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Aria for the downtrodden

J.F. Lawton puts an operatic spin on 'Jackson,' his film about skid row denizens.

November 10, 2002|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

"The sun rises over Los Angeles. The city wakes slowly. An old homeless man, Nemorino, his burnt face covered in sores, sits dazed on a barren lot overlooking Bunker Hill. He nurses a big bottle of Colt 45. As music swells, he sings Donizetti's 'Una furtiva lagrima' (A Secret Tear) in a beautiful tenor voice. In the aria, a young man insists he would gladly die to be permitted to comfort his lover."

-- From the screenplay "Jackson" by J.F. Lawton

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J.F. Lawton wants to make one thing clear: He is not an opera buff.

For 16 years, the veteran screenwriter, director and, most recently, executive producer of Pamela Anderson's saucy syndicated television series "V.I.P." has harbored a desire to make a film set on the mean streets of skid row. But Lawton knew that chances were slim that any studio would green-light a movie about homeless men and women, no matter how rich the comedy or riveting the drama.

"I would write it and say, 'This is so great,' and then I'd go, 'No one is going to want to make this movie,' " Lawton recalled recently at his office in the Larchmont district of L.A. "I even said to myself, 'This is a movie I wouldn't want to go see. Who wants to see a movie about two homeless people?' ... Even if it's funny, even if it's well acted, even if it's well directed, who will possibly go see it?"

And then a curious idea struck him. What if the men in tattered clothes swilling Night Train and the bag ladies lighting crack pipes with shaky hands -- those street denizens that society consigns to the shadows -- saw their humble humanity soar on the wings of operatic music?

The result is "Jackson," a modestly budgeted, one-of-a-kind, independent film written and directed by Lawton about a day in the life of two homeless men. The film stars Barry Primus, Charles Robinson and Steve Guttenberg with a cast of singers including performers from the San Francisco and Los Angeles opera companies.

The film, which Lawton said is in the final stages of editing, features Primus as Donald, an unshaven, unbathed man living on the streets of L.A. who connives a $20 bill out of a hapless businessman played by Guttenberg.

"All I have is 20s," the businessman tells Donald. "I'm not going to give you a 20."

"Why not?" Donald replies. "What, is it going to break you? ... Here you are wearing a $300 suit telling me that you can't spare $20?"

"It's a $3,000 suit," the businessman corrects him.

Once Donald has the $20 -- a "Jackson" in the parlance of the street because the bill bears President Andrew Jackson's likeness -- he heads straight for his buddy, Sam, played by Robinson. "We're going to go places you haven't seen," Donald tells Sam. "We're going to do things you've never done before."

Lawton, whose Hollywood career took off after he wrote such hit films as "Pretty Woman" and "Under Siege," said it was his longtime friend Primus who had encouraged him to finish the script for "Jackson." But it wasn't until the dawn of the digital age that he saw a way to make a film with studio polish on a shoestring budget. "Jackson" wound up costing about $500,000, Lawton said.

"I knew I had to photograph it in a way that was extremely beautiful, so I got Jack Conroy, who did 'The Field' and 'My Left Foot,' to be the DP," or director of photography, Lawton said.

By shooting the movie digitally, he said, his cast and crew could operate in the streets in almost a guerrilla theater mode without the cumbersome production trailers and lighting setups that big-budget, mainstream studio films require.

Everyone was working for little or no pay, Lawton said, noting that he enlisted crew members he had worked with over the years at "V.I.P.," who were all eager to take part.

In addition to casting the movie, Lawton had to produce a soundtrack album, one that, he knew, had to be on the highest level for it to work creatively. But where would he find opera singers?

One of the "V.I.P." veterans Lawton recruited was composer Frankie Blue. Although Blue is an expert musician and composer, he admits he is not into opera, but his brother-in-law, John Jackson, is a baritone who once sang opera professionally and works as San Francisco Opera's annual fund director. Why not ask for his help in casting singers?

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"A dangerously insane homeless young man, Don Giovanni, shirtless, with stained pants, wild hair and frightening eyes, argues violently with invisible people all around him. Down the boulevard, pedestrians discreetly flee.... He flings himself down the street, hands waving fiercely. Music roars as he bursts into the frantic and bubbly Champagne Aria from what many opera composers (Wagner, Rossini, Gounod, etc.) considered the world's greatest opera, Mozart's 'Don Giovanni. " -- "Jackson"

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When auditions were held in San Francisco and Los Angeles, nearly 200 singers showed up.

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