Screenwriting path leads
from Goshen to Magic Kingdom for Yost and Kauffmann
For 10 years, Yost (below, left) and Kauffmann
(right) have worked together to build a screenwriting bridge from the
Midwest to Hollywood. Their Tinseltown dreams came true with Miracle
which has opened other screenwriting doors.
said both he and Yost studied at GC long enough to deserve doctorates.
The two credit their GC professors with instilling in them a passion for
writing and the tenaciousness to follow their dreams. In the meantime,
Kauffmanns cartoon Pontius Puddle has had widespread church publication;
Yost founded Bridgework Theater in Goshen.
How did your collaboration begin?
Joel I was co-writing with
a guy and a war was developing over writing The Radicals.
I didnt know enough about screenplay writing. I knew Don through
a Goshen College writers group and I asked him if he would come
help work with me informally.
Don We hit it off from
Joel We started in 1989
or 1990 and wrote a loser-to-winner story about a marching
band in an inner city. That one was all primed to go in 1994. We had Howard
Kazanjian who produced a Star Wars film (Return of the Jedi)
and Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark). We had a director
who was hot in the music video scene. The money was all raised. Then inexplicably,
it all fell apart. We cant say to this day why.
What attracted you to Justins
Don Justin goes to our church
(College Mennonite) so we knew him and his family. Joel found a clipping
in the Goshen News just a little picture of Justin. What
drew us to Miracle was a family under pressure that found
ways to transform an obstacle into something triumphant. When we started
talking to the Yoders they said we couldnt tell this story without
the church and their faith.
What role does faith play in your
Don Faith plays a big part
in the stories we want to do. There are a lot of stories out there where
we would say, If you want that story written, go get somebody else
to write it because I cant subscribe to that point of view.
Like Die Hard IV?
Don Maybe that one would
be OK. (laughs)
Joel We are in an entertainment
business. If we lose sight of that we wont be working no matter
what we say or believe. We could write a film that doesn't champion our
faith but we couldnt write one that counters that faith.
Where do you draw the line?
Don Our first CBS movie is
about a woman leaving the Amish for a man that she loves. Our first words
into the phone to this producer were, We dont want to be a
part of anything that trashes the Amish. We wanted a story where
this woman is as attracted to the Amish life as she is to this man that
Joel We thought we could
write this movie with a lot more sensitivity than anyone else could. The
value base in Hollywood is that individuality always has to triumph over
community and people are looking for conflict settled through definitive
means. Nobody, not even Mennonites, wants a movie that ends with an acknowledgement
that we were both a bit right or a bit wrong.
Is being Midwestern or Anabaptist
a selling point in Hollywood?
Don Choosing to work here
has made things much more difficult. But the woman who first got interested
in Miracle and hired us to do a CBS film is interested in
us because were from the Midwest and we have a religious affiliation.
Joel And she vows if we ever
move to Los Angeles shell stop working with us. Writing is one-third
skill, one-third relationships and one-third luck. The relationship and
the luck come when you run into someone in the checkout line in Los Angeles.
You wouldnt believe how many deals get done that way.
Is there a genre you prefer?
Don I like working on true
stories more than Joel, and I think he likes making things up.
Joel I really like comedy.
A lot of our ideas start out comedic and by the time Don gets involved
somehow somebodys crying, needing to be redeemed or something like
Joel The best strategy
for us is to be very versatile. Were writing a story of a woman
who lost a child two years ago and goes to a deserted island to heal.
There ends up being one other guy on this island the New York policeman
who shot her kid. Theres a thriller component to it but its
more psychological, deeper, darker, a more painful thing.
Joel The CBS story will be
shot in August.
Don Theres another
story about a white teacher in South Carolina teaching a black student
whose trailer burns down. The teacher takes the student into her home
that night and she and her family ended up adopting that boy.
Joel Its a story
that taps both into present day political correctness in cross-cultural
adoption and into the racial roots of that area.
Don A third screenplay
is a little ways from being locked in.
Where do you hope this career takes
Joel When we first started
we tried to figure out what success would be. The metaphor we came up
with was a ladder and thought success would be climbing one rung at a
time. We finally decided thats a horrible analogy. There are people
who go to the top rung three weeks into the business. Weve been
on the second or third rungs many times and fallen to the bottom. We basically
have spent 10 years trying to figure out why people havent liked
us as much as we think they should have and weve spent the last
10 months trying to figure out why everybody thinks were so great.
Since seeing their lives
on screen, life is calming down for derby family
Justin, played by Fox sitcom Malcolm in the
Middle star Frankie Muniz, gets lead billing in Miracle,
also starring Rick Rossovich and Molly Hagan. But the film attends to the
feelings of all four family members as they find ways for both Justin, now
13, and Seth, 17, to succeed and feel appreciated. Seth, the family sports
star, has a roomful of trophies, which Justin envies. Yet Seth feels that
his father spends too much time working three jobs to pay for Justins
Through conversations with God and interaction
with gruff neighbor Vic Sauder (a character loosely based on Vic Koop, GC
professor of psychology), Justin discovers soap box racing as an area of
competition in which he can excel. However, the time and effort the family
gives to racing is tough on Seth. In the film version, Seth and Justin reconcile
just before Justin wins the national soap box derby.
While some true life details were changed
for the sake of Disney storytelling Justin raced in, but did not
win the national derby, for example the film does accurately depict
the Yoder family working through their problems. They hold their breath
during Justins hospitalizations and work through sibling rivalries.
The movie showed your family, warts and
all. How did you feel about putting your lives on screen?
Sheila At first Seth was
much more hesitant.
Justin And at first I thought,
Oh, awesome. This is going to be great. Now Im like, Hmmm,
I dont know if I want people to know this.
Seth Im not a guy
that likes a lot of attention and this sure did give me attention. How it
seems a lot is that Im just the brother of the guy in the movie, the
guy in the wheelchair. Maybe not everybody understood my characters
side of the story, but maybe some people did.
Sheila We felt the family
was shown as an ordinary family, like most families with a person with disabilities.
We want to do ordinary things and have an ordinary life even with extraordinary
The movie didnt show as well how
the community helped us, both College Mennonite Church and Goshen too. The
guy who made the hand brake (Jim Boshart, father of Tim Boshart, GCs
educational technology specialist) was from the Exchange Club. Of course,
Vic Koop had an important part that didnt come out as much in the
movie as we would have liked it to.
Seth Extended family were
a big part of this. Grandpa (Wayne Stopher) made the car.
Tell me about the actors who played you?
Justin Frankie Muniz was kind of quiet, nothing like I imagined
him. My brothers actor (Patrick Levis), he was a Christian and right
away we clicked. I never saw the guy who played Vic (Roger Aaron Brown)
in a bad mood.
Sheila One night Frankie
came to our hotel room. Heres this actor, this star, and he was bored.
So we played cards and got out the hotels shampoo bottles and used
them to play spoons until 11 oclock at night 2 a.m. in Indiana.
What role does faith play in this whole
Myron We constantly depend
on our faith and church to get us through. We pray that God is with us through
all our life experiences.
Sheila What has happened
is really amazing, but were not amazing people. Somehow God caused
this to happen. My faith is stronger but I still have these questions about
how God works in our lives.
The movie climaxes with a happy ending.
Is everything perfect now?
Justin Oh no. Maybe its
just more maturity, but me and Seth are getting along a lot better than
before. In the beginning, Seth didnt want to help. In Akron, in 1999,
he was actually around me, interested, asking questions, wanting to help.
Sheila So he was probably
proud of your achievements?
Justin (laughs) I didnt
say that, I just said he was around me.
Seth Ive kind of stayed
out of the soap box derby thing and let that be theirs. I go there to watch
sometimes, but thats about it. Theres not really jealousy either
What has been the biggest change in
your lives since the movie aired?
Justin Autographs. Ive
signed plenty. Mostly at the premiere, but I was at a baseball game in Goshen
and a whole softball team ran up to me.
Myron Someone recognized
us in an airport in St. Louis, at a swimming pool in the Cayman Islands
and on a boat in the Caribbean. There were 20 people on our boat and one
of them said, Are you the Yoders? Is this Justin Yoder from the movie?
Justin And we were supposed
to be on vacation.
Seth All the attention helped
me open up. I had to stand up in front of my school and talk about the movie.
It was hard to do at the time but its helped me be more outgoing.
Are you still racing?
Justin Were taking a
break this year. I should have gone to nationals three times but the first
was 96. (Note: Justin first qualified for national competition
in the 1996 All-American Soap Box Derby but health problems put him in the
hospital for more than a month instead, and a substitute raced in his place.)
Myron Justin can go to nationals
again if he qualifies in whats called rally points. But can you imagine
how exciting its been here? This downtime has allowed me to take a
breath and get on with life.
Sheila Mundane is kind of
nice. Weve had four wonderful years.
Justin Going on five.