Newsmakers:

A Writer in the Spotlight

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Credit: Photo by Olga Khvan. Copyright © 2016 Metro Corp. Reproduced with permission. Screenwriter Josh Singer ’01 says he loves to work on real-life stories because he is “a law student at heart.”

Josh Singer ’01, Academy Award-winning screenwriter, on his unusual path to acclaim

Josh Singer ’01 gives a lot of credit to Harvard Law School for helping him in his career. But in one way, it has made things difficult for him.

In his latest project, he was supposed to write a scene in a movie having to do with a legal topic. You may think that would be a cinch for him. But there was one problem.

“I’d write the first draft of the scene, and it would be something no one could understand unless they had gone to Harvard Law,” he said.

Since the filmmakers wanted a slightly wider audience, he went back and rewrote—and then rewrote again. It worked out pretty well, and so did the movie as a whole, since the result, the script for the movie “Spotlight,” turned into one of the most acclaimed movies of the past year, with six Academy Award nominations, and two wins—for best picture, and for best original screenplay for Singer and his co-writer, Tom McCarthy (who also received a nomination as director).

Singer is thrilled with the acclaim, not so much for himself, he says, but for the exposure that has brought increased attention to the story about the Boston Globe investigation into the Achdiocese of Boston’s coverup of priest sexual abuse and the societal issues it raises. The complexity of the story—and the filmmakers’ commitment to presenting an authentic portrayal of the events—necessitated copious research, many trips to Boston, and lengthy interviews with those involved.

“This is something I love to do, work on real-life stories, because I’m a law student at heart and a student at heart,” said Singer. “I love doing research on topics I have absolutely no knowledge of.”

He worked on another real-life story—with a very different result—for his first feature film, “The Fifth Estate,” which focused on Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. That movie was critically panned and a failure at the box office.

“I don’t know if enough writers talk about this. It was very difficult. Frankly, it was devastating,” Singer said. “At the end of the day, I’ve reconciled. I’m pretty proud of the work, and that work was absolutely foundational for [‘Spotlight’].”

Indeed, his work on “The Fifth Estate” gave him the exposure to be hired not only for “Spotlight” but also for his next project, a biopic of Neil Armstrong directed by Damien Chazelle, who helmed another Academy Award-nominated film, “Whiplash.”

Being an in-demand Hollywood screenwriter was not something Singer expected when he was at Harvard Law. A math and economics major at Yale, he arrived at HLS hoping for a more well-rounded education and, as a joint J.D./M.B.A. student, had designs on pursuing business opportunities in media. He interned with the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, where he read scripts and thought that maybe he could write them, too.

Moving to Los Angeles after grad school, he sought advice on how to break into the industry from Yale and HLS connections, including Peter Blake ’95, who had written for the TV shows “The Practice” and “House.” He advised Singer to write a mock script for a show he liked, and his favorite was “The West Wing.” In a serendipitous Hollywood twist, Singer happened to sublet a room from a woman who was dating Lou Wells, a producer on “The West Wing,” whose brother, John Wells, was about to take over the show. Lou Wells offered to take his script, and later, Singer got a call that changed his life: He was hired as a staff writer for his favorite TV show, where he worked for its last three years.

Singer calls himself lucky—lucky to get the opportunity and also to work with some of the great talents in the industry. But whether it’s luck or talent, or a combination of the two, he has achieved a goal he set out to accomplish after he finished law school: Not to win awards, but to inspire people to talk about things that matter.

“To me, it was always about being able to be part of the conversation. Look at our public discourse nowadays; it needs to be elevated,” he said. “Hollywood gets a bad rap, but Hollywood certainly can do it, and that’s certainly what I’m trying to do.”