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Kerry Howley Pens “Winner” Screenplay, Based on Her Profile of Reality Winner

NWP professor Kerry Howley

Professor Kerry Howley, NWP 2011, has adapted her 2017 New York Magazine profile on NSA whistleblower and former intelligence specialist Reality Winner into a sought-after screenplay for the film “Winner,” forthcoming from Big Beach Films. Susanna Fogel, director of The Spy Who Dumped Me and screenwriter on Booksmart, will direct the film version of Howley’s Reality Winner story. Howley talks with the NWP about the project and her adaptation process.  

How did you initially become involved in the story of Reality Winner?

Howley: I was assigned a profile of her by my editor at New York Magazine. That essay was eventually optioned by a producer, who gave me the first shot at writing the screenplay.

How did your NWP training (from long ago) prepare you for it?

Howley: I was (and always am) drawing on some of my favorite pieces of literary nonfiction, which I first encountered here at Iowa, to give shape to the essay and eventually the screenplay. Writing a screenplay is largely about finding a structure and timing the release of information. It was the NWP that gave me the time and space to look at an essay and think deeply about when to share, when to withhold, and how to build to what I hope will be an emotional climax.

Who is Reality Winner, in your view, and what role is she playing on the wider political landscape?

Howley: Reality Winner is a social justice warrior, a trained NSA linguist who speaks Dari and Pashto, a veteran, a Texan, a Crossfit aficionado, a bodybuilder, and a vegan. Maybe most importantly to me as a writer – she’s very, very funny, with a dark-yet-goofy sense of humor I appreciate and tried to bring to the script. Why is she a public figure? In 2017 25-year-old Reality walked into her job at the National Security Agency, printed out a document that seemed to confirm Russian election meddling, folded it up, put it in her panty hose, walked out, and mailed it to the Intercept. She’s currently serving the longest federal sentence of any leaker in American history.

Reality is a skeptical person who nevertheless believes deeply in her own capacity to tell right from wrong. Here, she felt she had an obligation. My intention as a screenwriter is not to defend or legitimate that choice but to explore the ambiguity around it.

Please talk about the process of adapting your essay into a screenplay. How did you go about that?

Howley: The boring answer is that I bought a book about writing screenplays and then read one billion screenplays. I found the writing intuitive because I’m always thinking about structure and dialogue in any case. It’s a narrower set of skills than is involved in essaying. If you’ve written an essay that involves dialogue, you’ve practiced the skills you’d need to write a screenplay.

Did anything surprise you during the adaptation process?

Howley: Given how the broader world tends to conflate the essay and nonfiction, it was nice to be able to work in an arena where this is not the case. Indeed you’re more likely to get into trouble with a screenplay by sticking *too close* to verifiable fact, because people who recognize themselves and feel defamed may sue. Characters invented from whole cloth, refreshingly, will not sue.

Will you be involved in the film production (in casting, etc.)?

Howley: I am involved in that I know who is being approached and where we are in the process – which is extremely fun! But ultimately the screenplay is no longer mine and I’m more of a cheerleader at this stage. We are currently casting and the production schedule will depend on the star’s availability.

Why is this story in particular important for our time? What do you want readers and viewers to take away from it?

Howley: Honestly, I’m not all that interested in whether or not this story is important. I’m interested in making an artful film. Winner is a comedy. I hope it’s a good one. It’s based on a hilarious, vibrant young woman who did something crazy because she believed it was right. I want people to watch this film and enjoy Reality because she’s a blast to be around. And then perhaps they will go home and consider the fact that she wakes up every day in prison serving a longer sentence than any of the genuinely bad actors involved in the Russia scandal.