It has often been said a writer doesn't go in search of a story. The story comes in search of the writer. Truer words cannot be said of this book.
My journey into the Congo began twelve years ago when my brother-in-law, Ken Straw, asked me, “Have you ever written a screenplay?”
I told him I had studied screenwriting for six months, written one bad screenplay, and went back to writing books. He pulled out a thin, 100 page book. "I want you to read this story," he said. "Tell me what you think." Ken had first learned of William Sheppard on an NPR morning broadcast ten years earlier.
Thus began my journey to the Congo Free State. I did not go in search of the amazing cast of characters in Among Kings. They came to me.
Over the next week as I read, I quickly became fascinated by people I'd never heard of: William Sheppard, Samuel Lapsley, King Leopold II, Leon Rom, Edmund Morel, Roger Casement, Dr. Aaron Sims, William Morrison. Sheppard's gripping story captured my imagination, filling me with curiosity why he was a forgotten, virtually unknown American hero. How had this incredibly courageous man escaped history? Let alone the Industrial Revolution and the Scramble for Africa of the 1870’s-1910.
The next time I saw Ken, I said, "We have to tell this story. We cannot not do this."
We began two initial years of research and writing about Sheppard and the people surrounding him who brought down Leopold II. We dove into Sheppard's and Lapsley's memoirs, followed by book after book and countless articles. Our research involved all the major players, history and politics in America, Europe and Africa spanning fifty years. Passing books back and forth, Ken and I often said, "These stories are so unbelievable, no one could make this up!"
The first draft of the feature film script was a hundred and fifty-page door stopper. "How?" we wondered, "is it possible to bake a story that plays out on three continents and covers a man's entire life in one of history's most complex eras?" We often commented, "This isn't a feature film. The story's too big. There are too many characters. It has to be a television mini-series." This was when you received your Netflix DVDs in the mail. Streaming was years away.
After several more drafts, we compressed the story into a hundred and twenty pages. When we launched the script, we submitted it to screenwriting competitions at film festivals. To our surprise, the script began to get some attention. It won awards in New York, Los Angeles, Virginia, and Las Vegas.
After garnering five awards, we knew we were onto something.
But that was just the start of our journey...
To be continued.
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