Q: How did you get involved in this project?
A: It was after Sept. 11, and my producing partners and I were informed by an executive at ABC that the network was looking for stories about American heroes. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, everybody wanted to try to find things that were uplifting and inspirational. My producing partner, Howard Burkons, was at the gym one day and saw Ron Clark, the 2000 Disney Teacher of the Year Award recipient, on Oprah. Oprah talked about how Ron was her hero, and Howard started watching and listening to Ron. He called me and asked what I thought about the story. That same day, I contacted the school where he taught in Harlem and asked if they had a forwarding phone number for him. I knew, as Disney Teacher of Year, he had left the school and was traveling around the country, touring and talking to other educators and giving seminars. I got his cell phone number and called him, and that was really the start.
Q: What did you say to him in your first conversation?
A: I said we saw his story on Oprah and were interested in talking to him about his story. I had just done a true story about a woman named Jennifer Estess, who was this wonderful woman with ALS who started this ALS organization in New York, and they raised millions of dollars. I sort of sold him on the idea that I look for people who are special and who do amazing things. From what we had seen on Oprah, we felt like he had done an incredible thing by leaving North Carolina and going to East Harlem, putting his heart into reaching these kids that other teachers had given up on.
Q: What was his reaction to the idea of his story becoming a movie?
A: I think he was really intrigued with the idea of having his story told. The thing that makes him different is it's not about saying, "What am I going to get from putting myself out there?" It's all about how Ron tries to reach children and communicate with children and to get them to open up to the learning, lessons, rules and all those other things that he uses to communicate his way of teaching. Once we made him feel comfortable about having us tell his story and let him know that he would be our partner, he was on board.
Q: Ron Clark has had an amazing life. How did you narrow down what the movie was going to be about?
A: Ron taught for five years in North Carolina. The truth is, the larger part of his teaching career took place in North Carolina - not in East Harlem. In developing the timeline and script, we tried to get the sense of how his roots were set in teaching, because he didn't want to be a teacher right away when he was out of college. The turning point in Ron's life was when he was at home one night, watching 20/20, and the report told how they couldn't keep teachers in some of these classrooms in East Harlem. He got in his car, drove to Harlem and banged on doors, but nobody was interested in him. The more we looked at the story and focused on what the heart of the movie was about, it became clearer that it really began at the moment he drove into East Harlem as a total fish out of water, expecting them to love him. So the conflict in Ron's life really didn't start until he made that choice to pick up everything, risk it all and go to New York. So that's eventually where the direction of the movie ended up going, and I think it's the place it was meant to be.
Q: How did you make your casting choices for THE RON CLARK STORY?
A: Matthew Perry was right at the top of a very short list of people for the lead. From the beginning, we wanted to try to retain this sense of humor that Ron has. Ron is funny, and how he got through to the kids in this environment was by using humor and by deflecting their attitude with the dry humor he has. Ernie Hudson was chosen as Principal Taylor because we wanted to find somebody that had a presence. He's got the voice, he's got the look and he can allow his vulnerability to come out, which is great for this role.
Q: Why is this movie a good fit for the JOHNSON & JOHNSON SPOTLIGHT PRESENTATION® film series?
A: THE JOHNSON & JOHNSON SPOTLIGHT PRESENTATION® film series looks for stories about really important people who are not necessarily famous. They like stories about people who are interesting, special characters with a subject matter that carries some weight and has something positive to say about society. What I enjoy about the partnership with J&J and TNT is that they came in and said, "Let's make this as real and interesting and gritty as it really was." That's because, at the end of it, when we see Ron Clark work with these kids and get these kids to open up, it has a much greater impact, and those are the kind of stories that appeal to our audiences.
JOHNSON & JOHNSON SPOTLIGHT PRESENTATION® is a registered service mark of Johnson & Johnson.