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Mark R. Brinker, MD


Published 12/1/2007
Peter Pollack

Scripting his own success

Trauma surgeon writes screenplays in his off-hours

“I was in the operating room till midnight last night,” explains Mark R. Brinker, MD, lowering his voice and shifting his tone. “You can open the article that way…‘He got home at midnight, opened his computer, and worked for 45 minutes on his screenplay. The light was dim. He didn’t want to wake his wife or his 18-month-old baby. He creaked into the chair…’”

But he can’t keep it up, and Dr. Brinker begins to laugh. “You can use that, and I will never tell anyone that I helped,” he offers.

Dr. Brinker’s sense of the theatrical serves him well. When he’s not working long hours in his orthopaedic practice, he writes screenplays. He co-wrote his first screenplay in 1983—during the summer between his first and second years of medical school—and came face-to-face almost immediately with just how tantalizingly difficult it can be to get a script made into a film.

“It was optioned by a gentleman named Walter Shenson,” says Dr. Brinker. “He produced the two Beatles movies, Help and A Hard Day’s Night. He optioned the script—a romantic comedy involving a medical student—but ultimately nothing ever happened.”

A naturally creative side
Although some people may not see any natural connection between orthopaedics and screenwriting, Dr. Brinker feels that they both extend from similar aspects of his personality.

“I think I naturally have a creative side,” he explains. “That’s not always good in surgery, but in my particular field—non-unions and problem fractures—I deal with patients who have severe problems. They’ve had several surgeries and they’re not healing, so they often need a fresh look or out-of-the-box thinking, whether that means innovative techniques, custom implants, or custom hardware. That’s how I apply my creativity in my practice, and I think that screenwriting is an extension of that same creativity.”

Dr. Brinker estimates that he’s written about 15 screenplays during the last two decades—most during the past 5 years.

“I’ve picked up steam writing as I’ve picked up steam in my orthopaedic practice,” he says. “It’s difficult, but the nice thing about writing is that you can do it on your own time. It doesn’t really matter if you spend 6 weeks or 6 years writing a screenplay. All that matters is the final product.”

Soon, in a theatre near you…
On Jan. 25, 2008, Dr. Brinker’s first feature film will be released to theaters. It’s a thriller called Untraceable, starring Diane Lane. The actress plays a member of the Internet Crimes division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, tracking down a technology-savvy serial killer. When the movie premiers in Los Angeles, he’ll be on the scene.

“Contractually, I get two tickets [to the premiere],” he explains. “My wife and I are going. We’ll walk down the red carpet, as they say. I don’t know what to expect. I’ve never been to a movie premiere, so I’m pretty excited about it.”

The premiere will also be exciting for another reason—it will be Dr. Brinker’s first chance to see the film. First-time writers are generally kept out of the loop once the script is in production.

“Neither my co-writer nor I were allowed on the set,” he says. “It was filmed in Portland, Ore., and they would not let us go. I wrote a letter explaining that I’ve had visitors in the operating room, and I understand that you sit there and you don’t say a word. I said that I just wanted to be on the set of the movie I wrote. I promised not to say a word to anyone. But I still couldn’t get permission to be there.”

The total brass ring
Dr. Brinker is well aware of how lucky he is. Although thousands of screenwriters are knocking on doors in Hollywood, only about 250 to 300 movies are released theatrically each year. With the scheduled release of Untraceable, Dr. Brinker has already beaten the odds.

“We’re quite privileged as orthopaedic surgeons, and what we do is certainly far more important, in my opinion, than making movies,” he says. “Yet it’s next to impossible to get a screenplay read, more unlikely to get it optioned, and even harder to get it sold.

“So I feel very fortunate, lucky, and blessed that the movie is being released. It’s a lot of fun. Hopefully it will be good. I’m going to keep writing, but I have no illusions that I’ll get another one made. This may be the total brass ring for me, and if this is my first—and last—film, I will feel very fortunate. I’ll go to the premier, have fun, and enjoy it with my family.”

Dr. Brinker acknowledges that the learning curve for orthopaedic surgery is a lot steeper than that for screenwriting. But, he points out, “All of us have a theatrical background. Just by going to the movies, we all subconsciously understand the form. This gives us a leg up on what a movie is supposed to be. We know what’s supposed to happen when, what we like, what scares us, and what doesn’t work.

“I’ve read quite a bit on the subject [of screenwriting],” he continues. “There are lots of resources to improve your screenwriting, but at the base of it, movies are not a foreign subject. It’s not like surgery, where we have no frame of reference. Before you’re a surgeon, you have no frame of reference as to what surgery is, what goes on, what it’s all about.

“The crafting of a screenplay certainly is its own form. You have to learn the rules; the things that work and those that don’t work. I’m still learning. Somebody who has written for 40 years and is a successful screenwriter is still learning. In all writing, you get better as you go, but there is no shortage of ways to learn,” he concludes.

A sexy, jazzy business
Will cinematic success spoil Dr. Brinker for surgery? His partners—and patients—want to know. How long before he hangs up his scalpels for a shiny new career in the film industry?

“I am commonly asked by Hollywood people whether I’m going to quit orthopaedics and write full-time,” he says. “I tell them absolutely not—even if I reached the zenith of success and all of my screenplays are made into movies.

“Writing is enjoyable and fulfilling, but it doesn’t measure up to what we’re able to do as orthopaedic surgeons. I mean, it’s a very fine accomplishment; I’m very proud of it and it’s been fun. It’s opened up a totally different world from medicine. Having meetings in Los Angeles, interviewing for screenwriting jobs—it’s a sexy, jazzy, exciting business. But at the end of the day, I really prefer orthopaedics.”

Peter Pollack is a staff writer for AAOS Now. He can be reached at ppollack@aaos.org