An email sales pitch for the film for potential distributors
After our heartbreaking near-miss with Michael Caine, Lee and I took some time off. Lee's final words were that we had to come up with an idea that would be low budget enough that we wouldn't be dependent on outside financing and interesting enough that it could gain notoriety without having a star.
We both thought about it.
Sometime late January or early February Lee and I reconvened at the palatial Bonner estate. He had an idea about an obsessed business man who sets up secret video cameras to spy on his attractive secretary. My idea dovetailed nicely with his idea. In mine, a seemingly open and shut robbery proves to be something else entirely when the security camera footage was viewed. The hook was that we only see what the detectives see on the video monitor. Our heroes would be entirely voice over. Those ideas satisfied our criterion. The concept called for a small cast and a very limited number of locations. Both good for the budget. And, we hoped the narrative device would be suitably unique to get us into film festivals without a big name attached, but, if we needed one, we could hire him at a fraction of his normal rate as one of the voice over detectives.
We began work on a script immediately.
Lee is a true master of the mystery. All he reads are mystery novels. Practically everything we worked on together was a mystery. "21 Eyes," or as it was then called, "Replay," was no exception.
The way we wrote the script was somewhat odd. Usually, you start with characters and a plot. In this case, we started with a perfect crime and reverse engineered it to figure out what clues could give it away. We decided it would be a jewel heist. We didn't know anything about the high-end jewelry business, but we would research that later. First, we decided on a number of characters working at the business. Lee sketched out The Workroom, where the bulk of the film takes place, first. We designed the room, decided where our on camera characters would sit and work, and where to place the hidden security cameras. Then we figured out which clue would be revealed in which camera.
Next we learned about the jewelry business. At first, we thought that the company should be involved in diamond cutting, but our industry source, Mark Coleman, gave us the idea of making our obsessed jeweler a dealer in antique jewels and gems. The story of the lost gem we used in the movie is based on a real incident in New York where an elderly woman, fearing there was a burglar in her apartment, hid her gigantic diamond in a trash can. After the police left, the woman went to bed without retrieving it. When she awoke the next morning, her maid had already thrown out the trash. The diamond was never recovered. Our expert also told us how many people a business like that would employ and what their duties would be. Our on-camera characters were coming to life. But what about our off-camera detectives?
Lee and I had enjoyed the repartee between our two detectives in our previous script "The 4 Sided Triangle" so we just lifted those two characters out of that script and placed them directly into this film -- although for some reason we changed the name of the younger more ambitious detective from Jimmy to Scotty. It proved to be a perfect fit. These guys had just the right attitude to sit back and watch these security tapes.
The plot was simple. Detectives Scotty and Blu are secondary detectives on the case, and somewhat envious and resentful of the the unseen primary detectives. At first they are upset that they have been given the thankless assignment of watching hours of footage of an open and shut, albeit violent, robbery. However, as they watch the tapes, they begin to notice a series of small inconsistencies which hint that the case isn't as open and shut as it appears. They happily begin chasing down the clues to prove their superiority to the primary detectives, who missed everything. Granted, it wasn't the most emotionally involving storyline in the world, but we hoped the mystery would be engaging enough to involve the audience.
More about that later.
Lee brought David Butler in immediately as a producer. Discretion prevents me from discussing the budget or the financing, but, let us say the money was essentially raised internally. David immediately killed the most expensive moment in the film. Originally, rather than having the villains simply enter the property by climbing over a wall, they were to drive through a wall in a vehicle. David found that idea dangerous to both the crew and the budget. Plus, it would necessitate building a set for the office area, and we really wanted to use real locations.
One location in particular: The home of Vince Peranio and Delores Deluxe.
Vince was the dean of Baltimore production design, having worked with John Waters, Barry Levinson and on television series including "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "The Wire." Vince and his wife Delores had joined together numerous row houses into a unique maze of rooms decorated in a style befitting their personalities. Lee wanted it to be the home of our obsessed jeweler Seth Collison. Interestingly enough, Lee had planned to use their house as the home of the obsessed college professor in "The 4 Sided Triangle." We were completely cannibalizing that script! The key to getting the house was getting Vince to sign on as Production Designer. Fortunately, Lee and Vince had a long, ongoing relationship and Vince signed on -- provided we shot during a break on "The Wire." We agreed, and, as a result, managed to get a few props from that show, including Collison's large office safe. Don't tell anybody.
With Collison's home locked in, all we needed was Collison's office. Peter Mullett, another Baltimore director and photographer, donated his office. Knowing there would be much bloodshed in the office scenes, the always-meticulous David Butler did tests on Peter's walls and floors to make sure the blood would come off. It did. From the walls and floors. Of course, at the time, no one realized how much blood would end up on the ceiling! That did not come off as easily.
With the script completed, casting began. We used two casting agencies. We used Liz Lewis to cast the major roles out of New York City, and local legend Pat Moran in Baltimore for the rest of the cast. In New York, the always fabulous Danny Roth handled things for Liz. Danny was and remains hip. He always had a matching head and wrist band. He put out word of the film and we were offered an amazing array of actors -- especially for the less-demanding voice over roles. Oscar Winners. Emmy Winners. People I spent my whole life watching in movies and on TV. It was great going through the list. But who was actually willing to come in and read?
We started getting tapes. I can't remember if Fisher Stevens actually came in and read, but he was in the wish list from the beginning. Lee had worked with Fisher on the show "Early Edition" and thought he would be great. Danny was all for Fisher too. Fisher was extremely hot in New York at the time both as an actor and a producer. His company, Greenstreet Films, had produced Oscar-bait films like "In The Bedroom" and popcorn movies like "Swimfan." Everyone wanted to get in Fisher's game. So did we.
(I will say that we did reach out, through who I don't know, to Billy Bob Thornton for that role. Apparently, Billy Bob was interested, but he simply didn't have the time.)
Now for Scotty -- the younger detective.
We first heard Michael Buscemi on a CD Danny sent us. He was great. Cynics might think we hired him because he sounded just like his more famous brother Steve Buscemi. Okay, okay, that might have been a factor, but, in all honesty, he was simply the best person who read for the role. We were cracking up as we listened to him. He did everything right.
(I will say that we reached out for Jason Lee for the role. This was after "Almost Famous," which we all loved, but before "My Name Is Earl." We came very close to getting him. The problem was scheduling. We had to move immediately in order to make the Sundance deadline and we couldn't close the deal in time. His agent was actually very helpful. He said we should feel free to use someone else for the Sundance rough cut, then come back and get Jason for the real thing. However, after recording Michael, there was no chance of us going elsewhere.)
Now it was time to cast our three principal on-camera actors for the roles of Seth Collison, the obsessed jeweler; Belinda Brown, the sexy secretary who foils the robbery; and Chester Robb, the security guard who was either a hapless buffoon or a criminal mastermind.
We walked into the production hoping to get the established character actor Nestor Serrano as Seth Collison. Once again, it was a Lee thing. Lee had worked with Nestor on the Peter Strauss series "Moloney." (Don't try to remember it. You never saw it. It was up against "Seinfeld.") Nestor came in and read. He was a lock. That isn't to say we weren't tempted by another actor. There was another well-established character actor who had worked on another series with Lee, who had, more importantly, starred in one of my favorite films from 1979. I liked the film so much that I even bought a 16mm print of it and I have been known to invite people over to my house and watch it in the backyard on summer evenings. This actor wouldn't read for the role. However, he was willing to discuss the role. Discuss it we did, but Nestor ended up in the film. And I am thankful he did!
Rebecca Mader as Belinda Brown
It was love at first sight with Rebecca Mader and Chance Kelly, who played Belinda Brown and Chester Robb, respectively. Frankly, Rebecca was the only woman, out of the many dozen we saw, that I even liked. Lee and Dave liked her too. Lee, in particular, because she played the role cool. The other actors, despite instructions, got too emotional. Too involved. Lee and I didn't want that. We wanted the actors on camera to be as blase and "real" was possible. We didn't want any acting. Any flourishes. We wanted what you could expect to see on a typical security tape from your local 7-11. In reality, it didn't work out that way. But that's what we wanted.
Rebecca was great as our femme fatale Belinda Brown. Beautiful. Beguiling. With enough of an accent to add a sense of mystery. And cool. We only called in other actresses for the call backs out of courtesy. I can't imagine us going with anyone else. And she wanted to do it. Or, at least her agent wanted her to do it. She told me her agent read the script and said she had to do it -- though she confessed that she felt some unease when she saw a nude scene on page two. What nude scene, you few people who have seen the film, may ask? I'll get to that later. All I can say is that we were lucky to have her. I am proud to say that we gave her her first starring role in a feature film.
Chance Kelly as Chester Robb
Chance was great too. He had the perfect look and the perfect attitude for the overly-serious former cop and security guard Chester Robb. I remember a moment in the casting tape when he's doing the scene where he's out smoking in the garden with the Dunbar character when he turns and looks at the security camera recording their conversation. His expression was classic. Chance had the character down. In many ways, Chance had the most difficult role in the film. The character had to appear to be a buffoon yet remain credible enough to be a serious suspect as the potential criminal mastermind. And, although the off-camera detectives riff endlessly throughout almost the entire film on the character, Chance never makes him a joke. Chester Robb maintains his honor and dignity throughout. Chance did an excellent job.
I can't go on about every actor, but I do want to recall one incident from the Baltimore casting for the role of Talbert, the actor/salesman. The character was based on one of my former employers named, oddly enough, Ted Talbert. Ted was an actor but he had various day jobs too. One of them was as a costume jewelry salesperson. He worked for a company that sold its own line inside other stores. They would have a drawing to gather a crowd then he would give his pitch for their line. I worked for Ted in two ways, depending on the venue. Sometimes I would hand out the tickets and help get the crowd. Other times I would be his shill and excitedly buy the first set. The interesting thing about the company was that they hired actors as representatives because they thought actors made the best salespeople. Hence the character Talbert, who was preparing for an audition for a role in Shakespeare's MacBeth before the robbery.
In the casting, the local Baltimore actors had to read a scene with Talbert reading MacBeth. Many of the actors were surprisingly good. One was too good. After he read the scene, he explained that he had repeatedly played MacBeth and directed some productions of the play. Then he chided Lee and I for leaving out a word from the speech which he knew from memory.
Now, Lee and I could have admitted our honest mistake, but, instead we said that we took that word out on purpose because we felt the speech flowed better without it. That's right, baby, we were improving Shakespeare.
Of course, we didn't hire the actor.
We did, however, fix the speech that night.
The lesson: Actors, don't make your writer and director look like idiots. At least not until they hire you.
"21 Eyes," a History, Part 3
Read about the making of my other features:
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.