Radical history meets Hollywood

In the film Good Will Hunting, Matt Damon and Robin Williams try to one-up each other by naming radical writers they have read: Damon trumps Williams’ Noam Chomsky with Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present.

That mention translated into additional sales of 100,000 copies for Zinn’s already popular radical text. With a 20th anniversary edition to hit stores in November, the book has sold more than 600,000 copies to become a bible of sorts for social activists and the occasional media star.

Its unprecedented sales – and the interest of some Hollywood Young Turks – recently prompted Fox Television to put up $52 million for a new miniseries based on the book with a release date next year.

The 79-year-old Zinn is also author of several memoirs including Declarations of Independence (HarperCollins, 1991) and You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (Beacon Press, 1995) which include his experiences as a World War II bombardier and activist in the civil rights and anti-war movements. His latest book is The Future of History (Common Courage Press, 1999).

He spoke to the Metro Times from Cape Cod.

Metro Times: What’s happening with this new project based upon People’s History of the United States?

Zinn: We’ve been working on it for close to a year; working on it meaning just laying the groundwork. Matt Damon and Ben Affleck and Chris Moore are executive producers along with me, and we have a writer, Jeremy Pikser, who was nominated for an Academy Award along with Warren Beatty for Bulworth. We’ve been putting together a treatment, a story summary outline, for the 12 hours and that’s taking a lot of time. It’s important for that to be finished and approved by Fox executives before we can move on to the next stage, which will be taking on scriptwriters for the series. But, when you’re dealing with the world of glitz, everything is iffy. There’s a number of points along the line where the project can falter and fail, but so far it’s alive and moving ahead slowly

MT: A history book has never been a runaway best seller like this; you’re in the Danielle Steel league. Is it gratifying to see the sales figures?

Zinn: (laughs) Yes, Danielle Steel and I have a lot in common. The sales figures are a good sign, and I don’t mean because it’s my book, but because it means that there are a lot of people in the country, hundreds of thousands, at least and several million if you go behind the actual sales, who want to take a very critical look at our history, who want to see a history different than what they were taught in high school. It shows there’s a lot of people who want to hear stories about how ordinary people struggled for justice – black people, Native American people, women, working people – and how that struggle continues today against the power of corporations and government and war makers.

MT: If your book is the opposite of the official version of history, how does it happen that a network owned by the archconservative Rupert Murdoch says, let’s give this radical professor a forum?

Zinn: I doubt that Murdoch said, let’s get this radical professor on the air with his radical history. I think it’s more likely that the people who work for Murdoch, and who want to present exciting television programs that will attract a lot of viewers, read the book and said, hey, this is different, this is provocative, this is controversial. And, because it is provocative and controversial and has exciting new stories to tell people they haven’t heard before about American history, maybe a lot of people will watch and it will be good for our television network. Of course, I’m guessing at what the thinking was, but I think it’s a better guess than the one that says Murdoch wants people to get my point of view.

MT: How do you intersect with Matt Damon and Ben Affleck?

Zinn: My wife and I have known Matt since he was a little kid. We were next-door neighbors for years in Boston, and we’re good friends with his mother. His mother gave him my book when he was barely old enough to read and his high school teacher used it in class, so he believes in it very much. Then, when he saw an opportunity in his film Good Will Hunting, to recommend a history book, he said, Hey, look, read this one. Ben Affleck is an old friend of Matt’s. I just got to know him recently but like Matt, he’s a very socially conscious and serious person. Neither of them is your ordinary, superficial movie star. There is a lot of depth to both of them.

MT: You’ve spent your life as an academic and social activist. In your wildest imagination did you ever think you were going to be a television star?

Zinn: It hasn’t caused me to go around permanently wearing dark sunglasses except when the sun is really out, or ride around in a Mercedes, or anything like that. I think it’s because I only take it half seriously. I’m guarded against the world of commerce and have long, long experience fighting the world of corporate wealth, so I’m not going to be easily seduced by that. If we are lucky enough to slip through the notches of the corporate entertainment structure and get something good on television, well, I’ll feel it’s like winning the lottery.

MT: I guess that’s the key question. Whether it’s going to slip through in the same form that it was written. I could imagine your stories that center on individual workers or individual soldiers in the Revolutionary War being altered to come off as mainstream and patriotic.

Zinn: They could. It’s an old story in the world of moviemaking. When you write a book, there is a direct line between what you put on the page and what gets printed. There aren’t too many intermediaries in between. There is an editor, but you have ultimate say. But in the movie business, between the writer and what appears on the screen there is an entire bureaucracy and so it happens very often that the intentions of the writer become distorted, even turned around by the time the thing gets on the screen. I’m aware of that. So, Matt and Chris Moore, my fellow producers, wrote into the contract that each episode must be true to the point of view of the book.

Writing it into the contract doesn’t guarantee it will happen, but we certainly are not the kind of people who are going to say, give us the money and you can do what you want with it. Our main concern is to have a series that presents the very controversial, very provocative point of view of the book, one which is critical of governments, critical of war, critical of corporate wealth, critical of racism. We are very, very determined to make sure that’s what happens in the series.

MT: Any ideas for a cast and crew besides Damon and Affleck?

Zinn: A lot of people in the entertainment world who want to do something useful and serious have expressed interest. Winona Ryder has expressed interest in being in it; maybe John Cusack and Danny Glover, and Tim Robbins for directing. Eddie Vedder, of Pearl Jam, says he would like to do the music and so has Ani DiFranco. Bob Dylan may be interested, as well. Once the thing gets under way I have no doubt that we are going to get a lot of well-known and very talented actors and actresses and directors to work on it.

MT: Were you surprised that Eddie Vedder chose you as his subject for Interview magazine?

Zinn: Yes. I was very honored. To tell you the truth, I didn’t know about Pearl Jam or Eddie Vedder. I didn’t know that when they do a concert, they fill an enormous stadium with 20,000 yelling young people. I got a call from Interview magazine and then from Eddie Vedder. He said he was a fan of my book and had read a number of my other things, and when they asked him who he wanted to interview he said, well, he wanted to interview me.

Before it happened, I attended a concert of his in Los Angeles. It was quite an experience for me, being in this incredible atmosphere of sound and flashing lights and young people yelling and Eddie Vedder up there on the stage. He presented a very different picture than that when he and I met in his dressing room before the show where he seemed very serious and down to earth and talked earnestly about the interview. When he came to do a concert in Boston, we met in his hotel room and had a nice long talk with a tape recorder on and that’s what appeared in Interview magazine.

MT: Did you like the concert?

Zinn: I expected to hear a lot of noise, but I actually liked it. It helped to be there. I don’t know if I had heard it on disc if I would have liked it as much, but to be there, to be part of that atmosphere with the lights and the sound, and it helped that I started off liking Eddie Vedder and was predisposed to like what he did.

MT: When Eddie Vedder interviewed you, did you get the sense that he was a knowledgeable person?

Zinn: He’s a guy who comes from a working-class background who worked as a security guard and watchman and had time to read huge amounts of stuff. He is very well-read and very interested in what goes on in the world – very concerned about war and nonviolence. He’s a serious thinker.

We had a good conversation about subjects like that and things we had in common about growing up in working-class families and becoming politically aware. His values and mine seemed to coincide.

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