Patrick Sheane Duncan

Patrick Sheane Duncan

The son of migrant fruit pickers, Duncan had his first brush with show business as a lad in Los Angeles: as a shoe shine boy one of his regulars was a movie theater manager who would pay with passes to the current films playing. After his father was murdered in L.A., the family moved to Michigan. Duncan enlisted in the US Army in 1965 to qualify for the G.I. Bill. His army tenure included a 15-month tour of duty in Vietnam, which formed the basis for several of his later film and TV projects. He returned to Michigan, where he was graduated from college in two years. Soon after, he joined with a professor to open an art-house movie theater in Grand Rapids, MI. Within a year, he and his partner had turned a profit and Duncan was hired by the Goodrich Theatres chain as general manager. Disgusted by the quality of films he saw and challenged by his wife, Duncan began writing scripts, eventually deciding to head to L.A. Once settled in California, Duncan found employment with Roger Corman's New World Pictures, but in the business end as an accounts receivable clerk. (He landed the job by offering to work the first two weeks for free.) Moving to Crown International as an assistant controller, the aspiring screenwriter was given his chance. Producer Mark Tenser had a title and a poster and within two weeks, Duncan provided the script for the exploitative "The Beach Girls" (1982). Though offered additional genre films, Duncan declined and, instead, spent several years doing uncredited rewrites of Chuck Norris films. Another break came in the early 80s when he was invited to participate in a workshop at the Sundance Institute, where he developed what eventually became "84 Charlie MoPic" (1989). Told in documentary style, the film focused on a cameraman following a reconnaissance mission. Shot with hand-held cameras, featuring long takes with few edits, and played by a cast of newcomers, "84 Charlie MoPic" earned respectable reviews and provided a fairly authentic-feeling of what it must have been like to serve in Vietnam. The film led to an invitation from HBO to write and produce several episodes of the networks "Vietnam War Story," which earned Duncan two CableACE Awards, and a series of syndicated movies "Medal of Honor: True Stories of America's Greatest War" (1990-91). By the 90s, Duncan's big screen career was in full swing. His thoughtful "A Home of Our Own" (1993) starred Kathy Bates and Edward Furlong as a mother and oldest child of a family that leaves the city to forge a life in a small, isolated village and won critical praise but not a wide audience. That same year, he directed and wrote "The Pornographer," which examined the relationship between an artist and his filmmaker friend who was now reduced to shooting porno films. It played at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival but failed to receive widespread distribution. Duncan's A-list status was confirmed in 1995 with the release of two projects: John Badham's "Nick of Time," with Johnny Depp as a man blackmailed into committing a political assassination to free his kidnapped daughter; and Stephen Herek's "Mr. Holland's Opus," a sleeper hit starring Richard Dreyfuss as a music teacher who thinks himself a failure for not composing a great symphony until he realizes his important impact on his students. (Dreyfuss received an Oscar nod for his work in the film.) Duncan's Army background was again useful for "Courage Under Fire" (1996), starring Denzel Washington as an army officer investigating the death of Meg Ryan while on duty. Released mid-year, the film earned close to $60 million domestically and much praise. Critics awards and Oscar nominations were expected, but "Courage Under Fire" was overlooked at year's end. (Duncan's novelization of the script, however, was published by Putnam.) Duncan also wrote and directed the controversial TV-movie "Live From Death Row" (Fox, 1992), which sparked national debates about tabloid journalism, capital punishment and whether networks should air executions. In 1996, he founded the magazine SCREENWRITER QUARTERLY. The debut issue included the article "Auteur Theory--My Ass!," which debunked the notion that directors believe film to be a collaborative medium.