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No Longer Unknown: Screenwriter returns to Notre Dame to present smart thriller

Rama Gottumukkala | Thursday, February 15, 2007

It’s a scenario he’s puzzled over for years, chiseling away at the concept with purpose. Each new question added fresh twists and turns to a labyrinthine narrative. For over a decade, in fact, screenwriter Matthew Waynee has been asking all the right questions.

If you woke up and didn’t know if you were a killer or a victim, what would you do? If you were a ruthless killer, would you change your ways, try to find redemption, save people? Or if you were a victim on the verge of death, would that force you to act violently and do something you’ve never done before?

Last December, the answers were finally revealed when “Unknown,” Waynee’s first feature film, debuted in limited theatrical release in New York City. A taut psychological thriller, the film explores the dark side of human nature when five men, bloodied and beaten, wake up in an abandoned warehouse. With no memory of who they are, these men struggle to separate the predators from the prey in an elaborate endgame of life and death.

For Waynee, 34, the line separating life and death, and how far we’re willing to go to cross it, is one of the most fascinating draws in fiction.

“I think it’s in those life and death moments that people truly are who they are,” he said. “Your identity emerges in those types of moments, and that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy exploring.”

Like his characters, Waynee has stood on the edge of that line before. Born and brought up in nearby Bay City, Mich., he was once a promising high school athlete with a passion for basketball and football. But a horrific event would alter the course of his life.

“When I was 16, after my sophomore year, I was in a car accident,” Waynee said. “I ended up having eight hours of brain surgery, and I shouldn’t have survived the whole incident. That ended my football career and changed my whole athletic focus.”

The person who emerged from that event traded in his hoop dreams for another obsession – writing. Waynee became a voracious reader and was drawn to the darker, edgier work of novelists Kurt Vonnegut and Ayn Rand and the similarly murky, powerful films made by Martin Scorsese and Joel and Ethan Coen. He was hooked. Enrolling at Notre Dame in 1991, Waynee took several creative writing courses and directed several one-act plays sponsored by Farley Hall.

But it was a class he took in his sophomore year that would prove most inspirational for the budding writer, and lead to a project that would attract several of Hollywood’s brightest thespians.

“I was taking a Greek tragedy class, and we just finished reading the myth of ‘Prometheus Bound,’ who is this god chained at the top of a mountain for 10,000 years,” Waynee said. “What was interesting to me is that he’s seen as this evil character from the gods’ perspective and a positive, savior character from the humans.

“So I began to think, ‘What would you do if you were chained up in a dungeon or a prison and you just couldn’t remember?’ You couldn’t remember if you were the most sadistic murderer out there or if you were some positive rebel in a fight against a corrupt government. How would you redefine yourself? How would you choose what your identity would be?”

The idea struck the younger Waynee like a lightning bolt from Olympus. That night, he wrote a 40-page outline for the fledgling “Unknown” story, printed it out, read it over and filed it away in the back of his mind.

After graduating in ’95, Waynee finished a three-year stint as a high school English and Drama teacher for Teach for America, before entering the renowned graduate writing program at USC. Once there, he began to put his idea to paper.

“I actually started it as a novel, but it wasn’t working as well in that medium. So I finally decided that it would be great as a screenplay, and that’s when I started switching it to that,” he said. “That was about six or seven years ago, when I started writing it as a screenplay, and probably about four and a half years ago when the screenplay was done and people started reading it, getting interested in it and trying to put it to film.”

After a nerve-wracking process of sending the script out to Hollywood’s rich and famous, the film was greenlit with a humble budget of $3.5 million, thanks in part to the script’s economical usage of one primary location – the desolate, fateful warehouse.

Initially, Waynee was interested in directing the feature himself.

“In the larger scheme of my career, it was far better for me to hand it off to a different director who could get those actors, which I wouldn’t necessarily been able to do at that point in my directing career,” he said.

That director was Simon Brand, with countless music videos and TV commercials to his name, but who would also be making his feature film debut. Getting Brand on board started a casting landslide that brought with it an impressive stable of acting talent. Hollywood veterans like Jim Caviezel (“The Passion of the Christ”), Greg Kinnear (“Little Miss Sunshine”), Joe Pantoliano (“The Matrix”), Bridget Moynihan (“I, Robot”) and Barry Pepper (“Saving Private Ryan”) were drawn to the script’s alluring premise and took paycuts for the film’s greater good.

For Waynee, it was a dream come true, especially when he arrived on set to see names like Caviezel and Kinnear mulling over lines he’d been polishing for years.

“Surreal is the perfect word for it. I got to meet all the actors, these great, experienced people, and it was amazing to have Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper delivering lines and doing action,” he said. “I could think back to the time when I wrote those lines for the first time and then see these men deliver it flawlessly – to see them bringing it to life was an amazing experience.”

With one dream realized and several others on the horizon, Waynee hasn’t forgotten the best piece of advice he received along the way.

“One of my professors asked, ‘Imagine if you had all the money in the world. What would you do with your time?’ And that’s what you should do with your life, because you can always find ways to make money. It’s about doing what you truly love,” he said.

In the 11 years since he left the Golden Dame in his rearview, Waynee has only been back on campus once – a brief stop on his cross-country trek out to California. Even now, he gets nostalgic about his time under the Golden Dome, and the memories are sure to come flooding back when he returns home.

It’s taken Waynee years of questioning to forge the cinematic riddle that became “Unknown.” It began humbly, with a simple idea born out of a Greek literature class.

As for what Waynee will remember most about the decade-long journey of “Unknown” from page to screen? That answer is simple.

“I can still remember my roommate from my sophomore year at Notre Dame – he’s in Chicago – and when ‘Unknown’ screened there back in November, he called me up,” Waynee recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Waynee, I can remember when you told me this idea and how you thought it could become a film.’

“He just laughed it off then, but he could remember me that night that I told him about this idea, and for him to see it finally up on the screen, it was great to hear those words as well.”