Paying It Forward

  • It all started 23 years ago. A young writer, Catherine Ryan Hyde, was driving home late one night in a disreputable section of Los Angeles when her aging Datsun stalled and started spewing smoke. She leaped out, away from danger, only to see two guys running at her with a blanket. Visions of muggings danced in her head. As she now recalls, "It did not occur to me that this was the good news."

    Her car, it turns out, was on fire, burning along the throttle line. It could have exploded and killed her. Instead, some Good Samaritan called the fire department, the two guys with the blanket put out the blaze, and the Datsun was saved to drive another day. It took Hyde a while to understand that she too had been saved. "I finally realized these two guys could have died," she says. "I could have died. I turned around to thank them--and they weren't there. For the next few months, I walked around with this huge sense of regret. But without realizing it, that planted the seed for the idea. If you can't pay it back, pay it forward."

    Two decades later, Hyde has figured out how to "pay it forward" big time. This weekend (Oct. 20), her novel Pay It Forward becomes a major film starring Oscar winners Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, as well as nominee Haley Joel Osment. Hyde's book, published early this year, is just out in paperback. And across the U.S., kids and some adults are adopting the pay-it-forward philosophy, performing random acts of kindness. "Grownups have a tendency to talk themselves out of things, saying it will never work, but kids are fabulously optimistic," says Hyde, who has watched the ideas roll into the website. "I know the book moved some people, and the movie will bring the idea to millions more. Does it have the possibility of starting a social movement? We'll find out."

    A pay-it-forward movement? What's that, some new pyramid scheme? We asked the authority--Osment, 12, who has gone from seeing dead people in The Sixth Sense to playing Trevor, a junior high student who helps people live. "It's a very cool story," Osment says. "Trevor's life is pretty bad. He lives in a rough section of Las Vegas. His mom drinks. His life stinks. He meets a teacher, Eugene. Most teachers just say, 'Class, open your books.' This one, he opens his heart. Eugene has this project--to change the world--that spurs Trevor. And Trevor comes up with the idea of paying it forward. Do something for three people. And they do it for three people. And three becomes nine, and nine becomes 27, and so on, like a chain. I've done the math, and you can reach millions, billions of people, all paying it forward. And pretty soon the world will be changed. It's pretty profound, huh?"

    Osment, now shooting Steven Spielberg's A.I., is a new old pro. "I read the script one night before I went to bed and knew right away it was good, quality material," he says. "It left me feeling empowered with this mission that maybe that sort of thing is possible."

    A few adults got empowered too. Jonathan Treisman, the executive producer who optioned Hyde's unpublished manuscript, says he was so moved by it ("I cried") that he rammed it through the clogged Hollywood pipeline in a relatively swift 14 months. Mimi Leder (director of Deep Impact as well as many episodes of ER) signed on after her daughter Hannah, 13, read the manuscript and begged her to do it. "It's our youth who will change the world--always has been," says Leder. "It was important to us that this movie be PG-13 so families could see it."

    After Osment signed on to the project, the Oscar winners piled on. Spacey (American Beauty) pulled in Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets). Hunt is Arlene, Trevor's emotionally bruised mom; Spacey is Eugene, the inspired teacher whose psyche is as scarred as his face. "It's an incredible love story between two scarred people," says Spacey. "These two lost people find each other and fall in love, with Arlene's son helping them along, in the cutest way possible. Sometimes you read scripts and there's a soppy love story, or an uplifting movie-of-the-week feeling. But this was unusual. By the end, it was shocking."

    Hyde was on such a lucky streak. So this is where we tell you how disillusioned she was by the moviemaking process. It's true that Reuben, the black one-eyed Vietnam vet in the book, became the white burn victim Eugene in the movie (first choice Denzel Washington was busy); that scriptwriter Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire, The Thomas Crown Affair) fiddled with characters; that Leder moved the setting from Atascadero, Calif., to Las Vegas. ("I thought the land of lost hopes and lost dreams was the place for this movie," she says.) But Hyde shrugs off the changes: "The heart of the story survived beautifully. I do think people are ready to see an uplifting movie."

    The timing of Pay It Forward's release is certainly serendipitous, given the current acrimony between Washington and Hollywood over content. The folks behind the film are eager to do their bit. J.P. ("Rick") Guerin, chairman of Tapestry Films, which produced the movie, helped Hyde set up the nonprofit Pay It Forward Foundation to make sure the idea (which he calls a "chain letter of kindness") survived beyond the theater. "Most movies leave you laughing or happy or excited," he says, "but few send you out feeling like you want to do something. Hollywood could use a few more movies like this."

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