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A prolific storyteller with a famous talent for character-driven narratives, writer and director Richard LaGravenese made his Hollywood debut with a major splash when his first script, "The Fisher King" (1991) was optioned and brought to the screen by visionary director Terry Gilliam. Though LaGravenese had been paying the bills as a writer for hire, helping collaborate on re-writes for his friend Neil Levy's project "Rude Awakening" (1989), "The Fisher King" was entirely LaGravenese's own, a heartfelt, hallucinatory, and extremely unique story about a callous radio DJ (Jeff Bridges) who redeems himself for his selfish ways by helping a homeless man (Robin Williams). Largely inspired by the concepts explored in psychoanalyst Robert A. Johnson's Jungian book of self-examination, He, "The Fisher King" had been through numerous drafts before LaGravenese's hard work paid off with big screen success. The film was met with major acclaim and a number of Academy Awards nominations, including one for Best Original Screenplay, and started a long and varied Hollywood career.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, LaGravenese began to develop his love of film as a child, when his father would dress up in a suit to take the family to the movies on Saturday nights. There, LaGravenese was exposed to the auteur filmmakers of the '70s like Francis Ford Coppola and William Friedkin. As he grew toward adulthood, he channeled this interest into a love of performing in general, and chose to major in acting when he enrolled at New York University's prestigious Tisch School of the Arts. While studying there, he participated in the school's Experimental Theatre Program, memorably staging a performance of a Chekov play in which the audience watched the performance from outside the building. Soon after graduating in 1980, LaGravenese and his writing partner Richard O'Donnell began collaborating on a number of plays under the billing "The Double R." The duo not only penned but also appeared in their work together, and their plays such as "Spare Parts, Blood-brothers" were produced at off-Broadway venues like the 78th Street Theatre Lab and the Lion Theatre. In 1986, he married his wife, Ann Weiss.
After the major acclaim of "The Fisher King," LaGravenese's next project to go into production was a dark comedy called "The Ref" (1994). Originally conceived by LaGravenese's sister-in-law Marie Weiss, LaGravenese soon took over the project as part of his work under contract for Disney. He was involved in many aspects of the film's production, from casting to finding a director, and his efforts earned him a producer credit, which helped bolster his credibility among studio brass. Soon, LaGravenese was asked to adapt the Frances Hodgson Burnett Novel A Little Princess for the big screen. Though the task of believably conveying the perspective of a ten year old orphan girl seemed daunting from the outset, LaGravenese brought his trademark sense of transcendence to the project, inspired by the magic and spirituality he saw between the lines of the story.
He signed on to adapt another novel almost immediately, this time Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County. The book had a rabid fanbase of readers who had lauded its depiction of a deeply felt love affair between two middle aged people, one of whom is married, but LaGravenese was not very taken with the story. He found it too sappy for his own taste, and initially planned on declining the opportunity to adapt it. However, after a heartfelt talk with his own sister about why she appreciated and even related to the novel, its potential as a feature film began to strike a chord with LaGravanese as a writer. He agreed to complete a draft of the script, one that that proved to be so strong, it convinced respected actor Meryl Streep to come on board to play the lead. Clint Eastwood took on the opposite role as well as a seat in the director's chair, and the film saw release in 1995 to substantial acclaim and box office success.
LaGravenese would continue to utilize his talent for adapting books to the screen in the coming years with "Unstrung Heroes" (1998), "The Horse Whisperer" (1998), and Jonathan Demme's adaptation of Toni Morrison's "Beloved' (1998). Finally ready for his next big leap, LaGravenese decided to not only write but also direct his next original script himself, an intimate comedy-drama about a woman's struggle to find herself called "Living Out Loud" (1998). The film starred Danny DeVito, Queen Latifah, and Oscar winner Holly Hunter, and proved that LaGrevenese was capable of commanding an entire motion picture, a skill he would need during his next project, a multi-part documentary about the 1970s era in American movie making called "A Decade Under the Influence" (2003). Though he embarked on the project intending to co-direct it with his friend and sometime collaborator Ted Demme, plans changed dramatically when, just one month into filming the documentary's interviews, Demme suddenly and unexpectedly died at the young age of 38, leaving LaGravenese to finish it alone.
Around this time, LaGrevenese was contemplating another project that was very close to his heart. He was moved by the non-fiction book, The Freedom Writers Diary, in which English teacher Erin Gruwell compiled the journal entries of the inner city high school students she taught in Long Beach, California. Gruwell provided the journals and instructions to her students in an effort to help them overcome their hardships, traumas, and other difficulties through the act of writing, and LaGrevenese wanted very much to bring their story to the screen. He worked on the script for a number of years, trying hard to not only address the tone and message of the story accurately, but to secure funding and resources to make the movie happen. He even put the project on hold to adapt and direct the tear-jerker "P.S. I Love You" (2007) before finally finalizing and directing his adaptation of Gruwell's story, "Freedom Writers" (2007).
Adapting novels into movies would continue to be LaGrevenese's strong suit, which he would prove with "Water for Elephants" (2011) and "Beautiful Creatures" (2013). After writing the script for Steven Soderbergh's hotly anticipated biopic about over-the-top pianist Liberace, "Behind the Candelabra" (2013) for HBO and earning an Emmy nomination in the process, LaGravenese opted to move into the realm of television himself, writing and executive producing the legal series "The Divide" (AMC, 2014-).
In 2014, LaGrevenese's friend and fellow director Todd Graff approached him with a soundtrack he thought LaGrevenese would love. It was the original cast recording from the stage musical "The Last Five Years," and Graff's hunch was right. LaGrevenese was so inspired by the music and story that he set to work producing a modest but impressive live-recorded movie adaptation of the musical starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan, even though he'd never seen the stage play. Later that same year, LaGravenese saw still another of his projects hit the screen, as he collaborated with the Coen Brothers to adapt the inspiring biography of Louis Zamperini, a sometime Olympic athlete turned WWII U.S. Air Corps pilot who survived 47 days adrift on a raft in the Pacific ocean after his plane crashed, only to endure two years of beatings and torture in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Directed by Angelina Jolie, "Unbroken" (2014) proved to be a hit, as critics and audiences applauded its message of hope in the face of hardship.
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Special Thanks (Special)
Made screenwriting debut with "Rude Awakening," a comedy about clash between 1960s counterculture and 1980s materialism; co-wrote with Neil Levy
First solo screenwriting credit, Terry Gilliam directed "The Fisher King"; garnered Academy Award nomination
Collaborated with sister-in-law Marie Weiss in writing screenplay for "The Ref"; first producing credit
While under contract to Disney, wrote screenplay for "A Little Princess"
Adapted James Waller bestseller "The Bridges of Madison County," directed by Clint Eastwood
Wrote screenplay for Barbra Streisand directed drama "The Mirror Has Two Faces"
Made feature directorial debut with "Living Out Loud"; also wrote screenplay
Adapted Toni Morrison novel into Jonathan Demme directed "Beloved"
At request of star Julia Roberts, did uncredited rewrite work on "Erin Brockovich"
Wrote and directed "Freedom Writers," starring Hilary Swank
Directed "P.S. I Love You"; re-teamed with star Swank
Penned film adaptation of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader"
Adapted Sara Gruen's bestselling novel "Water for Elephants" into feature film, starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz
Returned to directing with feature adaptation "Beautiful Creatures"; also wrote screenplay based on novel by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl