A Hollywood Moment: Blind Author Ryan Knighton

September 1, 2010

To its denizens Hollywood teaches patience, if nothing else. “Nobody says no, nobody says yes,” says Ryan Knighton, sitting in the sunny living room of his home near Commercial Drive. He’s 18 months into adapting his first book, the memoir Cockeyed, for the screen, and the process has been an education in what he calls “an economy of enthusiasm: everybody loves everything. They just don’t know what will happen later.”

Knighton is on equal footing, then, with every would-be screenwriter with an option on his life story, except that he’s blessed with unique material—in Cockeyed, he narrates the zag his life took as he was losing his sight to a condition called retinitis pigmentosa. What sets the coming-of-blindness account apart is Knighton’s refusal to sentimentalize his sighted teen years or rhapsodize about the supposedly mystic beauty of blindness. Plus, there’s the undeniable oomph of his project’s supporters.

Jodie Foster is set to direct the picture. She got the script through her manager at ICM, who got the script (welcome to Hollywood) from a New York film agent called Jody Hotchkiss, who heard of the project through Knighton’s literary agent in Toronto, Denise Bukowski. Hotchkiss—Knighton credits him with any success he’s finding in L.A.—originally passed on the book, “so I very naively said to Denise, ‘Well, can I phone him?’ ” The famously eccentric former MGM executive (who was involved in Goodfellas and American Gangster) offered that if Knighton wrote a film treatment, he’d send back notes. Knighton accepted immediately. But wait, he said. What’s a film treatment? “From what I can understand,” he says now with a shrug, “you write it in present tense and it’s basically a beat-by-beat telling of what the movie would look like.”

So he gave it a shot, and Hotchkiss was pleased: “This is way better than the book,” he told Knighton. “These people won’t read the book anyway.” The next step would be development of a script, but in the new economy money was scarce. Knighton confided that if someone would just option the story, he’d write a screenplay on spec. Hotchkiss surprised him by taking the plunge himself, paying Knighton an annual option of $5,000. The education continued: “He told me what software to use, he sent me three scripts—I’d never read a film script.”

The screenplay that resulted in May 2007 won Knighton a place at the Screenwriters’ Lab at Robert Redford’s esteemed Sundance Institute, where he met Tom Rickman, who’d adapted Loretta Lynn’s Coal Miner’s Daughter for director Michael Apted. Apted was suddenly offering to direct, but was then pulled back into the once-doomed third Chronicles of Narnia feature. The alternate was Foster, whom Apted directed in 1994’s Nell.

“She’s very cool,” Knighton says. “We’d have these conversations on the phone, very abstract, about what she wanted to do.” Her complaint about Knighton’s work “was that I’d made myself into the least interesting character. I mistook going blind for a character transformation. That still strikes me as such an insight.”

When the two met for lunch—at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons—he asked what interested her in the story. “She said all characters she’s been drawn to have one thing in common: they have a secret, and all the drama grows from there. Given how long I hid my condition, and that most of my story is about the hiding of it, it made sense.” The meeting was a success, except for the sandwich. “I’m always a bit lunch-worried because, well, I tend to savage my food. Imagine me with a knife. So I smartly ordered a clubhouse. What I hadn’t anticipated was the goopy calibre of it. So I spent much of lunch covertly trying to find new dry spots on my napkin that could deal with massive mayo outflow as I nodded and listened to Jodie’s thoughts, and hoped she wasn’t perplexed by my chronic napkin use.”

The second time they met, two months later, was in New York, along with Knighton’s wife (described in film material as “a wonderful woman who makes him stronger by refusing to pity his tangled life and loss of sight”). “I thought, Tracey’s got a right to meet her; this is her story, too.” The three attended a staged reading of Cockeyed at the Tribeca Film Festival, where the project had won a $40,000 award for science writing. Richard Thomas (The Waltons’ John Boy) read as Knighton’s doctor; Knighton himself was played by Broadway’s Christopher Abbott. Afterward, the Team Cockeyed consensus was that the reading had highlighted a significant casting problem. “Twenty-year-old actors in L.A. and New York just want to grow some stubble and mumble in their overcoats. What was missing is that I’m supposed to be 18 and slap-happy and stupid.” Over dinner, Foster pulled out a version of the script. She’d crossed out a bunch of material and, on the fly, said “Act 1 ends here, Act 2 starts here, ends here, Act 3 starts here, I don’t know where it ends yet, that’s what’s missing. These things don’t do anything; these ones you keep.” “It was like the work of an architect,” says Knighton. “She kept 20, 25 percent of the original stuff.”

Knighton is still enthusiastic about the project, but that dinner was in April of 2009. Since then, Foster has been immersed in The Beaver with Mel Gibson (of voicemail fame), and Knighton has had to broaden his scope. He’s become an adjudicator for Sundance, is working with Paul and Liz Giamatti’s production company on a biographical project about a boy kidnapped by his crazy father, and is adapting Ronald Wright’s dystopic novel A Scientific Romance. He’s also been shopping the treatment for his new book, a memoir called C’mon Papa about his first years as a blind dad.

Somewhere in there, he’s meant to be teaching creative writing at Capilano University full-time and developing another nonfiction book. This one, Nothing to See Here, is in the travel mould of Susan Orlean. “I’ve always complained that the thing I never got was an education of my other senses when I lost my sight.” So he’s touring the world’s nonvisual wonders. Last year, he travelled to Scotland to experience flounder-tramping—a Viking holdover whereby Scottish farmers walk upriver, feeling with bare feet for fish nestled in the silt. The visual artist Brian Jungen is putting him in touch with a group up north to join a beluga hunt. The attraction this time will be not feeling but chewing: “It’s not necessarily about tasting the beluga—the western notion of tasting is a luxury, after all—but the idea of just the satisfaction of using your mandibles, since there’s so little in their diet that’s really hard to chew.” And he’s just back from Sweetwater, Texas, home to the world’s largest rattlesnake roundup. (The auditory experience of encountering 700 rattlesnakes, he says, is like coming across a waterfall in the jungle.) He also skinned a five-foot western diamondback and held the snake’s still-beating heart.

“The sensation of butchering that snake will stay with me forever,” he says. And adds, as the book research, parenthood, and foray into Hollywood are all teaching him: “It’s all about occasions for happenstance.”

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