by Len Lear
Plagued by nightmares, comic superhero-adoring Charlie is lovable in his innocence and sheepishness. He’s bullied at school, but when his most frightening nightmares turn out to be true, he must learn to take control and overcome his fears. Reality and Charlie’s dream world overlap, time travel swirls Charlie and his friends to untamed places, and the beauty of imagination turns life into magical realism. Shimmering locales and mystical villains make Charlie’s journey exceedingly readable.
That is the plot of Chestnut Hill novelist Tom Turner’s book, “Sign of the Sandman” (publisher, The Magic Factory), a finalist for the Foreword Reviews Book of the Year award in 2014. Turner also won the Best Screenplay Award in 2010 for “Sweet Jane” for the Philadelphia Film Office’s Shoot in Philly competition. You may have seen Turner at Stagecrafters’ 17th Annual Scary Stories the weekend before Halloween. Tom, who is currently three quarters of the way through novel two of the “Sandman” series, donated a copy of his book as a prize for the costume contest.
“I always loved stories,” Turner told us in an interview last week. “As a kid, I would put on skits in my basement for my family. I wrote a picture book about a young turtle and published a weekly family newspaper. I made my first movie at age 12 on a rented VHS camcorder, taking up a collection from my friends to bankroll the project, which elicited a few befuddled calls from their parents to my mom. I worked on all the school shows in high school.
“That led me to lighting design, which is essentially telling stories with light and what I studied in college. But I eventually turned to movies and applied to all the top film schools – and was promptly rejected. So, instead, I co-wrote and directed an hour-long, 16mm indie film titled ‘Playground.’ It starred local celeb Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb. I approached him in a cafe and asked him to be in the film.
“He said, ‘Sure!’ So we wrote him a scene, which had almost little or nothing to do with the rest of the story, but he was great. After that I moved to Los Angeles, where I realized nobody was going to hand a 20-something kid the keys to the castle and figured writing was a good way to get my foot in the door. It didn’t cost me anything but time and ideas. So I started writing my first real screenplay, ‘Sweet Jane.’”
Turner, who requested that his age not be mentioned, grew up in Philadelphia, then lived in Los Angeles for three years, followed by New York for 15. He returned to Philly a few years ago to be closer to his family.
Why Chestnut Hill?
“When I had moved back to Philly from New York, I would sometimes come up to Chestnut Hill to work and kind of fell in love with it. It has a real storybook quality to it, which I think appeals to the writer in me. Besides its storybook charm, I’m an avid cyclist and love its proximity to some great rides, not to mention the Wissahickon and Schuylkill River Trails. I can still walk to cafes, restaurants and bars, and if I want to head into town, there are two train stations very convenient to where I live.”
Turner went to Cardinal Dougherty High School and graduated from Temple University, where he was a theatre major, specifically studying lighting design, in 1993. Turner got a job at a company called Wheelhouse Entertainment and eventually got a script of his, “Sweet Jane,” into the hands of Randall Wallace, the writer of the Oscar-winning “Braveheart,” starring Mel Gibson, and Randall was impressed.
“The story idea I (and they) were most excited about was what eventually became ‘Sign of the Sandman.’ I also kept writing and developing other ideas on my own over the years, including a thriller, a romantic comedy, a ghost story and a swashbuckling action adventure. Many of those scripts were pitched through the years to various studios, but for one reason or another were never produced. It’s the constant frustration of a screenwriter: you work so hard on something only to have it stall because of something completely out of your control. Sometimes those old scripts find new lives and new champions. You just never know. The main thing is to keep pushing forward, no matter how many rejections you get.”
Turner later worked for The Walt Disney Company, where he was a creative assistant for Playhouse Disney, working with the VP of Production and the VP of Original Programming.
“It was my ‘day job’ to pay the bills. A writer asked me to develop a couple other ‘non-Disney’ ideas with her and some producers she knew. So I would work on those at night, along with my own stories, one of which was still ‘Sign of the Sandman.’”
The idea for “Sandman” came to Turner over 20 years ago, while he was waiting for a train and browsing gifts for his then oneyear-old niece (who now has a masters from Temple University in speech language pathology). He jotted the idea down in his notebook, which he still has. “It was simply the notion of a young boy who gets caught up in the Sandman’s net and travels the night with him through dreams. The idea remained in my notebook, but as always happens, the best ideas stick with you, constantly begging to be told … So I wrote it as a book. And here we are. I did, however, adapt it for the screen … so we’re good to go when the time comes!”
The publisher is willing to give 40% off to Chestnut Hill Local readers on all Hardcover/e-book MagicAll editions of “Sandman” when buying directly from The Magic Factory, and it includes a free e-book. Enter the promo code, “chestnut,” on the website to receive the offer. And if anyone wants it signed, you can often find Turner in the afternoon at Chestnut Hill Coffee Co. downstairs in front of his laptop.
Len Lear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org