(L-R): Tara Grace, Susanne Scheel, Debora Cahn, Rita Ryack, Ellen Chenoweth, and Terry Lawler
(L-R): Tara Grace, Susanne Scheel, Debora Cahn, Rita Ryack, Ellen Chenoweth, and Terry Lawler

Paterno Challenges Audiences to Consider the Meaning of Responsibility

By Ashley Morton

The women behind the film sat down to discuss how and why they brought the story of the legendary football coach to the screen.


Before 2011, Penn State coach Joe Paterno’s name was uttered with reverence, synonymous with football. But after the Jerry Sandusky scandal hit the news, it became linked with questions of morality and greater responsibility.

This striking contrast, which developed in only a few weeks, is the subject of Paterno. Directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, HBO’s You Don’t Know Jack and The Wizard of Lies) and starring Al Pacino, the film covers the two-week period when Paterno celebrated a history-making 409th win, the abuse accusations against his assistant Jerry Sandusky made headlines, and Paterno received his cancer diagnosis.

It is difficult subject matter, but important, as well, acknowledged Tara Grace, Senior Vice President of HBO Films. “If it’s in the public consciousness,” she said, “It’s better for everybody.”

Grace, along with screenwriter Debora Cahn, costume designer Rita Ryack, casting director Ellen Chenoweth and casting associate Susanne Scheel, joined Executive Director of New York Women in Film & Television (NYWIFT), Terry Lawler, after a screening of the film to discuss its creation.

“The film was six years in the making,” said Grace. “Getting through the vetting, research, and varying points of view was the trickiest part, just to make sure we were capturing the essence of it.”

“It was a real nail-biter,” agreed Paterno screenwriter Debora Cahn of the process. “The case was unfolding while we were writing and shooting, and part of sealed testimony. So we were waiting day by day to see if something would come out we could use.”

The film is sectioned into days of the week, reminding the audience how quickly the story unfolded once it became public. “The most striking thing to me,” Cahn said, “was Paterno reached the apex of his career on a Saturday, and in less than two weeks, was at the very bottom.”

“The journey of understanding through one week, through one character who didn’t really think he knew until he figured out he did, was the most powerful narrative,” she continued.

Authenticity was key in recreating the story, set largely in 2011. Costume designer Rita Ryack, explained that keeping outfits distinct while costuming mostly male characters who leaned towards navy blue, blacks and grays was a challenge: “It was a jigsaw puzzle, they had to be just different enough. And the fashion silhouette has changed; big, oversized things are so hard to find now.”

Casting director Ellen Chenoweth, who first worked with Barry Levinson on Diner, explained, “Barry has a lot of attention to detail. So we did lots of research into what people looked liked. Besides Al, it’s not a particularly starry, showy or quirky cast, but solid actors who could serve the story.”

That story, complicated, emotional, and at times unsettling, offers a compelling look at one man’s fall from grace, and the gray area surrounding what it means to be culpable. “My hope is that it’s not an indictment of Joe Paterno, whether or not he’s guilty or innocent,” Cahn stated. “What was interesting to me is the idea that a good person, who really cares about children, can just miss the boat completely ... and to make it clear that one person speaking up can make a difference.”