He was a world-class rower, advancing all the way to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, but Keir Pearson's biggest post-Harvard claim to fame has been bringing his screenplay, Hotel Rwanda, to the big screen.
One would be hard-pressed to find someone who has experienced the Olympic opening ceremonies as an athlete, and the Academy Award ceremonies as a nominee. Keir Pearson has done both.
A member of the 1992 United States Olympic rowing team, Pearson marched into Barcelona Olympic Stadium with his team and remembers the reception as being "mind boggling. To hear 90,000 people cheering and screaming, literally people from every country. It blew me away."
Pearson was also nominated for Best Writing, Original Screenplay, in 2006 for the movie "Hotel Rwanda." For him the ceremony was like "a big cocktail party." The Oscar luncheon was more rewarding, held "in an informal setting" before the ceremony that allowed him to "mingle with [my] heroes." For much of the actual ceremony the place was "half-empty, with not enough seat fillers" to fill up the place. Yet when they opened the envelope for his award he had "never been so nervous in my life."
Growing up in Portland, Ore., the path to this dual achievement began when he spent the night at a friend's house during freshman year of high school. His friend "had to get up early the following morning to go to crew practice," he remembers. Pearson "thought it was a bit odd. But my friend convinced me to give it a try, and I'm thankful to this day that he did."
Going on the water for the first time "there was something magical about skimming across the water, silently, watching the fog burn off with the rising sun. Something clicked for me then and I knew then that I had to do this... really, really had to do this... all the time."
Rapidly improving to the point where he made the 1984 Junior National Team, Pearson was looking at rowing schools and some teammates who were at Harvard suggested he visit. He did, and "there was such a buzz of energy. And nothing could beat Cambridge and Boston." Rowing swayed him as well, as "the fact that Harvard had the best rowing program in the country at the time was a huge influence."
At Harvard Pearson found mixing academics and rowing "very easy." He says, "I really loved a lot of the classes I was taking and most of my teammates were seriously into something outside of the sport." He majored in East Asian Studies and, rather than finding his studies hindered by rowing, he found his rowing suffered from his academics. "I was really into doing [my] senior thesis," says Pearson. "I even took a whole year off to travel and go to China to study."
He kept his rowing up enough to help Harvard to the 1987 National Championship. "Brown was the heavy favorite," remembers Pearson. "It was a barn burner the whole way down the course and we edged them out by .18 of a second in the final sprint." His year spent studying in China enabled him to accompany the Harvard team to Henley in 1990, where they won the Ladies' Challenge Plate.
Graduating in 1990, Pearson stayed in Boston to train in rowing. His undergraduate thesis, on Chinese cinema, formed a foundation for his future career. "I had to get the East Asian Studies department and the Visual and Environmental Studies department (this department had great professors in film theory and documentary filmmaking) to cooperate and oversee the research," he explains.
The exposure to filmmaking whetted his appetite and he gained admittance to NYU's renowned film school. "I flew from the Olympics, did brunch at the White House, then had my first day of classes at film school," remembers Pearson.
It was hard. "I sold my boat (a crew shell) and car to pay for my first year," he says. It also required a different mindset. "You won or lost in athletics," Pearson explains. "with film it's subjective expression. It's difficult to make the transition."
The MFA program requires three years of classes plus a thesis film. Pearson worked his way through as a film editor, graduating in 1997. "I worked on Ken Burn's 'The West,'" he says. "That's how I paid for my thesis film."
After graduation Pearson was doing film editing for Court TV and New York Times TV when in 1999 a friend told him about Rwanda, specifically the story of Paul Rusesabagina, who sheltered over 1,200 Tutsis from the Rwandan genocide. The story "just clicked," he says. "This was a man who did something when all the great leaders of the world did nothing."
In between bouts of film editing he went to Rwanda and Belgium to do research, interviewing Paul Rusesabagina. His girlfriend (now wife) Jackie Connelly, herself an All-Ivy swimmer from Brown, gave him her frequent flyer miles to make the trips possible.
By 2001 he had a draft script completed and took it to Hollywood, where director Terry George (who would share the writing Oscar nomination with Pearson) agreed to direct. They started shooting the film in 2004 and it was released around Christmas of that year.
"What [the Oscar nomination] has done for my career has been fabulous," says Pearson. "I spent ten years trying to break in - struggling - then [my career] went from 0 to 60 in no time flat." It doesn't hurt that "Hotel Rwanda" continues to do well. It's in the top five on Netflix movie rentals, and the American Film Institute puts it 90th on its list of 100 most inspirational movies of all time.
Pearson's currently working on "Son of al-Qaeda," about a 16 year old's journey from an al-Qaeda training camp through Guantanamo and Bosnia to his family's home in Toronto, where he now lives. He also is working on a script about "two New York City cops doing hits for the mob." He explains, "I tend to do true life stories."
There are similarities between competing at Harvard and in Hollywood, Pearson finds, but not in the usual sense. "The more difficult thing was learning how to compete against one's friends on the team to make the varsity," he explains. "We saw each other every day at practice, we hung out together, Competing like this is a very tricky thing to manage. And it didn't always work out in my favor and I had to learn how to handle this. More importantly, I saw how my teammates handled this."
"The film business is very small in the same way. Everybody knows everybody, and everybody is playing for keeps. And the one thing I learned from my college days is that if you go out and compete long enough, you're going to get knocked to the ground at some point. And it's going to hurt. The real trick is getting back up, dusting yourself off, and getting back out there like nothing happened."
— Stephen Eschenbach