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Veteran Screenwriter’s Hollywood ‘Notebook’ Sparkles

Former Harvard researcher Jeremy Leven reveals how to succeed in movies while trying to be an academic

By Marcus L. Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

Jeremy Leven really doesn’t have to be so nice.

For starters, he looks a decade younger than his 60 years. He’s attended the best schools and distinguished himself in the field of psychology during his time at Harvard. He has a loving wife and five successful children. Then of course, there’s that small matter of his two best-selling and critically acclaimed novels, and his achievements as a veteran Hollywood screenwriter—with screen credits including Alex & Emma, The Legend of Bagger Vance, and Don Juan DeMarco, which he also directed. His new movie, The Notebook, opens in theatres everywhere on June 25.

It’s safe to say that he’s earned the right to be arrogant.

But despite his considerable accomplishments, Leven is in fact warm, charming and down-to-earth. He graciously chatted at length about his life and career, peppering the conversation with personal anecdotes and recollections about his experiences with both Harvard and Hollywood.

Leven’s love for entertainment and theater blossomed during his undergraduate years at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., but his ambitions were tempered by the realities of show business prospects and his love for psychology. Setting his theatrical aspirations aside, he arrived at Harvard as a research associate, focusing on the study of child psychology at William James Hall. Some of his fondest Harvard memories are of “occupying University Hall in 1968…chasing [then National Security Advisor Henry] Kissinger through the tunnels…watching the police come out with all their riot gear. I was lucky to be here during an enormously exciting time in terms of social programs and politics. “Sesame Street” was developed here at the Ed School, my mentor Shep White was involved in the creation of Head Start, and William James [Hall] was a hot spot for research.”

He then assumed a post as a psychologist at State Hospital in Northampton, Mass. before enrolling in a joint M.D./Ph.D. program at the University of Connecticut and Yale Medical School, where he also became a fellow at the Yale Department of Psychiatry’s Child Studies Center.

Unfortunately, he found the allure of academia tempered by the realities of life—with four children and a wife also pursuing a graduate education in psychiatry, the economic burdens upon him began to mount. Ironically, he would find financial salvation in the very arena he had abandoned because he needed “a real job”—entertainment. Not that his love had been totally suppressed during his successful years in psychiatry; while at Harvard, he founded, wrote and directed The Proposition, a political satirical review that ran in Cambridge from 1968 to 1978 and off-Broadway.

The intersection of his need for financial resources, his psychiatric expertise and creative talent produced the novel Creator, which not only sold well but garnered numerous critical accolades for its tale of a man who attempts to resurrect his dead wife via cloning, only to fall in love with the surrogate mother carrying the cloned embryo. With his course work finished, Leven decided to take a leave from Yale to work of his dissertation. But that was soon shelved for another novel, Satan, about the psychotherapy of the Devil, in which he again merged his considerable writing abilities with his experiences from psychiatry and neuroscience to generate another critically-lauded bestseller.

His breakout success led to a pivotal moment in his life path. As he recalls, “I had to make a decision. I went back to my mentor at William James Hall and told him I didn’t know what to do. I really did enjoy research, and I thought I could make a contribution.”

He expected affirmation and the reassurance that the psychiatric route was the right one for him. Instead, he was told that “You will never not write. You are a writer. You will always be writing.”

And with that, Leven shifted his focus and aimed it squarely at the entertainment world. Hollywood came calling, and at their request, he transformed his novels into screenplays. Creator became 1985’s The Big Picture, starring Peter O’Toole and Mariel Hemingway, while 2002 saw the release of the Satan adaptation, Crazy as Hell, featuring Eriq LaSalle and Michael Beach. Mr. Leven has moved from success to success as a veteran in the industry, his psychological insight lending a depth to his characterizations even as his talent manages to ground otherwise insubstantial films and allow them to transcend their genre limitations.

The Notebook is a case in point, a film based on the best-selling novel by Nicholas Sparks, which treads some very familiar, almost stagnant waters. The clichés abound in force—the rich girl falls for the poor boy during a passionate summer romance. Cue parental disapproval, separation, the introduction of a romantic obstacle in the form of a third party, lather, rinse and repeat. It’s the Hallmark card of romance novels—the love between country boy Noah and wealthy WASP Allie is just too precious for words. Diabetics beware: the novel is so saccharine it’s likely to produce insulin shock. This is, after all, the same author that gifted audiences with the novels-turned-film Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember.

Fortunately, the film succeeds despite these shackles, thanks in large part to Leven’s screenplay, which jettisons the schmaltz and preserves the essence of the romance that attracted readers and studios in the first place. Leven himself acknowledges the challenge: “The problem with the book is that it’s melodramatic and sweet, and you have to find a way to appeal to an audience that is apprehensive about yet another sweet movie. So you have to give it an edge, make it real and make the choices the characters face real.”

And he’s happy with the final product, despite changes made to his screenplay; on the contrary, he seems to welcome anything he sees as an improvement: “I thought that he [director Nick Cassavetes] did some very good things—I don’t mind being rewritten if it’s better, I can learn from it. I’m very happy with the film.”

As well he should be. Despite the syrupy sentimentality of the source material, the film is surprisingly moving, thanks also to powerful performances by the leads. James Garner’s charisma alone is enough to carry the film, but the real surprise is Rachel McAdams (Allie), who portrays her tortured character with touching vulnerability and realism. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling (Noah) seems uncomfortable and out-of-place, phoning in a wooden and unsympathetic performance that threatens at times to capsize the movie. The expectation-defying conclusion of the film is delivered with a satisfying visceral punch, however, and is definitely worth the price of admission.

For Harvard students interested in someday entering the entertainment industry, Leven recommends any of three approaches: “One, work for an agency or a studio and see how it all works, getting your experience from the inside. Two, go to grad school, make contacts, and come out with samples of your work to present. Three, do it on your own. Find time, write a script, get an agent and raise the money to make it yourself.” And although he’s found that a Harvard degree doesn’t necessarily open any doors in Hollywood, he recommends perseverance as the key to show business success: “Never give up. It’s one of the hardest and most frustrating jobs, but it’s the best job in the world.”

—Staff writer Marcus L. Wang can be reached at mlwang@fas.harvard.edu

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