Jake Crane

Year of Graduation: 

"Exeter taught me how to be discerning and interrogate things, how to be a better math student and, thanks to [Mr.] Knowles, how to write."

What would compel an Exonian to write a screenplay about an Andover alum? His heart — and an appreciation for against-all-odds stories.

Screenwriter Jake Crane ’00 first read the dramatic account of two U.S. Navy pilots — Phillipian Thomas J. Hudner Jr. and the Navy’s first Black aviator, Jesse LeRoy Brown — over an emotional weekend. “By the time I got to the end I was in tears,” he says of devouring Adam Makos’ Korean War bestseller Devotion: An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice. “I knew it was a special story and I wanted to be a part of it.” Come this fall, Crane’s film adaptation of Markos’ book will be released nationwide by Sony Pictures. It will be his first feature-length screenwriting credit.

A graduate of Vanderbilt University and Columbia University’s film school, Crane is at work on his next passion project, another adaptation, this time of sportswriter Bill Plaschke’s book Paradise Found: A High School Football Team’s Rise From the Ashes. “This is one of the biggest in-the-face-of-all-odds stories that’s come out in the last couple of years,” Crane says. “It’s about what this coach, with his love of his players and his love for his community, was able to do in trying to restore what they had all lost” in the California wildfires.

We caught up with Crane to hear about the joys of screenwriting, the challenges of bringing nonfiction to the big screen and, yes, that age-old Exeter-Andover rivalry.

Did you always know you wanted to write screenplays?

I read way more books than I saw movies as a kid. But I ended up taking a screenwriting course [in college] thinking, “This will be an easy A.” It wasn’t an easy A, and I loved it. Then I got a job at Miramax, reading screen-plays from the slush pile as well as the scripts of movies that were being made at the time, like Cold Mountain and The Aviator. The incoming stuff was both good and bad, but it’s valuable to read bad screenplays as much as it is to read good screenplays.

At Exeter, was there a particular experience that influenced your career path?

Absolutely. I went to Exeter for a postgrad year to play basketball, to have an extra year of high school. The change-maker was the class I took with [English Instructor] Harvard Knowles, who sadly just passed away. At my previous high school, I had been pretty much an A student; I wasn’t really challenged. I walked into [Mr.] Knowles’ English class and turned in my first paper and he said, “Look, I’m not even going to give you a grade on this because it’s so bad. But I’m willing to work with you because I see that you don’t understand how to write.” I learned more in that one year at Exeter than in all my years at Vanderbilt and Columbia. Exeter taught me how to be discerning and interrogate things, how to be a better math student and, thanks to [Mr.] Knowles, how to write.

There’s a robust history of successful movies adapted from books, both fiction (To Kill a Mockingbird, Little Women, The Color Purple) as well as nonfiction (All the President’s Men, A Beautiful Mind, Goodfellas). Was the weight of that tradition upon you as you worked on these screenplays?

Both Devotion and Paradise Found are based on real life; the sources just happened to be nonfiction books. I think adapting literature is tougher, and I’ve not endeavored to do that yet because I think there’s a consciousness created by the book. You mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird, and most people read that in school; they have an idea of what it is. So when you go to adapt it, what are you bring-ing to adapting that book that makes it different from just reading the book? With true events — Devotion, for example, is based on two real people and their squadron — it’s a bit easier. Not easy certainly, but easier than adapting a great work of literature.

What are some of the challenges of turning a nonfiction story into a feature film?

When you’re adapting true stories, you want to be true to what happened, but you also have to weigh the fact that the movie is a work of drama, and you’ll have to invent things. As long as you don’t betray the core of who these people are or what actually happened, you can be successful. I always want to be respectful and do as much research as possible to mine the elements that are true, but also know that I’m writing a movie within a condensed time frame — you can’t get everything in there. It’s a dance that you do.

You spent a lot of time with the families of the aviators in Devotion, getting to know them, getting their perspective of their parents’ stories.

That was key for me because I don’t know what it’s like to live in the 1950s. I don’t know what it’s like to fly a plane during the Korean War. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a squadron of aviators. But I do know what it’s like to be a dad and a son. Connecting to Tom [Hudner’s] son and Jesse [Brown’s] brothers, understanding them as human beings, that was really important in forming the characters I was creating on the page. And Hudner had gone to Andover, so some of my jokes with his son were inevitably about Exeter being superior to Andover. You know: “The Exeter writer writes a movie about an Andover hero” sort of thing.

Was it different working on Paradise Found?

It’s a bit different because it’s so current and all the people involved are alive. Also, it’s technically a sports movie. I spent a lot of time with Bill Plaschke, the book’s author, as well as with the coach, Rick Prinz. But in terms of the players, you can’t have every player’s perspective — it’s just not possible. I had to think, “How do we focus on a few of the players, four or five, get their perspectives, and amalgamate all of the unique personalities into those five people?” For me, it’s this coach’s story. The kids are great and they endured just as much as Rick did, but in terms of making it a successful movie, we’re going to filter it through the eyes of this man who has dedicated his life and career to this town and to this team.

What do you love about the art of screenwriting?

I was originally a math person, and math is very structured and organized. For me, screenwriting is way more mathematical than people think. Certainly, there’s imagination and inspiration and all that stuff, but it’s also about order and structure. One of my professors at Columbia taught this method: Think of your movie in eight sequences — each sequence is a mini-movie, and you need to figure out how to build them in a satisfying way so that you reach an inevitable but unexpected conclusion. That is the goal of every screenplay I write. And with adaptation, it’s about: How do you make the most out of an already great story? How do you come in and take material that already exists and make that the best version possible that’s imaginative and wants to make people watch it? It’s finding those right notes and becoming a kind of orchestra conductor.  

This interview first appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.