Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sean Paul Murphy, Writer
Sean Paul Murphy, Writer

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"21 Eyes," a History, Part 1



"21 Eyes" happened overnight.  After years of work.

Every film is a miracle.  Every film is a labor of love.  "21 Eyes" is no exception.

This is the tale of the three people who loved it most:  Lee Bonner, David Butler and, your humble narrator, Sean Paul Murphy.

David Butler and I go way back.  We were both Mass Communication Majors at Towson State University -- as it was then called.  We met in the film lab and took some classes together.  We ended up as partners on a few projects.  I think David picked me because he didn't think I'd get in his way.  He was right.  At the time I was more concerned about my thesis concerning interpersonal communications within The Three Stooges comedy team than I was about actual production itself.  (My professor threatened to fail me if I did a paper on that subject.  In the end, he gave me an A-.)   Therefore, I must grant David most of the credit and blame for whatever we produced back in the day.

Our class was somewhat magical.  Practically everyone I can remember from those heady days ended up working professionally in the film or communications business as either a writer, director, crew member or even film school faculty member.  Most of them are still employed in the field today.  That's no small feat when one considers the inconsistencies and general madness of this industry.   (BTW, that group also included Timothy Ratajczak, my co-writer on so many screenplays.)

David and I parted ways after school never to meet again.  Well, not until a few months later.  Due to the influence of my office manager mother, I got a job in the mail room of an advertising agency called Smith Burke & Azzam.  One day I was carrying the mail through the lobby to find David sitting there.  And he had a tie on.  He was waiting to talk to one of the partners, Gene Azzam.  Gene hired David, who ended up in the broadcast department.  After stints in accounting and media, I ended up in the broadcast department as well.

During the second half of the 1980's, Smith Burke & Azzam was one of the best advertising agencies in the country until flood of cocaine and a triple homicide ended the dream.  (Just kidding about the flood of cocaine and the triple homicide.)  We were competing with the big boys and winning.  I loved it.  I would lie, cheat and steal for that agency  In fact, I remember doing all three on a single corporate espionage trip to Miami while we were pitching a cruise line.  It was a great place to learn first hand about all of the disciplines of film making:  writing, producing, directing and editing.  Kids, if you're looking for a temporary career until you hit it big in Hollywood, you can't go wrong with advertising.  It was a paid masters degree.  The agency was creating one award-winning commercial after another.  And many of them were directed by Mr. Lee Bonner.


The Lafayettes, circa 1962

Lee Bonner is a rather amazing fellow.  He began life as a musician.  Actually, he began life as a baby, but soon became a musician.  He was the bass player and songwriter for a Baltimore group called The Lafayettes.  The group was signed by RCA Records and released a few singles.  Their first single, "Life's Too Short," was a major regional hit but never hit the national charts in this country.  However, it topped the charts in a number of other countries.  I remember reading an interview with Led Zepplin's Robert Plant where he discussed one of The Lafayettes' singles.  I excitedly called Lee to tell him about it.  I think his response was:  "Who's Robert Plant?"

Everybody loved working with Lee.  From the agency folks down to the crew people.  David liked working with Lee so much that he left the agency and took a job as the producer for Bonner Films.  I soon left the agency myself to pursue the life of a freelance film editor and budding screenwriter.  And guess what?  Lee Bonner was one of the first directors to hire me as an editor.

But he also had interest in me as a screenwriter.

At the time, I had just signed with Stu Robinson at Robinson, Weintraub and Gross -- which would soon fold into Paradigm.  Stu had sent one of my early screenplays to Baltimore's own Barry Levinson, who, although he rejected the script, wrote some kind things about me.  Lee knew Barry.  So I brought the letter over to him to see if indeed The Great Man had signed it himself.  Lee vouched for the signature.  Now I officially had the imprimatur of the Oscar-winning auteur.

Lee, like everyone else in the business, wanted to make a feature.  Or should I say:  Another feature.  He had made a fun, little adventure thriller called "Two For The Money."  He directed it in the hard-hitting style that won him so many awards, or so the misleading trailer said.  Troma picked up the film and released it under the title:   "Adventure of the Action Hunters."  I know it got some television airplay because once, when I was in Nashville with David Butler, director and former Towson State instructor Brian Keller and the amazing Randy Aitken, it was playing on cable.  Sadly, I was too tired to watch it.  (What were we doing in Nashville, you ask?  We wanted to see if we could leave Baltimore after work, drive twelve hours to Memphis, pay homage to Elvis, then drive back to Baltimore without sleeping.  The answer was no.  We crashed in Nashville.  Though not literally.)

Lee wanted to do another film, and he wanted to know if I was interested in pursuing it with him.

Lee handed me a few of his scripts and I liked them.  Lee has an interesting way of working.  When he gets an idea for a film, he works the idea into the existing structure of a film that he admires.  For example, he wrote a wonderful script called "One Summer Night" about a musician who loses his guitar right before a crucial gig at a beach resort.  The script lovingly recalled Lee's youthful days as a musician.  It was fresh and original.  And it rigidly followed the structure of Howard Hawk's "Bringing Up Baby."  And, despite seeing that film dozens of times over the years, I didn't realize it until he told me.  Fascinating.

Lee wanted to write a script.  He had a great character in mind named West Rhodes.  West Rhodes was, like the bulk of the heroes in the screenplays we wrote together, a consummate slacker.  He was a police officer for the Department of Natural Resources.  Not because he had any affinity for law enforcement, but, rather, because he liked working on the water.  He was very quick witted and intelligent, but only rarely devoted his full resources to his job.

Lee, aside from being a director and musician, is also a sailor.  He had a great sailboat and invited me out on a cruise to talk about West.  I'm not much of a drinker, but Lee immediately set me up with an immense martini, about the size of a Big Gulp, that I nursed throughout the entire cruise.  The other guest on the cruise was none other than David Butler.  By that time, David had left Lee's employ and now worked as a rival commercial director.  They were often bid against each other on the same jobs, but they remained friends.  Then again, by this time, Lee was working more as an episodic television director on series like "Homicide:  Life on the Streets" and "The Practice," than as a commercial director.  Lee and David handled the sails while I read about West Rhodes and began my continuing tradition of losing something valuable every time I get on a boat.  I think it was my prescription sunglasses that time.

Lee and I wrote "West Rhodes."  Here's the pitch:  "Meet West Rhodes, a marine policeman patrolling the waterfront of fashionable Annapolis.  He's a cop who gives warning tickets to girls so that he can ask them out on dates and confiscates beer from teenagers so he can drink it.  He has wit and intelligence but a total lack of ambition until one day he finds himself up to his neck in a multiple homicide.  The motive for the killings date back twenty years and touches on West's own past.  It turns out to be a case that will change his life forever."

Never made the movie.  Although Lee and I both probably consider it the best of the scripts we wrote together, it was too expensive to produce independently and perhaps too quirky to be picked up by a studio.  So we wrote another mystery designed with a lower budget in mind.  It was set in a college for arts and called The Four Sided Triangle.  Here's the pitch:  "The 4 Sided Triangle is a sexy thriller involving Bobby, the naughty professor with an insatiable itch for his female students; Libby, the teacher's latest pet; Dylan, the talented male dancer overlooked once too often; and, Jimmy, the homicide detective who falls for Libby while investigating the brutal slaying of Bobby's previous protege."

The script featured our trademarked slacker cops more interested in their hobbies than their job.  Jimmy was the junior partner in the team.  This was his first homicide as a primary detective and he very unprofessionally gets romantically involved with a witness who becomes the next target.  His partner was an older detective named Blu, who was more interested in dog breeding than dead bodies.

The key to making this film was finding just the right actor to play Bobby, the egotistical professor of dance at the college.  The perfect person to play him was Christopher Walken.  So, somehow, we got the script to him.  And, strangely enough, he said he wanted to do it.

Can you freaking believe it?

We had Christopher Walken.  But we had to move fast.  The actors were about to go on strike, and we had to shoot the film before they did.  We didn't have money, but with Walken, at a reasonable rate, and this script, we could have gotten it.

But we didn't.

Even I don't know what happened, but, for some reason, we changed gears.

We abandoned "The Four Sided Triangle" and decided to write a spy thriller in the style of Michael Caine's Harry Palmer character -- but older.  In fact, Michael Caine's age.

In other words, we decided to write a script with a character that ONLY Michael Caine could play.

That's crazy.  Insane.  Stupid.  But, believe it or not, it almost worked.

Somehow we got it to Michael Caine's agent.  He approved it.  We got it to Michael Caine's manager.  He approved it.  We got it to Michael Caine.  He would read it over the Christmas Holiday.

We waited.  Word came early in January.  He didn't respond to the material.

To quote Bill Murray in Stripes:  "Then depression set in."

It was back to the drawing board, but "21 Eyes" was just beyond the horizon.


Maybe next time, Mr. Caine

21 Eyes, A History, Part 2

Read about the making of my other features:

Hidden Secrets
Holyman Undercover
Sarah's Choice
The Encounter

Be sure to check out my book The Promise, or the Pros and Cons of Talking with God.  It is available in paperback and on Kindle courtesy of TouchPoint Press.


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