by Abby Beshkin-
As a student at the School of General Studies (GS), Joe Connelly wrote the novel 'Bringing Out the Dead,' (Knopf, 1998) about a paramedic on the brink of a breakdown. A scant two years after finishing the book, Connelly got what many writers only dream of: the chance to see his own work on the big screen. Last week, the movie version of the novel, directed by the legendary Martin Scorsese and starring Nicholas Cage, Patricia Arquette and John Goodman, opened to rave reviews. Below, Connelly talks about his life as a paramedic, and how his book came to be.
From the moment he climbed into the back of the ambulance, Joe Connelly knew he had to write a book. There were so many eccentric characters - some of them too strange even for fiction. There were Jesus-crazed paramedics who tried to get dying patients to confess their sins. There were overworked nurses and exhausted doctors. Ultimately, though, Connelly says he wrote down his experiences as a way of memorializing the patients he couldn't save.
Throughout the novel, people keep asking the main character, Frank Pierce, 'What's the worst thing you've ever seen?' and Frank always quips, 'Lima beans on pizza.' But in real life, Connelly is much less glib about his experiences. He's seen gruesome, devastating things but says that oddly enough, the least bloody days on the job are often the most affecting. 'After a while sometimes it's the little details that get you, like the eyes of a child watching her mother die,' he said. 'These are the kind of details that ask you to be a writer.' He said one of the reasons he felt so strongly about setting his experiences down was that he saw so many people die who had no one to remember them afterwards. 'I really started writing the book as a way of saving lives,' he said.
Write them down he did, crafting the book in a series of classes he took at the School of General Studies. Connelly said his book is a 'composite' of the calls he's answered. There's the man he shocked back to life, whose family complained afterward their gentle old father had suddenly turned belligerent and nasty. There's the woman with Alzheimer's who called 911 every night, thinking her husband had stopped breathing, having forgotten he had died years ago. There is the man who fell asleep on the subway platform and rolled onto the tracks.
In the novel, Frank Pierce is down-and-out - heartbroken (his wife's left him), depressed (too many of his patients have died of late) and unable to quit the ambulance life he's come to despise. 'You can't quit when you're down like that,' Connelly said, adding that the character he created is an extreme example of himself, and of what Connelly said would have happened to him had he not been able to train himself to leave his work behind at the end of the shift. 'I wanted to push him out there, 'Connelly says of his character. 'I wanted somebody who had no defenses.' However, there is one very ironic similarity between Connelly and his character: at one point in the novel, Frank Pierce says he'd like to trade in his ambulance job for one on a movie set, telling directors who are trying to recreate gory scenes, what accident victims really look like. 'I leaned back in the seat and closed my eyes and ran through a list of employment alternatives...until I came to my favorite, the one job for which I was perfectly suited: Hollywood consultant.' It's too perfect, but Connelly insists that it was mere coincidence that he himself ended up fulfilling his own character's fantasy last year on the set of 'Bringing Out the Dead,' working alongside Scorsese and Schrader and trying to stifle the urge to tell Scorsese how to direct his movie. 'You spend five years inside your own head typing away, wondering if something's going to come out of it,' says Connelly. 'And then you see all these trailers and trucks lined up and it's all because of you. It's amazing.' Connelly actually did advise the directors and the actors on the more technical parts of the movie. For instance, he says he coached actor Nicholas Cage, who plays Frank Pierce in the movie, on how to perform CPR, and spent an entire night helping him feed an IV-line to a 'patient.' Then, of course, he had the unparalleled opportunity to work alongside Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader, two people who arguably have transformed the world of film-making. 'What a privilege to hang around somebody like Scorsese and watch him make decisions,' Connelly said. 'I was an altar boy for like five years,' he said. 'I wanted to do good. Scorsese really caught on to that, on to how these ideals get beat up on the streets of New York.'
Connelly knows New York well. He spent the first 10 years of his life in the Bronx and Queens, and most of his teen-age years in Warwick, New York, about three hours from New York City. He earned a scholarship to Colgate University, but dropped out in his third year. The next few years, he says, were a succession of odd jobs - selling bus tickets in Port Authority, painting houses in South Carolina, delivering pizzas in Colorado, tending bar in Dublin, Ireland. 'After coming back from Dublin,' he said, 'I chose one simple goal: to work one job straight through for one complete year, and to make that job something which would help others while I struggled to put my own life in order.' Connelly credits W. Somerset Maughm's 'The Razor's Edge,' about an ambulance-driving bibliophile, with his inspiration. 'Overnight I decided to be an ambulance driver,' he says. 'It seemed like such a great thing to do for one year - save lives and see the front lines.' In 1986 he became an EMT, then a year later took the course to qualify for the more highly-trained paramedic position. He found himself working at St. Clare's hospital, a small hospital in Hell's Kitchen, where his parents had met many years ago and he had been born. He enrolled in Columbia's School of General Studies in 1989, covering grueling, 12-hour night shifts the entire 10 years he studied at GS and taking one or two courses each semester and majoring in literature/writing. These were crazy years. The city's emergency medical response system was so bad, he said, that sometimes he'd get a call to go to someone's house, and they would have already gone to the hospital themselves and come home. 'They'd give up and call a taxi,' he said. In 'Bringing Out the Dead,' Frank Pierce, talks about squeezing in school between shifts in the ambulance, stealing two hours sleep in his car before his morning class. Connelly says his schedule was never that bad, since GS was flexible enough to let him take classes later in the afternoon. Though Connelly was a literature/writing major, he fully intended to take the pre-med requirements and continue on to medical school. But the high-caliber courses he took at GS as an aspiring writer got him hooked, and he devoted himself entirely to writing. Also, he had all these experiences he just had to get down on paper.
'I think GS students are among the most interesting because each and every one of them leads a sort of double life while in school,' said Peter Awn, dean of the School of General Studies. 'Joe took something that was all-consuming in his life and turned it into a fabulous book.' As page-to-screen success stories go, Joe Connelly's may be among the best. School of General Studies (GS) student Connelly showed up, after a particularly hectic shift, at the classroom doorstep of Colin Harrison, deputy editor of Harper's Magazine and a professor in the Writing Program. As a paramedic, Connelly had spent the last 12 hours speeding through the city in an ambulance, and he hadn't brought the writing sample Harrison traditionally demands for his high-level course. Connelly remembers: 'I had done like 24 calls in a row and I walked into his class and threw my motorcycle helmet in a corner. I remember I just started talking for like 30 minutes non-stop. I think he (Harrison) let me in because he didn't want to hear me talk anymore.' Harrison remembers differently: 'This sounds melodramatic, but I just looked into his face and I saw a tremendous intensity. I was curious about him and also convinced that there was something burning there, so I made the decision instinctively.' Also, Harrison jokes, 'He looked like hell, which added authenticity.' Then Connelly brought in his work, the first chapters of what later turned out to be his senior thesis and which he eventually transformed into 'Bringing Out the Dead.' 'I saw the first piece of writing and knew that he had tremendous talent and tremendous experience to write about,' Harrison said. Harrison introduced Connelly to agent Sloan Harris, who was interested in Connelly's work.
To add to Connelly's luck, one of his classmates turned out to work at Knopf and became the acquiring editor for the book once Connelly completed it. Knopf agreed to publish it, and before it even hit the shelves, Paramount Pictures bought the rights to the movie, enlisting none other than legendary director Martin Scorsese and writer Paul Schrader - whose famed collaborations include 'Taxi Driver' (1976) and 'The Last Temptation of Christ' (1988) - to write and direct the film. It was every aspiring writer's dream. When the novel 'Bringing out the Dead' came out in early 1998, it garnered glowing reviews from critics across the country. And last week, a scant two years since finishing his debut novel, the 35-year-old Connelly had the chance to see his own work on the big screen when the movie version of 'Bringing Out the Dead' premiered. 'It's been a wild year,' said Connelly.
In the telling of it, it all seems so easy. But Connelly said the days and nights he spent in an ambulance, traveling at high speed through the streets of Harlem and Hell's Kitchen and living the stories that were ultimately the inspiration for his novel, were anything but easy. 'It was one madness to the next,' he said. Now that his life's on the big screen, here's the all-important question: What does he think of the movie? 'I love it so much,' Connelly said. 'It's a work of art. Only Scorsese could have captured the feel of being out there at four in the morning.'
Visit the Official Bringing Out the Dead Website, http://www2.bringingoutthedead.com/