Did the 2007 Academy Awards Kill the Stu Ungar Movie?
If you don’t know the name Graham King, you most certainly know his movies.
He’s produced many of the most widely acclaimed films of the last decade including — Traffic, Ali, Gangs of New York, The Aviator, The Departed, Blood Diamond, The Young Victoria, The Tourist, Rango, The Rum Diary, Hugo, Argo, World War Z, and more.
That’s a stunning list. In fact, two of those movies won the Academy Award for “Best Picture” – The Departed (2006) and Argo (2012).
When The Departed won Best Picture, it wasn’t Martin Scorsese, the film’s legendary director who accepted the year’s most prestigious Oscar. It was Graham King himself upon the stage alone — the mastermind behind the movie’s creation. He accepted the golden statue and then gave a rousing victory speech.
So, what does this have to do with Stu Ungar?
I’m about tell you the story.
Anyone who’s aware of the Stu Ungar story knows there’s a great movie to be made about his life.
Yes, I’m biased since I co-wrote Ungar’s biography with Peter Alson titled One of a Kind: The Rise and Fall of Stuey ‘the Kid’ Ungar.
Actually, there was a movie made about Ungar. It came out a few years before One of a Kind was released. The movie was called High Roller and later changed simply to Stuey in alternate releases. Anthony Vidmer (credited as “A.W. Vidmer”), who I have come to know and greatly respect over the years, was the film’s writer and director. It’s not the movie I would have made, but to Vidmer’s credit, he managed to actually create something that turned a profit. Budgeted at less than a million dollars — paltry by Hollywood standards — Vidmer gave us a movie worth watching and the first movie biography of a real poker icon.
When One of a Kind came out during the summer of 2005, the movie High Roller was playing by that time on the late night cable networks. Poker was hotter than ever before and it seemed Hollywood was prepared to buy in for the max and shove all in– this time producing a big-budgeted movie with major stars attached to Stuey’s epic story.
We received multiple six-figure offers for the film rights. Fortunately, my agent at Venture Literary had pre-packaged the Ungar story very nicely in a bundle for any major studio wanting to make a movie based on the book. We hammered out our own deal which included Ungar’s two survivors (his ex-wife and daughter), the two authors (myself included), and the literary agency. Oftentimes, film deals get messy with never ending litigation. This package was signed, sealed, delivered, and ready to go — in advance.
This might sound ridiculous, but it’s the truth. At the time, money was the last thing that mattered to me. What did matter was selling the film rights — not to the highest bidder but — to the best possible studio and someone with authority who really wanted to make the movie.
Well, it doesn’t get any bigger than two names — Warner Brothers Studios and Graham King.
When my agent called and told me there was a six-figure deal on the table, my first question was – who is it?
Film rights, otherwise known as an “option” isn’t all that it seems. Sure, it’s a huge first step towards getting a movie made. For a relatively unknown writer like myself, it’s like stepping up to bat in the major leagues, getting a hit, and reaching first base. How many people can say they sold film rights for their first book?
Trouble is, the odds are still way against a film ever being made, and that’s even if you get a royalty check. The next step usually involves hiring a screenwriter, and get what’s hoped is a satisfactory adaptation of the material. Then, a producer steps in (or a consortium of producers) who then tries to raise enough money to actually make the film. Once that’s accomplished (no small task), a director is hired. Then, actors are discussed and so forth. Even then with all the dominoes perfectly in place, many movies still never actually go into production. Each step of the process is but an inch closer to the elusive big screen. But the competition for money and talent is so intense, that many otherwise worthy projects get shelved and then finally disappear into oblivion. Then, there are external factors you can’t possibly control, such as market conditions, studio perceptions, and the great unknown of what happens during production. In essence, it takes a perfect storm to break into the movies.
Fortunately, with One of a Kind’s favorable book reviews and commercial success coming at the height of the poker boom, we not only had our perfect storm. We had a potential hurricane on our hands. The venture would gain serious momentum when we heard the six-figure offer on the table was from British movie mogul Graham King and the studio interested in making our movie was Warner Brothers.
Right then, I started thinking about tuxedos and red carpets.
The deal was inked and the next thing was to find a screenwriter who could create a first draft of the script.
Not just any screenwriter. This project required special care. It required considerable time and a real commitment.
Unfortunately, the two most suitable writers in Hollywood attached to Warner for this project had other things going on at the time. No surprise, since the best writers are constantly in demand. That set off an unforeseen cycle of procrastination over the following year during which time a few actual treatments of the book were submitted, but nothing quite propelled the film worthy of moving into the next phase.
Fortunately, Graham King wasn’t fazed. I was told he considered this project a top priority. I know that’s Hollywood talk. But I wanted to believe it. I had to believe it. He seemed determined to make the movie. Otherwise, why would be spend six figures for the rights?
Talk began circulating about what actor might play Stu Ungar. Tobey Maguire was discussed. Although he might have been a great choice for the box office, I never liked the idea of Maguire in the Ungar role. Instead, I wanted the far edgier John Leguizamo, the brilliant actor-comedian-writer, who had just the right self-confidence and swagger not to mention a New York attitude to assume what would have been his most challenging role ever. He even looked and acted like Stuey. I once reached out to Leguizamo, telling him he would win the Oscar for Best Actor if he accepted the role as the title star. But Warner wasn’t a all interested (perhaps there were other factors I don’t know about) and I never heard back again from Leguizamo.
I guess it just wasn’t in the cards.
Time has a way of passing more slowly when you’re waiting for something. It passes slower still when it’s something big.
The wait on the Stu Ungar film project turned from weeks into months, and then into more than a year. The option had originally been for 18 months, which meant Graham King had a year-and-a-half to go into production, or renew the option for a longer period of time which would have resulted into another nice advance payment.
As the first option term began winding down, it came Oscar time. Being a movie fan, I had seen most of the top movies that year, including a film called The Departed. Martin Scorsese had been hand-picked by King to direct that movie. This was the third of four collaborations between King as producer and Scorsese as director. I even heard through my agent that Scorsese had been approached about doing One of a Kind. He reportedly declined because it was the same old territory for him, having already done Casino a few years back.
Even though The Departed was nominated for Best Picture, I had no idea Graham King had been the film’s executive producer. In fact, the impact of that evening and the announcement of winners initially had no bearing on me regarding to the Stu Ungar movie. That was, until I actually heard it and saw it, and then let the implications slowly start to sink in.
That year, Scorsese fittingly won his long overdue “Best Director” Oscar — remarkably his first after 35 years of stunning work. That left one final award for the evening.
I remember sitting there at home watching that moment with my wife Marieta — who had so patient and supportive during the entire process, someone who had weathered the emotional ups and downs of constant hope, punctuated by effervescence of disappointment, that which too often accompanies our dreams.
When The Departed was announced so too was Graham King — a name we knew well. And when The Departed won, it was none other than Graham King who rushed upon the stage, his towering frame not only looming over the amphitheater, but above all of Hollywood. With his characteristic wit and charm, King accepted his coveted honor and then exited the stage, taking along with that golden statue my dreams that he’d go on and eventually make the Stu Ungar movie.
Then and there, I realized that if there had previously been 20 or 30 movie scripts piled high upon his desk, by the following week there would be 200 or 300, and just as many telephone calls, each one clamoring for his blessing. And if the Stu Ungar movie had been number ten perhaps down in that pile, it would in another month or two become umber 110, and in another month be number 210, and finally when the film option finally ran out it would be completely out of his consciousness. Nothing personal. That’s just the business of Hollywood. What’s new and fresh today gets old and discarded tomorrow.
My instincts proved correct. After winning the Oscar, I never heard from Graham King or his production company again.
Another British film company picked up the option some time later. But nothing ever came of it. After that, there were few more phone calls and inquiries. But by the time money started to evaporate for so many new things after the 2008 financial crash and the gradual fizzle of the poker boom. No one was much interested anymore in the story of a gambler who died broke and drug addicted in a cheap motel room, with virtually nothing left to his name.
Like the movie that may have portended an early curtain for One of a Kind, our time had already departed.