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A crafty filmmaker

Frank Mannion's charm and cunning helped bring the offbeat 'Grand Theft Parsons' to fruition and thus to Sundance.

February 15, 2004|John Clark | Special to The Times

Park City, Utah — 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.

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.

"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.

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