Montana State University

Film's screenwriter finds mother lode of story ideas in Montana roots

August 16, 2006 -- by Carol Schmidt, MSU news

TJ Lynch, an MSU film graduate, said memories of his Montana childhood helped inspire the screenplay for "A Plumm Summer." The independent film is being shot in Bozeman and Livingston this summer, including scenes in front of Livingston's Sacagawea Park pool. MSU photo by Jay Thane.   High-Res Available

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It has been many years since TJ Lynch has lived in Montana, yet the memories of his Big Sky youth fill the pages of stories written by the award-winning screenwriter.

Lynch, who graduated from Montana State University's Media and Theatre Arts program in 1986, is the screenwriter for the independent film "A Plumm Summer," which is being shot in the Bozeman and Livingston area this summer.

The story is framed by the theft of a frog puppet used on a popular 1960s Billings television show. However, the heart of the story is about family dynamics and the changes in an idyllic American community after World War II.

"They are making a fabulous movie," Lynch said of director Caroline Zelder. The movie is produced by Zelder, Frank Antonelli, Doug Metzger, Scott Erickson, who also has a part in the film. The film is the first feature film produced under Montana's Big Sky on the Big Screen Act.

Lynch adapted the fictional story from real-life. Lynch grew up in Billings at the time the story takes place and was a great fan of a TV show that featured the frog puppet Froggy Doo and his human sidekick Happy Herb, played in the film by Henry Winkler.

"My mother remembered that Froggy Doo had once been kidnapped and held for ransom," Lynch said. "I thought that would make a good movie. Billings was a small town back then, an idyllic postwar town and its innocence was torn asunder."

Onto that structure Lynch embroidered a story about two brothers, one about six and the other in his early teens. The father, played by William Baldwin, has some wild oats to sow, the mother is struggling because the family lacks money, and the older son is at an age when he realizes his parents aren't perfect. The boys go on an odyssey, which is more about their finding themselves than the puppet, he said. Lynch said he does not consider the film a children's movie.

The screenplay is just one example of material that Lynch has mined from a rich Montana upbringing. He has also written "The Beginning of Wisdom," a father-son story set in Wisdom, Mont., which is optioned to John Bennett Perry and his son, Matthew Perry, of "Friends" fame. He is also working on a script based on the Jack Dempsey-Tommy Gibbons Heavyweight Championship match held on July 4, 1922, in Shelby.

"It was the biggest event in the world on that day," Lynch said of the Dempsey-Gibbons fight, which he calls "a jaw-dropping story."

He is also writing about a fictional school modeled on the Flaxville School District, Montana's smallest school district, called "Say Goodbye to Sweetgrass."

Lynch's own story has a great story arc. While his thesis film at MSU earned him a Student Emmy and he was selected for a coveted editing internship at Warner Brothers, Lynch supported himself in Hollywood for two decades working as a gaffer in lighting design on television shows and movies.

It wasn't until he had been working in Hollywood for a few years that Lynch found he had an interest and an aptitude for screenwriting. He taught himself the craft, attending workshops and working in his off hours.

"It's worked out well because I worked one to three days at a time and was paid well," Lynch said. "The rest of the time I spent writing."

After more than a decade writing scripts, "The Beginning of Wisdom" earned him the prestigious Carl Sautter Memorial Screenwriting Award in 1998. A year later the same script won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which resulted in Lynch acquiring an agent, which Lynch said was "a great stroke of luck." The award also netted him industry attention and a cash stipend to support a year of writing. "A Plumm Summer" was the result.

"To make it as a screenwriter you need to have some born talent but also you need to have an incredible amount of perseverance," he said. "I never thought it would take 20 years to get my first feature credit."

Lynch has learned good ideas, which can be summarized and sold in two or three sentences, are essential to successful screenwriting.

"If you can't compress your idea into two or three sentences then you don't have a movie idea," he said. From there, "it's just a matter of doing the heavy lifting of writing the script and getting a good, solid movie idea that has three acts, good character development, conflict - all the blocks of a good script," Lynch said.

Lynch said he is proud of the "A Plumm Summer" script, which attracted much of the talent and crew at reduced salaries.

"Everyone working on the film is working for less than the usual fee, from the actors to the truck drivers on up," he said. "It's been a labor of love. And I am extremely humbled."

Lynch said the dailies, or film footage shot the previous day, are excellent, especially for a film with a $2.5 million budget, which is considered small by industry standards. He said the producers plan to enter the film in film festivals.

"My breaks came a little late, but I am just as grateful for them," Lynch said of his recent success. Currently Lynch has five other scripts also set in Montana.

"This business is fraught with disappointment, but I'm optimistic," Lynch said. "And I'll continue to write about Montana."

TJ Lynch,