EXCLUSIVE: Dan Futterman has co-written two scripts on complex, fact-based tales, and both got Oscar nominations. Now, he has found his third. The scribe behind Capote and Foxcatcher has optioned Robert Young Pelton’s Vice News article “The All-American Life and Death of Eric Harroun.” Futterman will write the script and produce the film, and Pelton will be co-producer and consultant as his Vice piece and other stories he wrote on Harroun will help inform Futterman’s script. Harroun was an American soldier who fought against the Syrian government as part of a rebel group sanctioned and supported by the U.S. government. By the time Harroun turned to the U.S. government on behalf of the rebel group to try and secure more weapons, he was arrested and incarcerated — six months in solitary — as the U.S. wanted to put him away for life for aiding an international terrorist group. Just as the legal cloud over his head finally was lifting, Harroun was found dead of what was seemed to be a suspicious drug overdose.
Harroun was a frustrated Army vet who, inspired by a pronouncement by President Obama that the Free Syrian Army was the true representative of the Syrian people, slipped across the Turkish border into Syria to join the fight against President Bashir al-Assad. While Harroun considered himself a freedom fighter, he also became a polarizing lightning rod after posting several battle videos on YouTube, including one in which he personally warns Assad to “watch his back.” Coverage by Fox News and other outlets earned him the moniker “the American Jihadist,” which put a bull’s-eye on his back and made him seem more important than he actually was. When he came back into Turkey, Harroun was questioned by the CIA, arrested by the FBI and returned to the United States, where he faced the charges of aiding international terrorist groups for shooting RPG rounds into a wall around a Syrian government airbase, which the government said qualified as a WMD.
Hollywood sparked to movies about war in the Middle East after the strong results of Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor and especially American Sniper. All three of those told heroic stories, and recently there were big deals for two other hero tales as Warner Bros bought the war photographer memoir It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life Of Love And War, for Steven Spielberg to direct Jennifer Lawrence as Lynsey Addario, and then Fox 2000 and Gone Girl producers Reese Witherspoon and Bruna Papandrea won an auction for the book Ashley’s War, a book about a team of female American warriors who served alongside Special Operations soldiers on the battlefield in Afghanistan — including Ashley White, who died a hero as the women rose to the occasion alongside Green Berets and Army Rangers in fierce fighting.
The inevitable next step for thoughtful filmmakers is to focus on characters that are not so easily characterized as heroes or villains. Apart from Futterman’s deal, Mark Boal and Katheryn Bigelow are getting very close on a movie about Bowe Bergdahl, the Army sergeant who walked away from his base in Afghanistan, got captured by the Taliban and was held prisoner for five years until he was traded for five dangerous Taliban fighters. Bergdahl recently was charged with desertion. Backing it is Megan Ellison, who made Zero Dark Thirty with Bigelow and Boal.
In Harroun, Futterman saw a story of idealism twisted by the shifting alliances of the U.S. government and courage that went unrecognized and misunderstood.
“I guess I’m drawn to stories in which a pure motive and/or relationship gets corrupted by the will of a more powerful, impure figure,” Futterman said. “This was true in Capote; it was certainly true in Foxcatcher. Harroun, after his directionless 20s, including an unsatisfying stint in the Army in which he never saw combat, seems to have finally found his place, fighting for an oppressed people. He identified with them so much that he even converted to Islam. The CIA was tracking him and seems to have been compelling him to inform on people in his newfound community. Eric Harroun, even as attention- and danger-seeking as he was, was a pure soul. An innocent in many ways. Not so incredibly different in certain respects from Perry Smith or Mark Schultz. And he got used, chewed up and spit out by a system that doesn’t tolerate and doesn’t seem to be able to comprehend, purity.
“All of us see images, many times a day, of oppression and cruelty around the world,” said Futterman, who scripted Foxcatcher with E. Max Frye. “How many of us are willing to put our lives at risk to fight that oppression? Not for money or fame, but just because we’re moved to help people who are being brutalized. Almost none of us. Harroun did that. And he was punished by his own government for it. In spite of all of his flaws, and maybe in part because of them, he’s a hero. And his story is an incredible one.”
Pelton is repped by Trevor Engelson of Underground. Futterman, who recently sold his spec A Shot In The Eye to Fox and producer Matt Reeves, is repped by UTA and lawyer Andrew Hurwitz.