Moving Picture

An illustration collage of The BlacKkKlansman's cast and crew, including Spike Lee and Adam Driver

BlacKkKlansman

In photo illustration by Sean McCabe, left to right: David Rabinowitz ’09, John David Washington, Topher Grace, Adam Driver, John David Washington, Laura Harrier, Spike Lee and Ryan Eggold. Photos courtesy of Focus Features.

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s his motorcade pulled to a stop, David Rabinowitz ’09 peered out the car window at the expectant throngs waiting to wave to Hollywood big shots. He adjusted his black tie and smoothed the collar of his tux as he waited his turn to step onto the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.

Clicking cameras and flashing strobes fueled the electric atmosphere encircling this city on the French Riviera. Rabinowitz walked in with famed director Spike Lee and actors John David Washington (son of Denzel), Adam Driver and Topher Grace. They were all there in May to attend the premiere of their award-winning movie, “BlacKkKlansman,” which opened to critical acclaim nationwide on Aug. 10.

Lee and Oscar-winning producer Jordan Peele (his “Get Out” won best original screenplay in 2017) made the movie, adapting the screenplay Rabinowitz wrote with his high school friend, Charlie Wachtel, also in attendance this evening.

Entering the theater, they were ushered to seats reserved for them. Once the credits rolled and they spotted their names (as writers and producers), the metamorphosis from dream to reality was complete. What’s more, the film garnered Cannes’ prestigious Grand Prix award, a 10-minute standing ovation and, since then, Oscar buzz.

“Pretty crazy and a bit overwhelming” is how Rabinowitz describes Cannes. The New Jersey native and former member of the Quinnipiac Film Society had never attended the annual festival, where many genres of films premiere and where film industry insiders go to network. He met the film’s cast members at a cocktail reception before the showing.

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“It is a Spike Lee movie, made with the kind of artistic and political verve that recalls his best work. ‘BlacKkKlansman’ has all the subtlety of a mallet to the face, but Lee’s argument begins and ends with the fact that this is an unsubtle moment in America.”
David Sims
The Atlantic

Rabinowitz and Wachtel wrote the screenplay after reading an autobiography by Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer to join the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s. In his book, Stallworth tells the story of how he responded to an ad in a local newspaper placed by the Ku Klux Klan, which was looking for new members. He answered the ad using his real name while posing as a racist extremist.

When a Klan member asked to meet Stallworth, the detective recruited his white partner, named Flip Zimmerman in the film, to go in his place. He dubbed them “the combined Ron Stallworth.” Zimmerman went to Klan meetings while Stallworth handled the phone conversations that took place during their undercover investigation. They were able to expose white supremacists and sabotage cross burnings, even meeting with former KKK grand wizard David Duke, portrayed by Grace.

Intrigued by the story and its relevancy today, Rabinowitz and Wachtel discovered that nobody had the film rights to the book at that time. They informed the publisher and Stallworth of their intention to adapt it for a film. Stallworth was open to the idea and got involved in the creative process.

Movie stars Adam Driver and John David Washington pictured in a scene from "BlacKkKlansman"

Working together

Movie stars Adam Driver and John David Washington pictured in a scene from “BlacKkKlansman.”

The film’s August release coincided with the one-year anniversary of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which a young woman was struck and killed by a car driven into a clashing crowd of white nationalists and anti-fascist protesters. Lee incorporated footage of the incident, as well as news clips from Trump’s remarks about the riots into the finale, segueing from the image of a fiery cross to the illuminated torches of the Charlottesville marchers.

Rabinowitz, a film, television and media arts major, worked in the news industry in New York before moving to LA in 2012. He and Wachtel previously had co-written a pilot for a TV show, but this film would become their big break.

The writing team pitched the idea to a producer acquaintance, Shaun Redick, who was in the early stages of producing “Get Out” with Peele and shared the idea with him. To their surprise and delight, Peele said he was in.

“We met with Peele in 2016, and he gave us notes and we did a rewrite based on that. When his ‘Get Out’ opened in February 2017, we could tell it was going to be something,” Rabinowitz recalls. “His notes were great — straightforward, easy to implement, and they made the script a lot better,” Rabinowitz says. “It was clear in that meeting that Jordan knew exactly what we were going for in the script, and that he had an excellent sense of storytelling.”

Peele asked Lee if he’d be interested in directing. And Lee climbed aboard.

“That was our pipe dream,” Rabinowitz says. “When we started writing, it was basically a joke between us: ‘Yeah, Spike Lee is going to direct this.’ We never really took it seriously until we heard that Lee was meeting with the producers.”

Rabinowitz tells students he meets in the Quinnipiac in Los Angeles program about “aligning yourself with the right people. It’s so important.”

“Meeting Spike was very cool,” says Rabinowitz, who has been a Spike Lee fan since high school. His two favorite Lee flicks are “25th Hour” and “Do the Right Thing.” Other Quinnipiac students had the pleasure of meeting Lee when he visited Quinnipiac in February 2011 as the keynote speaker for Black History Month.

“Spike Lee has never been hesitant throughout his career to preach to us,” says Raymond Foery, professor of film, television and media arts. He considers the film one of Lee’s best of the past decade. Foery developed and teaches a Quinnipiac course called Spike Lee’s America.

“His most successful films are those in which he manages to entertain at the same time. This film is one of those. His message is as clear and strong as ever, but his characters are well-drawn, his plot is tight, and his cinematic prowess is clearly evident. And to have a QU alumnus so intimately involved in such an ambitious project should make us all proud — I certainly am,” Foery says.

Rabinowitz notes that scripts can change considerably from the writer’s final submission to the finished product, with edits even made during shooting. Kevin Willmott, a University of Kansas film professor, was brought in for a final rewrite, and Rabinowitz and Wachtel were given the shooting script, on which they made notes.

As he watched the film that night in Cannes, Rabinowitz paid close attention to audience feedback. “When a line I wrote would get a reaction, it was like, ‘Alright, that was me. I did that one,’” he says. And since the movie opened, he’s been enjoying the great reviews from film critics and friends alike.

Adapting a book to film is never simple, he remarked, noting that Stallworth’s book was written in the manner of a police report. “The tough thing is that books can give insight into a character’s thoughts while movies have to dramatize those thoughts and make them visual.”

While writing the screenplay, they found that some of the book chapters could be made into scenes, but they also decided to introduce a specific threat posed by the Klan that serves as the movie’s backbone and bolsters the cinematic structure. They also consolidated several people the author wrote about into one female character.

“And we needed to invent most of the dialogue to make it a story that could support a film while keeping true to the book,” he says.

As the script evolved, Lee added his voice and injected more politics into it, according to Rabinowitz. “They kept our ending but added to it.” Lee has called Charlottesville “the horrific act of domestic, American homegrown terrorism.”

In an article in The Kansas City Star, Willmott said one of the reasons the story resonates so deeply with modern audiences is its cultural relevance. “Unfortunately, as Spike likes to say, David Duke and Donald Trump were the co-writers on the script,” he explains. “The things that the Klan said in the past, David Duke and the president say those things today about the present.”

Rabinowitz discovered his talent for screenwriting in high school. At Quinnipiac, he refined that talent while concentrating on film production, learning more about shooting and editing. With Professor Liam O’Brien, he learned to translate what he wrote into films and even produced a short film with no dialogue. Professor Emerita Becky Abbott helped him with production techniques.

“When you are writing a screenplay, it’s always going to be interpreted by others, and my time at Quinnipiac with the film society showed me what happens after that critical step. Instead of the words staying on the page, they were spoken by actors, shot by cameras operated by crew, lit by lights set up by gaffers, and edited into a finished film.”

Rabinowitz said writers can pull in a fee in the low six figures for a script, and more if a bidding war ensues. Factors that affect the bottom line include fees for an agent, or legal and managerial fees and taxes.

He and Wachtel made enough money from the film to enable them to write full time for a while. In June, they pitched another book adaptation, a true story about a notorious Boston 1960s mafia hit man named Joseph “The Animal” Barboza. He became one of the first to participate in the federal witness protection program, “but he broke the rules and suffered the consequences,” says Rabinowitz.

Movie star John David Washington looks through binoculars from behind the wheel of his car in a scene from "BlacKkKlansman"

On set

“BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington runs a reconnaissance mission from behind the wheel of his car in a scene from the movie.

They were elated to learn in July that Fox 2000 Pictures had acquired the movie, based on Casey Sherman’s 2013 “Animal: The Bloody Rise and Fall of the Mob’s Most Feared Assassin.” They are working on the screenplay now. Its working title is “Thacher Island,” where Barboza spent time before testifying in a mob trial.

They are in talks with a company about producing the pilot they wrote before “BlacKkKlansman” and also have finished another screenplay about a Latino-American sports agent who attempts to smuggle Cuba’s top baseball player out of the country.

“We were inspired by stories of Cuban athletes who have defected here over the years and went from making $10 a month to millions a year,” he says.

When time permits, Rabinowitz enjoys performing at an LA improv theater. “It’s fun and it helps with my writing,” he says. He and Wachtel still marvel at how everything seemed to break in their direction, from getting the “BlacKkKlansman” book rights to attracting a big-name director and producer. “There was a lot of serendipity,” he acknowledges.

And a true Hollywood ending.