Location, Location

Detroit gets a close-up in a film about a native-born pediatric neurosurgeon
Location, Location
Cuba Gooding Jr. as Benjamin Carson.
Photograph by David Lee for TNT

Now, this is reality TV. During his five days in town to view the shooting of Gifted Hands, his made-for-cable TNT biopic based on the memoir of renowned Detroit-born pediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Carson, screenwriter John Pielmeier had an epiphany. “What’s amazing about this movie is that it’s probably the only script I’ve ever written that’s actually been shot on location,” he says.

“The first day, we shot in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Public Library, where the scenes with Ben actually took place. That’s very rare in moviemaking, particularly when you’re on a tight budget.”

You can take the celebrated Pielmeier at his word. The 59-year old adapted his most famous work, the play Agnes of God into a script that became the Oscar-nominated 1985 film with Anne Bancroft and Meg Tilly. His many movies for television, including last April’s Lifetime blockbuster The Memory Keeper’s Daughter and such memorable titles as Sins of the Father and the adaptation of Dominick Dunne’s An Inconvenient Woman, consistently shatter viewership records for cable. Currently, he’s transforming two Patricia Cornwell mysteries, At Risk and The Front, for the small screen and turning Ken Follett’s bestseller The Pillars of the Earth into an eight-hour miniseries.

“I’m very fortunate to be in a position where people come to me with projects,” says Pielmeier, who lives in Garrison, N.Y., with his poet-playwright wife, Irene O’Garden. “The producer, Dan Angel, whom I never worked with before, asked me if I was interested.” Pielmeier read Gifted Hands, which chronicles Carson’s rise from frustrated, underachieving inner-city Detroit teen to pre-eminent Johns Hopkins surgeon, studied two of Carson’s other books and spent time in Baltimore with the doctor and his wife, Candy.

“I was just blown away by the story,” he says. “Not only Ben’s personal story, which is quite a journey, but how that journey might inspire other people. It’s always a challenge to compress a person’s life into 90 minutes, especially when they’re still alive.”

Academy Award-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. — a dead ringer for Carson — heads the cast of Gifted Hands. Kimberly Elise (The Great Debaters) portrays Carson’s encouraging single mother, Sonya. Still, the brightest star may be Detroit itself.

“I was in Detroit many years ago, and I was just blown away by how the city has changed in such a positive way,” Pielmeier says. “It’s such a beautiful city, and you also should be very proud of what your governor has done in terms of the tax incentives for movies.

“I’m sure there are some people in the state who are complaining about it, but they need to be reminded that if the tax breaks weren’t there, the movie companies wouldn’t be coming in and people wouldn’t be employed. Five years ago, this movie would have been made in Toronto or Winnipeg.”

Gifted Hands is scheduled to air on TNT in February 2009.

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