Low Plaza

Alumnus Christopher Kyle Flourishes in Unexpected Career Writing for Film's Biggest Names

By Jason Hollander


Growing up in the farm belt town of Terre Haute, Indiana, Christopher Kyle, SOA'92, saw the stages of New York City and the studios of Hollywood as distant planets. He was enchanted by show business early on -- which led to starring roles in several school plays -- but had no expectation of ever reaching either artistic pinnacle. When he came to study at Columbia in the fall of 1989, Kyle had no idea that he was only a few years away from writing for some of the biggest figures in both arenas.

Kyle gained notice this summer with the release of the film "K-19: The Widowmaker," which starred Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and was generally met with acclaim from critics. While the movie did not compete in the league of "Spiderman" or "Austin Powers" at the box office, Kyle's well received script caught the attention of the likes of Oliver Stone, who recently recruited him to help pen a new film on Alexander the Great.

The fact that Kyle's phone is now ringing constantly is a testament to the years he spent honing his craft. Inspired by the chance to study with famed playwriting professor Howard Stein, Kyle enrolled in the School of the Arts (SOA) after getting his master's degree in theatre from Indiana State. He soon found himself immersed in some "bizarre writing exercises," which he says challenged him to use his imagination in ways he never had. But the best part of the playwriting program, Kyle notes, is that it forced him to commit to the task of writing.

"You find out whether or not you have the discipline," says Kyle who notes he was encouraged by watching his work continue to grow throughout graduate school. He most liked being given context for scenes and being asked to write within the confines of a particular setting. This would eventually help him when writing for television, a stint that was almost as big of a surprise to him as his current career in film.

After graduating from Columbia, Kyle remained in New York, working as a clerical typist and S.A.T. tutor during the day to support his writing by night. He eventually scripted a play, "The Monogamist," which was produced off-Broadway by Playwrights Horizons and garnered reviews strong enough to attract the attention of television agents. Kyle was offered the opportunity to write some episodes of the network program, "Homicide: Life in the Streets."

During this time, Kyle also shopped around a screenplay he had been working on and was surprised to find a studio interested in buying it, something he insists "never happens" so easily. The film didn't get made, but he started landing other work on a consistent basis and suddenly found success in television and film, a career path he didn't anticipate.

"I never really wanted to be a screenwriter,' says Kyle. "It just sort of happened."

Then, a couple of years ago, Kyle was asked to work on the screenplay for a movie being made by fellow Columbia alumnus Kathryn Bigelow, SOA'81, who has also directed films like "Strange Days" and "Point Break." "K-19" was to chronicle the true story of a Russian submarine that nearly suffered a nuclear meltdown and barely averted setting off World War III. Kyle was intrigued by the idea of writing a feature film set underwater because he knew the genre, with its intimate setting, would require him to call on his experience writing for the theatre.

"The nuclear event in the film is only about 30 minutes. That left a lot of room for character and story development," says Kyle, who focused much of the film on exploring the different leadership styles and political opinions among the crew.

Christopher Kyle

What resulted was a unique film told from the Russian perspective. Kyle even traveled with Bigelow to Moscow to meet survivors from the submarine and hear their stories, noting that he and the director were especially "moved by the heroism and sacrifices made by the crewmen." Back in L.A., Kyle worked closely with Peter Huchthausen, a naval advisor who knew how to help accurately recreate the near meltdown. But collaborating with Ford, the film's star, proved to be perhaps most elucidating.

"He's very intelligent. He has a very precise, technical mind. He was a very powerful force on the set in his desire to make sure every little detail in the film was accurate," says Kyle, who notes that he was a bit star struck when first meeting the Indiana Jones and Star Wars veteran, but that Ford quickly became just another person on the pre-production team. "Once we started working, it was all about getting the script and the film done right."

Busier than ever these days, Kyle will share screenwriting credit on, "The Weight of Water," which opens in major cities this fall and is also directed by Bigelow. Though he spends a good deal of time in Los Angeles, he makes his home in Rockland County, N.Y. because the former playwright still feels more comfortable among the theatre scene of the east than the glitz of Hollywood. Ultimately, though, Kyle is just glad to be making a living as a writer.

He remembers well a writing professor who -- on the first day of class -- told him and his fellow students that a writer's existence is among the most difficult. The professor then challenged the class by saying, "If there's anything else that you possibly might enjoy doing more in life, you should get up now and go do it." Lucky for Kyle, he stayed in his seat.

Published: Sep 13, 2002
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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