KEEP AN EYE
Every famous person has tales of success and tales of projects gone awry. Diana Ross had a concert debacle in 1983 when she held a free show in Central Park. The Showtime cable channel aired it live, and the revenue from the broadcast was to go towards building a playground in Diana’s name. On the day of the show, not long after the performance began, rain started pouring down in an unforgiving torrent. The show was postponed until the next day, and on that day it drew over 500,000 people. Unfortunately, such a large and loosely policed crowd proved an easy target for muggers. Over a hundred people reported robberies during that second show, and some even reported assault. The city of New York incurred a number of lawsuits from victims of the attacks who claimed that the city had failed to provide the needed security at the concert. The city settled the suits for millions of dollars and to make matters worse, the television special didn’t even generate enough money to build the park. Consequently, Diana agreed to pay for the playground out of her own pocketbook.
For me, the film Gangsta Mafia was my production debacle. It was originally conceived as a straight-to-DVD project to raise money for a film version of FREEda Slave. The project started out just like a sunny day in the park, and most of us involved were unaware of the approaching storm. However, the storm did come, and its name was Anthony Shorter.
When I first met Anthony, he worked for Disney. He was short, but he talked big. Anthony started out as a friend, a good friend. He told me he believed in me and encouraged me at a time in my life when I really needed to hear it. He lived in a beautiful loft apartment right off of LaBrea and Wilshire Boulevard. I would see the rapper Kool Moe Dee in the elevator of Anthony’s building and think to myself, “Wow, this is real living. He lives in a building with celebrities.” We would sit in his living room and watch his huge wide screen television, and I would listen to all of Anthony’s dreams of success. He had big dreams of running his own talent management agency. When he left Disney to work for HBO, he began to build a roster of talent for his company, Sound Boy Entertainment. Comedian A.J. Jamal and actress Lisa Raye were just a couple of his clients. A year later, he completely stepped out on his own. He took up an office on Hollywood Boulevard and shared space with famous casting director Robi Reed, who is well known for casting many of Spike Lee’s films.
I believed in Anthony enough to allow him to become my talent manger. I even began to help him out with some of his projects. I worked the door for his comedy event at the El Rey Theater and later helped him produce a networking event called “Entertainity.” He was impressed with my business savvy and asked me to become his Vice President of Talent. He wanted to expand his business and he told me that Robi Reed’s office was becoming a cramped situation. He printed up my business cards on his computer and ordered us black polo Sound Boy shirts online. Just like that, we were in business together. I was working for a temp agency as a receptionist at the time, so it was an easy decision for me to leave my day job and move into a small office with him on Wilshire Boulevard. We had a small roster of about twenty clients, and one of our first projects together was to get some of our talent onto a Lil’ Kim / Christina Aguilera music video. I submitted all of our clients and five were selected. It felt wonderful.
I even submitted myself but did not get cast. I got our talent cleared, had legal papers prepared for the underage kids, and made sure our performers were paid. I felt like things were starting on a good foot.
I showed Anthony the screenplay for FREEda Slave to see if he would be interested in co-producing the film version with Darryl and I. He had already seen a video of the play and knew that it dealt with gay themes, a topic with which he was uncomfortable. Nevertheless, after he read the script he decided to try it. We put our hearts and souls into it. We submitted it all over town, including to producer Suzanne DePasse who was once an executive for Motown Records. Her assistant called me when he got the script and seemed excited about the story. Suzanne’s company seemed like the obvious choice for the project, since so much Motown music would need clearance to make the version of the film I envisioned. But to our disappointment, her company’s response was a “pass”:
March 17, 2003,
I found the idea of “masks” to be the true heart of this story, reflecting a great mirror on how we as human beings go through life wearing various “masks.” Freeda Slave unfortunately does not play to the sensibilities of De Passe Entertainment; however, I found the subject matter enlightening and personally, I am curious to further developments in this script.
I would like to be kept informed on its various stages and perhaps can come on board in some capacity.
Hallam Banfield Creative Assistant to CEO De Passe Entertainment
Not allowing ourselves to be discouraged, we also submitted the script to Showtime Networks. However, they felt the story was too close to Holiday Heart, a film they were already in production on with director Robert Townsend and starring Ving Rhames and Alfre Woodard. Timing is everything. Originally, Holiday Heart was a play produced in Washington D.C., not too long after FREEda Slave opened in Baltimore. The Cheryl West script made it to Hollywood just a few months ahead of ours, so her story would see the light of day while ours would continue to struggle.
Finally, Anthony decided that we should just raise the funds needed to produce FREEda Slave on our own. We started looking for talent to sign on. The lovely Tonya Lee Williams who played the character of “Olivia” on The Young and the Restless absolutely loved the story. She even suggested we film in Canada where they were very gay friendly and would welcome a project such as ours. Her Canadian nationality would have helped us a great deal, had we decided to go that route.
We also met a talented actor named J. August Richards who was starring in the WB show Angel, and considered him for a role in the film. J. August had also played Richard Street in the 1998 television movie about the famous Motown act, The Temptations.
Anthony was already searching for directors, and we started getting actor submissions from casting agents all over town. Yet we did not have a penny to shoot the first frame of film.
Anthony began leaking bits about the movie out to the press, and became excited to see his company name in the trades online. He said that the publicity would help get investors. Although Darryl Wharton had written the script and had also written and directed the play for FREEda Slave, we decided to search for a female director because I wanted to see the story through a woman’s eyes.
The pitch for the film was “Forrest Gump meets The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” FREEda Slave was like the former in that it spanned a number of decades and used music as a “stamp” for each era; it was like the latter in that it was about drag queens.
Raising funds for a project that big proved to be very hard, so Anthony had a counter plan; we would shoot a real quick, “fast and dirty” low budget project slated to go straight to video, and use the revenue as seed money to get FREEda Slave made. The planned name for the project was Gangsta Mafia and we would shoot it in twenty-two days. It was the story of the Italian mafia trying to take over the drug trade from two rival gangs in Los Angeles. Anthony and I created the story outline and Darryl ghostwrote the actual screenplay. We knew the formula that Hollywood buys, so we were sure to include certain elements in the script. We had urban drama with the gangs. We had a love story between the mafia kingpin’s daughter and one of the gang members, echoing a Romeo and Juliet romance. We included rappers and comedians because we knew that Hollywood loves rappers and comics. We had a hot heterosexual sex scene and an even hotter gay rape scene. The story ended with an important, positive message about the need for gang truces and unity.
In planning our production strategy, I felt that we should make things as simple as possible. I said to Anthony, “Let’s do this project non-union to avoid hassles from the actor’s union.”
“Absolutely not,” Anthony argued. “This is going to be the first film out of Sound Boy Entertainment and I want to get name actors on it to make sure it sells.”
“Anthony, this is Los Angeles,” I argued back. “It is a town filled with talented, hungry actors. I believe we have the kind of formula film that will sell, even if we have no recognizable names. We could have talent work on a deferment and pay them when the crew is paid. That would be one less fee we have to pay up front.”
“I got that covered,” Anthony assured me. “I have a personal injury settlement check coming and I already have credit accounts set up with Western Costumes and truck rental houses and camera houses. Now stop arguing with me and let’s go make a movie.”
Anthony was greedy and wanted the big check in the end from the distributor for himself; he did not want to have to split any profits coming his way. We came up with a working budget based on the amount of money Anthony was expecting from the lawsuit. We agreed that Darryl would direct the film after all, and I begged all of my friends to help with production. Clarence Reynolds, my former co-worker from QVC, flew in on his own money to lend his assistance, and my best friend, Stephen Bond, came up from San Diego. I was executive producer but also assumed the roles of head costume designer and casting director. I even maxed out my credit card to stock up on food for craft services.
Casting was a nightmare, with real gang members showing up to our offices to audition along with scores of actors from all over Los Angeles. So many talented people showed up. That’s when I learned how movies really get made -- the business is not about talented actors, it is about who will sell your film. I also witnessed the numerous favors a producer must call in to get a movie made. Anthony wanted to put his nephew, a budding rap artist, in the film. His nephew was actually very good, but Anthony later figured he needed someone who was already recognizable to audiences. He found a guy named Nomadd who said he was formerly a member of 50 Cent’s group G-Unit. Although it was hard to get Nomadd to do a convincing read, Anthony wanted to profit from the fact that he was part of the G-Unit posse. So he gave the lead role to Nomadd. Anthony also approached various local comedians about appearing in the film and, because he had worked with them previously, they were on board without too much drama. Then we got a headshot in the mail that made us all go, “What da fuck?” The name on the 8 by 10 glossy was Joey Buttafuoco.
Buttafuoco had become a media sensation back in 1992 when his underage mistress, Amy Fisher, shot his wife, Mary Jo Buttafuoco, in the face. Fisher received jail time for the shooting and Joey went to prison for having sex with a minor. However, sensational television news and television sitcoms couldn’t seem to get enough of him, and upon release from prison he moved to Hollywood to use his fifteen minutes of fame to secure a few movie roles.
Anthony felt that Joey was our ticket to stardom. He cast Joey as the Italian mafia leader, although Joey had a Brooklyn accent. Joey was warm, kind, funny, and easy to get along with, and the role would be the biggest offered to him for a film at that time.
Anthony started sending out press releases like there was no tomorrow, announcing Joey as one of the stars in Gangsta Mafia. Stories about Joey started popping up all over the internet. It made for great press, but in some cases Joey’s notoriety presented an obstacle. As I was trying to secure product placement deals for the film, certain companies such as Ray-Ban would only send us product with the provision that Joey did not wear any of it. They did not want a celebrity like Joey, someone more infamous than famous, associated with their brand. Other companies would not have anything to do with us at all, simply because Joey was appearing in the film.
Once we actually got around to shooting, the first few days of filming went fine. However, when it came time to shoot the first big scene with Joey, we discovered that he did not know his lines. We had a huge scene to film in a restaurant where Joey, in front of his crew of henchmen, discusses his plans to infiltrate the L.A. gangs. Take after take, Joey just did not know his stuff. He was so distracted by his buddies who were portraying the henchmen, and by the several girlfriends he had brought on set who wanted to be used as extras. His energy was spent on his entourage and not on his lines. We finally had to write his lines down on a piece of paper, and he read them aloud as we shot the scene with a beer bottle placed in front of him to hide evidence of his theatrical “cheating.”
In general, things got progressively worse as the first week of filming wore on. Where Anthony had not set up credit accounts he wrote checks, and he was writing them all over town for locations, trucks, and catering. He had even written Darryl and I checks to cover our living expenses during the production. On the seventh day of filming, as I was getting gas for one of the crew trucks, I realized something was wrong. My ATM card would not work at the pump. Because so many other things needed to be addressed at that moment, I did not have time to deal with the problem. We were shooting a very difficult scene that day, outdoors in Long Beach, with real gang members. It involved cars, guns, and a gay rape scene in an alley. Catering had not arrived on time, the craft services food had run out, and people were becoming hungry and disgruntled. Anthony was not on set and made himself very unavailable that day.
Everything was going wrong. I was juggling too many hats to be effective in handling any one thing. When it was time to shoot the rape scene, we discovered that the main actor was wearing Mickey Mouse print boxers. Darryl turned to me and said, “Get him in some white underwear, now!” Normally, as producer, I would have told Darryl to kiss me “where the sun don’t shine.” However, since I was technically also the costumer for the film, I had to take responsibility. I did not have any white underwear handy and did not have time to run to a store, nor did I have any money to spend.
What I did next even I cannot believe to this day. I took the actor aside and explained the situation, telling him that the only pair of white underwear available was the pair that I was wearing myself. It was ninety-five degrees outside and we had been working since 4 a.m. The actor, a former gang member who had never acted in his life, said, “Let’s do this.” He put on my sweaty drawers, went out, and did his scene. I remain blown away to this day when I think about the dedication of that actor.
That night when I returned home, I checked my mail and found out that my rent check had bounced and that my bank account was in a negative two thousand dollar deficit. I shut down filming for the next day. Funny thing is, the next day we were scheduled to shoot a jail scene with Joey and Anthony, being that Anthony had cast himself in a cameo role.
We tried to give Anthony a chance to make things right. He claimed that he was going to settle the payroll issue and that in a few days Darryl and I would be paid. All he needed to do was cut a trailer of the movie for the distributor, and then we would have the cash to keep filming. Darryl and I were skeptical, but we kept moving forward.
After we began selecting scenes for the trailer, Anthony gave one of the cameras to Darryl so he could shoot extra street footage and the Los Angeles skyline. I worked with an editor over the weekend to select the best scenes to compose an eye-catching montage. I wrote the narrative for the trailer and taped my voice-over standing in Anthony’s tub. The bathroom had become our makeshift recording studio and it made me think of the famous “Snake Pit” at Hitsville, the tiny basement recording studio where Berry Gordy created the “Motown Sound.”
The real problem hanging over our heads was that the cast and crew were due wages during the second week of filming. Darryl made a phone call to the payroll company and found out that Anthony had never signed a contract with them and had never made a deposit into the account. In addition, someone discovered that Anthony had written fraudulent checks to all the locations, including the nite clubs The Mint and The Bungalow Club where scenes had already been shot.
Demanding answers, Darryl, his director of photography Carlos Batts, and his assistant director Damon Murphy, met with Anthony at Anthony’s home. An argument ensued and Anthony told Damon that if pressed any further, he was going to go get his gun. Anthony demanded his camera back and Darryl refused, so Anthony began to make threatening and harassing phone calls to Darryl after he left that night. The calls became intense, and the next night we discovered some thugs standing outside of the apartment that Darryl and I shared. We both decided it was best for us to go away ourselves for a while, and we stayed with different friends across town. Just when we thought eviction was inevitable, a check arrived in the mail from Stephen Bond, paying the entire rent. Stephen had managed my Baltimore store for most of its years, just out of love and for no salary. Now there he was years later, paying my rent. To this very day, I thank God for him.
Anthony filed charges against Darryl for not returning the camera, but the judge dropped the charges when Anthony never showed up to court. In fact, he never showed his face in Los Angeles again. The last I heard, he had run a scam in some city on the southeast coast, using the names of various celebrities. I still get calls from the LAPD, asking me if I know of his whereabouts.
Then I saw him on television
The experience disillusioned me from ever wanting to be in entertainment again. I turned to my temp job headhunters, Wendy and Karen, over at Venturi Staffing Partners. Those two women had always found me steady work during the lean days in Los Angeles. After the Gangsta Mafia fiasco, they placed me at Paramount Pictures where I worked in the Marketing and Promotions department. The department had the unique job of going after businesses to secure co-partnerships, such that the next soon-to-be-released Paramount film could gain exposure through the partner’s advertising campaign. (Think of what Reese’s Pieces did for the movie E.T.) Although the product did not have to be used in the movie, it was a plus when it was, but such integrations were secured through product placement agencies.
I caught on quickly to the work of the department and my creative side was satisfied as I settled into the job of Administrative Assistant to the Senior Vice President of World Wide Marketing and Promotions. Although I was a horrible typist, I gave great “phone.” During my time there, we worked on deals for the Jim Carrey movie Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, and secured eight partners for that one film. I personally handled movie screening contests for the films The Honeymooners and Coach Carter with Upscale Magazine. Ironically, that was the same magazine that had done a story on my dolls when I worked at QVC. It was an exciting time and I learned so much about movie marketing from the inside. I stayed for two years.
When I discovered Paramount was going to let me go, the last thing I wanted to do was go back to doing extra work. I frantically sent out resumes to see if I could get another job in film promotions. Although I went on a few promising interviews, nothing panned out. As mentioned earlier, I reluctantly registered with a few casting agencies and ended up booking a number of gigs back to back. However, when it was all said and done, I still wanted something different from the up and down, emotional roller coaster of entertainment.
I started looking into going back to school. I really wanted to make a positive impact on people’s lives, not just win Oscars. The Actor’s Studio suddenly seemed less important than the college classroom and, although I did not close the door on entertainment completely, I began to contemplate that there was another door to success. That door was education. The wonderful thing I had learned from the Gangsta Mafia experience was that my true friends believe in and support me no matter what I do, whether I answer phones, produce movies, walk in the background, or host a national television show.
“Sometimes it is hard to see true friendship through the masks that people wear, but once you find it, it is forever.”