Pa. writer penned Clint Eastwood’s ‘The 15:17 to Paris’

In this Sept. 11, 2015 file photo, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, (left), U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, (center), and Anthony Sadler attend a parade held in their honor in Sacramento, Calif. The wait is almost over to see Roseburg, Ore., hero Skarlatos on the big screen in

In this Sept. 11, 2015 file photo, Oregon National Guardsman Alek Skarlatos, (left), U.S. Airman Spencer Stone, (center), and Anthony Sadler attend a parade held in their honor in Sacramento, Calif. The wait is almost over to see Roseburg, Ore., hero Skarlatos on the big screen in "The 15:17 to Paris." Skarlatos plays himself in the film, as he and two friends reenact the day they saved hundreds of lives by thwarting a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train. (Carl Costas/AP Photo, file)

In the spring of 2015, Dorothy Blyskal had quit her corporate job and was writing Facebook posts begging for an entry-level position in show business.

Less than three years later, she walked the red carpet for the premiere of “The 15:17 to Paris,” the Clint Eastwood-directed movie that she wrote. The script, her first to hit the big screen, earned the 35-year-old a spot on Variety’s list of the year’s “10 screenwriters to watch.”

“The 15:17 to Paris,” which hit theaters Feb. 9, tells the story of three American men who in 2015 helped to subdue a gunman on a train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. In an unusual move, the movie’s real-life heroes — Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler — were picked to star as themselves. Others who faced the attack also appear in the movie.

How did a novice screenwriter end up penning a script for a major Hollywood release helmed by an Academy Award-winning icon like Eastwood? Blyskal, who grew up in Easton, Pa., had shown her skills to the right people.

She had worked as a production assistant on Eastwood’s previous film, “Sully,” a job that involved (among other duties) fetching organic tomato soup for the director. But the gig introduced her to producers to whom she would show a screenplay she had written about her cousin, a firefighter who died during 9/11.

The feedback was positive, but Blyskal got the impression they were hesitant to take on a story about 9/11. Not long after, though, one of the producers approached her about taking a crack at Eastwood’s newest project: an adaptation of “The 15:17 to Paris,” a book that Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler had written with Jeffrey E. Stern about their courageous act. The story shared themes of heroism and destiny with Blyskal’s script about her cousin.

“That’s exactly why I think she approached me,” Blyskal said in an interview. Both stories involved “a man feels like he’s destined to do something wonderful and good — not specifically save lives, but that’s what it turns out to be,” she said.

After taking a day to read the book, Blyskal banged out a first draft in just six days in Jan. 2017. (The pace was in keeping with Eastwood’s, who put the movie together with uncommon speed.) She was no stranger to writing rapidly — she’d written the screenplay about her cousin in 26 hours.

From there, things continued to move quickly. Soon she was in a room meeting with Eastwood and her script’s heroes, making sure the screenplay matched their experience. The decision to cast Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler as themselves came just about three weeks before filming began, Blyskal said.

“It was three weeks before filming that they knew,” she said.

Blyskal admits that she had some nerves about entrusting her first-ever screenplay to amateur actors. But ultimately, she said, “I can trust Clint Eastwood.”

“He definitely felt some sort of emotional pull toward them that he couldn’t escape,” she said.

When trying to cast the movie, Eastwood would repeatedly emphasize the importance of faithfully capturing the men’s faces on screen, Blyskal said. The director told The Hollywood Reporter that through his conversations with Stone, Skarlatos and Sadler it occurred to him that “the faces just fit.”

“And I just thought, ‘I wonder if they could do it?’ I think there are some wonderful actors around that could’ve played this,” Eastwood said to the Hollywood Reporter, “but there’s something about this particular project and the heroism that was involved and the way they handled the thing that is just kind of unique, so I thought I’d try that here.”

The casting of the story’s real-life subjects isn’t the movie’s only casting quirk. In a drama built around a single intense moment with huge stakes, the cast is packed with actors better known for their punchlines: Jenna Fischer of “The Office” and “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” Tony Hale of “Arrested Development” and “Veep,” and Thomas Lennon of “Reno 911!” and “The Odd Couple.” Blyskal was pleasantly surprised to see comedic talent on board.

“Everything I write is infused with comedy, so I was thrilled that came across,” she said. “You’ll see in the movie. They definitely bring moments of levity to an otherwise serious script.”

Blyskal ended up a screenwriter after spending much of her life actively avoiding such a career. Her parents were both professional writers who had warned her about the profession’s inconsistent paychecks and volatility.

“I blindly followed what they said, and took it too seriously,” Blyskal said. “I would always avoid it even though I enjoyed doing it.”

Her writing did, however, get encouragement from Kathleen Dowd, her English teacher at then-Shawnee Intermediate School. She recalls Dowd assigning the students to write a paper on something they felt passionate about. Blyskal wrote about her favorite band, The Cranberries, and earned the class’s only perfect score.

“That’s what always inspired me to keep writing,” she said. “She is the reason I am what I am.”

Still, it would be a while before she seriously pursued writing. After her sophomore year in Easton, Blyskal moved to Florida to finish high school and then went off to Emerson College in Boston to study theater performance.

By graduation, she had become disillusioned with theater and went on a windy path that included time at the acclaimed improv hub Second City and a stint as a “character blogger” for a web series-turned-television series “Quarterlife,” meaning she wrote online posts in the voices of the show’s characters. But she eventually settled into a comfortable non-showbiz job.

Six years and some promotions later, she realized that if she ever intended to make a go at writing, she should do it before she settled down, had kids and became reliant on the steady paycheck. With screenwriting classes from a UCLA certificate program already under her belt, she set off scrounging for the opportunities that would eventually lead her to “Sully” and then “The 15:17 to Paris.”

After the whirlwind of writing her first movie, she now has an agent, and two possible new projects in the works, the details of which she can’t yet share.

“It literally has still not hit me,” she said. “Producers are pitching me projects, which is a total first, and I’m able to pitch my own ideas. It’s been life-changing.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal