I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Tanner Grover, an up-and-coming screenwriter from Maine. Grover’s compelling script, “Wheel Story,” is based off of his own experiences growing up in a small coastal town in Maine, while living with spinal muscular atrophy and being confined to a wheelchair.
Grover himself is an utterly delightful, outgoing individual who works as an accomplished high school basketball coach in his own hometown of Boothbay Harbor, ME. Grover’s own strong personality is reflected in “Wheel Story,” a coming-of-age dramedy that could easily become the next indie hit.
Here is my exclusive one-on-one interview with Mr. Grover:
Wheel Story – Social Hollywood Magazine Q & A
1.) You choose to write “Wheel Story” as a screenplay rather than as a book. Why? Which scenes do you feel will really resonate with the audience on screen rather than through print? And have you ever considered making “Wheel Story” a play rather than as a movie?
The notion of writing a book seems so daunting. Plus since “Wheel Story” is a spin-off of my own life, I just can’t envision anyone taking the time to invest 300 or 400 pages worth of novel about, well, me.
I believe that most individuals view their own lives in a cinematic sense. I mean how often do you hear someone tell a great story, and then finish it with, “it was like something straight out of a movie”? I’ve just chosen to take it one step further and actually sequence bits and pieces of personal stories into a cohesive script. And in my reality of being confined to a wheelchair, the movie screen becomes a perfect outlet to visually demonstrate how difficult that predicament is. I’ve had a lot of “if only I could…” moments in my life, and the scenes in which my character morphs into “Super Tanner” allow myself and the audience to actually experience those instances. For example, the opening sequence of the pick-up basketball game – I can’t even begin to tell you how many hours I’ve spent watching pick-up hoops in my lifetime, and the majority of those games are pretty crude. I’ll watch players make these asinine mistakes and then think to myself, “shit, if I could play, it would be so easy to dominate.” And that’s just what “Super Tanner” does. I don’t think those scenes would come off as well if they were restricted to print.
As far as “Wheel Story” the play, I never considered it.
2.) You mention that the actor who will get to play the lead (Tanner) would get quite a breakthrough role. You also mention that you picture Michael Cera and Jay Baruchel as two actors who you believe could pull this role off. Why, specifically, those two actors? And have you ever considered an unknown to play the lead?
If Michael Cera wanted to play my character, then I’d likely have a chance to meet and hang out with the cast of “Arrested Development.” If it was Jay Baruchel, then hello funny people from “Knocked Up.” It’s a win-win either way.
In all honesty though, I really like the neurotic humility those two particular actors bring to the screen. They’re extremely talented, extremely funny, and most importantly, likeable. On top of that they’re both really skinny. The “Tanner” character suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a neurological disorder that makes him physically weak. I think the actor that plays “Tanner” would need to be somewhat frail. But on top of that, there’s the “Super Tanner” twist – scenes where “Tanner” morphs into an able-bodied, physically fit version of himself. I would think these scenes would have to be shot separately, unless there’s some really cool CGI effect I don’t know about. Either that or we could stuff Cera or Baruchel into a Hanz and Franz muscle suit, but that just seems stupid.
As far as an unknown, I’m all for it. If there were an actor out there who felt really connected to my character, it could be a great opportunity.
3.) I found it interesting that you choose not to rename yourself in the script, as many writers tend to do when writing a story based off of their own experiences. Was there any reason why you choose to do this?
It’s a risk. In some ways I feel like I’m exposing or even exploiting myself. But at the end of the day, it’s my story. And I felt it was important to be true to my own character. Plus if this script ever manifests into an actual movie, anyone that knows me is gonna know that the wheelchair character is based on myself, so why beat around the bush? Plus I think the only memorable “Tanner” character to ever make it to the big screen is the foul-mouthed short stop from the “Bad News Bears.” I think it’s time to take it to the next level and make the name itself more iconic.
4.) Have you ever pictured any actors to play the second lead role, the “WOP?” If so, who? And who exactly is this character based off of?
The “WOP” is based off of my very best friend in the entire world. That person happens to be loud, brash, and always on stage. He’s also physically imposing, and if you didn’t know him, somewhat mean looking. But that all goes away because at heart, he’s like a giddy 5-year old. The “WOP” character is designed to be the physical opposite of “Tanner,” so it would have to be someone strong. Off the top of my head, I could see Mark Salling, the actor that plays “Puck” from “Glee,” filling the “WOP’s” shoes (minus the song and dance, of course). That actor has the right look, but I’ve always felt this would be the perfect role to cast an unknown.
5.) I very much enjoyed the “Super Tanner” sequences. (I thought these were hilarious.) Where did you come up with the idea for these?
In my original draft, there was no “Super Tanner.” It was just me, and I thought the script was still a funny read, but it needed something more. So I went back to the drawing board and added in two elements: my character speaking directly to the camera a la “Ferris Bueller,” and the “Super Tanner” scenes. “Super Tanner” was a real breakthrough for me because it enabled me to visually depict how my physically disabled self would grab any scenario by the balls and make things turn out his way. These scenes were fun to write, and I know that those moments are the ones that an audience would remember. But the important underlying factor of “Super Tanner” is that it gave way to the major theme of the story and what the real “Tanner” has to overcome. He can’t just fantasize about what he’d like his life to be like. He has to actually do something about it.
6.) Did any other movies help inspire “Wheel Story?” Furthermore, which screenwriters and directors do you particularly like/admire their work?
I already mentioned “Ferris Bueller.” I’ve also thought that my script borrows a little from “Wayne’s World” in terms of breaking to the camera, and having fantasy sequences. But because the main character is burdened with such an obvious flaw, “Wheel Story” carries a more sincere tone. I guess it’s fair to make comparisons between scripts that featured other disabled characters – “Forrest Gump,” “Radio,” “Simon Birch” – but all of those movies strike me as slightly sappy. That’s definitely not the “Wheel Story” vibe.
The last movie I saw in theaters was “50/50,” and I thought it was really brilliant. It was funny, but it also featured a lead character coping with some really shitty circumstances. It also has the crude and crass second lead character. He ultimately proves to be the lead’s biggest support system throughout the picture. I wrote “Wheel Story” having never seen this. I can’t say it inspired me, but again, comparisons are inevitable.
There’s no writer I respect more than the late John Hughes. His body of work is incredible – “Sixteen Candles,” “The Breakfast Club,” the aforementioned “Ferris Bueller,” and countless others. He just had this ability to create characters an audience could tap into emotionally and root for. I hope that I’ve done the same with “Tanner” in “Wheel Story.”
I’d also be remiss without mentioning Sylvester Stallone. “Rocky” plays a huge part in “Wheel Story” (it’s directly woven into a major “Super Tanner” sequence). Everyone knows Stallone as an action star, but I’m not sure a lot of people realize that he also penned the scripts for his most memorable roles. I was a “Rocky” fanatic growing up – it’s the ultimate underdog story, and a character that’s been easy for me to identify with. “Wheel Story” undoubtedly pays homage to “The Italian Stallion.”
7.) What was your process for writing “Wheel Story?” How long did it take you to write? And were there any parts of the script that were particularly difficult for you to write?
The original draft actually started as a semester long screenwriting project for a course I took in college back in 2009. It was funny, really dialogue heavy, but I didn’t have a very good understanding of screenplay structure. I shared it with a small handful of people. One confidant thought the story was really original, but that I needed to distance myself from it for a period, work on other projects, and then re-visit the story with a fresh perspective (they even suggested changing character names, and telling the story from the point of “WOP’s” view as opposed to “Tanner’s”).
I put it away and took some time to try and better myself as a screenwriter. I worked on half a dozen different projects, developing one that I’m really proud of (an HBO style series called “Longshots” – it’s about struggling basketball players trying to make it in the NBA – keep it on the backburner for a second Q & A J).
This past May, I re-visited the script that has become “Wheel Story.” I wrote fast and furious, finishing what turned out to be an entirely different story in about 3 weeks. In June and July I was pretty busy coaching summer basketball, but when I had time I’d go back and polish what I had put together. By early August, I felt confident I had something really good to unveil.
Where it’s such a personal and at times candid story, it was very difficult to write. But it was also very cathartic. Toward the end of the script, my character has brushes with betrayal and death that I glorified for the scripts sake, but there are some partial truths in it for me. It’s not easy living life in a chair and constantly feeling like you have a lack of control. But it is possible to overcome those insecurities. I’ve learned in my own life that a motorized chair does not define who I am, and that’s a part of my character’s discovery in “Wheel Story.”
8.) As a writer, what else inspires you? Besides your own life, what inspired you to write “Wheel Story”?
People inspire me. I know that sounds generic, but I feel like I have a number of friends who happen to be experts in such an eclectic mix of interests. Like the character “WOP” is based on – he teaches Mixed Martial Arts. Now this isn’t something I have an aptitude or will ever be able to partake in physically, but I have an admiration for the energy and passion that he puts into it. I have friends who lobster, I have friends who teach, friends who play musical instruments, friends who speak multiple languages – I don’t have the capacity to become an expert in any of those arenas, but that’s what makes them such interesting characters and great people to be around. If I can draw a little bit from that and incorporate it into my writing, I feel like I’ll always have some honest material that people can connect with.
As far as what inspired “Wheel Story,” I’d say it’s the town I grew up in and still live in. “Wheel Story” takes place in Boothbay Harbor, Maine (often referred to as “Boozebay Harbor”). It’s a seasonal town bombarded by summer tourists, and in the winter things really quiet down. But it’s place full of character and local characters as well. I should know. I’m one of ‘em. But that was something I really strived to capture in “Wheel Story,” the essence of summer time in Boothbay.
9.) Tell me a little bit about your experiences with basketball. Why is it your favorite sport/your passion?
Wow. Where to begin? I chalk it up to this – Maine is cold as shit during the winter. So what do people do? Pack into a gym and watch high school hoops. The town of Boothbay loves its basketball. When I was a kid, all of my friends would cross the street from school over to the local YMCA and play pick-up until it was time to go home for dinner (and some kids just chose to skip dinner altogether). I could never play, but I’d go down and watch. When the youth pee wee leagues would start, adult volunteers were kind enough to allow me to participate as an assistant coach. When I got to high school, I volunteered as a head youth coach, and took a travel team group all over the state to compete in various tourneys. I began to take it very seriously and began to really study the sport. Books, DVD’s, Clinics, you name it. And I’ve coached a wide age range of players. I’ve taken promising high schoolers to National AAU tournaments in Florida and Indiana to try and get Maine kids exposure to college coaches. Now I’m currently coaching at the high school level, and if things fall into place, I should have an opportunity to coach varsity ball at Boothbay Region High School in the near future. I’m really excited about it.
I’ve had people tell me that what separates me from other coaches is my ability to explain things and relate to players. I can’t show some proper shooting technique, but I can talk you through it. All in all I’m very competitive by nature and have a knack for taking anything I do to the nth degree (which isn’t always a good thing!). But there really isn’t any place on Earth that I feel more confident and comfortable than on a basketball court.
10.) Have you considered moving to Los Angeles to pursue your dream of becoming a screenwriter?
Five years ago I was sure I wanted to move to L.A. Now, I’m not so convinced you have to be in L.A. to be a screenwriter. Not that I wouldn’t appreciate the warm sun and sandy beaches, but I’d miss Maine High School hoops. Plus the furthest West I’ve ever been is Indiana (for basketball). My best friend, the “WOP” character, currently runs his Mixed Martial Arts in Costa Mesa, so I have plenty of incentive to go out West and visit. It just hasn’t panned out yet. My hope is that maybe this fantastic Q & A will get enough buzz going about “Wheel Story,” that studios will be panting to make the movie. That way, when I do make the trip to L.A., I can visit my friend, and have enough clout to land a sushi date with Jennifer Love Hewitt and book a slot on Conan O’Brien.