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Thursday, October 19 Living

Westport attorney’s dream movie ‘Marshall’ is finally a reality

A movie writer once said, “Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement.”

Attorney and screenwriter Michael Koskoff is alive and well, but he has learned the truth of that Tinsel Town assertion. After nine years of work and several false starts along the way, Koskoff will finally see “Marshall,” which he co-wrote with his son Jacob Koskoff, open across the country on Oct. 13.

The Westport screenwriter/lawyer knows how lucky he is because it is especially hard to get a serious film made within an industry that is dominated by comic book extravaganzas designed for teens. At one point in his work with director Reginald Hudlin on the film about Supreme Court Associate Justice Thurgood Marshall’s early days, Koskoff joked that maybe he should add a car chase and an explosion to the 1941 courtroom drama.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” the director replied. (He was joking, too.)

Chadwick Boseman stars as Thurgood Marshall, along with Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson,ÂDan Stevens and Josh Gad in "Marshall."

Media: Tronc - LA Times

Koskoff got away from the biopic formula in “Marshall” by focusing on a single slice of time in the man’s long life and career — one four-week period when the young attorney was defending a Bridgeport African-American on charges of rape and attempted murder. The defendant, Joseph Spell, was accused of the crimes by a Greenwich woman, Eleanor Strubing, who employed him as a chauffeur. Despite the wealth and clout of his accuser, Spell was found not guilty.

The events in Bridgeport are little more than a footnote in Marshall’s career, the screenwriter believes, but it illuminates his character and shows the hard work that was done in the days before the civil rights movement was formalized.

“It’s not a case that has any precedential importance, but it shows many of (Marshall’s) character traits — his brilliance and creativity,” the writer says of the movie’s portrait of Marshall. “It’s from the time in his life when he traveled from city to city defending poor African-Americans accused of crimes because of their race. It’s a part of the civil rights movement that has gone completely unnoticed.

“We’re used to seeing the large crowds and demonstrations (of the 1960s), but that’s not how it all began. It began with men (like Marshall) traveling to cities without anyone watching them,” he says.

Marshall’s work in the 1940s eventually would lead to the formation of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “The case in itself wasn’t important, but what it represented was important,” the screenwriter says. “He was a dynamic, big, outgoing, funny, courageous guy.”

It was the attempt to show the roots of Marshall’s humanity and legal career that caused the justice’s family to support the project from its earliest stages. Michael and Jacob wrote the script “on spec” nine years ago, meaning they had no idea of whether or not a producer or director would be interested. They just believed they had a good story to tell.

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“My son and I decided to do it together, and it all went perfectly,” Michael says of getting a viable draft of “Marshall” down on paper.

Of course, that was just the first step on the long and winding road to this month’s premiere. Financing is always a problem with movies of substance, so deals came together and fell apart over the years.

“I went back to trying cases and my son moved on to other projects,” Koskoff says of returning to Koskoff, Koskoff and Bieder (which has offices in Bridgeport, New Haven and Danbury). “They will spend a gazillion dollars to blow things up, but serious movies scare some (Hollywood) people. ... All kinds of luck is involved in getting any movie made.”

Unlike some writers who have complained about what happened with their screenplays, Koskoff has nothing but praise for the director and he is very pleased with the finished film. He took a more active role in the production of the film than is generally the case with screenwriters. Hudlin wanted him on the set every day to make sure the courtroom scenes were accurate.

(Although the story is set in Bridgeport and other Fairfield County communities, the film was shot in Buffalo, N.Y. Last year, producer Paula Wagner told Hearst Connecticut Media the decision was due to Connecticut ending its tax incentives to shoot in the state four years ago.)

One of the attorney’s primary goals was to make a movie that didn’t distort the legal process. A few years ago, the firm sponsored a series of courtroom films that were screened at the Bijou Theatre in Bridgeport, and Koskoff says there aren’t a lot of pictures in that genre that present a trial accurately.

“‘12 Angry Men’ is wonderful, but that was made a long time ago,” he says of the 1957 Sidney Lumet classic with Henry Fonda as the lone holdout in a jury ready to convict a defendant. “‘The Verdict’ was good, too, but there haven’t been any recently. Maybe it’s because people are more cynical now. I don’t know that there’s ever been one written by a trial lawyer.”

The filmmakers hope audiences will come away with a deeper respect for the American justice system and the jury process in particular. Those messages come through, Koskoff hopes, in the context of a mainstream, highly entertaining movie.

“I don’t think it will be shown at the Museum of Modern Art on a Sunday afternoon,” Koskoff says, with a chuckle. “But I think it is a film that will appeal to a wide swath of the community.”

The lawyer-writer would enjoy working on other movies, but says the nine-year odyssey from script to screen taught him a valuable lesson.

“I have not given up my day job,” he says, laughing.

jmeyers@hearstmwediact.com;

Twitter: @joesview

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