As an award-winning writer and producer, John McNamara knows a good story when he hears one, and Steven Raucci's tale of intimidation and retribution is definitely something out of the ordinary.
"If I wrote this as fiction, people would have told me I was crazy," said McNamara, who was in Schenectady last week researching the case of Raucci, a Schenectady City School District maintenance supervisor who is seven years into a 23-year prison term at the Clinton Correctional Facility. "You can't write this stuff. It's just way too far out there."
An Ann Arbor, Michigan, native, McNamara was the screenwriter for "Trumbo," a feature film released in 2015 about the blacklisting of Hollywood writers during the post-World War II McCarthy Era. He had two other successful endeavors in 2015 with "The Magicians" (Syfy Channel) and "Aquarius" (NBC), and he thinks he's found some more TV gold in the story of Raucci, who was indicted on 18 counts, including weapons possession, arson and terrorism.
"What struck me most was that every two minutes I was saying to myself, 'I never would have thought that,' or 'I never would have invented that,'" said McNamara, who was directed by a friend to the transcript of National Public Radio's "This American Life," which chronicled Raucci's story in 2010. "It was very disturbing, weirdly funny and weirdly terrifying at the same time."
McNamara earned the rights to Raucci's story by contacting Sarah Koenig, the NPR reporter who put together the initial radio show.
"A friend of mine told me to call Sarah and convince her that I was the right person to do this story," said McNamara. "I called her; I guess Sarah liked my take on the story, so we optioned the rights in November and I made my first trip to Schenectady on January 19. I contacted and interviewed as many of the principals as I could, went back to LA and wrote out an outline and some scenes, but then I realized I had some large gaps so I had to come back to Schenectady."
McNamara says the best way to tell the Raucci story is through a television series.
"I don't see it as a network show for a lot of reasons," said McNamara. "It's definitely a cable or stream-living series, so we'll probably do 10 episodes a year for five years. 50 episodes might sound like a lot, but if you look at the arc of Steve Raucci's rise and fall it's almost nine years, and as far as I can tell there's not a boring day in any one of those nine years. I couldn't have plotted anything with more originality than the actions he took to gain and consolidate his power. It'll probably be the first TV series ever about a guy who starts out as a groundskeeper and then becomes head of all custodial and maintenance services for a school district."
Raucci was arrested in 2009. A Schenectady County Court jury convicted Raucci the next year on 18 of 21 counts after a long and complex trial. He will be eligible for parole in 2032 when he will be 83 years old.
"I knew there were some people who didn't want to be interviewed, but most everyone I asked agreed to talk to me," said McNamara. "I haven't talked to Steve Raucci's family, and I've heard through good sources that he wouldn't speak to any journalist. He did consent to one interview with a newspaper reporter but that turned into a unchallenged monologue and that was of very little interest to me. From what I could tell, he still believes he is innocent. He feels he was betrayed by people he trusted, he believes he was just a prankster, and he refers to explosives as fireworks. Well, obviously the district attorney, the jury, the sentencing judge and the appeals court all disagree with him."
McNamara found success as a writer early in life.
"I had the good luck to be a burgeoning playwright as a teenager," said McNamara, who spent part of his young life in Philadelphia before returning to Michigan. "When I was a freshman at the University of Michigan a professor told me about a national contest by Stephen Sondheim for young playwrights, and I ended up being one of 10 winners from thousands of kids that entered. It really did change my life."
McNamara left Michigan after a year and transferred to New York University, where he spent more than two years but never graduated. He also left a promising career in New York as a playwright and headed to California, where he began working in television and film.
"Stephen Sondheim has quite a sense of humor and he occasionally brings up the fact that I was picked as one of his playwrights and as soon as I got my first play produced, I said, 'see you later,' and went off to Hollywood," said McNamara. "But I needed to make a living. Because I won Stephen's contest, I got an agent and a book contract and I was offered the opportunity to write my first TV movie, one of those after-school movies, and that got me into the Writer's Guild of America."
Although he never got his degree from NYU, he says the experience was well worth it.
"I love the school and the people I met there," he said. "But I couldn't refuse the money. I wasn't going to turn down CBS for doing something I wanted to do. I got into a series of, I'll say polite, discussions with a professor because I was hoping that I would get some kind of work-study credit for being a professional writer. He said no and that NYU wasn't a trade school. He said you won't get any credit for what you do and we suggest you not do it. Well, I was living in New York City, I wasn't on a scholarship, and even if you're working you can always use more money. So I quit and that was it for my education."
He did, however, during his time at NYU, have three professors who were all on the Hollywood blacklist.