03 Sep 2018
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Moving Pictures

Screenwriter Josh Singer always wanted to do good in the world. So how did he end up in Hollywood?
by Julia Hanna; photographed by Christina Gandolfo

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Josh Singer won’t tell me where he keeps his Oscar. In 2016, he won Hollywood’s most coveted award for cowriting Spotlight, the movie about Boston Globe journalists uncovering the Catholic priest sexual abuse scandal that also took home the Oscar for Best Picture. “Ummmm,” he hedges.

Just in from LA and a quick visit to check out the Globe’s new offices in downtown Boston, Singer (MBA 2000/JD 2001) dives into a Starbucks; the unanswered question evaporates in the effort to acquire a restorative latte with one pump of mocha. It’s not that he’s overly secretive or withholding—earlier, he impersonated Donald Duck on a call with Jacob, his two-year-old son with novelist Laura Dave—but he’s a researcher at heart, more comfortable asking questions than answering them. “Josh is one of the best reporters I’ve ever known,” says Walter “Robby” Robinson, the longtime Globe editor (played in the movie by Michael Keaton) who oversaw the Pulitzer Prize–winning investigation. “Over the course of two years he dug out of us everything we knew—and then some.”

That legwork and intense focus translated into a gripping, moment-by-moment depiction of the power of journalism, provoking the sort of high-level discussion that influences public discourse. Which is Singer’s goal, as a rundown of his projects clearly shows: Spotlight dramatized what can happen when society defers to institutional power—and the massive upheaval that occurs when that power is confronted. The Post, cowritten with Liz Hannah and directed by Steven Spielberg, is a riveting case analysis of business leadership in action through the lens of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham’s decision to publish the then classified Pentagon Papers—a decision that continues to reverberate with current-day challenges to the role of the press in a democracy. And next month sees the release of First Man, starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. Singer says the film, based on the biography by James R. Hansen, depicts the country’s collective mission to put a man on the moon through the sort of visceral filmmaking 33-year-old Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, La La Land) is making his name on: It presents Armstrong, typically portrayed as a postage-stamp hero, as a complex man who staked a nation’s place on the moon—and in history—at enormous personal cost. “The space program has been painted in gossamer tones,” Singer says. “To me, Neil Armstrong’s journey is more about his endurance and stoicism in the face of tremendous loss than his incredible skills and abilities. First Man shows that greatness is made, not born—and it comes with a price.”

It turns out that Singer wasn’t being coy about where he keeps his Oscar (in the living room, over the TV). He was probably thinking about something else. Awards are great, but they aren’t the point. For Singer, the stakes are higher: to create socially relevant movies that sell tickets but also make people think, and talk to one another—to entertain, rise above the din, and drive change.

Star Power: Streep, Spielberg, and Hanks on the set of The Post. “It’s a straight-up B-School case. ... Katharine Graham’s story is the story of a business leader.” ©Twentieth Century Fox/Entertainment Pictures/ZUMAPRESS.com

Singer’s background plays against type: a double major in math and economics at Yale, a stint at McKinsey, and a joint degree in business and law from Harvard—all admirable accomplishments, but none a prerequisite for screenwriting. Singer acted and sang his way through high school and college but lost that creative outlet while working at McKinsey. So he began tinkering with stories, eventually making a pact with himself during business school: “I decided to write two hours a day—and if I actually had something to say, maybe I was a writer. By the end of my first year I had finished a draft of a children’s novel. Which was terrible.” But he did seem to have something to say.

During his summer breaks, Singer interned at Nickelodeon, working in the strategy and legal groups and later following up that experience with a stint at the Disney Channel. “The idea behind taking these internships was simply that I needed to come closer to creative in order to run creative—in other words, I had to understand how the widgets were made to run the factory,” he says. In the course of doing that, however, Singer became increasingly intrigued by making the widgets. He had always been drawn to the power of storytelling and the fight for “what was right and good” in books he’d read as a child, like Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. It was a way of seeing the world Singer absorbed from his parents and the synagogue they attended as a family in suburban Philadelphia. “I sang in the choir,” he says. “Faith was pretty important to me as a kid, even if I now consider myself somewhere between an agnostic and a believer. The cultural values of trying to heal and do good in the world have stayed with me.”

Singer’s father had always stressed the importance of fulfilling one’s potential, and encouraged him to pursue the JD/MBA degree as a way to ensure that he’d have all the necessary tools to do so. But as his time at Harvard drew to a close, Singer continued to wrestle with what to do next. Law, public policy, and politics offered the most obvious avenues to create positive change in the world. But watching how the 2000 presidential election played out in the Supreme Court’s Bush v. Gore decision made him pause: “I became very disheartened with politics as a way to move the needle,” Singer says. He was still writing, though. And while he hadn’t sold anything yet, he went to his parents, dual degree in hand, and told them that he’d like to try to write for a living.

“The only question my dad asked was how long I was going to give it. I told him three years. Neither of my parents blinked an eye, which is really pretty remarkable,” he recalls, noting that his father had footed the bill for eight years of education at that point. There were certainly more lucrative offers to consider, a return to McKinsey among them, but Singer opted instead for a part-time position with a kids’ online storytelling startup that gave him the mobility and flexibility to couch surf, network, and continue writing.

Oddly, it was a TV show about politics that eventually gave Singer the “in” he needed for his lucky break. By 2002, he had gravitated to a sublet in Los Angeles—which he happened to rent from a woman who was dating Lew Wells, a producer of the TV series The West Wing whose brother, John Wells, was about to take over the show. Singer had been told that writing a spec script was the way to break into the business, so he wrote a spec West Wing, which happened to be one of his favorite shows. “The writing probably wasn’t very good, but I think John liked the ambition of the story, which touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says. “He could have bought the script for $30,000, but I wasn’t much more expensive, so he hired me.”

Singer wrote or cowrote six episodes of the show over the course of the last three seasons, working his way up the food chain from staff writer to executive story editor while gaining a firsthand education in storytelling-widget management. “A television show like The West Wing is really a company that is in the business of making 22 episodes a year,” Singer says. “John Wells is an amazing producer in how he manages to be a magnificent storyteller while leading and overseeing a group of creatives. You have to be brave and flexible enough to allow them to bring what they’re able to bring, while also keeping the ship on course. Knowing where to step in and where to let go is very challenging.”

The same is true in filmmaking, and that ability to manage, to produce—to tell a story while maintaining creative control over the project itself—is something Singer aspires to in the future. “You’re paid well as a screenwriter if you’re successful, but you don’t have equity in the company, so to speak,” he says. “I feel a ton of ownership over the movies I’ve done, but any control I exerted was indirect, through working with, and helping, the producers and directors.”

Singer points to a favorite line in Spotlight. “A good case presents a set of facts and pushes the reader to ask certain questions. That’s what I want to do too.”

Singer points to a favorite line in Spotlight. “A good case presents a set of facts and pushes the reader to ask certain questions. That’s what I want to do too.”

Advancing a career in any industry requires some entrepreneurial verve, but that’s especially true in Hollywood, where the pathway to power is more varied and harder to discern. Singer knows he’s been fortunate. But he’s also taken his knocks and filed away some tough lessons, including his first film to be produced. The 2013 Toronto International Film Festival opened with The Fifth Estate, an of-the-moment drama about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s efforts to reveal classified government documents. The film, Singer’s first to be produced, was panned by critics. “I thought my career was over,” he says. But the script of The Fifth Estate got him the job writing Spotlight, as well as First Man, leading to an important takeaway: “Work begets work. I didn’t become the super-hot screenwriter after Fifth Estate. But I got the movie made, which led to more projects.”

Last year he got the call for The Post, for example, because Steven Spielberg had read Spotlight and First Man. “We were moving with our hair on fire,” Singer says, describing a breakneck production schedule that saw Spielberg agreeing to the project in early March, with Meryl Streep (as Katharine Graham) and Tom Hanks (as Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee) signing on as leads not long after. A 45-day shoot began in May, with Singer and Hannah writing and rewriting scenes on the fly. The movie hit theaters in November, just in time for the awards season—but the real sense of urgency came from the drive to tell a story of First Amendment rights that felt particularly relevant in a highly polarized era of “fake news.”

Initially worried that he’d be pigeonholed for writing “another journalism movie,” Singer soon realized The Post was more about making a decision than getting the story. “It’s a straight-up B-School case,” he says. “You inherit a business for which you have no formal training. Just when you’re getting your sea legs, you’re asked a question about going to press with a major story that could sink your company because you’ve gone public that very week. Katharine Graham’s story is the story of a business leader.” It’s not unlike the decision of Johnson & Johnson CEO James Burke (MBA 1949) to pull every bottle of Tylenol from the shelves when seven people died after taking cyanide-laced capsules of the pain reliever—the focus of an HBS case Singer still remembers well from LEAD, he says—but with an added level of difficulty: “She was a woman in a man’s world, the first and only Fortune 500 female CEO at the time—and there still aren’t many of those, much to the shame of this country.”

When approaching a project, Singer says he first takes in an event’s or a life’s full span through extensive reading, research, and interviews, cherry-picking moments that tell the story with the greatest economy and drama. Because that story is playing out on the big screen, he adds, those moments are often highly visual, with no lines of dialogue. Even then, however, Singer is putting words on the page to guide the filmmaking. “A script is a sales tool,” he says. “Movies are narratives, but they also have a color, a tone, a feeling—you’re trying to get people to understand your vision.” It’s a process that begins with Singer outlining an overall treatment of the story. “That allows executives, producers, and the director to get on board with your battle plan, even if it’s going to change dozens of times along the way through production and postproduction,” he explains.

“Getting a movie together is like herding cats—this one will say yes if that one does. It’s a vicious circle, so you have to do a little magic to make it happen.”

“Getting a movie together is like herding cats—this one will say yes if that one does. It’s a vicious circle, so you have to do a little magic to make it happen.”

After creating a structure, Singer says, he delves down into character. It’s a creative process he attributes in part to HBS, where the teaching method has continued relevance for his work as a screenwriter: “The historically based movies I like to do are all cases,” Singer says. “A good case presents a set of facts and pushes the reader to ask certain questions. That’s what I want to do too.” His time as a consultant was also formative. “After college, I didn’t know what I was going to do, so I got a job at McKinsey,” Singer recalls. “I did not love the work, but I loved the people—a whole bunch of very smart, insecure overachievers. McKinsey is famous for its three bullet points. Not two, not four. I think the same way when I’m writing a story. I approach it in tranches.”

Once filming is under way, Singer adds, a screenwriter is ideally standing by, crafting lines as needed, rewriting, and sometimes even offering feedback (although those moments are few and far between when the director is Steven Spielberg). Watching Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, with five Oscars between them, speak the words you’ve written is pretty heady stuff, Singer admits. “You never want it to end, because you’re convinced it’s never going to happen again.” That’s the ephemeral nature of the business, it seems. Everyone in Hollywood is in motion, working on a project or looking for the next one, which is probably why Singer spends a fair amount of time talking on the phone. He’s in Boston for just one night, to speak to students at Northeastern’s School of Journalism, but he has to keep moving the ball forward on his next project. During the drive from downtown Boston to Northeastern, that entails an impassioned phone conversation with a potential producer, with Singer forcefully outlining the time pressures of calls that need to be made, soon, and connections that need to happen, now, for the stars (literally) to align.

“Sorry, that was me, trying to be a producer,” he says after hanging up. “Getting a movie together is like herding cats—this one will say yes if that one does. It’s a vicious circle, so you have to do a little magic to make it happen.”

Exactly one month later, news breaks that it worked. Bradley Cooper will direct and star in a movie that he and Singer will cowrite, based on the life of another American icon, musician and composer Leonard Bernstein, with Spielberg and Martin Scorsese as producers. The only wrinkle? One week earlier another Bernstein project was announced, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Singer says he hasn’t read the script, but imagines it being a very different film given that the Cooper project has exclusive rights to Bernstein’s music. In any case, he’s not focused on it too much: “It’s hard enough to get something right on your own without thinking about what someone else is doing.”

At Northeastern that evening, Singer is both self-effacing and forthcoming as he shares the details of working in Hollywood with an auditorium full of students, all here despite the impending panic of finals week. Afterward, as they gather around, he’s encouraging and direct, answering questions and speaking to them as equals. Singer, after all, is still a student, endlessly curious and questioning. Yes, proceeds from working on The Post enabled the purchase of a new home in Santa Monica. Yes, he’s been invited to some fancier dinner parties. But the day-to-day routine hasn’t changed much: “I’m still sitting in my underwear, neurotic, trying to juggle different projects and put one story beat in front of another—hoping it will work and terrified it won’t,” he says.

And whatever his monetary compensation, there are other ways to be paid. “The best thing to me is the feeling of fulfillment that comes when it seems we actually got the story right—that we brought to light something that should be known,” he says. That holds true whether it’s reminding us of journalism’s power or showcasing how grit, integrity, and difficult leadership decisions can play out on history’s stage. It’s all to the same end of inspiring a public conversation about issues that matter—of making movies that sell tickets and move minds.

LA CONFIDENTIAL

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Oscar near miss: Congratulatory onstage kiss from actress Charlize Theron (who announced his name as “John”). “I was on a mission to get to the mic and quickly give my thanks when she grabbed me.”

Working with a legend: “The way Steven [Spielberg] tells a story with the camera...how innovative and experimental he is on the set—it’s wild to watch. He cuts while he’s shooting, which is very rare. He’s the most efficient—and probably most extraordinary— human I’ve ever met.”

And another star: “In The Post, Meryl [Streep] added the line, ‘Thank you, Arthur, for your frankness.’ I didn’t like the line on set—to me it didn’t feel right for her character. But once I saw the cut, I was astounded by how much I loved it. No surprise, Meryl understood the character better than I did.”

In development: The Fox Hunt, based on Mohammed Al Samawi’s autobiography about how four Facebook friends managed to extract a young peace activist from war-torn Yemen.

Who, not what: “One of my favorite assignments at McKinsey was working on a synthetic fabric called Spunbond. Spunbond of course wasn’t so sexy, but David Kerrick, Campbell Langdon (MBA 1989), Mark Leiter, Igor Helekal—the people on my team— made it an incredible experience. The same is true in Hollywood.”

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Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 2000, Section A

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