‘Flash Of Genius’

Payson woman’s family struggle told on big screen

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Phyllis Hall, Payson resident and food bank volunteer, was married to Bob Kearns who invented and developed intermittent windshield wipers. Their decades-long legal battles with major auto manufacturers over the invention is depicted in the new film “Flash of Genius.”

n 1953, Phyllis Hall married Bob Kearns. Their wedding night was anything but conventional, and set the stage for their tumultuous 27-year unconventional marriage and decades-long struggle to defeat some of the largest car manufacturers.

While opening a bottle of champagne, the wayward cork nearly took Kearns’ eye out.

Kearns, an inventor and engineer, got to thinking about the eye years later, and applied the principles of a blinking eye to the windshield wiper. He developed the intermittent windshield wiper in his basement and, with the help of Phyllis, submitted the idea to major car manufacturers, who some say stole his idea, and placed the device on millions of cars.

The film, “Flash of Genius,” depicts the Kearns’ struggle to fight the car manufacturers and win the credit an inventor deserves.

Hall, 77, a longtime Payson resident and community volunteer, sat down with the Roundup Thursday to discuss the film and her life. Although her ex-husband’s lawsuit ultimately ruined their marriage, it taught her six children the value of sticking to your principles, even in the face of impossible odds.

Hall, who moved to the Rim Country 12 years ago, said she never told anyone in town about her ex-husband, his invention or the numerous lawsuits her family was involved in.

“My neighbor was so surprised,” Hall said. “After watching ‘The View,’ they came over and were like, ‘I just heard about your family.’”

Greg Kinnear, who plays Kearns in the film, was on “The View” promoting the film.

Looking back, Hall said it is amazing the film was ever made at all, given Kearns’ controlling nature.

After a 1993 New Yorker magazine article came out about Kearns, Marc Abraham, who would become the film’s director, read the article and decided he would like to one day make a movie about Kearns’ life because the story had touched him.

Years later, Kearns’ controlling personality almost squashed the film.

“The movie was going to die because he was too controlling,” Hall said. “I thought that movie would never happen because he would not cut it loose.”

After Kearns died in 2005 from multiple brain tumors, his son Dennis took over the project and got the studio contracts renewed.

“We worked on the movie for the last 10 years,” Dennis, 54, said. “When they approached us 10 years ago, Dad was still actively involved in litigation.”

Hall said Dennis gave the studio information and helped Kinnear become Bob by giving him audio and videotapes of Kearns’ lectures at Wayne State University.

“Kinnear was a spitting image of Bob, down to the Glen Plain blue suit with red pinstripes,” Hall said. “It was absolutely dead on.”

Lauren Graham, who plays Hall’s character in the film, looks nothing like her, Hall said.

“Lauren does not look anything like me, but she sure got the feeling of me,” she said. During one scene that takes place on the porch, Hall said Graham looked at Kearns with the exact feeling she felt so many years ago.

“It was so surreal to watch her play me,” Hall said. “It opened up a lot of old stuff.”

While visiting on set during filming, Hall said she cried frequently after watching scenes.

“The first time you open a wound, it hurts again,” she said, “just remembering all those times.”

Maybe the late nights Hall spent awake with Kearns testing the wipers, then going over legal documents years later during the lawsuits finally led to the nights that she agonized over leaving Kearns and her family.

“He was always in the basement working so I was alone a lot,” she said. “When I married him, I thought he was the sun, the moon and the stars, but when he got his mind on something, there was no stopping him.”

Eventually the stress of the lawsuits got to Hall, who moved out of the family home, leaving the children with Kearns.

“I don’t want people to think I walked out the door and left the family,” she said. “But Ford would call up on the 89th day before a court date and put new information out to delay the trial with the whole idea that they thought he would give up and go away and it went on like that for 12 years.”

“Robert thrived on that and I could not handle the stress,” Hall said.

Dennis said his mother was always supportive of his dad.

“She just got worn out,” he said.

Even after divorcing, Hall was entwined with Kearns up until his death.

“I told him he was going to use his brain up,” Hall said. “But to the very end, he was fighting.”

Hall says Kearns never wanted money from the lawsuits or recognition, like the film implies. Hall said what Kearns really wanted was to make his own wiper blades and sell them.

“He wanted to have a family business, but money was not that important,” she said.

Hall said the movie is really about the profound effects Ford’s decisions had on an entire family.

“Our family would not have been the same,” she said. All six of her children learned the value of persistence and principles.

“In this day and age when principles are not very important, I hope they see money wasn’t going to buy his principles,” Hall said. “And I think each of my children got that.”

Even after winning, Kearns refused to pick his $13 million settlement check up from Chrysler.

“It sat there for years until the kids made him go pick it up. The family has seen little of the money, which was eaten up by taxes and lawyers.

Hall said the movie provides some vindication for a family squashed by corporate politics.

“The movie is great, absolutely wonderful,” Phyllis said. “It vindicated us because we kept on fighting.”

Today Hall, a retired teacher and government employee, keeps herself busy at the St Philip’s Catholic Church, volunteers at the food bank and walks several miles a week.

“I walked four miles the other night,” Hall said. “When I was 60, I ran at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.” Hall plans to continue living in Payson, where she has made her home away from the stress.

On Oct. 3, “Flash of Genius” opened nationwide, except in smaller markets like Payson.

A spokesman for Sawmill Theatres said it had no plans as of yet to show the film.

Learn more about the film at www.flashofgenius.net.

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