Ryan Walsh, a communication professor and debate coach for Weber State University, won the National Debate Tournament back in 2013—and broke records while doing it. Debating as a member of the first black, openly queer team guaranteed he and his partner Elijah Smith would draw national attention.
Because of his collegiate debate success, studios like We’re Not Brothers, Annapurna Pictures and Plan B, which produced “Moonlight” and “World War Z,” have all been in discussion about making the movie about him.
At the 2013 championship, hosted by WSU, Walsh debated for Emporia College in Kansas. Smith was from New Jersey. Together, they broke a record when they won both the Cross Examination Association and National Debate Tournament championships, which no one had ever done before.
The explosion began immediately; Walsh said he was being contacted many avenues. Fans encouraged him to write a book or that they should make a movie about this revolutionary moment.
NPR reached out and spotlighted him in an hour long podcast, entitled “Debatable,” going deeper into the details of the two competitions and how he and his partner could take both of them. During the interview, Walsh called the community out on racism, homophobia and sexism.
After that, things really took off, and the story went viral.
Their topic of debate was different ways to produce energy to create electricity. The low-hanging fruits of nuclear power, crude oil, hydrogen power and solar power came up, but Walsh and his partner took it another way.
“Crude oil doesn’t help us get out of bed in the morning,” Walsh said. “The other debaters were arguing about how (to) power cars and grids and things of that nature and not how we really energize a soul.”
Walsh described how he and Smith determined to broaden the scope and make it less rigid, taking the prompt in a non-traditional way.
“We were not ‘topical,’” he said. “We were vehement against sticking to the rigidity of classic debate.”
However, the judges determined them to be the most relevant and thought-provoking ones in the room.
Afterward, Walsh’s path to coaching at WSU wasn’t immediate. He graduated Emporia in communication with an emphasis in public relations, and he went to graduate school but said he left because he wasn’t prepared.
He worked for a while until Rutgers University hired him as a debate coach. Walsh was ready to win again, and he took a black team to the championship title.
He decided to finish his master’s degree, and out of all the universities vying for his attention, he picked Weber State. He finished his Master of Professional Communication at WSU last year while writing the script for the film about his life and working as an adjunct professor and coach of the WSU debate team.
“I am only 28,” he said, jokingly. “I burn the candle at both ends, and I spend a lot of money at Bath and Body Works.”
Walsh wrote most of the script himself. He and Co-writers Daniel Barnz, of We’re Not Brothers, and Ned Zeman are in collaboration with Plan B, Annapurna, MACRO and We’re Not Brothers to get it started.
Walsh is happy with the script but said that it was difficult to get done. They wrote over 7000 pages total for a script that is now somewhere around 120 pages.
Although legally he cannot say much about the actual content of the movie, he could discuss the theme.
“(It’s) inspired by the Wiz,” Walsh said, “which is (the) black version of the Wizard of Oz. It’s about easing on down the road together, about not tabling our differences.”
Walsh spent a week in California talking to two studios a day, including Netflix and Amazon, when the movie was in its early stages. He figured there is already about 3.5 million dollars in the bank for this movie, but the studios have decided a film like this will probably cost closer to the 7-10 million dollar range.
However, Walsh said they may be in search of a new studio. Annapurna, who they initially decided on, has been encountering financial difficulties, and they don’t want the story sucked up in the collapse of a studio.
“I actually don’t care if the movie comes out or not,” Walsh, who has executive producer credit, said. “The day they start filming, I get the majority of the money I will receive from the film.”
However, Walsh’s life isn’t all the movie these days; he still coaches the WSU debate team.
“We have a three-pronged approach,” Walsh said. “Academic debate, every weekend, all over; community engagement, having the tough-to-have conversations and service.”
On Nov. 14, Walsh has scheduled a debate against the Rwandan debate team on genocide after getting into contact with an old debate opponent and securing them a visit. On Nov. 15, the Rwandan team agreed to a cultural showcase for the Wildcats.