EXCLUSIVE: Judy Wood, an immigration attorney based in Los Angeles, who argued what became a landmark case in changing the laws of asylum for women into the U.S., will be the subject of a new biopic from the team behind Return to Zero which garnered an Emmy nomination for Minnie Driver in 2014 and a WGA nom for its writer. The same writer/director, Sean Hanish and filmmaking team of Paul Jaconi-Biery and Kelly Kahl are collaborating again on this new film, which they have titled Saint Judy.
Wood was a single mother in her mid-30s who moved to L.A. and committed herself to immigration law, particularly asylum cases. A deeply spiritual woman, she actually started practicing immigration law after a vision she had of helping others who were suffering and in need. In one of her first cases, she represented an Afghani immigrant who had been persecuted for opening up a school for girls in her home country. Wood fought a tenacious battle in and out of court against established law and the case culminated in arguing before the United States Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit. By winning the case, Wood single-handedly changed the law of asylum nationwide, allowing women to be designated a protected class — saving the lives of not only her client, but thousands of other female refugees who would have been sent back to their home countries where they faced certain death.
Jaconi-Biery and Hanish will produce Saint Judy and Kahl will serve as executive producer. Cannonball has developed the project with screenwriter Dmitry Portnoy who wrote the original screenplay. Portnoy interned with Wood while in law school at Pepperdine and then brought the story to the attention of Hanish.
“Dmitry and I were in the same film class in USC grad school. And we’ve been friends for 25 years. And he himself is a Russian immigrant. His first internship was with Judy. She told him about the case, and him being a writer, he got the entire story,” said Hanish. That story subsequently made it to the director. “He told me about the story of Judy Wood and this woman from Afghanistan. Her father actually turned her in to the Taliban as she was trying to start this school for girls. Wood — who has a quiet confidence and an intensity to do the right thing — and this Afgani woman together changed the world for the better. This is a very timely story.”
By coincidence, I met Wood years ago at her Los Angeles home when my sister was working as a young lawyer in immigration law and began working with Wood. At the time, Wood (who is certainly a product of the ’60s) was working tirelessly on several cases at once, helping refugees from Central America. Her passion and care for her clients was palpable.
The film will mark the third collaboration by the filmmakers. Currently they are in post-production on the independent feature Sister Cities, written by Colette Freedman and based on her internationally acclaimed play. The film follows four sisters who reunite following their mother’s alleged suicide after suffering from ALS. It stars Jacki Weaver, Stana Katic, Jess Weixler, Michelle Trachtenberg, Troian Bellisario, Amy Smart, Tom Everett Scott, and Alfred Molina.
The first two films were fully equity financed. This one will be financed the same way but with pre-sales and gap financing via Cannonball Productions, which secured Wood’s life rights. The budget will be anywhere between $3M to $5M.
Hanish was represented for the deal by Emerson Bruns of Bruns Brennan & Berry PLLC.