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“A producer I was working with called and said, ‘I have this great story set in Lourdes.’
“I said, ‘That’s surprising. I’m in Lourdes right now!’”
Timothy Prager told that story to students from Benedictine College at Fox Theatre in Atchison, Kansas, as the ending credits rolled on The Miracle Club. The film stars Laura Linney from Ozark and The Truman Show and Oscar Winner Kathy Bates along with Maggie Smith, who plays Downton Abbey’s Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Granthan.
The event showing the film followed by remarks from its screenwriter was organized by Jared Zimmerer, director of the Center for Catholic Media at Benedictine College.
When his producer friend called, Prager was already a veteran screenwriter who had worked on hundreds of projects. The story his producer had was charming — “a vignette about Irish women going to Lourdes,” said Prager — but it wasn’t cinematic.
Prager helped reorganized the material to become The Miracle Club (click for reviews in the National Catholic Register and Aleteia) and described to students in the Ex Corde Fellows program what choices he made.
First, he focused on the story of one of the women, to give the audience a single hero’s journey to follow. Then, he reconsidered the time-period of the story.
“Ireland at the time setting we were looking at it was torn by the issues around birth control, abortion, and the Magdalene sisters,” he said. “We pushed the story back in time so that we were before these crisis moments.”
Instead of focusing on political hot-buttons, “I looked at people in small villages where there still was a sense of community asking that people behave in a certain way.”
Prager said a screenwriter’s job was to “find the conflict, find the journey.” That put a spotlight on Maggie Smith’s character, but also on Laura Linney’s. “She becomes the hero,” he said. “She has to confront the evil that is in her past. She has to improve that and then go home.”
The result was a touching story about people coming to terms with their pasts, to forgive or seek forgiveness, but Prager told students that production was a struggle. “To get a film made about four women who go to Lourdes was difficult, and these women aren’t particularly young, which didn’t help,” he said. “Most movies offer guns, car-chases or comic books. It’s very rare to see a film like this made.”
The success of Downton Abbey helped. “A turning point was securing Maggie Smith,” he said. “We ended up convincing a number of Irish producers to fund it, and finally — and extraordinarily — Sony Classics.”
Students wanted to know how Prager got his start in screenwriting.
“I did the poor man’s route,” he said. “I got a bunch of screenplays and read them, and eventually came up with a grammar of what made sense. You teach yourself how you have to write.”
What did he learn? “Structure is everything,” he said. “If it doesn’t have a beginning middle and end and modulate the way the story unfolds, it won’t work. If you can’t figure out that part of it, you can’t make a movie.
It worked. Prager, an award-winning playwriter and screenwriter, has worked in stage, film, streaming services, and television. After graduating high school in Southern California, he attended Dartmouth College. He continues to work in both film and television.
The most important thing for young writers, he said, is to begin. “The fear of failure stops you. Don’t be afraid, just do it. If you have a story to tell and you can see the craft, you can learn how to do it. “
For him, his breakthrough came with the Martin Sheen and Jacqueline Bisset movie The Maid (1990) and continued in film and television on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is a big market in the entertainment world, especially now, for good ideas, well executed, he said. But it won’t be easy. “You’ve got to write and read a lot to write well, or better. Once you get something written that’s really good, you’d be amazed how quickly doors open.”
To write The Miracle Club, he said, he relied on the material he was given and person experience. “The fist time I went I thought it was a curiosity,” he said. “We ended up going five times, as a family, to Lourdes. I was really moved by the people who I met there. Some people were looking for a solution to a problem, some were looking for strength, and some were preparing to die. It is an extraordinary place.”
Downtown, Lourdes is like a Catholic Las Vegas, Prager said, but the pilgrimage sites are graced and peaceful.
“There were extraordinary things that happened to me and to my kids while we were there,” he said. “Every Tuesday night, there would be a candlelit procession. At the time I went it was 10,000 people in procession, people walking and going up to the Basilica up above the Grotto. The power of that kind of communal event, is quite astonishing.”
Students appreciated the up-close and personal screenwriting lesson, said Jared Zimmerer. He credited the organization of the event to Travis Grossman, the Atchison arts leader who revitalized Fox Theatre as a downtown movie venue.
“We are so grateful to Travis for his work on this, and we are already planning to do more with Fox Theatre in the future,” Zimmerer said. “This is exactly the kind of event we want to provide our students through the Center for Catholic Media. We are giving future media professionals a rare look at how big-budget, studio-backed movies are made — from the screenwriting process to making connections in the business. We want our students to be confident and capable storytellers who can help Transform Culture in America.”
Image Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics;
Gabe Fuerte, gabefuertephotography.com