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It has been 15 years since Oscar-winning writing duo Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, of Brokeback Mountain fame, have seen one of their screenplays made into a movie. That stat changes Sept. 14 when Good Joe Bell — starring Mark Wahlberg and based on the harrowing true story of a father coming to terms with the suicide of his young gay son — makes its world premiere at TIFF in advance of awards season.
As with Brokeback, it was Ossana who convinced McMurtry to take on the project when director Cary Joji Fukunaga cold-called them in 2014 asking if they would be interested in writing the screenplay. The film follows Joe Bell as he embarks on a cross-country walk in order to raise awareness about the death of his son in 2013. Along the way — before he is struck and tragically killed by a semi-trailer truck in Colorado — the elder Bell must come to terms with his own prejudices and sometimes-conflicted relationship with his son (played by newcomer Reid Miller).
“Larry had a difficult time initially, before we began writing. He was kind of not happy with Joe. I talked to him about what Joe’s psychological state would be. But Joe deeply loved his children, and I told Larry we had to come at it that way,” says Ossana, who spent countless hours speaking with Bell’s widow, Lola, and the younger Bell’s friends. “We came to conclude that Joe was a very complex man.”
In late 2018, after Fukunaga (who’s helming the James Bond feature No Time to Die) left the project, up-and-coming filmmaker Reinaldo Marcus Green received a call from their mutual WME Endeavor agent, Craig Kestel, asking if he would be interested in directing Bell. (Green had made headlines in January of that year for his award-winning Sundance Film Festival entry, Monsters and Men.)
Green, who flew to Boston to meet with Wahlberg, says that by the time their hourlong session was over, there was a handshake deal. “I must have spoken with him every day from then on until we started shooting. I’ve never seen that level of attention from any actor,” says Green, who adds he was floored when he saw the writing credits on the script.
McMurtry and Ossana have been writing partners since the early 1990s. McMurtry recovered for two years at her house in Arizona after undergoing open heart surgery in 2001 and suffering subsequent depression. In 2011, he married Norma Faye Kesey, the widow of Ken Kesey, and the couple are staying at Ossana’s home during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Staten Island native Green, an NYU film school alum of African American and Puerto Rican descent, is also helming the upcoming Warner Bros. movie King Richard, starring Will Smith as the father of a young Venus and Serena Williams. (His brother, Rashaad Ernesto Green, is also a director.)
Green says his wish is for Good Joe Bell to be released sometime this fall or winter, even if that means some sort of hybrid opening. “I’m open to however the film needs to be released,” he says. “I do hope they will get it out this year, given everything and the election. I think it could strike a nerve.”
This story first appeared in the Sept. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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