Growing up in Burlington, Ont., David Scearce loved Hollywood blockbusters - the Indiana Jones movies in particular. There was something about the nerdy professor turned rugged adventurer that appealed to the young movie fan.
Now living in Vancouver, Scearce is leading his own Hollywood double life. From 9 to 5, he plies his trade as a lawyer for the federal government, negotiating contracts and poring over documents on his computer screen. Nights and weekends, he's in front of a different computer, writing - not legal briefs, but dialogue, dramatic through lines and denouements. And on the odd night over these past few months, you might have found him in Hollywood or Venice or at the Toronto International Film Festival, attending screenings of A Single Man , for which Scearce wrote the script - in his spare time.
Scearce is no John Grisham; he does not have the kind of law career that lends itself to dramatic movie-script material. He does not address juries in court; he does not defend shifty criminals or the falsely accused. He works on matters pertaining to the Indian Act, specifically on-reserve issues in British Columbia. He spends a lot of time dealing with condo developments and shopping malls. Perhaps it's not a surprise, then, that his screenwriting has so far strayed from the courtroom drama.
A Single Man , based on the acclaimed novel by Christopher Isherwood, chronicles the suffering of George (Colin Firth), a professor mourning the sudden death of his long-time partner, Jim (Matthew Goode). The film, which opens next Friday and marks the directorial debut of fashion designer Tom Ford, is set in 1962, when even on a California college campus George feels the need to keep his personal life hidden.
A Single Man has been getting raves on the festival circuit (Firth was named best actor at the Venice Film Festival), and this week picked up three Independent Spirit Award nominations, including best first screenplay.
Scearce, 44, adapted the story four years ago on spec, the first film script he ever wrote to completion. He went into it blindly, not knowing enough to consider a budget, or potential shooting challenges.
Even the simplest matters were a mystery: What did a script look like? How should he format it so as not to give himself away as a complete rookie? One thing he did understand, as a lawyer, was research: He consulted such magazines as Creative Screenwriting and Fade In.
He had read Isherwood's book many, many times over the years, and was always profoundly affected by the simple yet devastating novel: " A Single Man was a story that spoke to me on, as cliché as it sounds, that universal level of love and loss."
Over lunch, he continued, "I just sat down and wrote what had been marinating in my head for quite a while, and figured out a way to tell it."
The novel is written primarily as an inner monologue, as George struggles through a typical day, in the wake of his loss. The temptation in adapting the story was to rely heavily on voice-over (in fact there had been several adaptation attempts employing this technique, none of which was acceptable to the late Isherwood's partner, Don Bachardy, who held the rights to the story). Instead, Scearce took clues from the book to create scenes that would work on the big screen. He also made a significant change: In the book, George is lonely and dissatisfied; Scearce's screenplay takes that one step further, and has George contemplating suicide.
Scearce then approached Bachardy, whom he knew through friends, proposing that he try adapting the story. "He said, I think it's going to be difficult, it's a period piece, it might be too expensive to film … but he said it was Isherwood's favourite book and his, too, and they had hoped that it could get turned into a film one day."
After six months working nights and weekends on the script, he had no idea what to expect when he e-mailed his final draft to Bachardy. Within two weeks, he had a reply - Bachardy loved it.
Around the same time, Ford, who had decided to make the leap from fashion to film, was shopping around for his first movie project. He fell hard for A Single Man . Ford reworked Scearce's adaptation, and they share the writing credit. "Isherwood brought the story, I brought the structure, and Tom brought the style," says Scearce.
Scearce divides his time between a downtown Vancouver condo and two acres on B.C.'s Mayne Island, where he and his husband run an animal-rescue operation. He is thoughtful and articulate, with a fashion sense worthy of Ford's approval. His government bosses and colleagues have been very supportive. And he is careful not to say that he wants to quit law and write full-time.
Scearce first saw the completed film at its Venice world premiere in September. He was able to pick out what came from his version of the script, including a scene where George gets the news that Jim has died, and learns that he is not invited to the funeral - a change from the book. Scearce's script direction was simple: George struggles with his emotions.
"Then, to see Colin actually [doing that]on the screen was just amazing," Scearce says. "I just love that scene, and that's the one I created. Even if nothing else [of mine]showed up in [the film] I'm just so glad that one did."
In November, there was a glitzy Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, where Scearce had years ago tagged along with friends for a Harry Potter premiere. This time, a car was sent to his hotel and deposited him right onto the red carpet, where he was interviewed by Entertainment Tonight and photographed by paparazzi. "It was crazy. Everyone was calling my name to look toward their camera," says Scearce.
The following Monday, he was back at his government job in Vancouver.
"It was so surreal, because you're in Hollywood and it's very cool, very interesting … and then you come back and you walk to work and you go do your day job. … It's what you do, it's what you know, what pays the bills."
After long days staring at a computer screen at the office, Scearce still comes home, sinks into his Zero Gravity chair (he has a bad back), and puts on his screenwriter's hat. He has recently optioned the Robert Lipsyte book One Fat Summer , about an overweight, bullied 14-year-old boy. And he is working on an original trilogy he describes as The Lord of the Rings meets Mad Max.
Meanwhile, there is Oscar buzz for A Single Man : Scearce could find himself nominated, along with Ford, for adapted screenplay. But David Scearce has hardly become a household name. "To be involved in a project where you're one of two writers, and the other writer is a big celebrity name, it's easy to get overshadowed," he says.
"A lot of people ask: How has your life changed? And it hasn't, really. I don't have an agent. I don't have people knocking down my door, saying: Here, I've got something for you to work on. I'll be happy when that day happens, but it hasn't yet."
And if he does get that Academy Award nod and wants to fly down to Los Angeles for the Oscars, he'll have to negotiate an unpaid day off work. He's already used up all of his vacation time for this fiscal.
A Single Man opens in Toronto next Friday; in Vancouver, Montreal and Quebec City on Dec. 25; and wide on Jan. 8.