WHS History Project inspires Affleck projects

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Credit: Aimee LaRochelle

Above is the briefcase that contained Lt. Col. Martin W. Joyce's documents and an album of photos of the 1916 Punitive Expedition to the Mexican border. The contents of the briefcase inspired two projects that actor Casey Affleck and history department head Kevin Delaney are collaborating on. "We were like, ‘Jeez, why is this thing in [the] Wayland High School book room?’” Delaney said.

Meg Trogolo and Aimee LaRochelle

From 1976 graduate Alberto Salazar’s Boston Marathon victory to 2002 graduate Taylor Schilling’s Emmy nomination, WHS has had a surprising number of brushes with fame. Now, there is one more on the list. Award-winning actor and director Casey Affleck is working with history department head Kevin Delaney and his students to gather historical information for his films.

Affleck and Delaney are working on two projects, both related to Delaney’s Wayland High School History Project (WHSHP). The first began with WHSHP’s biography of Lt. Col. Martin W. Joyce, about whom Affleck would like to make a movie. The second was the result of another WHSHP biography about Wayland suffragist Jessica Henderson.

During preparation for the move to the current campus in 2011, Delaney found a briefcase filled with old documents. The papers belonged to Joyce, who was appointed commanding officer at Dachau, a former concentration camp in Nazi Germany, after it was liberated.

“[Joyce] had to handle an extraordinary challenge of 32,000 survivors and total anarchy in Europe at the end of the war,” Delaney said. “We were like, ‘Jeez, why is this thing in [the] Wayland High School book room?’”

As Delaney delved deeper into the documents, he realized Joyce had a far greater historical impact than was at first apparent. Joyce also served in World War I and was a state police officer during the Prohibition era of the 1920s.

He was on active duty in Honolulu during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and was named Signal Officer of the Day when the attack took place. Even after Joyce’s retirement, history would not let him go. He was aboard the Andrea Doria with his wife when the ship sank off Nantucket in 1956.

“He was there with his lighter trying to signal in the fog at freighters steaming through the area, so they don’t get run over,” Delaney said.

Delaney’s U.S. History classes went to work analyzing the documents and eventually created a 13-chapter biography of Joyce, which they then posted online.

“We wrote this guy’s biography, and it turned out that he had an amazing story, including his months at Dachau and his WWII years, and also just his life was incredible,” Delaney said.

In 2013, Boston Magazine published a piece on the project, describing both Joyce’s life and how WHS students wrote his biography. Affleck contacted Delaney after reading the article and expressed interest in developing the project into a film. Delaney was surprised but liked the idea.

“I was a little disbelieving,” Delaney said. “He called me, and we had a really friendly conversation. It was almost like I had known him for ten years, like he was my old college roommate or something.”

It has been a year and a half since Affleck and Delaney first discussed the project, and Paramount Pictures recently bought the option. During this process, the two of them have developed a rapport.

“I don’t know if I’d say that we’re friends now but kind of. We correspond,” Delaney said.

Delaney has students work on local history projects each year, and last year his U.S. History classes wrote a biography of a Wayland woman, Jessica Henderson, who was heavily involved in the women’s suffrage movement of the early 1900s. He sent Affleck a link to the website where the biography was posted.

The next time Affleck spoke with Delaney, he asked whether the students who edited the biography would be willing to do research for a film he is currently directing. The film will be about a U.S. military expedition to Mexico that took place in 1916 and is based on the book “Far Bright Star.”

“I was like, okay, is he just tongue in cheek? Is he joshing, or does he really want my students to help him out?” Delaney said. “I said, ‘If you’re serious, if you really need help researching for this movie that you’re currently working on, let me know. Probably the only pay they would need is to talk with you and hear what you want us to do.’”

Current seniors Evan Hughes, Sophie Pedersen, Kayla Sherman, Dasha Bobrova and Jessica Washek were the editors of the biography. In September, Delaney gathered the five for a conference call with Affleck to discuss the film.

“I was pretty pumped. I mean, that’s awesome,” Hughes said. “Obviously, he’s a big deal, so that’s exciting.”

The students quickly agreed to research the incident and the era in which it took place.

“Five kids who were the co-leaders of last year’s big project are doing this above and beyond their regular schoolwork,” Delaney said. “It’s really interesting, and I think it’s going to be excellent.”

Not long after, Delaney remembered something else found in the briefcase that had contained the Joyce papers. Inside was an album containing photographs of soldiers on the very expedition Affleck’s film was about.

“This is cosmic. It’s like Cleo, the history muse, is dancing around,” Delaney said. “It’s a really, really cool album, which depicts visually a lot of what he’s working on and what he’s about to film in the spring.”

Delaney promptly told Affleck about his find, then scanned the pages and sent them to the director.

The five students who were asked to research the expedition have since begun work on the project.

“I actually started doing research and found an article, and a lot of the information and facts [were] aligned with what was happening in the book, which is really cool,” Pedersen said.

According to Hughes, the research will provide mostly background information on the era.

“We’re there to provide context for Affleck and the actors, so they understand more about the time period. We give them a better understanding of where they’re supposed to be,” Hughes said. “Maybe [the actors] will read it, and they’ll understand it a little better.”

In the time since Affleck initially contacted Delaney in 2014, Delaney has enjoyed working with the director.

“It’s been fun. He’s a super smart guy. He loves history, he’s got a great sense of humor,” Delaney said. “It’s fun talking to him, and he’s passionate and intense, but he’s also just a regular guy.”

The biography of Lt. Col. Martin W. Joyce can be found here, and the biography of Jessica Henderson can be found here. Boston Magazine’s article on the Joyce project can be read here.