The contracts are signed, the treatment is being written and Fox Television plans to fast-track production on a ten- to twelve-hour miniseries based on lefty historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, scheduled to run early next year. With celebrity muscle provided in amply hunky doses by Zinn allies and series co-producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Fox is banking on Page Six sex appeal to sell Zinn’s sobering tales to the tabloid masses.
Skeptical media watchers have been clucking about this project since Rupert Murdoch’s minions first started negotiating with Zinn and company last spring. After many months of wrangling, all parties recently agreed on a six-part dramatization of key sections of Zinn’s book, based around the individual exploits of average Americans caught up in major historical moments.
This unlikely venture finds its genesis in a scene from Damon and Affleck’s 1997 breakthrough film, Good Will Hunting, in which Damon praises Zinn’s book. As it turned out, the Zinn and Damon families were old friends from Newton, Massachusetts. (“I went to his high school plays,” says Zinn.) A producer at Fox, Marci Pool, who had read and enjoyed the award-winning book in college, got her bosses’ OK to negotiate to buy the TV rights, which previously had been held by Globalvision executive producer Danny Schechter. After a couple of marathon sessions in Los Angeles, attended by Zinn, Affleck, Damon, Good Will producer Chris Moore (the “Gang Of Four,” as Zinn calls them) and Fox Television Studios brass, a contract was hammered out late last year. Zinn says he was adamant that the final product adhere to the “class, race and antiwar consciousness” of the book, and the contract contains language to the effect that “the series will be true to the point of view of the book,” says Zinn.
The studio ponied up $50 million for the series, and the Gang of Four quickly hired screenwriter Jeremy Pikser (who’s up for an Oscar for his work on the Fox-produced Bulworth) to produce a treatment. When that’s completed, it goes to Fox for approval. Bob Dylan and Winona Ryder have already signed on–he’s singing, she’s acting–and John Cusack and Danny Glover are negotiating for roles. “That’s a huge help,” says Pool. “To get that level of interest from talent is very unusual and very difficult in television.”
At the time of this writing, the contours of the treatment are taking shape. Zinn reports that some of the storylines being contemplated are a dramatization of the resistance movement in the abolitionist period, as seen through the eyes of a slave, and a section devoted to a deserter (or, at the very least, a dissenter) from the American Revolution. According to screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, “You can’t dramatize a textbook, and you can’t fake a docudrama as a drama, so I’ve invented a whole life story for a dockworker in the Revolution, and his great-granddaughter turns up later as a Lowell millworker. It’s just about the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on.”