A crafty filmmaker

Special to The Times

Sometimes a movie and the way it was made mesh in mysterious ways. Such is the case with "Grand Theft Parsons," a shaggy-dog story that had a wayward development process that was overseen -- if that's the right word -- by Irishman Frank Mannion, one of the film's 30 producers.

Mannion is at pains to point out that he wasn't the most important of the 30. However, he is so charming and crafty that he could probably talk a mortuary attendant out of a corpse -- which, as it turns out, is what "Grand Theft Parsons" is about and what it took to get the film made.

"I've never come across a financing situation like this picture," Mannion says over a bowl of fruit at a Park City, Utah, restaurant during the recent Sundance Film Festival, where "Grand Theft Parsons" had its world premiere.

Mannion is being modest. Few people have. The film's subject, Gram Parsons, was an influential singer-songwriter during the late '60s and early '70s who died of a drug overdose in 1973. Before he did, he made a now legendary pact with his road manager, Phil Kaufman, that whoever died first would be taken to Joshua Tree, where his remains would be cremated. Standing in Kaufman's way was Parsons' family, which wanted him buried in New Orleans. Kaufman managed to intercept the corpse at LAX, where he spirited it away in a borrowed hearse.

As the film would have it, Kaufman (played by Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame) was then bedeviled by the drug-addled owner of the hearse (Michael Shannon) and chased by the cops, Parsons' quietly determined father (Robert Forster), and Parsons' enraged, money-grubbing girlfriend (Christina Applegate).

"It's a very '70s stoner movie," as Mannion puts it.

The film, directed by David Caffrey and written by Jeremy Drysdale, was originally budgeted at $5 million, with Hugh Jackman slated to star as Kaufman. When they shopped the project around Hollywood they discovered that Jackman ("X-Men") was being groomed to be an action star, not a "body snatcher." Because of this perception, they had trouble attracting interest, and eventually Jackman dropped out.

At this point, the producers had to recast, rethink, refinance. Mannion took out $75,000 worth of credit by maxing out 10 credit cards he'd acquired for just that purpose. (His production company is called Swipe Films.) He and Caffrey then returned to L.A., where they had meetings and told potential participants that everyone would have to work for scale. Creative Artists Agency, which represented Caffrey, suggested another of its clients, Knoxville, to play Kaufman.

"So we met up with Knoxville at the Chateau Marmont for drinks," Mannion says. "We told him about our poverty situation, and he said, 'Listen, I grew up listening to Gram Parsons. We shot 'Jackass' guerrilla style. I'm in. I love you guys.' And he bought us dinner. He sort of got into the whole spirit. So then I thought, 'We've got Johnny Knoxville, "Jackass: The Movie" is tracking like gangbusters, and we know that he is going to have a trajectory of being a cult TV star to being a movie star.' We didn't audition him, but his personality was close to the character of the road manager."

With Knoxville aboard, they secured $1 million from an L.A. financier. This commitment went bust when the financier tried to force on them a disastrous choice for the hearse owner. However, through their casting director, Randi Hiller, they contacted another potential investor, a Wall Street trader named Matt Candel. They tried to FedEx him the script, but none of Mannion's credit cards would go through -- and the $75,000 was gone -- so they e-mailed the script to Cedric Devitt in New York, who had placed second in the World Air Guitar Championships.

Devitt printed out the script, walked it over to Candel, and told him that Mannion and Caffrey were two of the biggest filmmakers in Europe. "He sat there and gave his five- to 10-minute sales pitch," Candel says of Devitt. "We weren't going to come up with the money in 48 hours on the basis of the pitch. It was really talking to Frank and Randi. We were told that it might be bought [by someone else], but we weren't pressured. We felt we had a call option [trader-ese for the right purchase a commodity] on Johnny Knoxville, who was about to explode with 'Jackass: The Movie.' "

A torrent of investors

In the end, Candel liked the project -- which he considered an homage to two friends of his who died at the World Trade Center -- and through him Mannion found more than two dozen other investors willing to put up the rest of the budget.

"He's a bit of a charmer, but not a smarmy charmer," Hiller says of Mannion. "He never promised anything he couldn't deliver."

One million dollars is not a lot of money. Mannion stretched it in a number of novel ways, many of which are cited in the closing credits, which run close to nine minutes.

Former Gov. Gray Davis gets a credit -- for implementing a program to allow filmmakers free locations if they shoot in California. It made it possible for "Grand Theft" to film in a little-used Delta Airlines hangar at LAX and an institution for the disabled in Pomona. (Mannion says that Knoxville became annoyed when patients walked into shots. The producer smoothed his ruffled feathers by telling him they would be a great resource for the quadriplegic he would play in his coming film for the Farrelly brothers, "The Ringer.")

Cameron Diaz gets a credit for providing Applegate's hair extensions, a gift to her after they worked together on "The Sweetest Thing." A big credit goes to Miller beer -- Knoxville wears a Miller T-shirt throughout the movie -- for giving them the money to film a helicopter shot. Various hotels get credits, including a seedy trap in Twentynine Palms rife with crack dealers and hookers, according to Mannion.

Knoxville had to take sleeping pills because his room was sandwiched between those of two brawling couples, who were not there working on the movie. "Even while we were shooting, we thought it might fall apart," Hiller says. "In a way, we had our own road trip."

Originally, "Grand Theft" was to be shot in high-definition video, until the line producer came up with the idea of purchasing 35-millimeter short ends from "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines." A short end is the film left over in a magazine that is not quite enough to safely shoot a scene and is usually discarded. That added its own layer of complications. A scene in which Shannon's character recounts his drug intake had to be shot five times because they kept running out of film.

Then there was the issue of the music rights. Obviously the filmmakers needed Parsons' music. When Parsons' widow and daughter saw a still unfinished version of the film, then gave it their blessing -- and the rights to use his music. But the filmmakers wanted something else, a song called "Blood Brothers" by Bruce Springsteen. They were told that Springsteen seldom allows his music to be used on film. Still the team of 30 producers went ahead and wrote to his management, who asked that they send along a tape of the film.

Springsteen, a fan of Parsons, watched it, loved it, and allowed them to use the song for a pittance, or so the story goes.

"You could only do this as an outsider," Mannion says of himself and Caffrey, who is also Irish. "You don't know the rules, so you break them. But that's why you get in the film business."

At least that's why Mannion did. It's obvious he relishes all of this finagling. He received his master's degree in entertainment law from Cambridge University and became head of business affairs at Scala Productions ("Michael Collins") at age 23 (he's now 31). He went out on his own, producing a well-regarded movie called "Divorcing Jack" but then bombing out with a picture called "Mad Cows," in which Harrods department store chairman Mohamed Al Fayed appeared as a doorman in exchange for the use of the store as a location.

Now Mannion is a Golden Globe winner for having helped sell the rights to "Osama," an Afghan film he was taken with even though he first saw it without dialogue.

"It's interesting to watch him operate," Caffrey says of Mannion, who is negotiating a deal for "Grand Theft" with Blockbuster, though that may preclude a theatrical release. "All the Hollywood executives know who he is. He's the kind of guy who gets into places he shouldn't be in. How does he do it? He's a movie international man of mystery. And he won't take no for an answer. He's a Rottweiler."

"The film business, it is an adventure, a great voyage," says Mannion, whose coming projects include a tandem-surfing movie featuring a Hasidic Jew and a film about a senior citizen who wants to make porno movies starring the elderly, called "69." "You're always chasing a dream."

Freelance writer John Clark can be contacted at calendar@latimes.com.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday February 19, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction Filmmaker's degree -- An article in Sunday's Calendar section about producer Frank Mannion mistakenly said he received his master's degree in entertainment law from Cambridge University. He received a master of laws degree from Cambridge; his thesis was in entertainment law. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 22, 2004 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 42 words Type of Material: Correction Filmmaker's degree -- An article about producer Frank Mannion in last Sunday's Calendar said he received his master's degree in entertainment law from Cambridge University. He actually received a master of laws degree (LL.M.) from Cambridge; his thesis was in entertainment law. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday February 22, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 43 words Type of Material: Correction Filmmaker's degree -- An article in the Feb. 15 Calendar section about producer Frank Mannion mistakenly said he received his master's degree in entertainment law from Cambridge University. He received a master of laws degree from Cambridge; his thesis was in entertainment law.
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