Keir Pearson '89 (Writer & Producer, HOTEL RWANDA)
By Sean O'Rourke MAT '68
Most writers work for years before they receive their first option and years longer before their first script is made. The first screenplay by Keir Pearson ’89 was made and nominated for an Academy Award.
Pearson grew up and attended high school in Portland, Oregon. At Harvard he rowed on the heavyweight eight that won the NCAA National Championship in 1987 and the Ladies’ Plate at Henley three years later. Concentrating in East Asian studies, he wrote his thesis on Chinese cinema.
In the fall of 1992 after rowing for the United States at the Barcelona Olympics he began work on his MFA in the film school at New York University, and in his second year his short film won a Wasserman Award. To finance his thesis film he worked as an editor of television documentaries and received his degree in 1997.
In 1994 while Pearson was toiling in New York, half a world away the political situation in Rwanda was unraveling. After years of conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups, the president signed a peace accord under the auspices of the United Nations. When he was flying home, militant Hutus shot down his plane and blamed his death on the Tutsis.
On the same night began orchestrated massacres of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. When the commanding general of the United Nations forces requested reinforcements, the Security Council ordered him to evacuate the country, and Bill Clinton signed an order preventing the deployment of American troops. When the UN attempted to reconsider its action, Madeleine Albright delayed the vote. In a hundred days over one million people died.
In 1999 Pearson received a visit from an old friend John Robinson ’91, who had recently returned from seven years in Africa and told a remarkable story. During the genocide more than 1,200 people took refuge in the four star Hotel Mille Collines and not one perished. The manager Paul Rusesabagina used a combination of bribery, persuasion and charm to save his guests from the murderous thugs who surrounded the hotel.
Fascinated by the story, Pearson interviewed Rwandan refugees in the U.S. and located Paul Rusesabagina in Brussels. He planned to visit Europe and Africa to do more research but did not have the money. His girlfriend – now his wife – gave him her frequent flier miles and loaned him the money. Because he could speak neither French nor Swahili nor the local Rwandan dialect, John Robinson came along at his own expense to serve as interpreter.
Appalled and inspired by what he had seen and heard, Pearson returned to New York and devoted a year to writing his screenplay. He could only work evenings and weekends, but every three months he saved enough money to devote a full week to the project.
Writing the screenplay was the easy part. When Pearson took his story to the West Coast, he quickly learned that Hollywood had no interest in Africa and African stories. However Chris Moore ’89, who was running Live Planet at the time, liked it and gave it the necessary push. Doug MacLaren ’90 then read it and set it up with Terry George, an experienced filmmaker who was looking for an African story.
Ironically George had his office in New York, a few blocks from where Pearson worked. Together they revised the screenplay. With George involved the studios showed some interest provided an A list actor played the lead. No one was interested. During the long summer the project languished until veteran producer Alex Ho came aboard. At the Toronto Film Festival he arranged financing by British and South African interests. United Artists agreed to distribute. Photography began January 13, 2004 in Johannesberg.
A year later United Artists released HOTEL RWANDA to critical and commercial success and the screenplay received an Academy Award nomination. Eighteen months ago Keir Pearson moved to Los Angeles to pursue his writing career. He recently completed a screenplay for Paramount and is working on another for Warner Brothers. He remains proud of HOTEL RWANDA and its effect on public consciousness. “I think this type of film just keeps pushing us in the right direction.”