Spec Spotlight: Sam Franco & Evan Kilgore on KEEPER OF THE DIARY
by Asmara Bhattacharya
Most people know of Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who chronicled her two years hiding in an attic during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in World War II. The Frank family was subsequently discovered and sent to concentration camps, where millions of people were enslaved and slaughtered. Anne herself perished in the Bergen-Belsen camp at the young age of sixteen.
The Diary of Anne Frank, the journal Anne wrote while in hiding, is indisputably one of the most significant and widely read books in the world, published in over sixty languages. Yet 70 years ago, just after the end of the war, her father Otto could not find a publisher willing to present Anne’s historic document to the world. Keeper of the Diary, the spec script writers Sam Franco and Evan Kilgore recently sold to Fox Searchlight, recounts Otto Frank’s struggle to publish his daughter’s diary.
One almost incidental line in a diary edition’s introduction caught Sam’s eye: “Otto struggled to get the book published.” Sam recalls “literally circling that. I still have a copy of it.”
Evan observes, “You always hear about the diary, and you hear about the circumstances in the attic. But you never hear about how did the diary come to be in our hands today.”
They were fascinated by the idea that a book so many people connect to emotionally could face an uphill battle to be published, just as so many less notable manuscripts do. “It’s always interesting to hear the path that something as iconic as Diary of Anne Frank took,” Evan continues, “that that would take the exact same process of fifty people rejecting it.”
Inconceivable though it may seem now, publishers at the time overlooked the diary’s potential cultural impact because they feared it was not commercial enough. Despite the extraordinary power of Anne’s writings and observations, “they were just looking at the bottom line,” Evan marvels.
Publishers also worried that, so soon after the war, readers would shy away from such a heart-rending story. Sam, whose wife lost family in the Holocaust, does not take the horrors of this war lightly. But “we made a conscious decision to not go into the concentration camps or really even show Anne herself,” he explains. “We didn’t want to take away from what this story was about.”
Evan elaborates, “What really drew me close to her story, and also to the story behind the diary, is that this is a fresh perspective that takes us away from the atrocities and really helps us examine it from a perspective of hope.”
The birth of Evan and Sam’s partnership is a tale of breaking the rules. After Sam submitted a script to an agency and heard nothing but crickets, he convinced an assistant to forward him the coverage, “which, as you know, is not something that’s usually done,” Sam laughs. The notes were great and, surprisingly, had Evan’s name on them. So Sam called the story department and spoke to him. “And we lived happily ever after,” intones Sam. “I guess it’s a lesson to never take no for an answer.”
The pair have reams of ideas, and when an idea sparks to both of them, they go after it. They’re obsessive about research and meticulous about detail, and they take notes by hand. According to Sam, “There’s a lot of divide and conquer. We very often find different things and bring different things to the table, in terms of whether it’s a story idea or a character element.”
They’re drawn to history, politics, espionage, thrillers. Projects in development include Mayday 109, about a young JFK saving his crew when their ship is destroyed, and Undefeated: The Rocky Marciano Story, about the heavyweight boxing champion. They’re also working on a dark fictional thriller. “It doesn’t have to be a true story, but it has to feel real to both of us,” says Evan.
Sam’s background includes film marketing and producing. His experiences drive him to analyze things like film successes and failures and potential audience appeal when considering projects. “That’s the purpose of these movies, to inform and educate and inspire and get people to see it.”
Evan started writing in kindergarten, completing his first novel in middle school, and got his first book publishing deal in college. While he would never forego either prose or scripts, right now he’s in screenwriting mode. “That’s where my head is, and that’s where all my thoughts will be dedicated. And it is hard to switch back in the middle.” He credits Sam’s eye toward production, connections, and marketing with elevating them to a different level. “It’s easy to just get shut in a fictional world and not think of all those things.”
Keeper of the Diary leapfrogged the usual protracted marketing process, ending up in a bidding war that lasted barely thirty-six hours. Before the team knew it, an offer came in with a 60-minute clock on it, then another with a 30-minute clock. When the deal closed, “there were tears,” Sam admits. “It was really emotional to kind of get that validation.”
“We one hundred percent have our team to thank,” Evan jumps in, rattling off an army of reps: Jeff Portnoy, Mia Chang, David Boxerbaum, Valarie Phillips, Eric Feig, Matthew Jacobs. “They knocked it out of the park on this.”
Sam struggles to balance work with two small children at home. “Headphones are great,” he laughs. Oddly, he and Evan work on opposite schedules. Sam stays up till all hours to write while the kids are asleep, and Evan wakes up at four-thirty every morning to get his writing in.
“We’re both striving for the same thing,” Evan asserts, “which is carving out a little time for ourselves when no one else in the world can get to you.”
The duo recommends that writers be entrepreneurial. Sam advises, “When you have the opportunity to meet people that can potentially assist you, you don’t have to hold on to things so tightly.” In other words, don’t let the fear of someone stealing your idea prevent you from reaching out in the first place.
“Don’t think about being a writer,” Evan emphasizes. “Actually just sit down and write every single day, whether you’re hating it right now, whether it’s working or not.” Also, don’t give yourself a time limit. “You’ve got to be dedicated enough to say, ‘I don’t care how long it takes. This is in my blood and I can’t help doing it every single day of my life.’”
“Have a passion for things. Be curious about things and enthusiastic about what you’re doing. If you can put those things together, you’ll succeed.”
Asmara Bhattacharya is a produced screenwriter/playwright, script reader, and festival screener, with multiple placements at Final Draft, Nicholl, Austin Film Festival, and other competitions. A trusted sounding board and consultant for industry professionals, dedicated fans also caught her in “Independence Day: Resurgence” and NBC’s “The Night Shift” – for one glorious half-second each. Check out her website at dickflicks.net or tweet her at @hotpinkstreak.