A Screenwriter’s Life

Worcester native John J. Lynch ’98 has been following the call to write for the big screen since he was kid. His latest short film is gaining attention as it shows in film festivals around the country.

Story and photos by Nancy Sheehan

John J. Lynch took a gamble on an idea close to his heart—and hit the creative jackpot.

Lynch, a 1998 graduate of Worcester State and adjunct faculty member in the English Department, wrote a screenplay loosely based on his life experiences when he was younger. The resulting short film, called The Gambler, is winning accolades, honors, and acceptance into film festivals across the country.

An April showing at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival in Worcester, which was its first festival screening, was a sellout. Submissions for upcoming screenings at festivals in New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere have already netted Lynch several awards. The film is the first solo screenwriting credit for Lynch, who started in TV as an assistant writer on That ’70s Show and also wrote jokes for Tim Allen and other comedians.

John J. Lynch with actor Mark Rolston, one of the stars of the short film The Gambler.

Lynch, who grew up in Worcester and now lives in Burbank, Calif., no longer gambles, but based The Gambler screenplay on the exploits of his younger self. The main character, Joe Sullivan, finds himself in a dangerous gambler’s bind—laying a bet with one bookie to pay off another. The 17-minute film involves Joe sitting in a movie theater as he waits for the results of the NBA game that he has placed his do-or-die bet on, another nod to Lynch’s younger years.

“When I was growing up, we had something like six movie theaters in Worcester, and my friends and I practically lived in them,” he said. His film fixation led Lynch to make movies with friends in his backyard and to guess all the Academy Award winners in a school contest when he was 13. A teacher at Worcester Central Catholic High School called the local daily newspaper about the young phenom, and Lynch found himself on the cover of the entertainment section.

“They did a story about how I make movies with neighborhood kids and took a picture of me striking a pose in front of The Empire Strikes Back marquee at the old Showcase Cinemas downtown (now the Hanover Theatre and Conservatory for the Performing Arts). The headline was something like ‘Whiz kid picks the Oscars at 13,’” he said. But he’s not one to take much credit for the feat, even now. “The big movies were Coming Home and The Deer Hunter, so it was a pretty easy year,” he said.

After high school, Lynch’s youthful movie-making dreams were put on hold as he set out to find a way to make a living. He eventually got a job at a company that made packaging from recycled cardboard. It paid well—no small prize for a working-class Worcester kid. “I was a night foreman on a corrugator machine, which sounds pretty far away from screenwriting,” he said. “But they liked me and wanted to keep me on.”

Still, though the money was good, he found the work unfulfilling. He quit his job and enrolled at Worcester State. He was the first in his immediate family to go to college, so it was a big step, but he quickly sensed he had done the right thing.

“I took a class with Ken Gibbs, a longtime English teacher there, and he was talking about a Thomas Pynchon novel, Mason & Dixon, and he was so excited about the ideas behind it, the philosophy of life behind it, and what the writer had to go through to create it, and I was like, ‘Yes, I want more of this. This is where I belong,’” he said.

After Lynch expressed his newfound enthusiasm for literature to another of his professors, Ruth Haber, he was urged to sign up for a school-sponsored trip to Worcester, England, to study Shakespeare. “And so, I went to Worcester, England, with Worcester State, and this was my introduction to college—taking all these really cool classes and being flown to England to study Shakespeare.”

His Worcester State experiences led the former night foreman to think outside the box. His Worcester State English professors became role models, and Lynch decided he would follow in their learned footsteps.  

But Hollywood and his love of writing led him to follow a different career path, although teaching has remained a part of his life. He teaches an online screenwriting class at Worcester State as well as online courses at Southern New Hampshire University and at Santa Monica College. “I think I’ll always be involved with teaching one way or another, which is great because I just love it,” he said.

Lynch moved from Worcester to California after he enrolled in a master’s degree program at Emerson College. He majored in writing, literature, and publishing the first year and then … he took a screenwriting class. The professor, a successful screenwriter himself, encouraged Lynch to go Los Angeles. “And I said, ‘L.A., like Hollywood?’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, you can finish your degree out there.’”

So, Lynch switched to a creative writing program and set off for a new adventure. “I just packed up my car with another graduate student I knew from Emerson, and we drove across the country,” he said. An early success came when he defended his master’s thesis before an Emerson professor who also worked in the entertainment industry. “My thesis was a screenplay, and he optioned it,” Lynch said. “That’s where people give you money to not show it to anybody else.” It was the first of several movie script options that would keep Lynch financially afloat even though, as is the case with most optioned scripts, the movies never actually got made.

His first job after graduating was as a gofer with the production company for the hit TV show 3rd Rock from the Sun. The company also produced That ’70s Show. A secretary from 3rd Rock intervened to cut short Lynch’s gofer stint. “She said ‘You have an MFA from Emerson? What are you doing being a gofer?’” She made a call and found That ’70s Show needed an assistant writer, and he got the job.

Lynch said he learned a lot in that show’s writer’s room, including that TV wasn’t his calling. “I learned that it’s the same formula every single week. They just put them in different situations,” he said. “It’s the same set-up: two jokes by page three, four jokes by page eight, complete resolution by page 20. Everybody’s happy at the end. It’s almost a mathematical process.”

Instead, Lynch was inexorably drawn to movie scriptwriting, perhaps a reflection of those endless hours spent in theaters growing up. To support himself, he does a variety of writing jobs but always comes back to the movies. “I knew that I really had to be true to my talents as far as what I could produce,” he said. “So, I’ve written three movies and all of them sold, but none of them got made.”

Until The Gambler, that is. “That’s my first sole screenwriting credit—after all this time—with just my name and no one else,” he said.

Lynch got an honorable mention at the New York Screenwriting Awards, so he will go to New York this summer to show his latest project around—a full-length script of The Gambler. “This summer in New York I’ll be seeing a lot of people and saying, ‘Well, this is what I have. If you liked the short, here’s the feature,’” he said. “I think it has a great shot.”