Author Mike McAlary goes from covering cops to writing about them in Copland

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by Joey Guerra

Entertainment Editor

Cop movies have become an American movie staple, whether they're from Beverly Hills or graduates of the Police Academy. Many times, though, realism in portraying the men in blue is often sacrificed for dramatic intent or shoot-'em-up action.

With Copland (opening Aug. 15), director James Mangold's feature film about the New York Police Department, starring Sylvester Stallone, Robert DeNiro and Harvey Keitel, author and columnist Mike McAlary hopes to put some truth behind those big-screen badges with his novelization of the original screenplay.

"When I first saw the screenplay and read it, I said, 'There's a huge hole in this.' The story's impossible. You can't have a New York City cop living in another state. So I wrote the book, and there are many things like that I wanted to do," said McAlary during a press tour stop in Houston. "It's kinda backwards to do the book after the movie was shot, but they've since changed the movie based on the novelization."

McAlary is a columnist for the New York Daily News and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of New York's 77th Precinct scandal, which was also the topic of his best-seller, Buddy Boys. He has also written two other non-fiction works, Cop Shot and Good Cop, Bad Cop.

So Mike knows cops, a point which garnered interest from Miramax in him to write the book.

"They called me and, you know, novelizations are not like serious work in my view. I mean, I've done books before and the columns. I think I was proud to say I never even read a novelization," quipped McAlary. "But they said to me, 'you can do it the way you wanna do it,' and put flesh on all these people, and it was great. It served like a transition for me from non-fiction to novels."

McAlary was intent on trying to put his own personal mark on Copland, and he found that going back to basics was the best approach.

"You basically go back to reporting. For 10 years I covered cops from New York, so I know all the stories. The screenplay is just like being given sheets of quotes," said McAlary. "All you have is quotes, people have no history. You give them all one. You make them people. You make the town real, you give it history and all that."

The opportunity to create his own set of people and ideas based on his own experiences provided McAlary with a unique opportunity.

"The greatest thing is that it's very freeing," admitted McAlary. "Certainly when you're a newspaper guy, if someone doesn't like the story, they say 'fiction.' So you're accused of fiction all the time. So you're sitting there writing, and you keep waiting for someone to tap you on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, that didn't happen.'"

McAlary said the finished product, both on screen and on the page, is something he is definitely happy to be a part of.

"It's absolutely realistic. I've covered towns like Copland. I've covered police corruption like that."

After completing Copland, McAlary felt confident enough to take another step - writing his own non-fiction novel, Sore Loser.

"I was thinking about it for years, but really wouldn't have taken the next step. But once I did this I realized, 'You know, I could probably do a novel,'" said McAlary, who came upon an interesting discovery in pursuing fiction writing.

"This is kind of interesting because I was a writer, a newspaper writer. You write a column for the paper, and millions of people read it everyday, and you do books, and certainly people read those, but in your mind you're never really a writer until you do a novel," McAlary said. "And then once I finished (Sore Loser), I felt kind of melancholy about the whole thing because I realized, 'Oh shit, I've been a writer all the time.'"

In Sore Loser, McAlary has again included a hero cop character, but calls it more of a thriller. It even features a female tennis player.

Besides books, McAlary was co-creator of the short-lived sitcom New York News, which starred Mary Tyler Moore. But he says seeing Stallone and the others work on Copland was a totally new experience.

"It's really kind of amazing. I've done TV shows. I did this thing for Mary Tyler Moore last year, but when you see those guys do your stuff it's really kind of breathtaking," admitted McAlary about seeing his words being filmed by such high-wattage stars. "You have to pinch yourself."

As for his future in Hollywood, McAlary hopes to continue writing and is looking forward to a few more big-screen possibilities. "I did a piece for Esquire that comes out in September that will probably be a movie, and I did a book that Stallone's group optioned, so yeah, there will be more stuff."

In the end, though, McAlary stresses on the value of what college journalism students are doing now to help them succeed in the real world.

"But it all comes back to what you learn in school - find out who, what, when and where," McAlary said. "When they were teaching it in school, I thought it was bullshit, but go knock on doors, go find out. There are no stories in the newsroom."

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