GODSPEED, documentary feature

I'm just going to post the story from The Washington Post. It's too good not to make into a documentary. Now if I could just find someone who wants to produce it...

Seeking to prove that a conspiracy of astronauts fabricated the shape of the Earth, a California man intends to launch himself 1,800 feet high on Saturday in a rocket he built from scrap metal.

Assuming the 500-mph, mile-long flight through the Mojave Desert does not kill him, Mike Hughes told the Associated Press, his journey into the atmosflat will mark the first phase of his ambitious flat-Earth space program. Hughes’s ultimate goal is a subsequent launch that puts him miles above the Earth, where the 61-year-old limousine driver hopes to photograph proof of the disc we all live on.

“It’ll shut the door on this ball earth,” Hughes said in a fundraising interview with a flat-Earth group for Saturday’s flight. Theories discussed during the interview included NASA being controlled by round-Earth Freemasons and Elon Musk making fake rockets from blimps.

Hughes promised the flat-Earth community that he would expose the conspiracy with his steam-powered rocket, which will launch from a heavily modified mobile home — though he acknowledged that he still had much to learn about rocket science.

“This whole tech thing,” he said in the June interview. “I’m really behind the eight ball.”

That said, Hughes isn’t a totally unproven engineer. He set a Guinness World Record in 2002 for a limousine jump, according to Ars Technica, and has been building rockets for years, albeit with mixed results. There’s a brief hiss of boiling water, then . . . nothing. So Hughes walks up to the engine and pokes it with a stick, at which point a thick cloud of steam belches out toward the camera.

He built his first manned rocket in 2014, the Associated Press reported, and managed to fly a quarter-mile over Winkelman, Ariz. As seen in a YouTube video, the flight ended with Hughes being dragged, moaning from the remains of the rocket. The injuries he suffered put him in a walker for two weeks, he said. And the 2014 flight was only a quarter of the distance of Saturday’s mile-long attempt. And it was based on round-Earth technology. Hughes only recently converted to flat-Eartherism, after struggling for months to raise funds for his follow-up flight over the Mojave. It was originally scheduled for early 2016 in a Kickstarter campaign — “From Garage to Outer Space!” — that mentioned nothing about Illuminati astronauts, and was themed after a NASCAR event.

“We want to do this and basically thumb our noses at all these billionaires trying to do this,” Hughes said in the pitch video, standing in his Apple Valley, Calif., living room, which he had plastered with drawings of his rockets.

“They have not put a man in space yet,” Hughes said. “There are 20 different space agencies here in America, and I’m the last person that’s put a man in a rocket and launched it.” Comparing himself to Evel Knievel, he promised to launch himself from a California racetrack that year as the first step in his steam-powered leap toward space. The Kickstarter raised $310 of its $150,000 goal.

Hughes made other pitches, including a plan to fly over Texas in a “SkyLimo.” But he complained to Ars Technica last year about the difficulty of funding his dreams on a chauffeur’s meager salary. A year later, he called into a flat-Earth community Web show to announce that he had become a recent convert.

“We were kind of looking for new sponsors for this. And I’m a believer in the flat Earth,” Hughes said. “I researched it for several months.” The host sounded impressed. Hughes had actually flown in a rocket, he noted, whereas astronauts were merely paid actors performing in front of a CGI globe. “John Glenn and Neil Armstrong are Freemasons,” Hughes agreed. “Once you understand that, you understand the roots of the deception.”

The host talked of “Elon Musk’s fake reality,” and Hughes talked of “anti-Christ, Illuminati stuff.” After half an hour of this, the host told his 300-some listeners to back Hughes’s exploration of space.

While there is no one hypothesis for what the flat Earth is supposed to look like, many believers envision a flat disc ringed by sea ice, which naturally holds the oceans in. What’s beyond the sea ice, if anything, remains to be discovered.

“We need an individual who’s not compromised by the government,” the host told Hughes. “And you could be that man." A flat-Earth GoFundMe subsequently raised nearly $8,000 for Hughes. By November, the AP reported, his $20,000 rocket had a fancy coat of Rust-Oleum paint and “RESEARCH FLAT EARTH” inscribed on the side. While his flat-Earth friends helped him finally get the thing built, the AP reported, Hughes will be making adjustments right up to Saturday’s launch.

But he won’t be able to test the rocket before he climbs inside and attempts to steam himself at 500 mph across a mile of desert air. And even if it’s a success, he's promised his backers an even riskier launch within the next year, into the space above the disc. He told Ars Technica last year that the second phase of his mission might involve floating in a balloon up to 20,000 feet above the ground, then rocket-packing himself into outer space. “It’s scary as hell,” Hughes told the AP. “But none of us are getting out of this world alive.” This is true. And yet some hope to live to see its edges.

Update Feb 15 2018: Talked to Mad Mike Hughes. He wants to be paid to appear in a documentary. Ethically I can't do that. 

AN AGE OF NO INNOCENCE, fiction film

After reading my friend Eli Saslow's narrative non fiction story about a family dealing with the tragedy of the opioid epidemic, 'What Kind of Childhood Is That', I found a haunting story in the New Yorker called 'The Addicts Next Door'.

I then developed an idea, incorporating this landscape and issue, into a story that my wife and I referred to as 'a reverse Age of Innocence'. 

Ellen, a thirty year old woman living in a Charleston, West Virginia nearly has her life ruined after an affair with a married man, who comes from a large family of Appalachian politicians, lawyers, and police members, is revealed. Outcast by the patriarchy and tight knit community, who ignore her assertions that she was the one betrayed and hurt by a man who lied about his marital status and intentions. As Ellen struggles to regain her footing, a chance friendship with another outsider, a former addict, leads to an outing of the dark forces lurking beneath the surface of the family in status, whose own brother, a respected doctor, is selling Oxycodone illegally, contributing to numerous overdoses and several deaths in the surrounding rural communities. Set against the backdrop of a divided social, economic and political landscape, Ellen clears her name and reputation, and manages to effect change in her community.  

Background/Motivation:  

•  I wanted to make a female character driven film, inspired by my frustrations with the way women like Monica Lewinsky and Paula Broadwell were treated and had their lives ruined, while the men involved in their affairs were quickly forgiven and continued to climb up the career and social ladders.  I wanted to believe that the industry could get behind a cultural examination like this.

• And of course I was inspired by turning the situation in Edith Warton’s ‘The Age of Innocence’ on it’s head, and pairing it with an investigation into the opioid/Oxycodone epidemic raging in the bible belt and rural America.  

• The lead role is for an actress in her early 30’s - something I hoped the industry could get behind.  

But nobody in Hollywood was interested. 

FINDING LISA, fiction feature

This is a hard-to-believe-it's-true story about a woman who in her adult years finds out that her father was a serial killer, and not her father at all. 

I tried to pitch this as a fiction feature by my team at the time wasn't interested in the idea. 

Read it at the Boston Globe

A SURVIVOR'S LIFE, feature film

My friend Eli Saslow wrote this story about a young victim of a mass shooting in Oregon. Like with Eli's story about the Barden Family I wanted to make a story that was a character driven portrait - and not directly about the issue. Although of course I would hope that the issue would be the main thing people talked about after watching the movie.

I asked Brie Larson to play the lead role but wasn't able to find a producer who wanted to make the film. 

Read it at The Washington Post

'The Strange, Spectacular Con of Bobby Charles Thompson', documentary

Donors all over America opened their wallets for his United States Navy Veterans Association. Politicians all over Washington posed for grip-and-grins with him. But not only was he not a legitimate fundraiser for military families—he wasn’t even Bobby Charles Thompson. This story is a look inside the hunt to catch one of the country’s biggest con men.

Read it at The Washingtonian

A KISS BEFORE DYING, fiction feature

My friend Pamela Colloff wrote this story about Betty Williams, a fast girl from the wrong side of the tracks and Mack Herring, a handsome football player with all the right friends. When he broke up with her during her senior year in 1961, at Odessa High School, her world fell apart. But Betty asked Marck for one last favor: to kill her. 

Read it at the Texas Monthly

MONTANA 1948, fiction feature

My friend and producer Noah Lang shared Larry Watson's book 'Montana 1948' with me over a year ago and I finally got around to reading it yesterday (thank you Brooklyn Public Library).  It’s a story that de-sentimentalizes the myth of America and in a small way seeks to correct the most dangerous and harmful of our public lies.  The story demonstrates how a disturbing truth is preferable to a comforting lie - and a offers an appreciation of the moral complexity of our nation’s past and character.  

Those reasons alone are enough to make this into a movie. I believe that this is a film that would win Academy Awards. I want to make that film but I can't find anyone in Hollywood who wants to take a chance with the material. Echo Lake Productions/Entertainment bought the rights to Larry Watson's novel years ago and I'm still trying to find a way into that room.

Here’s the synopsis from Wikipedia:

When David's Native American housekeeper Marie Little Soldier falls ill, Frank Hayden, the local doctor and David's uncle, is called. When Marie refuses medical treatment from Frank, David's mother, Gail, discovers that Frank has been using his medical status to prey on the local Native American women. David's father, Wesley, is the local sheriff and begins to investigate these allegations against his brother, but is in a difficult situation between his loyalty to his family and his obligation to justice.

When Marie is found dead, Frank convinces the family that the cause of death was pneumonia. Wesley later confronts Frank about his actions at a family dinner at their parents' house and they reach a compromise, where Wes agrees to forget the whole incident. David, who was playing with his grandfather's pistol, once contemplates shooting Frank because of all the troubles he has given their family. Eventually, David decides to tell his parents the truth - that he had witnessed Frank leaving their house around the same time Marie had died, implying that Frank had something to do with her death.

Wesley eventually arrests Frank, who confesses to killing Marie and molesting Indian women, and holds him captive in the basement, in order to avoid the embarrassment Frank would experience by going to the local jail. Wesley and Frank's controlling and racist father Julian is strongly opposed to Frank's arrest and sends men to break Frank free when Wesley is not home. Gail manages to scare them away by firing warning shots into the air, while David calls for help. Gail later pleads for Wes to take Frank out of their home. Wesley's moral values override his family loyalty and he agrees to take his brother to the local jail the next day, but later that night the family wakes to the sound of jars breaking in the basement. In the morning, Wesley finds that Frank committed suicide by slitting his wrists with the broken glass.

The epilogue in the book is very powerful, especially a single moment where David and his wife are having dinner with his parents years later.  David’s father Wesley became a lawyer in North Dakota after what happened in Montana, and went on to lead a successful life and practice.  At this dinner, David’s wife asks about that summer and Wes sits quietly for a second before slamming his hands on the table and yelling out loud - a sign of the lingering pain and conflict that has existed in him ever since this story tore his family apart. And then after everyone has gone to bed, David sits in his father’s chair in the empty dining room, his hands on the table, trying to understand what it has been like for his father to walk miles in his boots.

THE INNOCENT MAN, limited fiction series

My friend Pamela Colloff wrote a haunting and powerful two part story about a Texas man named Michael Morton who was accused of brutally murdering his wife, convicted, and then after 20 years, was exonerated by the Innocence Project.  The Texas DA who convicted him, Ken Anderson, deliberately withheld evidence - and it turned out had done so in many other cases over the years (including the case of Cameron Todd Willingham who was executed by Texas in the 2000’s for an arson that killed his family - which he never committed). David Grann wrote about Willingham in one of the best pieces of narrative non fiction I've ever read, Trial By Fire

Part 1 in the Texas Monthly

Part 2 in the Texas Monthly

THE WHITE FLIGHT OF DEREK BLACK, fiction feature

My friend Eli Saslow wrote this story for The Washington Post. As soon as it was published I hit the ground running. I talked extensively with Derek Black and in the end he decided that he wasn't ready to put his story on screen. Brad Pitt and Plan B also wanted to tell this story. I never thought I'd be 'competting' with those folks. 

Here's the film we proposed. 

Proposed:  Feature length film adaptation of Derek Black’s coming of age story set against the growing socio-economic, class and race divisions facing our nation.

Writers:  Elgin James and Rod Blackhurst

Their public conference had been interrupted by a demonstration march and a bomb threat, so the white nationalists decided to meet secretly instead. They slipped past police officers and protesters into a hotel in downtown Memphis. The country had elected its first black president just a few days earlier, and now in November 2008, dozens of the world’s most prominent racists wanted to strategize for the years ahead.

“The fight to restore White America begins now,” their agenda read.

This is where we meet Derek Black, 19 years old, a Florida community college student, son of Don Black, and the promising face of the modern white nationalist movement.  

At it’s heart, this is a film about the relationships, beginning with the relationship between Derek and his parents, Don and Chloe, who always taught Derek to question indoctrination, to be independent and ideological and to speak his beliefs even when doing so resulted in backlash.  Following their advice ultimately leads Derek to renounce the culture and people he was raised by. This coming of age creates a tragic divide in his family amongst people and a community that he loves dearly but that at the end of the film no longer identifies with.  

This is also a film about the relationship between Derek and Matthew Stevenson, his classmate at the New College in Florida who invites Derek to Shabbat dinner at his apartment after learning about Derek’s upbringing. The friendship that develops between these two young men on opposing sides of a dogmatic spectrum is unlikely at first but becomes a powerful catalyst in Derek’s life.

Finally, this is also a film about the relationships between those who sit and operate on opposing sides of any conversation or ideological spectrum.  As our society and culture grows more and more divided, we frequently ignore those who do not see the world through the lens we do.  We find ourselves seeking comfort and connection with those who reinforce the beliefs we already hold.  We do not consider those who feel or think differently than us.  But it is finding the humanity at the heart of anyone - enemy or ally - that allows us to consider them as human beings and to grow and learn.  Beyond Derek’s relationship with the white nationalist movement, his relationship with his family, and his friendship with his classmates at college - this is a film that will show the growing cultural divides, recent political events and the violence simmering and boiling over across America.

INTO THE LONELY QUIET, fiction feature

I cried the first time I read my friend Eli Saslow's Washington Post article about Mark Barden and his family. And every time I've read it since, I've cried. For over a year I actively worked to make this a film - but nobody in Hollywood was interested. I proposed a film that wasn't an issue based film (although the issue here is important to me) - but rather a portrait of a man and his family struggling to grieve and move forward; and at every turn reminded of their loss. And still understanding that someone must carry that flag into battle - and that perhaps it needs to be their family - as painful as that always will be.

This film would have been about one of the great issues facing society today. I believe that in making the film about the people that the message would be there, available for all to understand, without it being preachy. I was told that it was too "heavy" and "dark", that people didn't need this dose of reality. I still disagree and hope to make this film someday. Read Eli's article at the link below.

INTO THE LONELY QUIET by Eli Saslow

CACHE MONEY, fiction feature

Who knows if Forrest Fenn's treasure is real or not - but the myth of an old man burying a million dollars in jewels and coins somewhere in the American west would make for a wonderful film, told from the point of view of a modern day treasure seeker. As someone looking for more analog experiences in this digital world I'd also like to come across some treasure.

Still haven't been able to find a producer or company who wants to make this film. 

Story in Outside Magazine (2015)

Story in Newsweek (2012)

Story in VOX (2017) 

A THOUSAND POUNDS OF DYNAMITE, fiction mini series

My friend Adam Higginbotham writes amazing narrative non-fiction. This story about a bomb plot in a Lake Tahoe casino from the early 1980's would make a fascinating 5-6 part mini series. But by time the public could read the story, Bradley Cooper and Todd Phillips had already optioned the material for development. Us little guys can't compete with folks like Cooper and Phillips. 

Here's the story at The Atavist

Update January 2018: Warner Brothers/Phillips/Cooper let the option lapse. The project is available again.