By Joel Kwartler AB '18
Sean O’Keefe AB ‘95 is a writer and producer who most recently wrote Netflix’s Spenser Confidential, an action-thriller starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Peter Berg. It premiered on Netflix March 6th and was the #1 most-watched US Netflix film the week after its release.
Q. You worked as a producer before becoming a feature writer. How did you make that transition?
A. It was just a delayed awareness, unfortunately, because I wish I'd gotten an earlier start writing and had been able to bear-hug it sooner. When I moved to L.A. after college, I wrote two terrible scripts, but then I was on the producing executive track for an extended period of time. Eventually, I started my own production company.
At that time I started writing again, really out of tortuous necessity. There was this one project in particular that I knew only one writer could sell as a pitch, and we wouldn’t get him for a thousand years. So I started writing again, because as a producer, I needed a script to produce. I kept writing for features after that, and I finally acknowledged that I was a writer.
Q. Given that Spenser Confidential is an adaptation of a Robert B. Parker character from a series of novels, how did you pick which of the novels to adapt?
A. One of the books in the Parker series, Ace Atkins’ Wonderland, was given to me by the original film producer, and I had never read the book before. It was the one of Parker’s series that they thought had the most potential as a feature story.
Q. Did you do any additional research beyond the novel? Did your college years “in Boston” help build out the Boston we see in the movie?
A. I did a lot of research before I wrote the script. I've always been intrigued by organized crime. No, I never saw that in my four years at Harvard, but I loved it. Back then, there wasn't an awareness on the Cambridge side of that other Boston world. I went back out to Boston and met with lots of people, like Whitey Bulger’s former enforcer.
What I set out to write, and which I think I did write, was the present tense version of The Departed. It was a snapshot of what has happened to the mob in the years since they ran Boston. With Whitey gone, the Irish disappeared, and it was left for the Italians, basically.
I found this somewhat recent photo of Spagnolo, who was the acting boss of the crime family, standing at his arraignment in court wearing socks and sandals. The other image that I set against that was of Raymond Patriarca, who ran the mafia for decades, decades before, looking like a million bucks in his sharkskin Italian suit. You look at these two images and you ask yourself, what happened?
In addition, you have the revelation that the last mob standing in the city is the Boston Police Department. In reality, they're in annual competition for one of the top three slots for most corrupt police force in the country. It was all a much more noir take on the story than the final movie.
The first draft was an absolute headache to write because it was much more of a mystery than what I usually wrote, and mysteries are the hardest genre to write. You change one thing and then you have to change everything—and you have to have developed them in reverse, starting with how they end and then figuring things out that way.
Q. When did Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg get involved in the project? Were either of them attached at the start?
A. I had originally asked of the producers and was told that we’d get one element, and I chose Wahlberg. Then he wasn't available when I turned in the draft, and they went out to Bradley Cooper. Then Six Billion Dollar Man fell apart, Wahlberg became available, and WME reached out again. They very quickly closed a deal with him. Wahlberg rides with Peter Berg, so he came along.
Q. How did the movie change or develop after you submitted the script?
A. After we brought on Wahlberg and Berg, the movie's going to get made and it's going to be their movie. I turned in the first draft, which got greenlit, and that's the last I saw of it. I knew it was going to be different because I went to set for a couple of days and they were shooting scenes that I hadn't written, scenes with a completely different tone.
It's an example of the process where you bring in a certain level of talent and it becomes their movie. That's the deal, and there’s nothing wrong with that. My draft did what it needed to do, which was to get an A-list star and director on board.
Q. Was this the first time you worked with Netflix on a feature? How was that process?
A. Yes, and they were wonderful to work with. It was a great process with their producers; they had sharp creative thoughts going into it and were always supportive of me. And I think we got a great script out of their process.
Q. Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
A. I have a prison escape thriller coming up called The Escapist that's looking now like it'll get made this year. If it comes together, it will come together very quickly, like in the next month; modeling for an early April, late spring, early summer start. [Note: this interview took place on March 10th, prior to the Covid-19 response actions in California.] I am also currently working on a feature adaptation of Oblivion Song, which is a comic by Robert Kirkman, for Universal.
Q. What’s your advice to those who want to be feature writers?
A. Give yourself permission to write in the beginning, without expectation that anyone, including yourself, will like it. And at first, whatever you write, you'll probably think is amazing. The chances are ninety nine point nine percent re-occurring that it’s not, and it will take a number of years for you to realize that.
But that was the most important thing you ever wrote, that draft. If you aren't writing, you aren't failing. So you aren't learning. So you have to keep writing and you hope that something happens with your material in the beginning. Do anything you can do in the beginning to make space to write in your life.
I'm speaking personally, but writing felt scary in the beginning because everything felt arbitrary and manic. You don't understand the rules of writing. A lot of those rules have to do with character and recognizing the patterns of people. Once you start to see patterns, you make them feel necessary. You continue to write, and you improve.