Back to the book

Novelist abandons book for screenplay format; “Winged Creatures” is now a film starring a high profile cast, and the novel was completed as well.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

Roy Freirich’s Malibu office, with soothing views of Santa Monica Bay, a quiet and graceful space, is a contrast to the tragedy and moral violence of his latest novel, “Winged Creatures” (St. Martin’s Press).

Freirich abandoned the novel form at first and wrote the story in screenplay format; the film is now in post production, directed by Rowan Woods and starring Kate Beckinsale, Dakota Fanning and Forest Whitaker, among other high profile actors. He then went back to the book form, and “Winged Creatures” was released this month.

The story follows the lives of disparate survivors of a random massacre in a fast food restaurant, weaving the narrative in between each character’s descent into a private hell.

“I believe closure is a myth,” said Freirich, whose youthful face is framed by thick, wavy gray hair. “Your life changes forever. James Oliver Huberty’s massacre in San Ysidro (killing 21 people at a McDonald’s in 1984) really penetrated my conscience. I became increasingly haunted by what the lives of survivors looked like after such a thing. How they acted, with courage or cowardice or divine interpretation. What was their connection with their families and their lives afterward?”

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Freirich explores his characters’ struggle to make sense of a world following such tragedy, with guilt and desperate incomprehension shaping their diverse reactions. A teenage girl believes that God touched her through the murders; a driving school instructor believes his survival was a symbol of his unbreachable luck; a new mother’s ability to care for herself and her baby spirals away with her reality.

“Judith Herman’s [a psychiatrist who is considered a pioneer in the study and treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder] ‘Trauma and Recovery’ is a great, compassionate book,” Freirich said. “Her idea is that survivors of trauma will unconsciously continue to reenact their tragedy, almost as a way of getting control of it.”

The research for his novel, Freirich said, was not fun. “I gradually was just overwhelmed emotionally so I turned to research and found the depth of what PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] can bring,” he said. “Hysteria, obsessive-compulsive disorder, abuse of drugs, broken families. Whether it’s war or a random shooting, this research helped me contextualize how people act after trauma.”

Freirich’s attraction to big human questions comes honestly. His father, Jerry Freirich, was recruited as a grad student at Colombia University and sent to Oak Ridge for chemistry research for The Manhattan Project (the federal government’s secret development of the nuclear bomb). “He felt that the war wouldn’t have ended without it,” Freirich said.

The younger Freirich’s teen years were spent writing “tragic, dramatic short stories” and he found himself at Beloit College in Wisconsin.

“It was a hippie, liberal arts enclave at the time,” Freirich said. “But it had great teachers whose advice I follow to this day.”

He followed up with his master’s at the University of Wisconsin and became aware he was at a crossroads.

“I was attracted to academia,” he said. “But I had to decide whether I wanted to write about other writers or write myself.”

When a short film he had written won awards and was screened here in Los Angeles, he was hooked on the idea of writing for a living.

“I watched people in that WGA Theatre watching my little film and that was it,” Freirich said. “But then I decided I wasn’t going to succumb to ‘commerce’ and moved up to Arrowhead to write a horrible first novel. I never get anything right the first time around-except marriage.”

That would be with screenwriter Debrah Neal, with whom he has managed to collaborate in his career. The two have worked on several scripts together, including “Frontin'” for Fox Searchlight Pictures, and have co-written songs together. Freirich financed his “serious writing habit” as a songwriter for EMI and Warner Bro. Records, under the pseudonym Roy Freeland, with songs recorded by Aretha Franklin and Smokey Robinson, among others, and soundtracks in various films (“Top Gun,” “Donnie Brasco”).

“We worked on a project at Fox a few years ago and I just loved it,” Freirich said. “There is a magical, refined, definitive communication when it works, but I am sure there are times when she is tempted to pull out the rope and masking tape.”

“Winged Creatures” was Freirich’s second attempt at a novel. “I didn’t like the first draft,” he said. “Too many characters. I had a problem with distinguishing their voices in novel form.”

So he switched formats and put it all into a screenplay and the characters bloomed. “Screenwriting instincts can work for novels. The beats should further the story and continue the narrative thrust.”

He started to shop the screenplay around and a director neighbor showed it to producer Robert Salerno (producer of such films as “21 Grams,” “All the Pretty Horses,” “Delirious” among others). “Bob’s encouragement of my screenplay made me go back to the novel,” Freirich said. “Meanwhile, Creative Artists became interested in the script, then Kate Beckinsale signed on and then it started taking on life. It’s a very actor-driven project and some great people stayed on with it through financing falling through and everything.”

Sony will release the resulting film, also starring Guy Pearce, Jennifer Hudson and Jackie Earle Haley, this year.

“I am thrilled with the cast,” Freirich said. “Beckinsale has this nuanced performance that you’ve never seen and Dakota Fanning is just on the cusp of subtle young womanhood.”

Freirich is already hard at work on his next novel.

When asked why he selected “Winged Creatures” as his title, Freirich pondered.

“Being a poetry student, I suppose,” he said. “There is a resonance in that kind of imagery from mythological culture. Are they angels or devils? I guess you could also say a winged creature is something that has been just grazed by a bullet and survives.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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