Dan Haar: Father-son team finds way from Connecticut to Hollywood
Michael Koskoff knew he was about to spend plenty of time in Los Angeles when he first met producer Paula Wagner over lunch in late 2012 at Madeo Restaurant in West Hollywood.
Sure, the Bridgeport trial lawyer hoped Wagner, a former partner with Tom Cruise and maker of the “Mission Impossible” movies, would work her magic on his screenplay. The story recounted Thurgood Marshall’s 1941 Connecticut trial defending an African-American chauffeur-butler accused of raping and kidnapping his Greenwich socialite employer.
But the project could go nowhere, as Wagner made bluntly clear.
Much more certain was Koskoff’s upcoming trial in his day job at Koskoff Koskoff & Bieder. Screenplay aside, he would spend most of 2013 as co-counsel in a headline-grabbing trial representing Michael Jackson’s family in a wrongful death claim against the superstar’s concert promoter.
You might figure the eve of a blockbuster trial was a bad time for the then-70-year-old to take on a side gig as a screenwriter and movie producer. Nonsense. Koskoff had already spent four years honing the script. A shot at Hollywood comes when it comes — in this case, lunch with a powerful producer in a miracle of serendipity with roots in Fairfield, New Haven, Bridgeport, New York, Pittsburgh and Hollywood.
It clicked. The opening of “Marshall” in theaters on Oct. 13 culminated nine years of creative work that illuminates the character of the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice. Behind that story, Koskoff’s nine years of forging a Hollywood deal — and a new career — reflects a lifetime of aspiration.
Koskoff studied acting as a teenager at the American Shakespeare Festival Academy in his hometown of Stratford. He appeared in productions as an undergraduate at Brandeis University — including a performance with classmate Louise Lasser — and at the University of Bridgeport. But when it came time to choose a profession, he went to law school at UConn and joined the firm his father, Sholom “Theodore” Koskoff, had founded in the 1930s.
The elder Koskoff had made a similar choice — forsaking a possible career as a cellist — and encouraged Michael’s creative side.
“Bottom line was, I didn’t think I was a good enough actor,” Koskoff, 75, said as we talked in the modernist Westport house on the Saugatuck Harbor, decorated in shades of orange, where he lives with his wife, Rosalind.
Cut to 2008. Koskoff had become one of Connecticut’s most prominent trial lawyers — including defending members of the Black Panthers in a series of trials in the early ’70s in New Haven and Bridgeport. He and Roz had four adult children — two lawyers, including a partner at the firm; and two Hollywood screenwriters.
A lawyer friend, Jack Zeldes, had researched the 1941 trial of Joseph Spell, the “negro chauffeur-butler” accused of raping Eleanor Strubing in her Greenwich mansion, then throwing her off a bridge into the Kensico Reservoir in Westchester County. Marshall defended Spell along with Bridgeport attorney Sam Friedman.
Koskoff had never heard of the once-sensationalized case, although he had met Sam Friedman and knew some family members. Zeldes had tried to sell the concept with no success. Starting with Zeldes’ research, Koskoff wrote a full-length screenplay over the next two years — not his first movie script about a trial — and showed it to friends as he kept working on it.
One friend who read it was Alan Neigher, an entertainment lawyer from Fairfield, who told Koskoff his father had covered the trial for the old Bridgeport Herald. Neigher knew Sam Friedman’s daughter, Lauren, in New York. Lauren Friedman sent it to her friend and classmate from Carnegie Mellon, the former Paula Kauffman — now Wagner.
When Wagner tells the story today, Koskoff recounts, the call she received from Lauren Friedman was what producers dread — a friend with a screenplay about a relative. But Wagner couldn’t put it down and called to set up the Los Angeles meeting.
Koskoff immediately called his son, Jacob, the screenwriter. “I said, ‘Jake, I’ve got a producer interested in the screenplay.’”
The son asked for the name.
“There was a stunned silence. … He was astounded,” Koskoff said.
Wagner’s comments at the lunch came as a shock to Koskoff. Good idea, but it needs a huge amount of work. More character development, a better story line. No one had been so blunt. And of course, any indie film is a longshot.
He conscripted Jake. The father-and-son team worked on the screenplay for years, word by word.
The Koskoffs would eventually earn a six-figure payment plus possible residuals for the screenplay, amounts Mike Koskoff won’t reveal. But right up until the day of filming in 2016, no money changed hands — and Koskoff had no written contract. “People said I was crazy,” he said, but he and Roz had become friendly with Wagner and her husband, a powerful agent.
“I didn’t want to get bogged down in an argument about money that was going to be inconsequential anyway,” he said. “I felt it would be turning a personal relationship into a business relationship.”
The script changed further after Wagner and Koskoff brought in director Reginald Hudlin. They had wanted a black director for the cultural perspective and Hudlin insisted the character of Thurgood Marshall take the lead, downplaying Sam Friedman and even changing the working title from “The Trial of Joseph Spell” to “Marshall.”
Landing Chadwick Boseman in the title role brought more momentum and helped in fundraising, which received a boost when executives of a Chinese film production company read a Mandarin translation and loved it.
It was unusual for a screenwriter to play so strong a role as Koskoff did, and his credit includes executive producer. But he invested no money in the $15 million project. “I was given strict instruction by my son, ‘Don’t you dare put in a dime!’”
Now Koskoff has more ideas and another trial script. “We’ve been getting approached,” he said in classic Hollywood style.
Reviews have been mostly good, including an 87 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes — and a good write-up in the The New York Times. That review did question the realism of some courtroom scenes — ironic, since that’s the strength Koskoff brings. In the end, it’s not his connections that made the difference in getting the movie made, but his background as a trial lawyer who understands drama.
“I wanted to convey the real drama of the courtroom in a realistic way to show how absolutely dramatic, how magical the process is,” he said. “It becomes almost like a stage.”
Most Hollywood courtroom scenes, he said, are “fakely dramatic. … What they are is some writer’s version of what courtroom drama is like, rather than what courtroom drama is really like. And I’ve lived it.”