Where does the time go? It seems like not that long ago that I was figuring out how to be a director, and embarking on my first documentary film. Back then, I was an editorial photographer doing a lot of magazine assignments, and I had also just started directing commercials. I was lucky enough to land my first commercial because an art director who loved my photography took a chance on me. And before I knew it, I had landed on a set with a crew of 50 people, and they were all looking at me for what to do next. And funny enough, once the mystique and fear of a motion picture camera went away, I felt emboldened enough by my tiny bit of experience to finance and shoot my own documentary. I made “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, A Film About Wilco” on 16mm black and white film stock, and on a shoestring budget, and with absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into.
The experience of making the Wilco film was enthralling, and got under my skin like nothing else I had ever been involved with. I was making my own filmic statement, with no client, agency, or magazine editor looking over my shoulder. I was able to go to film festivals all over the world, and have in-depth conversations with filmmakers that I had admired from afar for years. I found myself in meetings with producers, studio heads, and agents, and I started thinking about my next project. I wanted to jump right into making another film, and this time a narrative.
I have always been passionate about music, which is why I think I had such a great experience with the Wilco documentary. Another huge passion of mine is motorcycles—specifically motocross. I was spending all my weekends around this time bombing the tracks and trails of Southern California — doing a little racing, and a lot of crashing. I attend races on a regular basis, and I was at the 2002 opener at Anaheim Stadium because I was intrigued by a young African American racer named James Stewart, making his rookie debut that night. I watched as he came flying out of the start gate on a green Kawasaki KX125 dressed in pink and silver. He immediately crashed, got up in last place, and proceeded to make the other racers look like they were on minibikes as he stormed his way through the field, gaining an astonishing 19 positions in a 20 lap race, to finish second. Who was this kid? What was his story? I had to know more.
Within three weeks I was sitting at breakfast with 16 year old James Stewart, his father James Sr, his mom Sonya, his brother Malcolm, and his agent. In those three weeks I learned everything there was to know about James, and realized his life story would make a fantastic film. He is the first African American athlete to achieve a high level of success in any motorsport, and yet he grew up dirt poor in a sport populated by very well off white kids who seemingly had all the monetary advantages. As I explained my passion and knowledge for the sport of motocross, I gained James’ family’s initial trust. They agreed to let me into their lives for research, and also to give me the opportunity to try to find financing and develop a script.
I spent the next year attending nearly every race James was in. I interviewed other racers, team managers, mechanics, family members, and veterans of the sport. Slowly, James’ life came into focus: James Sr., himself a former racer that had James Jr. when he was only18, dragged his family to every amateur race in a beat up camper van while Sonya fed the family baloney sandwiches and scraped money together for entrance fees. Sometimes they were joined by Tony Haynes and his father, the only other black family on the whole circuit, and they often encountered racism and hostility at the Southern motocross tracks where racers were shocked to see African Americans in their sport. Despite all of this adversity, James won at every level, and after a crash left Tony Haynes paralyzed from the waist down, James was on his own.
I gathered enough research to make a feature length documentary, but my focus was to make the first authentic theatrical movie about motocross. I partnered up with Michael London, who produced Sideways and several other films, and then I presented the story to Tom Cruise, who I knew shared my passion for motorcycles. Within five minutes Tom was enthusiastically suggesting that we make this film together, and he put together a meeting for me with his production company and Paramount Pictures.
The next few months were like a dream: Tom would produce the James Stewart story at Paramount, and I would direct. We hired David Gordon Green and Danny McBride to write the script with me, and David and I went to live at James Stewart’s house for a week to do more research. A script was written. Notes were given. A second draft was written…and everyone at Paramount loved the story. Tom Cruise called James Stewart to tell him how excited both himself and Paramount Pictures were about telling his story. The studio began to discuss start dates with me…
Sounds great, right? I make a documentary, and within a few years I have a 30 million dollar feature film in pre-production. Well, not so fast….as it turns out. This is about right when I heard about the movie gods. The movie gods, according to my agent at the time, don’t care about your intentions, or your script, or your hard work. They work in random and sometimes downright devious ways. If the movie gods decide that it isn’t the right time, then your movie will not get made! And I was about to find out how cruel the movie gods can be.
The trouble started when we received a call from James Stewart’s new lawyer, who didn’t like the language of the long-form life rights agreement. Now, at this point, we already had a signed deal memo from the family agreeing to all the points in the life rights agreement. The long form was supposed to just be a formality, because we already had enough of a deal to have already spent about a half a million dollars on the script and story. This particular lawyer worked mainly with athletes, and I am pretty sure this was the first life-rights agreement he had ever seen. He started out the conversation by saying, “According to this agreement, you can portray my client in anyway you want. You could make him a drug-dealing prostitute!” To which we calmly replied, “We have a script…you can read it, and you can see for yourself exactly how he is portrayed.” This went back and forth for a while, and Paramount very graciously offered an unprecedented script consultation clause to the family to show good faith. This still wasn’t enough, and the lawyers went back and forth for months and months. We began to lose Tom and Paula’s interest. Understandably, they were not used to having this kind of push back on a project.
We began to get worried. We would send emails and get no response from the family. The start date came and went, and our momentum at Paramount stalled. Michael and I offered to come out to James’ house and do a table read, because we weren’t even sure they had ever read the script. No response. We couldn’t figure it out. Maybe they were just getting bad advice from a lawyer who didn’t understand the magnitude of this deal? I mean, this wasn’t some tiny indie film. This was going to be the definitive film about the sport of motocross, with James Stewart as the face of the sport.
For another year I valiantly tried to keep the project alive, but it became clear that the movie gods were against us on this one. Finally in about 2008 I gave up entirely on the project. It was around that time that a television show about the day-to-day events in James Stewart’s life appeared on one of the cable channels, and he became just another face on reality T.V.
I bring all of this up because the bottom line is, getting a film made is hard. It takes serendipity, good fortune, timing, and benevolent movie gods. One of the facts that may get lost in the shuffle of Hollywood lore is just how hard everyone works. And after my motocross movie experience, it makes me wonder how many amazing films each year never make it to principal photography. It occurred to me as I was speaking to this issue’s Off Camera subject, Ed Helms, that he has had quite a run, which includes The Office, one of the most beloved and longest running television shows ever, and The Hangover: only the highest grossing R rated comedy of all time! Ed Helms works incredibly hard, has enjoyed a fair amount of good fortune, and seems to have a good relationship with the movie gods!
Sam Jones, March 2014