By Joseph Hurley
David McLaughlin, the Boston-bred, California-based author and director of “God Willing,” got some unexpected good news while in New York recently. In a call from his Los Angeles agent, he learned that a major production company had bought a treatment he’d written, based on a popular Spanish novel.
In addition to that bit of happy tidings, there’s some possibility that the 29-year-old son of Boston College economics professor Francis McLaughlin will be hired to write the script. Unless, of course, the production outfit decides to make the movie in Spanish.
Whatever happens, the lanky, easygoing McLaughlin will adjust, which is something he’s learned to do, growing up in a suburban Boston household in which he was the youngest of 11 children.
Viewed casually, the McLaughlin family of West Roxbury appears to be an extremely efficient organism, with all of the sons and daughters married, including David and his wife of five years, the former Beth McNamara, who is also from the Boston area.
McLaughlin is best known in New York for his recently completed play “God Willing,” which tells the story of a couple of days in the life of an Irish-Catholic Boston family following the death of an unseen but all-important character the production’s program refers to as “the patriarch Gerard Lawler.”
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The drama, fortunately, is not drawn from McLaughlin’s personal experience, since his own family is happily and productively intact, with a brood of 20 grandchildren on the scene and others being awaited.
“God Willing,” notably accurate in its details and its insights, does stem from a series of incidents the writer observed at close range, when the father of a friend perished in a fall from a ladder at a building site where he was working.
“A very close friend of mine, whose house I was in and out of as much as I was my own, lost his father in an accident where he was working, “McLaughlin said. “Both of my friend’s parents had been born in Ireland. I’d been at a lot of wakes, but this one was the first that I experienced, I think, on two levels. I think I had matured enough as a writer by that time that I not only experienced it emotionally, because I was so close to the family, but also in a sort of detached way, as though I were looking in from outside and seeing what was going on.”
That particular wake held McLaughlin’s interest in another way, too. “It was a particularly interesting wake in the sense of who came,” he said. “There were all the archetypes of my community, the union leaders, the politicians, the priests, the neighborhood guys who were still neighborhood guys, and the neighborhood guys who were now lawyers and things. I watched it all, in terms of how they mixed, how they interacted, what they thought of each other, all of which was going on there, within the framework of the mourning process. I was fascinated by it, and emotionally moved at the same time, and that’s what gave rise to the play.”
Young as McLaughlin is, “God Willing” isn’t the first time that he’s reached into his own background for material for his writing. A few years ago, he wrote a screenplay he originally called “Brass Ring,” a tale of the tensions and sometimes subtle social interactions within a Boston neighborhood. It was filmed as a low-budget, independent feature under the title “Southie,” a reference to South Boston, the city’s Irish district.
“Southie” a start
Briefly released, the film, directed by John Shea, served as a valuable learning experience for McLaughlin. The mere fact of having had a film made and distributed made the young writer viable in terms of future work, which is why he and his wife relocated to California two years ago.
“It could have been New York,” he said, “but we needed to get away, so we thought we’d go for the longer distance and then work our way back East if we wanted to.”
If it hadn’t been for the presence of “Southie” on his resume, McLaughlin would almost certainly have had more trouble getting people to take him seriously.
At the moment, he’s in the talking phase of a television series that will draw on another of his personal experiences, this time an extremely painful one.
On May 8, 1988, coming home from a party, McLaughlin was in the back seat of a car driven by one of his friends. When the driver ignored a stop sign, the car was hit from the side by another car.
“The impact sort of rammed me into the other wall of the backseat, head first,” the writer, who was then 17, recalled. McLaughlin had to be removed by the Jaws-of-Life. He suffered injuries identical to those actor Christopher Reeve suffered a few years later, with the fortunate exception that the young Bostonian’s spinal column wasn’t severed.
“I ended up in what they call a cervical halo,” McLaughlin said. “My mother called it my Crown of Thorns.”
The cervical halo consisted of a heavy metal band that reached almost all the way around from his forehead to the back of his head, kept in place by two screws, one above the outside corner of each eyebrow, and a kind of vest that extended from his neck almost to his waist, the object being to keep his head and neck absolutely rigid in order for the damaged cervical bones to heal correctly.
Now, a decade later, all McLaughlin has to show for his ordeal is a braid-like scar at the back of his neck, a three-inch cicatrix above his right kidney, where the surgeons went in to harvest the bone to fuse to a troublesome second vertebra, plus a certain limitation in his ability to turn his head.
The experience came in handy not long ago when he was pitching a story idea to the producer of a projected TV series.
“They wanted something like the series that Claire Danes did, ‘My So-Called Life,’ ” he said, “only they wanted it from the point of view of a teenaged boy.”
McLaughlin recounted the story of his accident, including some of the difficulties of living for six months attached to that cervical halo. “I told them about a time when I tried to kiss a girl, and ended up giving her a big cut on the bridge of her nose, as if just being a teenager trying to get a kiss wasn’t difficult enough to start with,” he said.
The TV producers really liked his stories, and McLaughlin is still in communication with them. The series, at this point, if it comes into being, bears the probably temporary title “One of the Boys.”
McLaughlin is definitely one of the boys in his own family, one of the six sons of Francis and Claire McLaughlin, and one 52 first cousins.
“An enormous family is a blessing,” he said, “but when you work for yourself, as a kind of independent, self-employed writer, working alone, people tend to think, ‘He’s at home, so he can come over and watch the kids.’ ”
If that isn’t sufficient motivation for a move to California, it’ll do until a better one comes along.
“It is nice to have a little bit of distance,” he said, “and, honestly I think it sharpens my perspective on what it is to live at home as well, which tends to be what I write about a lot.”
If David McLaughlin were forced to identify the single urge or circumstance which made him a writer, he could do it easily enough.
“I started keeping a journal at one point for the simple reason that I’d have these arguments with my brother, John, who’s 10 years older than I am, and very, very intelligent,” he said. “When we argued, I could never get the last word in, and a friend told me that he had written letters to his father, who had died, and the process was cathartic, or maybe therapeutic. That journal-keeping evolved in my case into the habit of writing.”