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Screenwriter: Al Pacino Movie Will Focus on Joe Paterno’s Life, Not Scandal

It’s been several months since an update on the potentially controversial movie about Joe Paterno’s life has been reported. For those who haven’t heard, legendary Scarface and The Godfather actor Al Pacino will play the former coach in the feature-length film tentatively titled Happy Valley. The film, based on Joe Posnanski’s bestseller Paterno, will be produced by Ed Pressman (Thank You For Smoking, Wall Street), directed by Brian De Palma (Scarface, Mission: Impossible), and written by David McKenna (American History X, S.W.A.T.). Onward State interviewed McKenna to get a progress report on the film.

McKenna said a timeline for filming and releasing the movie has not been set, as they are still in the research phase of the project. Casting information for the movie beyond Pacino is not available at this time. McKenna said he and others working on the film will visit State College again closer to when production begins.

The research phase has included searching Paterno archives at libraries, reading several books, and evaluating all the independent reports, such as the Freeh Report and the Paterno Report. While on his trip to State College in February, McKenna met with Posnanski, who gave him a two-day tour of the town; longtime assistant coach Dick Anderson, who was “very gracious and informative;” and Scott Paterno, which was more of a “get to know you” session rather than a gathering of information, McKenna said.

“This project is too important not to be as well informed as possible. Not unexpectedly, what I’ve found is there’s three sides to every story. There is no black and white. JoePa was a great, great man, who did so much good for a such a long period of time,” McKenna said. “But that greatness turned out to hurt him in the end because he set the bar so incredibly high in everything that he did. And that’s where the tragedy lies.”

Although he grew up in southern California, McKenna said Paterno was someone he greatly admired during his childhood. He still remembers watching the 1981 game against Pitt when he was in 8th grade. His two close friends were huge Pitt fans so he rooted for Penn State, naturally.

“I remember [Penn State] and [Todd] Blackledge were down early, and it looked like it was going to be a long afternoon, but then they just turned it around and absolutely crushed Pitt,” McKenna said. “And I vividly remember asking myself ‘Who’s that little Italian guy with the glasses on the sideline?’ Well, let’s just say I was hooked after that.”

McKenna said Jerry Sandusky will be a part of the movie, although he will only play a supporting role. The Sandusky scandal will be included, but the focus of the film will be on Paterno. McKenna doubts he will ever be able to talk to the Sandusky family, but he does wish to visit Sandusky in prison.

While he said he couldn’t talk specifically about what will be included in the film, McKenna said “the crazy thing” about Sandusky is how much good he did for kids. McKenna acknowledges he might be “crucified” for saying that, but he believes it’s the truth.

“Second Mile was a huge endeavor that raised hundreds of millions for disadvantaged kids,” McKenna said. “That’s what makes this scandal so sad and heartbreaking.”

On the other hand, McKenna said he hopes he will be able to talk extensively with the Paterno family. He believes the family will one day open themselves up to him and his Hollywood team, “once they see how fair we’ve been to Joe’s incredible legacy.”

McKenna said he will always have the highest respect for Paterno and his wife, Sue. One quote that McKenna often thinks about is when Paterno, who raised five kids in a modest home a few blocks from campus, told his children they can swim just as well in the community pool as a private one.

“They were on a first-name basis with everyone in town — Joe even knew the cheerleaders’ names. They built a library — giving $3 million of their own money,” McKenna said. “Their love and generosity inspires me as I raise my three children. Because that’s what life is all about, isn’t it?”

About the Author

Jessica Tully

Jessica Tully is a first-year law student at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. She graduated in May 2014 with degrees in journalism and political science.

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