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Article

'Fearless': The screenwriter's real-life brush with death

Rafael Yglesias recalls the inspiration for the novel and eventual screenplay of the highly personal disaster movie

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Rafael Yglesias was sure he was going to die. Almost 20 years ago, the novelist was in a car accident in which his vehicle flipped over. Though he was able to walk away practically unhurt, he says of his state of mind, ”It was a few days before I was able to adjust to life.” And it was a few years before Yglesias, now 39, was able to build on the experience to create Fearless, his seventh novel and first produced screenplay.

Driven by his brush with death, Yglesias began in 1988 to look for newspaper reports of people who had survived almost certain death. But it wasn’t until United Airlines flight 232 crashed in Sioux City, Iowa, in 1989 that he found the inspiration for his characters Max and Carla. ”I read only one sentence in the very first newspaper report—that a man had changed his seat to sit with a boy a few minutes before the plane went down, and that a woman had been holding a child when it was torn from her arms. Then I just started to imagine what their lives were like.”

At the same time, the half-Spanish, half-Jewish author was reassessing his career. After six books, critical acclaim, and little financial success, Yglesias felt that Fearless had the makings of something bigger. He withdrew his manuscript, repaid the advance, and tried to sell the concept as a movie. ”This was not an easy thing,” he says. ”I was broke.”

None of the producers he contacted could sell the story because studio executives felt that the inward, contemplative novel wouldn’t adapt to the screen. Undeterred, Yglesias wrote the screenplay himself in just six weeks. He then sent his spec script to producers Mark Rosenberg and Paula Weinstein, who decided in one weekend to option it and took the project to Warner Bros. (Coincidentally, Warner Books later published the book as well.) Two weeks later, Yglesias was in L.A. working on the movie with director Peter Weir.

Currently, Yglesias (who lives in Manhattan with his wife, Margaret, and sons, Matt, 12, and Nick, 8) is writing a novel about a psychiatrist and his patient, as well as a screen adaptation of the play Death and the Maiden for Roman Polanski. At least it’s a subject he’s thought about.