By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent
Write what you know.
It’s a time-tested truism for many writers. And it not only unlocked Jay Paul Deratany’s most personal and focused writing, but it led him to create a script that’s currently racking up awards on the film festival circuit.
“Foster Boy” is Deratany’s first film and, as of press time, the founder of The Deratany Firm is traveling to various film festivals while also juggling cases as a Chicago trial attorney. Starring veteran actors Matthew Modine and Louis Gossett Jr., “Foster Boy” has a substantial amount of cachet for an indie film, thanks to a boost by Executive Producer Shaquille O’Neal, who has promoted the film to his nearly 15 million Twitter followers.
The film, which focuses on the tribulations of a young African American boy navigating a challenging foster system, has likely seen its praise and success because of its level of authenticity: Deratany’s career focus of social welfare neglect and child abuse cases is mirrored in the script.
Deratany’s tells Chicago Lawyer about “Foster Boy” and how he balances his two loves — script writing and practicing law.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Chicago Lawyer: What got you into writing?
Jay Paul Deratany: When I was at Michigan State, I loved writing and acting. But it was the 1980s and everybody was either going for their MBA or their law degree. Though I’ve practiced law for years, I’ve always kept a foot in that world: I took classes at [The] Second City and I actually did some improv acting for the (now closed) Bailiwick Repertory Theatre.
I wrote a play on the human rights issue called “Haram Iran” about two ethnic minorities in Turkmenistan who were hanged on trumped-up charges for allegedly being gay. Whether or not it was true, it was a travesty and bothered me on a deep level – I’m half Syrian – so I wrote it. It did well and won a GLAAD nomination.
Someone suggested I go back to school for writing. I was 44 and decided to go back to get my MFA [Master of Fine Arts degree] in writing in a two-year program while still practicing law. The campus was in Palm Springs, Calif., so it wasn’t terrible. Most of my professors were my age, so we’d go out, have a glass of wine and talk through scripts. One of my professors wasn’t too impressed with one of my projects. He asked me about my passion; I told him I worked on cases involving foster kids and I really hate how they are being treated. And he said, “write what you know.” So I wrote the courtroom drama “Foster Boy” and it has taken off.
CL: What inspired “Foster Boy”? Why is this important?
Deratany: About 20 years ago, a lady walked into my office and told me she had a foster child who was 16, sexually and physically abused her other children and threatened to kill them. I researched the case, filed a lawsuit and defense filed a motion to dismiss.
I won the case, but I learned that the foster company was for-profit and I thought to myself, ‘that can’t be.’ Then I wrote articles … I think I've written about seven or eight on foster care abuse and how to litigate those cases. I have cases I’m working now; one involves a little girl who was poisoned, killed and buried out back. Another of a little girl who was stuffed in the couch and hid from the Department of Children & Family Services.
What I’m seeing is a horrible pattern where states, including Illinois, are farming out foster care to private for-profit companies that don’t abide by rules or laws and children are getting killed. That’s what inspired “Foster Boy.” I will only write stories I know and move the needle for social change. These children are wards of the states and we should have an obligation to take care of them and provide them the best social workers.
CL: What’s it like to finish writing a film script?
Deratany: I think writing a script is like a fire hydrant for dogs: producers have to leave a little bit of themselves on your script. I wrote a draft in my MFA program and gave it to my professor John Schimmel, who was a producer for Michael Douglas for a while. He said to rewrite it and gave me some suggestions.
Then he gave it to a well-known producer named Peter Samuelson, who had worked with Steven Spielberg on a charity. I met with Peter and he told me he loved the script and suggested another rewrite. We worked on it some more and we eventually got [executive producers] Mary Beth O’Connor and Shaq involved.
CL: How did Shaquille O’Neal get involved?
Deratany: One of our other producers knew him. The film was still in the editing phase and he asked to see a draft of it. He got on the phone with us and said, ‘I love this. Kids are my passion.’ He didn't know that 480,000 kids are in foster care, 85% are of color or LGBT, and he said we needed to do something about it.
He agreed to be the presenting producer and made some suggestions about music and editing. He sent out a tweet because he really thinks highly of our main actors. Shane Paul McGhie, a young African American that we both have said is the next Denzel Washington; the kid’s a great actor and a good person too. We hope to get distribution by spring and hopefully the movie will be in the theaters and then to the streaming services.
CL: How do you balance work and the writing?
Deratany: I don’t sleep! It is tough, but being a trial lawyer is not an eight to five (job). You can work from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m., but then there’s a break in the trial or maybe you don’t have a trial for a while. Plus, I can work from wherever I’m at.
I might be about to do a Q&A for the film and I’m in my hotel room working on a brief. Luckily, it’s balanced out; I don’t know if the God of film writers and trial lawyers is watching over me, but things have just happened to work out.
I have a fantastic partner, Mike Kosner, who runs things. I also have great staff, including my paralegal Deirdre Willis who has been with me for 18 years. I focus primarily on the big trials, so I don't have to focus on the day-to-day or I can do it from wherever I’m at.
CL: What do you think of how lawyers are portrayed in Hollywood?
Deratany: I think that lawyers often get a bad name. And we know why: insurance companies, especially plaintiff’s lawyers, love to portray us as ‘ambulance chasers.’ But if it weren’t for lawyers that take cases on a contingency basis, the public couldn’t afford to pay a lawyer $600 an hour … certainly not a child who’s been injured in the foster care system. So, I’m glad I’m a trial lawyer who represents clients on a contingency basis. In other words, if they don’t win, we don’t win. I’m proud of what I do. I love that I can represent families.
CL: What impact has “Foster Boy” had on you?
Deratany: I had to create more conflict in the script, so I made the lawyer someone who was appointed by the judge played by Lou Gossett Jr. The lawyer is a white guy played by the great actor Matthew Modine and we have this young African American kid who likes rap and writing and he doesn't trust the lawyer assigned to him.
We’ve had enough white savior movies out in the world, and this is quite the opposite: Without giving it away, Jamal, the foster kid, has to sort of help save the soul of this older white lawyer who’s divorced and his kid doesn’t relate to him and he’s sort of broken.
In this day and age, I never thought I would see racism return in such a horrible way. I never thought I’d see a president who is an outright racist. I just think we need to come together as a country again and we need to fight the racism that’s occurred.
We’ve won seven awards so far, but I’m particularly proud of the audience award from the International Black Film Festival for best narrative feature. That to me said a lot; it didn’t go unnoticed that 85% of kids in foster care are children of color. It’s a sad moment in history, but I think this film added a little bit of light and I won’t say what the end is, but I think it’s a little sweet. I’ll leave it at that.
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