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Turnaround, FBI Style

May 21, 1995|Richard Natale | Richard Natale is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

When the FBI went into the movie business in the 1980s in an attempt to weed out racketeering and payola, mobsters weren't the only casualties of the sting.

Among the unwitting participants in the drama were struggling filmmakers Dan Lewk and Gary Levy. Though their film "Cartunes" was never produced, they were left with a wild story to tell--and now the real Hollywood is listening.

The two were approached in 1987 by a producer named David Rudder with an offer they couldn't refuse. Rudder, who said he represented an East Coast medical group eager to invest in Hollywood, agreed to finance a feature based on their short "Cartunes" (which had been shown at Sundance in 1986) for $1.8 million. The hitch was that the road movie, set in the wide-open spaces of the West, would have to be shot in Providence, R.I.--to be nearer the investors, Rudder told them.

"Rhode Island has no cliffs, no rivers, no desert, no Grand Canyon, which we needed for the film," says a bemused Levy, now 40. The location change also necessitated a radical overhaul for the on-the-road comedy about a female rock-band manager. "But somehow we made it work," says Lewk, 44.

Any suspicions they may have harbored were cushioned by Rudder's generous perks. He ushered them around Los Angeles in his gold Rolls-Royce, and they flew first-class all the way.

And for first-time filmmakers, the terms were equally generous: casting approval and final cut, as well as a promise of $60,000 up front for directing and 15% of the profits, "although we never did get an official written contract," Lewk stresses.

This too-good-to-be-true scenario began to unravel when "this short stocky guy with a thick neck would always walk through Rudder's office while we were in meetings and David would hardly remark on it," Levy says.

Since Rudder never introduced them to any of the purported medical investors, Levy and Lewk began to suspect a shadier source of financing.

Still, the production moved forward. Among the actresses under consideration for the film's lead role were Carol Kane, Bebe Neuwirth, Candy Clark, Dinah Manoff and Annie Golden.

Production offices for the non-union shoot were set up in Providence, and most of the crew was hired. "Everything was in place," Lewk says.

Meanwhile, neither had been paid a cent. When they threatened not to show up for the film, they were given half their salaries in advance and they flew to Providence. Five days before principal photography was to begin, "David shows up white-knuckled, like a hit was on him, and says, 'We have to pull the plug,' " they say. He asked them to leave town immediately. "We were devastated," Lewk says.

And the next day, they were back in L.A. working at their old construction jobs again. It was only two years later in a story in The Times that they learned of the FBI sting Dramex (short for Drama Expose)--a five-year operation targeting payoffs by mob figures and union leaders to extract "sweetheart" agreements on non-union films.

Rudder, they learned, was FBI Agent Garland Schweickhardt.

"It's a very interesting story," says Schweickhardt, who still operates out of the FBI's offices in Los Angeles but is no longer active in the movie business. "I wish I could help. I can't discuss the case because Frank Salemme Jr. and his father ["Cadillac" Frank Salemme Sr.] are still under indictment."

Schweickhardt had previously told The Times that until there was danger of his operation being exposed, he fully intended to make "Cartunes." "It was a pretty good script too," he said at the time.

Now, Lewk and Levy may get the Hollywood ending they had hoped for. "Providence" is the tentative title of a project [is this about the whole incident?] for which the duo are currently in negotiations with producer David Permut.

With director Peter Farrelly ("Dumb and Dumber") now attached to the project, Permut and screenwriters Herschel Weingrod and Timothy Harris ("Trading Places") have been shopping the idea to several studios. Says Permut: "It has the makings of a great comedy."

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