BU Professor Dick Lehr's Novel Heads to Big Screen

September 2018, The Daily Free Press

lehr 2.jpg

©Suzanne Kreiter

Students of journalism professor Dick Lehr watch him lecture and instruct peers each time they attend class, but they don’t always see the professor’s personal projects. Lehr published a young adult novel, “Trell,” about a year ago, and soon his students and the public can see the story take on a new life as a film.

ToniK Productions acquired film production rights to his young adult novel “Trell” early last month. “Trell” follows the murder of a young girl and the wrongful imprisonment of a young father convicted as the murderer.

The novel was inspired by the real-life incarceration of Shawn Drumgold, a man who was wrongfully convicted for murder in 1989 and spent 14 years in prison. He eventually received a settlement of $5 million by the city of Boston after a Boston Globe article cast doubt on the validity of the conviction.

As a member of the Globe’s Spotlight team in 2003, Lehr was one of the lead investigative reporters who shed light on Drumgold’s conviction. Much of “Trell” is loosely based on his journalistic work on the case.

The story appeals largely to a young adult audience and is told from the perspective of a young African American girl.

Lehr has grown accustomed to the adaptation process. “Black Mass,” a book he co-wrote on the infamous crime boss Whitey Bulger, was turned into a feature film starring Johnny Depp in 2015. In 2017, his book, “The Birth of a Movement” was adapted into an Emmy-nominated PBS documentary.

Lehr said he will be present throughout the development of “Trell” to give story-related input when needed, but he also understands that his role in the production of the film is relatively small.

“Each project can be different,” Lehr said in an interview with The Daily Free Press. “I can’t push and force myself on them. I’m not in control, they are.”

Lehr explained that loss of control is difficult, but it’s also a big part of what makes the whole process so rewarding.

“As long as [the filmmakers are] true to the story, it’s a chance for a story that started with just me to reach a different and broader audience,” he said. “The biggest thing is that you have to be willing to let go and realize that the book is the book, and that’s mine. That’s what I created.”

While the director for the film has yet to be announced, screenwriter Jamal Joseph is set to adapt the novel for the screen. Joseph, a professor at Columbia University and an outspoken former member of the Black Panther Party, is a veteran filmmaker.

Lehr said he feels Joseph will bring a lot to the table. According to Lehr, he and Joseph met a number of weeks ago to discuss the pending script and watch “Chapter & Verse,” a film Joseph wrote and directed. Lehr said he believes the film is in good hands with ToniK Productions.

“There’s milestones, and one of them is having producers out there who want to actually make the movie, which is what we have here,” Lehr said. “The next big step is getting a script, and that’s underway.”

“Trell” isn’t Lehr’s only work coming to the big screen. Lehr has another book becoming a movie soon. Jay Craven, an independent filmmaker from Vermont, is directing an adaption of “Judgment Ridge,” a book Lehr co-authored with fellow BU professor Mitchell Zuckoff.

“It’s a real wrenching, sad story, and we didn’t want it to go to Hollywood,” Lehr said. “We always felt committed to Jay’s vision and his knowledge.”

Zuckoff said they wanted to protect their story and approached a potential adaptation with caution.

“Dick and I are very much on the same page,” he said. “We felt that putting this story in the wrong hands could result in the wrong messages. We trusted Jay to tell the story honestly, accurately and respectfully.”

Zuckoff, whose 2014 book “13 Hours” was adapted into a Michael Bay blockbuster in 2016, said that the adaptation process can be extremely gratifying and rewarding as well as somewhat jarring.

“The most important thing is to work with people you respect and people who are going to respect your work,” he said. “Sometimes you may be able to get a better deal or a better payday somewhere else, but the best thing you can do is partner with people that you can trust.”

Lehr stays very cognizant of the fact that the path to a finished film is never quite the same. The future of Lehr’s three current projects is uncertain — a year from now, they could be forgotten about or completed.

“It never stops being exciting,” he said. “There’s so many twists and turns, one step forward and two steps backwards. It’s a real roller coaster ride, and until the day they actually start filming, it’s not real.”

Geneve Lau, a sophomore in the College of Communication, hasn’t taken a class from Lehr, but said she felt his work had an impact on the COM program.

“I think that’s amazing representation for BU staff,” Lau said. “I wish I could say I’m surprised, but we obviously have such great professors here that this stuff happens often, as it should.”

Kyle Davi, who graduated from COM in 2018, had Lehr as a professor. Davi wrote in a Facebook message that he felt no surprise when he heard about the upcoming movie because Lehr knows what he’s doing.

“He’s never afraid of a challenge, something which undoubtedly this will be,” Davi wrote. “Lehr is an excellent writer, and a fantastic storyteller. If someone in Hollywood had the brains to get one of his novels on the screen, I have no doubt that it’s going to be an excellent film.”

Eugene Mirman Shares Thoughts About Comedy’s Social Effects

February 2017, The Daily Free Press

©Brian Tamborello

From taking out a full-page advertisement to voice his frustration with Time Warner Cable, to offering his most recent album in the formats of an antique chair and a bathrobe, one thing is clear about comedian Eugene Mirman: he is unafraid to push the boundaries in order to be a little absurd.

Mirman’s current stand-up tour comes to a close this Saturday at the Paradise Rock Club.

“I love Boston,” Mirman said in an interview with The Daily Free Press. The 42-year-old Russian-born comedian moved to Lexington at age 6. “I actually plan to move back sometime this year,” he said.

Currently, Mirman serves as a frequent co-host on Neil deGrasse Tyson’s podcast “StarTalk” as well as hosting his own recently-released audio show “Hold On” on Audible. Mirman also voices the character of Gene on the animated hit show “Bob’s Burgers.”

“I really enjoy doing the different things,” Mirman said, pointing out that it’s not every day that he gets to meet and talk to astronauts with Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, he said he still thinks of himself as a stand-up comedian first. “It’s something that you can just do,” he said. “It’s something you can do on your own.”


Mirman said that while he does love doing shows at Paradise Rock Club, the reaction from the crowd in his hometown is hardly different from that in other cities. “It’s not like all my jokes are about Lechmere,” Mirman said, referring to the New England department store chain that closed its stores in 1997. There is, however, a certain common ground with his Boston audiences, he said, whether it’s explicitly stated or not.


Local Boston musicians helped Mirman on his most recent comedy album “I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome),” which was released in October 2015. A large portion of the monumental 9-volume, 7-LP album was recorded in the city. The idea for such a complicated and ludicrous endeavor came from a joke Mirman made about wanting to release a 100-volume record. While he knew that something that large was unfeasible, he decided that he could still make something “big and silly.” 


“I thought it would be a fun and really ridiculous project,” he said. “And it was.”


“I’m Sorry (You’re Welcome)” comes with an entire stand-up routine, ringtones, a guided meditation, sound effects from the mouth of Mirman himself and a full 45 minutes of crying (a feature Mirman said he thought would be a fantastic selling point joke until he had to listen to “a full-hearted 45-minute cry-a-thon” more than five times).


“I don’t know if there’s anything I would do again,” Mirman said, “though I really enjoyed the project and collaborating with people.”


He also offered his thoughts on the relationship that comedy and art have with the current political climate in the United States.  For Mirman, the worlds of comedy and politics can exist separately, and he stressed that it really depends on the topics a comedian addresses.


“I do things that are largely anecdotal or silly,” he said. His material is often more focused on his own life and set of experiences than it is the outside world.  However, shows like “Saturday Night Live,” which has been making fun of American politics for more than four decades, have made it clear that jokes at the expense of today’s politicians won’t stop anytime soon.

Therefore, while Mirman’s own role as a comedian has not changed much, he does acknowledge that the work by others in his field could be significantly affected by modern events. Despite that, there’s room at both ends of the spectrum, Mirman said.

“I think comedy, in general, will be both more political and more silly,” he said. “There’s a need for both. There’s a need for everything. Everyone should do whatever it is that calls to them. I think it would be silly to be really mad at the Rolling Stones for not writing an album about [President Donald] Trump.”


However, Mirman said he won’t shy away from touching on politics if he feels the occasion is right.


“If I could think of a joke that would make Donald Trump resign as president, I would definitely tell it,” he said. “In that sense, if there’s something that I thought I could do comedically that would be helpful then I would do it.”


Mirman cited “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” as an example of comedy that is indeed having an influence on the real world. “Some comedy can actually have a really wonderful, social effect,” he said. “It would be amazing if there’s things artists can think of doing that would have an impact.”

Doctor Strange Science Consultant Interested in Nature of Consciousness

November 2016, The Daily Free Press

©Film Frame/Marvel Studios

From the death of the sun to the birth of human consciousness, so spans the research of Adam Frank.

Frank is a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, where his studies primarily focus on the processes behind the formation and death of stars. A self-described “evangelist of science,” Frank regularly shares his passion for science with others. He has authored three books and is a contributor to The New York Times and NPR.

Most recently, Frank served as the scientific consultant on Marvel’s “Doctor Strange.” The film, which is released Friday, features Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role and brings the Sorcerer Supreme from the pages of Marvel comics to the big screen. Although the Marvel cinematic universe has already seen its fair share of aliens and gods, “Doctor Strange” is the studio’s first plunge into the world of magic and sorcery. Not only does the film draw on established scientific theories such as the multiverse, but it also delves into the realm of philosophy and asks questions regarding consciousness and reality. This is where Frank’s work on the film is most prominent, the researcher said in an interview with The Daily Free Press.


“I have an interest in what I would call the human spiritual endeavor,” Frank said. “The open question here is a philosophical question, not necessarily a scientific one.”


That “philosophical question” is one of the nature of consciousness, what Frank and others in the philosophy field refer to as the mind-body problem, which is interested in defining the relationship between the mind (the experiential nature of human life) and the body (matter that is controlled by physics). One prevailing point of view on this question is a theory known as reductionism. The reductionist view suggests that consciousness and one’s experience of the world is nothing but the activity of the brain’s neurons.

Reductionists maintain that everything can be broken down into the parts that make it work. Therefore, quarks, atoms and neurons can be built back up to explain the occurrence of consciousness. Frank, however, is a non-reductionist.


“There is more that can happen at the higher levels of organizations in the world than can be encoded in the atoms,” he said.


Frank cited the work of philosopher David Chalmers, who brought to light inherent problems with attempting to define consciousness as a natural, materialistic phenomenon. His knowledge of this mind-body problem made up the bulk of his contributions to “Doctor Strange.” He described a day when he and the writer, producer and director of the film got together and simply talked about philosophy of the mind for an entire day.


“What I wanted to do in our discussions was ground Doctor Strange’s powers in the open question about consciousness,” Frank said. “The fact that there isn’t a scientific theory for that means it’s a place you can put him, and that could be where the source of his powers emanate from.”


This open, theoretical realm is where science fiction narratives thrive. Frank, a fan of both comics and science fiction, said he believes science in film doesn’t always have to be exact. He cites the “Star Trek” films as an example. The technology displayed in those films is so theoretical that checking its accuracy is pointless.


“People go to movies because they want good stories,” Frank said. He argues that what matters the most in science fiction is the world and universe building. “You give yourself a coherent and consistent set of rules … and you live within that.”


The best science fiction considers real-world possibilities, Frank maintains.


“Good science fiction not only educates the public, but it actually helps create the universes that we end up living in,” Frank said. He outlined examples such as the novelist William Gibson coining the word “cyberspace” before it entered modern scientific vocabulary.


Frank said he believes firsthand in the power of narrative and science fiction’s effect on actual scientific research. He described how the covers of his father’s pulp science fiction magazines, featuring men bouncing from planet to planet, fueled his love for science and inspired him to become an astrophysicist. “Doctor Strange” could possibly have the same effect on another generation of scientists, Frank said. These scientists could continue researching and answering the questions, like those concerning consciousness, that currently appear to have no concrete answer.


“Sometimes these movies can go beyond just being superhero movies,” he said. “I think ‘Doctor Strange’ has the possibility of getting people to think about … the maps we use to represent the world and where those maps are partially incomplete.”