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COMPANY TOWN | The Biz

'Mockumentary' Takes Shot at Greedy Sellers of Tales

December 24, 1999|JAMES BATES

In an era when anyone who has the slightest brush with fame can seemingly wring a movie deal out of it, Leon Gladstone has been one of the people to see.

Once dubbed "the news launderer" by a legal magazine, the entertainment lawyer has shopped to Hollywood everything from a potential movie deal about a man who killed his wife after learning she had an affair with the couple's rabbi to a story about a seemingly normal father and husband who turns out to be a killer--which aired on CBS in October as a TV movie starring John Ritter.

If a news event made it on CNN, friends, relatives or even modest acquaintances of the principals might well have ended up in Gladstone's Marina del Rey office, looking to leverage their good fortune of being somewhere near the fringe of the action into a TV movie or an instant book project.

But Gladstone became cynical about the whole genre. And, in what may well fall into the category of filmmaking as catharsis, he and his wife have made an independent "mockumentary" feature called "True Rights," parodying the business of turning real-life stories into TV movies and films.

Gladstone's change of heart stems from seeing up close the uglier side of the business, especially the lottery-like mentality that pervades the turning of "reality-based" stories into Hollywood projects in hopes of hitting the financial jackpot.

Especially sickening to Gladstone were the calls from family members trying to exploit a loved one's murder. There were the relatives of Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols and Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, who approached him trying to make a buck off their associations. Then there was the ex-wife of a moderately well-known baseball player hoping to do a tell-all about their relationship.

"You are challenged with moral issues that arise out of these stories. You ask yourself: 'Even if I'm successful at setting this up, is it something I'm proud of?' " Gladstone says.

Also weary of it all was Gladstone's wife, screenwriter Meg Thayer, who heard his war stories. She was appalled at what she likens to ambulance-chasing to secure rights to crime stories with the bodies still warm.

The film, which the two are planning to enter in film festivals and will be screening for distributors starting next month, is about as subtle as a sledgehammer in making its point.

It chronicles a camera crew led by actress Claudia Christian (best known as a star of the sci-fi TV show "Babylon 5") that chases news events not only to get footage to sell to TV stations, but to lock up movie rights to the stories of victims and others affected.

Victims and news subjects are shown as sophisticated in the art of turning their stories into Hollywood deals. At one point, the 17-year-old leader of a militia group living in a forest demands to be made a producer as a condition for selling the rights to his story.

Eventually, the key plot involves whether a pathetic, washed-up silent film star will go ahead with a plan to commit suicide. Having no moral filter, the crew hopes he does kill himself so they can clean up financially by telling the story.

"It's like how food gets to the table," Thayer says. "The movie is about how stuff gets from the streets to the screen. My characters are at the slaughterhouse level."

Thayer, who also directed the film, says she was inspired not only by her husband's experiences, but by the case of a Texas couple, Bob and Marietta Marich, who sued over the exploitation of their son's heroin death on the reality show, "LAPD: Life on the Beat."

After reading a 1998 column on the Marich case by Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg, Thayer started writing.

"I think Meg was about halfway through the script when I found out about it," Gladstone says. "I said, 'You're going to ruin me.' "

Eventually, he warmed to the idea. In fact, he's a producer on the film.

"I see myself portrayed in an indirect way," Gladstone says. "I said to myself: 'Is this what she thinks about what I do?' " he adds, laughing. (Gladstone actually has a cameo in the movie, playing a cop.)

Gladstone the lawyer still takes a few true-story cases when he believes they are of higher quality and he is comfortable with the motives of the people selling the rights.

Indeed, buying real-life stories continues to be big business in Hollywood, and some publications and studios are proactive about it. Tina Brown's new publication Talk, in partnership with Miramax Films, is aiming to find stories to publish that can be turned into film projects.

"True Rights" is a so-called micro-budget film, made for less than $500,000, partly out of Gladstone's and Thayer's own pockets. Commercial maker Harmony Holdings helped finance it. They also got substantial help from Soundelux Entertainment Group, where Gladstone's connections helped secure sound work and equipment.

The cinematographer, David Darby, is a commercial director and boyhood friend of Gladstone's who worked free as a favor, shooting with a single hand-held camera over three weeks.

The two most recognizable actors--Jonathan Jackson, a TV soap star on "General Hospital" who had a major role in the Michelle Pfeiffer film "Deep End of the Ocean," and his brother, Richard Lee Jackson from TV's "Ally McBeal"--are Gladstone clients.

Gladstone says that despite the publicity over movie deals that often get trumpeted within days of a news event, maybe 1 in 1,000 actually gets made. In the end, he says, most of the real-life stories are deemed not unique or not interesting enough by networks or studios.

The film crew in "True Rights" may be an exaggeration, Gladstone says, but it's not all that far from reality.

"It's a metaphor to say it's ambulance-chasing," Gladstone says. "But it is literally the case that, with a high-profile story, you'll have 10 producers calling. Any time you see an interesting story in a magazine or a newspaper, someone is going after the story."

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