If Hollywood gives you a lemon, make lemonade.
In 1996, writer-producers Dan Pyne and John Mankiewicz shot a TV pilot for ABC called "Where's Marlowe?," a quirky mock-documentary about a struggling private detective agency.
The pilot, which Pyne directed, didn't sell. But Pyne and Mankiewicz accomplished a near miracle; they convinced Paramount Television to take a failed TV pilot and expand it into a feature film.
"I saw the film with an audience that just had a wild time," says David Dinerstein, co-president of Paramount Classics, which opened the film Friday in Los Angeles, New York and eight other markets around the country. "So we're trying to build a following for it, because it feels like a breath of fresh air in a very stuffy marketplace."
The movie chronicles the misadventures of two young filmmakers making a documentary about Joe Boone (Miguel Ferrer), a small-time private eye who acts like a sensitive '90s guy but talks like a character from a 1930s Black Mask paperback thriller. When he's looking for information and someone asks, "Who's asking?" he pulls out a $10 bill and says, "Alexander Hamilton."
Already behind on his rent, Boone loses his one paying client, Beep Collins the Beeper King, after tailing Collins' philandering wife only to discover that the wife is philandering with Boone's longtime detective partner, Murphy. When Murphy quits the firm, the documentary team is pressed into service as Boone's temporary sidekicks, transforming them into characters in their own movie.
Shot in Super 16-millimeter and grainy Super 8, the film treats reality as if it were a Mobius strip, telling the story sometimes through the eyes of the documentary crew, sometimes through the eyes of the detective--and sometimes both at the same time.
Its humor is sly, dry and self-referential. In one scene, Boone takes the filmmakers to the site of L.A.'s legendary unsolved Black Dahlia murder, musing that "the movie was called 'The Blue Dahlia.' I don't know why they changed the color, part of the mystery I guess."
Pyne and Mankiewicz, who met when they were both working on "Miami Vice," admit that the premise was a hard sell: "I can't believe they even validated our parking," says Mankiewicz.
But the writers had a good relationship with ABC Entertainment chief Stu Bloomberg, who was looking for a new twist on an old genre, and, as Mankiewicz puts it, "he was in this weird mood for a second and he said yes."
Even though ABC eventually passed on the show, it was a hit with the 40-something writers' industry pals. "The pilot made the rounds like a black-market cult item," says Mankiewicz, a former musician and journalist who has also written for such TV shows as "Hill Street Blues" and "The Marshal."
"Feature [film] people would call us and say, 'Did you really think anyone would ever put this on TV?' "
"For our agents, it was the ultimate confirmation that we were completely nuts," adds Pyne, whose screenplay credits include such films as "Pacific Heights" and "Doc Hollywood." "They kept saying, 'Why couldn't you do something commercial, like "Law & Order?" ' "
One of their biggest fans was Paramount TV Group Chairman Kerry McCluggage, who put up the money to expand the pilot into a feature. "He said, 'This isn't a TV show; it's an independent movie,' " says Pyne. "So we pitched him our ideas, and he said, 'Go make the movie.' No script notes, no focus groups. They completely left us alone."
McCluggage gave them $1.8 million, roughly what the original pilot had cost, which financed 10 additional days of shooting, allowing them to expand the pilot to a 97-minute feature. The new footage was shot in 1998 after Pyne and Mankiewicz reassembled the original cast, which includes Mos Def, now a member of the popular hip-hop group Black Star, who plays one of the documentary filmmakers.
Even when they were filming the original pilot, Pyne and Mankiewicz cut budgetary corners. The writers' offices are on the 10th floor of an appropriately Raymond Chandler-era office building in the Mid-Wilshire District. When it came time to shoot Boone's detective agency scenes, they used the office elevators and a suite of empty offices on the fifth floor.
To Be Real, It Had to Feel Out of Control
Making a mock-documentary is more complicated than it seems, because even the most intricately staged scenes have to look as spontaneous as possible. Pyne would often switch over to a Super-8 camera, using as little light as possible, making the scenes appear to have been shot on the fly.
"To make it seem real, it had to feel a little out of control, like it was completely improvised," he says. "So we'd write away from the focus or the emotion of the scene and hope we'd get it with a camera move. Sometimes the cameraman wouldn't look at the scene before he shot it, so he wouldn't anticipate the action."