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Writer Debora Cahn On First Downs, #MeToo and the Ultimate Message of ‘Paterno’

Screenwriter Debora Cahn talks to Awards Daily TV about HBO’s Paterno, the problem of complacency, and contributing to the #MeToo movement.

Paterno screenwriter Debora Cahn connects with me on her cell after stepping out of a writer’s room. The connection inside was poor, which necessitated the move outdoors. Of course, it was pouring rain, and she huddled under an overhang with three smokers. Her first concern?

“I feel bad because I’m now standing here talking to her next to three people who just wanted to quietly smoke their cigarettes in peace, but now they’re going to be subjected to the sound of my voice talking about Paterno,” Cahn frets.

Surely they didn’t mind. It is Emmy season after all.

Debora Cahn came to HBO’s Paterno after other screenplays failed to capture right story for the piece. Cahn’s take on the material was to throw out everything that came before and focus on the complacency issues of the story, eschewing extensive football detail and the crime drama of the Jerry Sandusky affair. In fact, the famed world of Penn State football, and the game itself, was actually quite foreign to her. Fortunately, she didn’t have to go far for a crash course on the sport.

“At one point I had to say to my husband,” Cahn confesses, “tell me what is this ‘first down’ you speak of?”

“Well if everybody knew, then how come it continued?”

Working ahead of 2017’s #MeToo movement and Weinstein (among others… many… many… others), Debora Cahn became fascinated with the art of looking the other way in the Joe Paterno case. For those not in the know, Joe Paterno was the legendary coach of the Penn State football program, as famous for his record wins as he was for his emphasis on academics. However, on November 9, 2011, Paterno was fired as head coach as a result of the Sandusky child sex scandal that rocked the school.

Paterno claimed not to know about Sandusky’s sexual proclivities, but he could not shake the specter of complacency and looking the other way. As by Barry Levinson from Cahn’s screenplay, HBO’s Paterno illustrates Joe Paterno’s final week as head coach of Penn State in a captivatingly brilliant film.

“The part of [the Paterno story] that was interesting to me was the idea of, ‘How do you not know that you know?’ How do we wind up in these situations where we say, ‘Everybody knew.’ Everybody knew about Harvey [Weinstein]. Well, if everybody knew, then how come it continued? This was a particular story where apparently a lot of people knew.”

Many people allegedly knew about the Sandusky affair, but Cahn wanted to focus on a single individual. None were more high profile than Joe Paterno who was universally regarded as having a significant moral compass. Played by Al Pacino, Paterno’s gradual realization that he could have stopped Sandusky’s crimes and failed to do so becomes the center of the drama.

“There are a lot of people who had feelings about whether Joe Paterno was guilty or not, and that was not really a question that interested me,” Cahn explained. “I wanted to come at this from the assumption that what if he really thought he did everything he could do and how is that possible given the numerous times he was confronted with this information over the course of several years. How do you put your mind in that place. That’s the question I really wanted to understand.”

In fact, the single most surprising aspect of all Cahn’s intimate research was how often Paterno heard about the Sandusky events. And did nothing.

“I really feel what spoke most powerfully to me was that this was a story of personal responsibility and community responsibility. What do we all need to look at in ourselves? Why do we take a step back when we need to take a step forward?”

Writing Paterno Before the #MeToo Movement

Debora Cahn became engaged in HBO’s Paterno project before the world exploded with horrific instances of sexual misconduct in nearly every industry. Before the Twitter hashtag #MeToo became an integral part of our everyday lexicon. While the storm raged, Cahn fashioned her Paterno screenplay to reflect on the complacency issues of not only the Paterno case but the world at large.

“It was certainly breathtaking to see it all unfolding and to look at it as exactly the same story,” Cahn admitted. “The movie came to me a few months after Trump and ‘locker room talk’ came out. The idea that you could take sexual predation and frame it as ‘boys will be boys.’ Here, was this story, then, of children being raped in a locker room.”

Looking at the film, it’s difficult to imagine the events surrounding the Sandusky scandal as “boys will be boys,” but that’s the most critical reason Cahn took on the property. This is something that has happened, happens today, and will happen again. Holding the Paterno story up against the Trump scandal and our current #MeToo culture proved an unique opportunity for Cahn as a writer. She wanted to move the line on what we as a nation consider acceptable.

She wanted to shine a light and put a stop to “boys will be boys.” And with Paterno, Debora Cahn contributes to the healing movement stemming from our #MeToo era.

Please consider Debora Cahn for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series, Movie, or Dramatic Special. HBO’s Paterno is currently streaming on HBOGo or HBONow.