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Last year writer David Dessauer commissioned me to write a screenplay based on his book Harper Lee and Me. The book is based on a 5-year research project where Dessauer tried to unearth what motivated Harper Lee to write her masterpiece novel To Kill A Mockingbird. When Dave approached me with the project, I was struck by the unique perspective he brought to the effort. Much of the thesis he developed surrounding the book grew out of his Christian faith and belief that Harper Lee was essentially trying to do a retelling of the Book of Proverbs with her book.

Gregory Peck and Brock Peters in the film ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’

The challenge was to translate David’s book into a compelling story, as the process of research itself — and even the results of the research — do not necessarily make for a good screen narrative, no matter how interesting and compelling the material is.

It became necessary, therefore, to conduct my own research into Dave’s process and how his family dynamics played a part in order to find the spine of a story that would translate well into film. In essence, the story becomes one of a disillusioned man trying to regain faith in himself and the respect of his family. We follow a hero’s journey arc of separation, descent into the unknown, and return. I based the story on several conversations I had with Dave, where I gleaned the essential love that he had for his family and that they had for him. In addition to Dessauer’s insights into Harper Lee, it was this familial love that I tried to convey in the script.

I do believe that a great (often untold) story of our modern America is the disappointment that people have in the fact that they dreamed of doing numerous things but never really set out to make their dreams a reality. Instead, they live those dreams vicariously through others: celebrities, sports figures, and their children. The ‘reality’ that is paramount becomes, for many, the raising of those children and the focus on their security. People’s dreams can often take a back burner in this process.

Dessauer sought to break that pattern with himself and realize his dream. That essentially becomes the story arc of the screenplay version of Harper Lee and Me — how a man grapples with his sense of limitation and overcomes it. I suspect many people share Dessauer’s feelings of personal disappointment, and many, like Dave Dessauer, do attempt to overcome those feelings. That said, while many would love to have an impact on the world, responsibilities overwhelm them. Within this context, personal — sometimes even small — victories are possible and even necessary. Dreams can be adjusted and made more realistic. Small victories can indeed become large ones; this is another message in Harper Lee and Me.

The script has been a lot of positive attention, including ‘Best Screenplay’ and ‘Best Writer’ awards from the Christian Film Festival and a Finalist nod (for Best Screenplay) from the Branson Film Festival. More recently, the 2022 PopCon Film Festival has nominated the script for ‘Best Feature Screenplay’. We also placed high in both the Stage 32 and Screencraft Family-Friendly script competitions.

PopCon International Film Festival

I’m hopeful we’ll get the film produced. That in itself is a process. I’m optimistic because I believe many people in the modern era share Dave’s journey and feelings. In a society that celebrates the ‘huge’ wins of the rich and famous, perhaps it’s time to also leave a little room for the smaller, yet important, victories of everyday people in everyday life. Harper Lee and Me is such a celebration.

— Don Thompson

Thompson can be contacted at nextpix@gmail.com

David Dessauer’s book Harper Lee and Me is available here.

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