EXCLUSIVE: At a time when organized crime films are back in vogue, Relativity Media’s Ryan Kavanaugh is wetting his beak. He’s acquired Ness/Capone, a Grant Pierce Myers script that made the 2010 Black Script and puts a new spin on the epic battle between Eliot Ness and Al Capone during the Prohibition Era 1920s. That battle was famously chronicled in the Brian DePalma-directed movie based on the TV series The Untouchables. Myers went back to the history books and came away with a much different version of Ness. While Kevin Costner played him as an incorruptible married choirboy who had to be taught to meet the mob on its own crooked terms, Ness/Capone’s Ness is a skirt-chasing 26-year old publicity hound who seemed to get an adrenaline charge out of courting danger, kicking in doors, smashing moonshine stores and rubbing it in the noses of Capone and other mobsters. He paraded confiscated bootleg trucks past Capone’s hotel, calling Capone in advance to suggest he look out the window. Deals are still being worked out, but the film will be produced by Gotham Group’s Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Jeremy Bell along with Hollywood Gang’s Gianni Nunnari and Virgin Produced’s Jason Felts and Rene Rigal.
This puts Relativity Media in another potential pic race (it has already gone to the mattresses against Universal over rival Snow White films). Warner Bros has its own Capone project, the Walon Green-scripted Cicero, an origin story. I’ve reported that the project has interest from David Yates when he resurfaces from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, his fourth and final Potter pic. Warner Bros also is going gangbusters on Gangster Squad, the Ruben Fleischer-directed pic that has Sean Penn negotiating to play L.A. mobster Mickey Cohen, and Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin as the cops who try to bring him down.
Some of my favorite films–and acting performances–come from period mob movies, a list that includes The Godfather, Goodfellas, L.A. Confidential, Casino, State of Grace, The Departed and American Gangster, and TV series like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. These true crime-inspired tales sometimes romanticize criminal enterprise, but are usually told long after the fact. And most of them also don’t get in bed with the criminals whose misdeeds inform the plots. Am I the only one having trouble believing in Gotti: Three Generations, which Fiore Films is gearing for a production start later this year?
The multi-generational mob story has the cooperation of John Gotti Jr., who sold his rights and helped inform the script. Little has gone right for the film since a peculiar Manhattan press conference that featured Gotti Jr., director Nick Cassavetes and John Travolta, who’s aboard to play the elder Gotti. Lindsay Lohan also put in a cameo at the photo op, and mob movie fixture Joe Pesci was announced as a participant. Cassavetes dropped out of the film about a week later. Lohan said she would play Victoria Gotti, then dropped out before returning to play Gotti Jr’s wife Kim–right before Lohan was sentenced to 120 days for a probation violation.
Now, maybe Cassavetes honestly did have a scheduling problem with post production of his film Yellow. But he certainly knew about those obligations when he sat through the press conference, and “scheduling problems” is the most convenient excuse to bail on a movie you don’t want to make because of other reasons. Losing him robbed the film of a lot of credibility. I must say that watching footage of Gotti Jr acknowledge at the press conference that his father indeed killed people but that his legacy was being a stand-up guy, made me wonder about how Gotti Jr. getting compensated will play with distributors that have to answer for his participation to victims of past misdeeds the Gotti clan may have caused. Having to justify putting money in the pockets of a criminal certainly halted the momentum of a movie Fox once tried to make about Sammy “The Bull” Gravano, whose testimony helped put Gotti Sr. behind bars for good. The movie was going to be based on memoir Gravano wrote with Peter Maas, but the whole thing became an embarrassment for Fox when Gravanao admitted under oath that he pocketed $250,000 from Fox’s publishing imprint, HarperCollins, and stood to make $1 million from Fox if the film got made. Fox, HarperCollins and ICM were named in a suit filed by the New York State Crime Victims Board under the Son of Sam Law, which is no longer valid.
Getting participation from subjects in these films is tricky. The best example of where it worked out was Goodfellas, where Martin Scorsese and Nick Pileggi relied on Henry Hill to narrate the details of the Lufthansa heist and other misdeeds that informed the classic film, after Hill gave up his accomplices to avoid a prison stretch.
“We had Henry Hill, who opened up and gave up everything,” Pileggi told me several years ago. “He had the pressure of testifying under oath, and if they caught him in a lie, he was going to prison and he’d have been dead in 10 minutes. “I was just lucky enough to be standing next to him, like a stenographer, as this guy talked about what it was like to want to be gangster. You could never have made that stuff up.”
Maybe the makers of Gotti: Three Generations will have similar good fortune with input from Gotti Jr., who has long claimed he retired from the mob after pleading guilty to racketeering and serving five years. Federal prosecutors came after him later anyway, trying him four times with each ending in a hung jury before the prosecutors gave up.
A spokesman for Gotti: Three Generations said that the picture has private money in place to cover the $75 million budget, with ICM selling worldwide territories at the Cannes Film Festival. The spokesman said that while Gotti Jr. was compensated for selling his story and giving input to the writers, he has no creative control over what ended up in the script or on casting. Gotti Jr. chose producer Marc Fiore because he “shared the same vision as John Jr. and wasn’t going to make a shoot-em-up mob film. They were on the same page. This is a factual story about a father and son, and the relationship between Gotti Sr. and Gotti Jr. make up the core of the film.”