by Jamie Painter Young

 


"If it wasn't for Sylvester Stallone, Nia Vardalos, and Billy Bob Thornton, who did their own thing, I wouldn't have had the guts to do this," admits JP Davis. He currently stars in the recently completed feature Fighting Tommy Riley, which he wrote five years ago and which premiered at the IFP Los Angeles Film Festival in the end of June. The film does not yet have a distributor.

"As an actor, it's so hard to always be in a position of walking into an audition and being at the mercy of things that you just can't control. What you can control is creating something for yourself," continues Davis, whose credits amount to theatre, student films, a handful of small roles in low-budget features, and a recurring stint on the daytime drama The Guiding Light. Fighting Tommy Riley marks his first on-camera lead role.

As with most low-budget filmmakers, Davis traveled a long road to getting his feature made. "It started as a monologue that I performed Off-Off-Broadway in a little hole-in-the-wall theatre," says the New York native. It tells the story of a talented but underachieving boxer whose potential is recognized by an equally talented but troubled trainer, played by veteran L.A.-based stage actor Eddie Jones. As Davis explains, the story was inspired by a real-life experience with his first talent manager. "This was the first guy that ever believed in me."

{PLOT spoiler removed}  Davis found poignancy in the situation and was ready to share his story, which he chose to set in the world of boxing. In researching that world, the actor spent three years training as a boxer and took plenty of beatings along the way.

"I wrote this script, and I didn't know if it was any good or not," says Davis of his foray into screenwriting. "I began to send it out to everybody in New York, and in New York you walk around and leave it with doormen and stuff. I left the script with the doorman of [screenwriter] William Goldman, [Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Princess Bride] who read it and said, 'You can really do this shit.' I still have those words posted over my [computer]." Encouraged by Goldman's response, Davis began to solicit agents and received positive reactions. "I ended up signing with ICM--I'm no longer with them [He's now repped by CAA]--as a writer, and the first thing I said to them was, 'Look, I wrote this to be an actor in this film,' thinking if others did it, I could do it, too."

Upon signing with ICM, Davis moved to Los Angeles in 1999 to pitch his project to Hollywood producers. Unfortunately most of those producers, including director James L. Brooks (As Good as It Gets), weren't interested in retaining the unproven Davis as the lead. His agents encouraged him to sell the script and move on, but, as tempting as it was for the broke actor/writer, Davis refused to sell himself short. "I thought, 'If I sell this thing [without remaining attached as the star] I'm never going to forgive myself.' I told my agents that, and they were a little upset and said, 'This is going to make your career as a writer.' I said, 'Look, I'm an actor. I wrote this thing to act in, and I know I can do this if you just give me a chance.' Of course no one wants to give you a chance because there's so much money riding on it."

As is the case with most scripts that go through the studio system, the development process on Fighting Tommy Riley was frustrating. Not surprisingly, Davis says that studios were nervous about the {PLOT spoiler removed} content, and Davis' original script became watered down by rewrite after rewrite. At one point, Jake Eberts, an executive producer of such Oscar-winning projects as Chariots of Fire, Driving Miss Daisy, and Dances With Wolves was going to take a gamble and back Davis as the lead, but, says the actor, "The money fell through twice." At another point, says Davis, Dustin Hoffman was attached "for about a month" to play the trainer, Marty. Then the late Rod Steiger enthusiastically signed on as Marty but sadly passed away during preproduction. Meanwhile, Davis had put his acting career on hold to see his project though.

Full of First-Timers

What finally allowed Davis to get his film made? Persistence, luck, and the right chemistry. Three years ago he was introduced through a friend to aspiring director Eddie O'Flaherty, a Boston native who had moved to L.A. in 1991 to chase his dream of becoming a filmmaker. O'Flaherty spent the next decade working in film production, including stints at Paramount Pictures as both the assistant to the president of Production Management for the Motion Picture Group and at Paramount's postproduction division, where in 2000 he became an apprentice film editor in the Local 700 Motion Picture Editors Guild, working under top editors and sound designers. While working for Paramount, O'Flaherty also attended filmmaking classes at AFI and UCLA and made short films. His goal throughout was to prepare for when he would finally get to make his first feature.

Davis and O'Flaherty hit it off from the start. Shares O'Flaherty, "I wasn't looking [to direct] somebody else's material, and I had a project of my own that I was trying to get set up and wasn't having a lot of luck with it, and then JP's script came along. The script that JP first showed me was really, really good, but I could see that it had tried to serve too many masters. I told JP, 'I really love your script, but I feel like there's this great core and heart to it, and I would like to get more back to that, and this is how I would see it.' He ran out of the room and came running back in with one of his original drafts and said, 'That's what this is.' So I think right away he saw that I got his material, and we've clicked like brothers ever since."

Around the same time, Davis met L.A.–based producer Bettina O'Mara, who had formed her own company, Visualeyes, in 2000. O'Mara was looking to hire someone to do a rewrite. ICM sent her Davis' script as a sample. "I loved it," she tells Back Stage West. "JP and I met about working on this other project, and we let that go by the wayside and decided that we should concentrate on getting Fighting Tommy Riley made."

The next step was to put together the financing to make the film. O'Mara and O'Flaherty partnered with executive producers Diana Derycz Kessler and Paul Kessler, owners of the Los Angeles Film School. "A friend of mine, somebody I had dealt with in the past, introduced me to a new program they had put together called First Chance Films, through the L.A. Film School, which was trying to create a program where they gave graduates a chance to move into feature films. We partnered with them, where we had to put up part of the financing and they put up the rest in inKind services." Among the L.A. Film School alumni working on the crew were production designer Marla Altschuler, production manager Travis Ramsey, first assistant editor Matt Villines, and set buyer Lucas Spas. Working with a low budget of $200,000 cash, O'Mara and O'Flaherty made Davis' dream a reality, albeit a more modest one than he had originally set out to make and one that was created outside of the studio system.

Fighting Tommy Riley was shot on a Panavision/Sony HD900F camera, as 35mm film proved too costly. As much as O'Flaherty would have preferred to shoot the movie on film, he was extremely satisfied with the results of the high definition video format and was particularly impressed with his director of photography, Michael Fimognari's, ability to get a gritty, desaturated look with video. "This film is a character piece that's very reminiscent of a lot of the gritty late '60s and early '70s American dramas. I really wanted to try to emulate that, and it's difficult to do [on video]."

Because O'Flaherty had previously shot his short films using Panavision 35mm equipment, he was able to negotiate a discounted rate on the HD camera. Likewise, his and O'Mara's connections also secured them very good deals with Kodak (for the small amount of film they did shoot), Deluxe Labs, and The Post Group (for color timing). O'Flaherty's longtime connections at Paramount allowed him to also negotiate a very reasonable rate on lighting equipment and truck rentals. The Los Angeles Film School gave them a free editing bay, where they used an Avid Media Composer.

The most expensive item in the budget was the use of the L.A.–based SRI Studios, the space used to create the film's boxing ring, which served for two different fight sequences in the story. As often happens during filmmaking, the original location fell through at the last minute, and O'Mara had to find a solution quickly. "SRI is basically a small auditorium with a stage in it that bands use to rehearse before they go on tour," she explains. "It has a big audience area, and it's almost like a giant nightclub with a stage."

There were other setbacks to making this film, including minor problems, such as permits being written for the wrong day, and major problems, such as the digital sound not being in sync with the picture. O'Flaherty was still trying to solve this problem until 2 a.m. on the day the film was set to premiere at the L.A. Film Festival. "There was a point where I was sitting in the parking lot, a broken man, thinking I had blown everything," says the relieved director.

Perhaps the toughest setback was losing Rod Steiger as the film's co-star. As O'Mara and O'Flaherty found out, it was not easy finding a new Marty, and any established actors that the filmmakers were interested in casting were understandably wary of signing on to such a low-budget venture with so many first timers. The film was made under SAG's Low Budget Exhibition Agreement. O'Mara and O'Flaherty cast the entire film on their own and were very open to unknown actors (about half of the cast was non-union).

The Right Character

Again, luck, or perhaps destiny, played an important role in this project when it came to finding the right Marty. As O'Flaherty tells BSW, "Coincidentally, the friend who had introduced me to JP, his wife--Laura Salvato, who does a lot of theatre in L.A.--knew we were looking for Martys, and she mentioned Eddie Jones to me. The name wasn't familiar to me, and I think I just kind of stuck it somewhere in the back of my mind. Then one night I came home, and the area that I live in has a local paper that I almost never get, because the house that I live in has two residences, and that paper usually goes to the other resident. So the fact that we got it this time was a coincidence. The paper did an article on another resident in the area who was in theatre and had this great performance in Death of a Salesman, and I saw this image that was exactly what I pictured our Marty looking like. I sat there staring at it, mesmerized."

Unfortunately when O'Flaherty woke up the next day, the paper had mysteriously disappeared, and O'Flaherty hadn't caught the actor's name, Eddie Jones. "I thought, 'OK. I'm going to have to go through all this work and find the paper, the editor or whomever, and find out who this actor is.' But the very next day I walk out my door, and there's another one lying right on my doorstep with Eddie Jones' picture, and this time I grabbed it and looked and there was the name. We called the Screen Actors Guild and found out who his representatives were. We called his agent and told him about the project. We sent over the script, and Eddie read it. We got a phone call from Eddie saying he wanted to meet with us."

Unlike most of the actors O'Flaherty and O'Mara had been trying to cast as Marty, Jones was not afraid of working with first-timers, nor was he turned off by the low-budget nature of the project. His main concern was whether he'd be healthy enough to work such long days. While Jones has played many lead roles on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in regional theatres, and on the stages of L.A., where he has made his home since 1989, he had never been offered a lead in a feature before. Jones admits he was worried about working 15-hour days for an entire shoot at his age (which he would not disclose, but he appears to be in his late 60s or early 70s). He told a recent L.A. Film Festival audience at a post-screening Q&A that he met with his cardiologist before agreeing to do the film. "I don't think anyone on the film knows this, but I almost hoped my cardiologist told me I wasn't [fit enough] to do it."

Jones was nervous about stepping, literally and figuratively, into the ring to co-carry a film. First he knew little about boxing and had only a few weeks to prepare for the part of the trainer. The actor was also apprehensive about the intensity of a leading man's job on a movie. He says he's more comfortable, at his age, doing shorter stints--a day or two, or at the most a week--as a supporting player on movies and TV shows. In addition to playing a series regular on ABC's Lois and Clark, among many other TV credits, his feature film work includes The Grifters, The Rocketeer, Sneakers, A League of Their Own, Seabiscuit (he played Sam Riddle, the owner of War Admiral), and, most recently, The Terminal, in which he plays Stanley Tucci's boss.

Jones got over his concerns once shooting on Tommy Riley began, and he says he never doubted the strength of Davis' material. "I consider it a gift," says the veteran character actor, who has been getting acclaim in the reviews that have been written up on the film so far. This experience has, indeed, changed Jones' outlook on taking film roles. "Now I want to do something that I'm interested in," he tells BSW. "I'm not interested in a lot of the stuff that's offered to me. And maybe something will come of this. I think so. But the pleasure in this project is that it reminds me of why we got started in this business: for the love of it."

Sometimes what we're most afraid of is exactly what we need to take on. As Davis adds, "What I was so afraid to express has turned out to be the thing that people are appreciating. So go to the place that scares you the most." BSW

 

Are you an actor who is starring, as well as writing, directing, and/or producing a film? If you'd like to share information about your project, contact Jamie Painter Young at jyoung@backstage.com.



 

JP Davis in Fighting Tommy Riley.

 


Eddie Jones in Fighting Tommy Riley.