“This is the land of opportunity, right? So, Apollo Creed, on January 1, gives a local underdog fighter an opportunity. A snow-white underdog, and I’m going to put his face on this poster with me. I’ll tell you why: Because I’m sentimental. And a lot of other people in this country are just as sentimental.” — Apollo Creed, Rocky, 1976
Mitch Albom doesn’t view the film he is writing about implausible NHL All-Star Game hero John Scott as a sports story.
“I felt it was kind of a story for our time, that today you can just be minding your own business and somebody a world away could decide to make you an Internet sensation. Next thing you know, your life is turned upside down. What do you do with that when it happens?” Albom explained in a phone interview with Sportsnet earlier this week.
At first, Scott did what most of us would do: He recoiled from the attention. But when his ironic all-star votes piled up, the journeyman enforcer faced a choice: Listen to his critics and the league and politely decline the invitation, or stand by his own belief system.
"The fact it ended with an MVP and them carrying him off on their shoulders, that becomes the Disney part of it," Albom says. "That’s the part a screenwriter would put on the end of a story, and everybody would say, ‘Oh, c’mon. It’s so Hollywood. It made me cry, but it’s too Hollywood. Admit it.’ In this case, it’s not Hollywood. It’s the true story. That combination of humanity, pathos and that great sports ending was a potential good movie.”
"You want to look for the same quality Sylvester Stallone had in the first Rocky." — Mitch Albom
The Detroit sports columnist — who's written three screenplays, several bestselling books including Tuesdays with Morrie, and a number of plays (including the upcoming Hockey, The Musical) — wants to emphasize the word potential.
He and friend Mike Tollin of Mandalay Sports Media came out victorious Monday in a bidding war for the rights to develop a film based on Scott's life. Scott's agent, Ben Hankinson, said there were "many, many" producers who expressed interest. The fact that Albom, who wrote a column on Scott after Arizona traded him to
Montreal St. John's, was the first to suggest his story could hit the silver screen, helped.
The Michigan connection also didn't hurt: Scott earned his mechanical engineering degree from Michigan Tech and lives in Traverse City.
But Albom wants to tamp down expectations that the film is a sure thing.
“I don’t want John or any of his friends to think that’s the case," Albom, 57, says. “Even Tom Cruise can’t say that about his next movie until they start rolling the cameras.
"Hopefully a studio or a financier believes in it, puts up the money. Hopefully you get the director. Hopefully you get the actor. Hopefully they film it and nothing goes wrong, and then it comes out. That’s many steps away.”
That said, Albom will set to work as fast as possible. He plans to spend time with Scott, his wife, and his four daughters, explore where and how Scott grew up, his arduous journey to the NHL and his tenuous position as one of the game's last gladiators.
In a perfect world, the film debuts in 2018.
"You don’t want to see it next week, but you don’t want to see it 20 years from now, when someone says, ‘I don’t even remember this. Did it really happen?’" Albom explains. "You want there to be a feeling of, 'Wow, this really took place. I remember that. It was a year or two ago.'”
So, who plays Scott?
Liev Schreiber is the first name out of Albom's mouth, an actor familiar to hockey fans from Goon and his dulcet narration of HBO's 24/7: Road to the Winter Classic series.
"He looks like him. It’s ridiculous," Albom says. "Just because he looks like him isn’t a reason to pick him.”
Because handpicking a name rarely works out in the business, Albom is instead aiming for a talented actor who can embody a character overwhelmed by the largess of the moment, one the audience can root for.
"You want to look for the same quality Sylvester Stallone had in the first Rocky," says Albom, who grew up a Broad Street Bullies fan in Philly. "You believe he was a good guy underneath. You believe his reactions when he had the circumstances thrust upon him, which is what happened to John.
"Rocky, by no dint of his own, was pulled out of a pile. They were just looking at pictures and they liked his nickname: 'Italian Stallion! Yeah, let’s do that.’ That’s what happened to John: ‘Hey, let’s find an everyday man, a fighter. What about John Scott?’
"In this case it wasn’t Apollo Creed. It was the Internet and the people who organized that campaign.”
When Albom was announced as the screenwriter for the Scott story, a few fans on Twitter feared the movie might be too saccharine. We asked if there is a risk of painting Scott — a guy with 542 penalty minutes, a giant who's carved a living, in part, by punching men in the head — as solely a sympathetic figure.
How gritty will the thing be?
“I’ve covered hockey for 30 years. Bob Probert's whole career, basically, I was here for. Joey Kocur. Brendan Shanahan. You name all the guys on the Red Wings who were fighters, who were all different personalities. I know the multidimensional life you need to lead as an enforcer," Albom says.
"I’ll get to know John better and make it a 360-degree portrait. You don’t whitewash fighting. That’s what happens, and it’s an interesting part of the story.”
Fighting is an interesting part of Rocky, too. But it's not the punches that make it a classic.