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Back Behind the Bar

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There’s nothing like being the hot new kid in town. Just ask Troy Duffy. A year ago, he was a Hollywood phenom. He made headlines in the trade papers and was profiled in USA Today and the Washington Post after signing an “unprecedented multimillion-dollar deal” with Miramax Films to write and direct his first screenplay, “Boondock Saints.”

It was an irresistible rags-to-riches story. A scruffy 26-year-old college dropout, Duffy had been working as a bartender in local topless clubs and saloons. He’d never written or, for that matter, ever read a script before, perhaps because he was too busy getting into barroom brawls with his brother Taylor, who plays guitar with Troy in a rock band called the Brood.

But in March 1997, Duffy was flying high. TV news crews filmed him drawing beer at J. Sloans, the landmark West Hollywood bar that Harvey Weinstein promised to buy for him after the Miramax co-chairman waded into Sloans one night, joining Duffy and his pals over a pitcher of beer. Before the Miramax deal was even done, Duffy signed a two-picture, $500,000 script deal with Paramount Pictures.

On the talent agent circuit, word was that “Boondock Saints” was hot: Everyone wanted to act in the saga of two brawling South Boston fraternal twins who seemed like larger-than-life versions of Duffy and his younger brother. Brad Pitt was supposedly interested in playing one of the brothers, as was Matt Damon. Ewan McGregor and Mark Wahlberg had loved the script and wanted a part. Kenneth Branagh was eager to play an older cop character in the film.

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Much of the heat was generated by Miramax, which pulled out all the stops in its pursuit of the project. Weinstein paid Duffy more than $600,000 for the script and agreed to let him direct the film. Weinstein also gave Duffy cast approval and a $15-million budget.

“Troy is a unique, exciting new voice in American movies,” Weinstein said when he announced the deal. “I read a lot of scripts that get near ‘Boondock Saints,’ but they’re imitations. These characters come from Troy Duffy’s soul.”

A year later, some of the helium has gone out of the balloon. Miramax never made the movie, quietly shelving the script late last year. Weinstein’s offer to buy the bar also evaporated. In fact, Duffy can’t even go to Sloans anymore. He got into a fight at the bar in January, was kicked out and was asked by management not to come back.

“The whole experience was surreal,” Duffy says, nursing an orange juice over lunch instead of his preferred drink--a shot of Bushmill’s with a screwdriver chaser. “But it wasn’t as magical as everybody would have you believe. People start talking about money, producers start pulling slick moves, film companies don’t look out for your best interests. As soon as I signed my deal, some of my friends turned on me--you just make enemies by being successful.

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“It used to be when I’d get into a fistfight, everything would be cool the next morning. But now everything is under a microscope. If I get into a fight or tell someone to [expletive] off, they go, ‘Ooh, it’s Mr. Hollywood.’ ”

It would be easy to dismiss Duffy as yet another marvel of the month. Brash and boastful, he has the air of a young gunslinger, wearing sunglasses even on a gloomy day. He’s clearly a product of post-Tarantino Hollywood, where buzz and attitude often count for as much as genuine talent. Even fans of his script wonder if he has the ability--and maturity--to direct a feature film. For now, his roller-coaster ride offers an intriguing glimpse into the fickle nature of the film industry’s frenzied quest for the hot new star director.

“Boondock Saints” will still be made. Independent producer-entrepreneur Elie Samaha is now bankrolling the movie, which is scheduled to begin shooting in July. However, the budget has shrunk to about $5 million. There is no set cast yet, but the producers are said to be in discussions with Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flannery and Jon Bon Jovi.

It’s not the only movie being made involving Duffy. Filmmakers Mark Brian Smith and Tony Montana have been taping hundreds of hours of Duffy meetings and rehearsals--as well as his interview with The Times--for a documentary titled “Drunk N’ Poor,” the name of one of the Brood’s songs.

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Duffy says he was poor growing up in Exeter, N.H., where his father, who had studied English literature at Harvard, taught English at the local high school. Duffy excelled in English but was otherwise an indifferent student known as a troublemaker.

“We were the kind of kids that our friends’ parents would tell them not to hang out with,” he says cheerfully, lighting up the first of many Marlboro Lites. “Taylor and I had different friends, but we always got into the same sort of trouble. If I said, ‘Hey, I got into a fight and robbed this joint over the weekend,’ he’d say, ‘Hey, me too!’ ”

Duffy enrolled at Colorado State University but soon dropped out, moving to Los Angeles to start a rock band. He worked construction and cooked in a topless bar before landing a bartender’s job at Sloans. He was inspired to write a script, like so many people, by seeing hundreds of bad movies.

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was Jean-Claude Van Damme’s ‘Sudden Death,’ ” he says. “All I could think was, ‘I can do better than that.’ ”

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Duffy had never read a script before, so he borrowed one from a friend and copied its format. When business was slow at Sloans, he’d scrawl scenes in a notebook. When he had a finished script, he gave it to a friend who was working at New Line Cinema. Suddenly Duffy began getting a lot of visitors at the bar--agents, producers and studio executives.

“I was working, so I had to charge ‘em all for drinks,” he says. “They’d be going on about the script, and I’d be saying, ‘Hey, it’s $2.50 for the Bud Lite.’ ”

Enthused by Weinstein’s promises of complete autonomy, Duffy sold the script to Miramax. That’s when his troubles began. By most accounts, Weinstein bought the script believing it could be another “Cop Land,” a gritty drama with the kind of colorful roles that would act as a magnet for box-office name actors. But when Duffy had trouble attracting top-level talent, Miramax’s enthusiasm quickly cooled.

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In fact, once the deal was signed, Weinstein rarely, if ever, returned Duffy’s phone calls, Duffy says.

“There were long expanses of time when I couldn’t get Harvey on the phone,” he says. “I shot 12 pages of the script as a test, sent it to Harvey and never heard from him. All he cared about was getting a big name in the movie, even if they were wrong for the role.”

Weinstein wouldn’t comment on his dealings with Duffy, which Miramax critics say is just the most recent example of the company’s penchant for making headlines with a splashy deal but later abandoning the project.

However, not everyone puts the blame solely on Miramax. People who have dealt with Duffy say the novice director created many of his problems himself. When word surfaced that Pitt was interested in his script, Duffy showed no interest, telling friends he didn’t like Pitt’s Irish accent in the film “The Devil’s Own.” He wouldn’t meet with Damon because he thought the actor wasn’t gritty enough for the script. McGregor reportedly liked the script so much that he went out to dinner with Duffy; but the dinner didn’t go well and McGregor passed on the script.

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Duffy remembers events differently. He says he didn’t want Pitt because he had already “done an Irish accent and I didn’t think he should do it again.” The same went for Damon, who was already making “Good Will Hunting.” As for his dinner with McGregor, Duffy sounds mystified: “I don’t know what happened. We got drunk, we hugged, it was a Scot-Irish love affair. Then we heard he didn’t want to do the movie.”

Wahlberg was attached to the movie but dropped out before financing could be completed. Branagh reportedly fell out when no one could meet his price. Maybe actors had second thoughts about putting their careers into the hands of a barroom rowdy.

“Troy was very raw and outspoken, and it hurt him,” says Rob Fried, one of the film’s producers. “When actors met with him, he didn’t always sound like a polished filmmaker, and it put some people off. But that’s part of what makes such an original. He’s not fake--he’s the real thing.”

Duffy admits he made mistakes: “When I’m on the phone with an agent or an actor, maybe I push them too far. I’m always testing people to see if they’re tough enough to do this movie. I’d ask an actor, ‘Have you ever been in any real fights?’ They need some real fear or terror from their own life to draw on to be in this movie.”

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He insists that his nights out drinking and brawling with his bandmates are a healthy release.

“Having a couple of drinks is our coping mechanism,” he says. “We tend to go overboard and get hammered, but one of the guys will say, ‘Hey, you drank a lot last night. Maybe you oughta slow down tonight.’ ”

Duffy laughs. “Not that we always do it. What can I tell you--we’re a motley bunch. We all have the drinking and fighting problem.”

Perhaps the best solution would be for Duffy to own his own bar--at least he wouldn’t get thrown out so often. For now, Duffy’s new hangout is Dublin’s, a Sunset Strip bar located in a building owned by Samaha, his new backer. “I love it,” Duffy says. “Elie even gets me a good deal on the drinks.”

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Duffy lights another cigarette.

“I know the big challenge is that no one thinks I can pull this movie off,” he says. “But I’d rather die with the script in my cold, dead hands than see it messed up or damaged by someone else.”


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