It was early morning, June 1981, when Randy Fried drove into Chicago. He'd been on the road for three days, driving east from LA: a 29-year-old graduate of the film school at the University of Southern California, his movie-making dreams shattered by a screenwriters' strike.
He was tired of Hollywood; it was there that his marriage had floundered. He was broke and confused and jaded by egos and lies. Beckoned by a friend's invitation, Fried had packed his bags and left. He was looking for a saner, more nourishing place to live.
He didn't know he'd get sucked into the very industry he was trying to escape. That he'd spend almost ten years trying to raise enough money to make a movie about basketball. That his fortune would hinge on bankers, brokers, agents, and Michael Jordan. That he would be engaged in a high-stakes test of perseverance and obsession. Or that his dreams would come true: On October 1, Heaven Is a Playground--written and directed by Randall Howard Fried--will premiere in Chicago. In late October it'll open in theaters nationwide.
How could he have foreseen any of this on that steamy morning ten years ago? As he pulled into town the rush of the cross-country drive was fading. It was too early to wake his host, so Fried parked outside his house, settled in the front seat, and waited for the dawn.
As a child growing up in Miami Fried showed no interest in film--his passion was sports. His parents weren't in the business (his mother was a public school teacher, and his late father owned a series of small businesses).
He might have wandered into law, but then during his junior year at the University of Florida he took Dr. William Childers's introductory course in film. "Wild Bill" Childers was an eccentric, a 60-year-old romantic whose adoration for film was contagious, and it wasn't long before Fried was hooked.
In the fall of 1976 he moved to southern California with his wife and enrolled at USC. These were not happy times for the newly wedded Frieds. They lived in a dumpy one-bedroom apartment; his wife was homesick; and Fried was uptight. He was not in sunny California to have fun. He was there to master the filmmaking art. His endeavor required a strict regimen of study, since, as he saw it, he had much to learn.
"I saw 10, maybe 12 movies a week," says Fried. "I would watch a movie once to enjoy it. And then I would watch it again to see how it was made, how the cameras moved in and out or what kind of lighting was used. I would visualize what the dialogue looked like on paper or where the camera was or whether there was diffusion from a fog machine or whether they shot a scene in the morning to take advantage of the natural fog. I was obsessed."
At the end of his third year he entered a school-sponsored contest and was one of seven students awarded the money to make a half-hour featurette. Fried chose to make a film about the night his father was robbed outside his grocery store in a black neighborhood in Miami.
"About 50 students entered that competition," says Lou Angelo, a film-school classmate of Fried's and now a film editor in Los Angeles. "You were judged on your script, storyboard, and ability to win over the faculty. It was quite an achievement for Randy to win. It was good training for the real world, what with all the politicking."
The result was Happy Birthday!, a 28-minute black-and-white feature that Fried made on a budget of $2,000. Making that movie provided Fried with his happiest moments in film school; he reveled in the details of scripting, casting, blocking, and editing. The movie's story was told from the perspective of "Larry," an anguished 18-year-old store clerk who witnessed the robbery and then braved retribution by turning the robbers in.
It was a compelling film, and his teachers were impressed. With their encouragement he spent the year after graduation honing his skills, writing and rewriting scripts. He hooked up with an agent, who arranged countless meetings with dozens of executives, none of which panned out. From the studios' perspective he'd just done what every film student has done--made a featurette. Big deal.
1980 wore on and no money came in. Fried had to borrow $500 from his agent just to pay the rent. His marriage dissolved, and his wife moved back to Florida. Finally he got a break: Happy Birthday! won a student Academy Award for outstanding achievement in a dramatic film.
"The student Oscars are awarded by the same Academy that gives the regular Oscars," says Fried. "The studios watch who wins because that's an indication of talent, which you might get for a relatively less expensive price."
Almost immediately he called Dawn Steele, then vice president of Paramount. A secretary answered and Fried identified himself as "a recent student-Oscar-winning director." Within minutes a meeting with Steele was arranged.
"I proposed to make The Usher, a slasher movie along the lines of Halloween," says Fried. "Actually, it was a spoof on slasher films. You would have a homicidal usher in a film theater who would kill and dismember people and put them in big bags of popcorn. I had it all mapped out; I even had the idea for the advertisement. It would say, 'The Usher--you'll laugh yourself to death.' It was pretty adolescent, but I was desperate to get something made."
Steele didn't bite, but the Oscar opened doors for Fried, and eventually he connected with Jack Schwartzman, a prominent independent producer.
"I had dinner with Schwartzman and his wife Talia Shire, who played Stallone's wife in Rocky and is Francis Ford Coppola's sister," says Fried. "Talia said, 'I saw Happy Birthday! and it reminded me of Francis's early work.' I kept a straight face but I was ecstatic. I was too inexperienced to know whether she really meant it or whether she had some other agenda."
The upshot of these meetings and meals was the "quintessential three-picture deal," says Fried. Schwartzman would pay him to write one script and could hire him to write two more if he wanted. "Otherwise I was back on the street," says Fried. "Of course, I was getting paid bubkes, and there was no guarantee that anything would get produced. But it was credibility, and in Hollywood that counts."
Fried actually completed one script for Schwartzman--Reality Ends Here. It was about film school (a thinly disguised take on Fame), cowritten with Kevin Reynolds, another USC grad (who, by the way, would go on to direct Robin Hood). Soon thereafter the screenwriters went on strike. Old projects were shelved, backlogs developed, and pesky three-picture deals like Fried's were forgotten.
"That's when I drove to Chicago," says Fried. "I had come to a dead end in Hollywood. I didn't even know if I wanted to stay in the movie business."
With all the rejections and hard knocks he had lost his confidence; but two months after he got here he landed a script-writing assignment from an unlikely source.
"I hooked up with a producer in Skokie who wanted to make a movie about the youth scene in Lake Geneva," says Fried. "It was called Summer Crackers, and it was going to be like a Meatballs of Lake Geneva. The producer sent me up there to research it, and I wrote a script. It was never filmed. But I was paid and back in the business."
After that he found work writing everything from industrial films to adaptations of short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer and John Updike for public TV. For his efforts he made little money and won few words of praise.
"Randy was very talented, but I think that some of the producers resented him," says Mary Trimble, a scriptwriter and friend of Fried from those days. "They might have been jealous of his Hollywood past."
Still, it was the most prolific stage of his life. He saved enough to afford his own apartment. For relaxation, he went to Evanston's YMCA to exercise his other passion, basketball.
It was there that he met Rick Telander, a staff writer for Sports Illustrated, who one day casually mentioned that he had written a book about inner-city basketball. That was Fried's introduction to Heaven Is a Playground, Telander's account of a summer on the courts of a working-class, racially changing neighborhood in New York City. Telander lent him a copy, and Fried "fell in love with it right away."
He was captivated by Telander's characters, a rich and diverse lot that included Rodney Parker, a ticket-scalping hustler; Fly Williams, whose flamboyant pro career was cut short by drugs; and Albert King, a 14-year-old playground sensation already burdened by expectations of fame.
"Rick's a remarkable writer, and he captured all these wonderful kids hanging around the courts," says Fried. "I loved their voices; there was poetry and poignancy in their dreams. They were so good at basketball, yet you knew most of them were never going to make it out of that park. Rick was only 25 when he wrote it, and that's part of the book's joy. He was this fresh young white guy--not at all cynical--trying to win acceptance in a black environment. I could relate to that as I had been the only white to play in black playgrounds in LA and Chicago."
Fried suggested to Telander that they make a documentary out of the book. But Telander was skeptical. He'd been down this road before. Fried wasn't the first filmmaker to fall in love with Heaven. The book had gone out of print since its 1976 publication, but it had become a cult classic among basketball fanatics; at one time or another, three other producers had owned the rights to make it into a movie.
Yet no movie had been made. The book's strength and weakness were the same thing, felt investors: plain and simple, it was a book about one white guy and a bunch of blacks. And Hollywood had already completed its "black" phase; the days of Shaft, Superfly, and Cotton Comes to Harlem were over.
"Heaven wasn't made because people wouldn't back it," says Telander. "They didn't think they could make money off of Heaven because it's about blacks. Randy didn't think that way."
Fried was persistent. This was his chance to make a movie that mattered. He pitched the idea to Tom Engel, a producer at Channel 11. "I wanted to direct and cowrite it with Rick," says Fried. "Tom showed it to one of his executives and came back convinced that it could be a feature film and nothing else. I never thought about it as a documentary again."
After some negotiations, Channel 11 optioned the rights from Telander; Fried and Telander wrote a script, and Engel looked to Hollywood for financing. "I wasn't talking about casting athletes for the big roles; I wanted actors," says Engel. "I thought I might have Timothy Hutton or Dennis Quaid play the part of Telander, and Danny Glover or Lou Gossett play Rodney Parker."
After almost a year the project collapsed and Fried and Engel had a falling out. "I advocated raising the money locally, but Tom didn't listen to me," says Fried. "After a while I felt like Rick was the player and I was just the hired hand on the sidelines. I had brought together the primary elements--the book and Channel 11--and now a year later I was cut out of the loop. I was bitter and felt powerless, but it was my own fault. Back then I didn't know how to negotiate to insure my involvement in the project."
"I don't want to talk about Randy; anything I say may seem like sour grapes," says Engel. "Let's just say Heaven is a beautiful book that Rick wrote. And Rick did a beautiful job writing the screenplay with some assistance from Randy."
After the project's demise, Engel started his own production company, Telander continued writing for Sports Illustrated, and Fried, well, his life came unglued. He felt like he had struggled so long to get a film project. At times he stayed awake recounting each detail of every opportunity he had lost. The high points of his career seemed so distant. He had no idea what to do next. There was no strong demand in Chicago for writing features, which is what he wanted to do. And he couldn't even imagine returning to Hollywood, having already failed there once.
"I went into a funk," says Fried. "I made no attempt to contact my friends. I'd come to Chicago to start all over again and now I was burned out. I had an awful case of writer's block; I'd sit in front of my typewriter for hours, but I couldn't fill an empty page. I had been writing so much--and now I couldn't write a thing."
To earn a living, he worked as a typist for a downtown law firm. "I was the only male in the typing pool, working for lawyers who were younger than me. It was incredibly humbling," says Fried. "I'd come home at night to my apartment in Rogers Park. It was almost Gothic. The last inhabitant was an old lady who had died, and the place smelled like an old person. I said, 'This is it, you've hit rock bottom.'"
He rarely saw movies anymore; they reminded him of the hopelessness of his once-promising career. But one night in the winter of 1984, he made an exception and saw Purple Rain. As the credits rolled, his heart sank.
"The director was Albert Magnoli, a film-school classmate of mine," says Fried. "It was an excruciatingly painful moment for me when I saw his name come up. It was my darkest hour. It was then that I realized how far I had fallen. Albert was making films, and I was feeling old, useless, and spent. Purple Rain was grossing millions, and I couldn't write one paragraph."
It was through the law-firm typing job that Fried met Richard Tickner, an evidence assembler, who hired him to film a reenactment of a legally contested plane crash. Fried was back in business.
"I realized that I had entrusted my destiny to others," he says. "I decided I had to take charge of my own life."
By then it was late 1985, and he'd been "in my own dark ditch" for more than a year. With about $2,500 in his pocket and a renewed burst of confidence, he decided to give Heaven another shot. "I called Rick to buy the option," says Fried. "Our lives had gone in separate directions. I was struggling and he had a wife, kids, job, and a house in Lake Forest. I told him that I was committed to making Heaven; he must have thought I was nuts, but he was very friendly and supportive. He told me no one else was bidding on the project; it had sat dormant for two years. I was willing to pay $2,500 for the option."
"I was surprised he was still interested," says Telander. "I said, 'Randy, this project is a killer; Hollywood is too stupid to see its potential. It will take somebody willing to dedicate his life, and that's not me.' Randy said, 'I know, but I want to get it done.'"
After he struck a deal with Telander, he moved out of the "dead lady's apartment," formed the Heaven Corporation, and started to write a new script from the book, which was still attracting the interest of producers. "Soon after I optioned the rights from Rick, I got a call from Nick Grillo, an independent producer in Hollywood who actually once owned the option to Heaven," says Fried. "He told me he had showed the book to Norman Stevens, the head of Warner Brothers Television. Next thing you know, I'm on the phone with Stevens and he's saying, 'Randy, great book, we'd like to turn it into a TV movie with Bill Cosby and have John Sayles write the script.' I said, 'Interesting offer, let me call you back.'"
Fried would have loved to have made a deal with Warner Brothers; he needed the money and wanted to work. But he couldn't, not under those circumstances anyway. He wanted creative control. "I didn't see how they could make a book with such an edge palatable for TV," says Fried. "And Bill Cosby as a con man? Come on, I couldn't see that. After I turned them down, I felt a little disappointed, but I was also proud of myself. If you take their money, they control you; you're just another scriptwriter on the block. But turn them down and you have credibility. After I said no, Nick took me to breakfast, patted me on the back, and said, 'I'm proud of you; you're thinking like a producer.'"
By this time Fried had a strong vision of the movie he wanted to make. It would be a brutal film--with violence and harsh language--set against a beautiful backdrop of blues, purples, and pastels. "Sort of urban Gauguin," says Fried. "The basketball scenes would be stylized, but real. You would feel what it's like to take a charge or bang for position beneath the boards."
As for the script, he wanted to revamp the book into a combination cautionary tale/Rocky-like melodrama in which Telander (called Zack) would unite with Parker (Byron Harper) to, among other things, transform a bunch of playground misfits into a well-coordinated team.
"I hadn't written a script in a year and it wasn't coming easy," says Fried. "I was doing warm-up exercises by drafting a story for Miami Vice--I really love that show--and one night it hit me: Michael Jordan should be in this film."
Before that no one had thought of casting athletes for major roles in Heaven. But Jordan, then a second-year player hobbled by a foot injury, seemed ideal. "Jordan represented the grace and mythical qualities of basketball," says Fried. "I called a friend, told her my idea, and said, 'Am I nuts?' She said, 'Absolutely not.' That's all I needed to hear. Right then and there I wrote a three-page sketch of Matthew Lockhart--the Jordan character. He'd be this enigmatic guy who had God-given talents but was psychologically damaged for trying to live up to the enormous expectations of others. He would never play in public; he'd always sneak off to some vacant lot to play alone. We'd have spectacular scenes of Jordan doing things like soaring through the air to take a dollar off the backboard."
Unsure of how to approach the young star, Fried called a local sports agent, who sent the character sketch to ProServ, the sports agency in Washington, D.C., that represents Jordan. "Two days later," Fried says, "ProServ called and said Michael likes it, let's start negotiations."
With complicated negotiations on the horizon, Fried realized he needed a business partner. So it was a fortuitous break when he was introduced to Keith Bank, a 26-year-old suburban real estate broker. It took three months of haggling over rights and responsibilities, but eventually Bank became a partner in the Heaven Corporation and started raising funds for the movie full-time. Bank had never produced a movie, but he had a head for finances and a knack for negotiations. He had opened his first business, a drugstore, at the age of 21; best of all, he loved the game.
"In high school I was one of the best shooting guards in Saint Louis," says Bank. "I used to keep statistics for the Saint Louis Spirit, the ABA team Fly Williams played for. I still have Fly's jersey."
Of course, Fly Williams's old jersey wasn't going to get them Jordan. He still hadn't signed, and in retrospect it seems preposterous that Fried and Bank truly believed he would. They were, after all, filmmaking rookies, and he was a superstar.
But he wasn't quite yet an international sensation. "He was a mortal then--an apostle, not a god," says Telander. "You could walk up to him at practice and talk to him. Now he's surrounded by an entourage of drivers and guards."
Besides, the character Fried created for Jordan was so pure (no smoking, cursing, drinking, or drugs) that it could only enhance his carefully cultivated all-American reputation. "I'm sure Jordan saw [acting] as a challenge," says Fried. "He's a gunslinger who can't resist a challenge."
In the fall of 1986, Fried and Bank flew to Washington to meet Jordan's lawyer, David Falk, the temperamental marketing wizard who had almost single-handedly built ProServ into one of the country's largest sports agencies. "Keith told him straight, 'David, we don't have the power in Hollywood to get this made overnight, but we are determined,'" says Fried. "Falk was enthusiastic. He smiled and said, 'I get it; this is Flashdance on the basketball court.' Of course, that was brilliant. I mean, it's not poetry, but it cuts straight to the point. You have to figure that while we were talking, Falk was thinking: 'How do I sell this to Nike and Coke?' Oh, he's a brilliant marketing creature, that Falk. I remember feeling a little nervous because we present sports agents as kind of corrupt in the script. But Falk said, 'Your treatment of sports agents wasn't rough enough.' And then he laughed."
According to Fried, they hammered out a deal in which Jordan would receive roughly $50,000 as a bonus just for signing on. Bank drafted a contract and sent it to Falk, and then they waited. And waited. Days turned into weeks; a month passed. Finally, Fried and Bank decided they could wait no more. On New Year's Day 1987, they drove to the Bulls' practice facility in Deerfield.
"Michael was walking out of practice and Keith said, 'Michael, Randy Fried would like to talk to you,'" says Fried. "Boom, you could see instant recognition in his eyes. He walked over, we shook hands, chatted, and then we walked outside. It was one of those cold, gray winter days. We told him we thought he'd be great as Matthew Lockhart and asked him if he would have Falk take care of the contract. He said, 'OK,' and in the next few days Michael signed. It was written up in the Trib; it was a very exciting moment."
Suddenly, it seemed as though fate was with them. Throughout that first year, Bank kept the project afloat, paying for phone bills and plane tickets with the roughly $225,000 he raised from a variety of sources. At an airport in Buffalo, Bank met a fellow named Larry Edwards, who then owned the Biograph theater and who is still on the board of the Steppenwolf Theatre. He said he had many powerful and influential friends, and that he wouldn't mind helping two up-and-coming entrepreneurs. He introduced them to some of his rich associates and let them use an office above the Biograph.
"We were doing dog-and-pony shows for potential investors day and night all over the country," says Fried. "Jordan's name helped with individual investors, but in Hollywood they just called him 'sexy casting,' which means he's intriguing but not a financeable element."
Fried and Bank also enlisted Hollywood veteran John Wilson as their line producer (in essence, the film's supervising manager, who oversees the budgeting of production time and money). Fried says Wilson told them that to do Heaven right--which meant casting one or two big-name talents in addition to Jordan--would cost at least $5 million.
As word of the project spread, more actors began responding. Bank met with Danny Glover; Fried watched a Bulls game in Los Angeles with Timothy Hutton, taking the movie star and his wife at the time, Debra Winger, into the locker room afterward to meet Jordan. In New York Fried met with Victor Love, star of the movie Native Son, and talked about some of his more personal reasons for wanting to make Heaven.
"Victor read from the script and made this almost magical transformation from an elegant Shakespearean actor into a badass street kid," says Fried. "I asked him how he did that, and he said that he doesn't like to talk about it, but that something spiritual within himself connects with the project. I said that I could understand that because there is a spiritual aspect to my motivation too. It's not something I like to share with many people because this is a cold business and they would laugh me out of their offices. But I wanted to show America that these kids on the basketball court were not just shadows. That they were living, breathing human beings. Call it well-intentioned liberalism if you want, but I truly felt a higher calling."
And so it went, each day bringing more deals to make and problems to solve. On the advice of their lawyers, they tracked down Rodney Parker and Fly Williams and paid them to waive their option rights to the film.
"Keith found Rodney living in California and we flew in for lunch," says Fried. "Rodney said he was out of the sports business and into the rock-ticket-scalping business and that he had just finished touring the country with U2. He said the book was his idea and that he deserved as much credit and compensation as Telander. I looked him in the eye and said, 'I'm gonna write you out of the script and there will be no Rodney Parker.' He looked at Keith and said, 'Why are you bringing in this muscle from Chicago?' We reached an agreement on that day."
Fly Williams was harder to find. They eventually read a newspaper story about a scuffle Williams had gotten into in New York City with an off-duty cop. Bank hired a private eye, who met Williams at the courthouse on the day of his trial and got him to sign over his film rights for an undisclosed amount of cash.
All in all, they were making progress. Bank and Edwards found investment entities in New York and Chicago, each willing to invest $1.5 million if another 1.5 could be raised. It was spring 1987, and the summer filming deadline was approaching. They were close--very close--and they could not afford to let the movie slip away.
In June, Fried got word that Keith Barish--producer of Ironweed and Sophie's Choice--was interested in the project. Fried flew to LA, drove to Barish's house, made his pitch, and was told that Barish would contribute the final one-third. "I was sky-high," says Fried. "I sat on the veranda of Barish's estate, looking down on all the twinkling lights of LA, and I was thinking, 'This is it; the film's gonna get made.'
"The next day I was having breakfast with [one of Barish's assistants], who pointed to a billboard on Sunset Strip and said, 'We'll probably put a poster for Heaven right over there.' I said to myself, 'Stay cool,' but inside my heart was racing. After breakfast I called Barish, and he said, 'Randy, how are you?' And I said, 'How should I be?' And he said, 'Outraged. Your money from New York isn't real.'"
It turned out that Fried and his cohorts had fallen for a phony pitch. The investors in New York talked a big game, but didn't really have $1.5 million ready to invest.
"They were expecting Keith Barish to guarantee all the money and then they would borrow against his guarantee," says Fried. "Barish's reaction was, 'Well, what the hell do I need those guys for?' And he was right. We didn't need them at all. They weren't bringing anything to the deal. They wanted Barish to put himself at full risk for the picture, and he wasn't willing to do that.
"I walked out of that phone booth in a blind rage. I felt like a fool. What did I know about financing? I was so naive. It never occurred to me that this New York money wasn't real. I met these people, saw their nice offices and Mercedeses, and figured they really had $1.5 million on hand. I wasn't thinking. I had been seduced; I wanted to be seduced. I didn't realize that people would go to such extremes to put up a good front.
"I learned never to trust anyone's word until their money's in the bank. But learning that lesson didn't ease my humiliation; we had to close the project for the summer and I felt like a schmuck."
There was no question that Fried and Bank would continue; they had come too close to stop. John Wilson did quit, but he was replaced by Billy Higgins, a Chicago-based line producer who had worked on several movies with John Hughes.
Once again Fried and Bank cranked up the machinery, renewing their deals with Telander and Jordan. ("Michael was very generous," says Fried, "he signed on for another year, gratis.") They thought they had a breakthrough when Bank met two options traders who were eager to invest.
"They claimed to have access to the $2 billion trust fund of some wealthy man in India who wanted part of it invested in the Board of Trade and part of it in entertainment," says Fried. "They were putting up good-faith money whenever we needed it--$5,000 here, $10,000 there, snap, just like that--so it was hard not to believe them. They kept saying, 'Don't worry, the money's coming in.'"
But by the start of summer 1988, the money hadn't come and another year was precariously close to being wasted. Then Bank read about a company in Dallas that bragged about owning the international television rights to the National Basketball Association. Bank went to Dallas to meet with the company's president; a few days later the president called to say he liked the project enough to bring it to the attention of his acquaintance Ed Pressman.
Now here was a breakthrough. Pressman was a big-time producer whose work included Wall Street and Talk Radio. "It was like a royal audience, meeting with Pressman," says Fried. "I showed him the storyboards and the script. He was gracious and very mild-mannered. I'm sure I was burning very bright in terms of passion. He told me that he had seen Happy Birthday! and that he was impressed.
"After that I called the guy in Dallas and he said, 'Go back to Chicago and make your movie. I just talked to Ed and the deal looks OK.' I was thrilled. Pressman sent in his production executive to talk to Billy Higgins and Bank, and then a couple of weeks later Pressman calls back and says, 'Wait a minute; I have to wait for the Dallas money.' So Keith called Dallas, and the guy there says, 'Well, it was never my money, it was going to come from a friend in Boston, but now that friend says it was never his money.'
"So I flew down to Dallas to meet this fellow. He was this Republican fat cat who claimed he was a good friend of George Bush, Billy Graham, and Julius Erving. I said, 'Why don't you write a check for $2.5 million to match Pressman's?' He said, 'Well, that's just not the way I do things.' When I got home one of Pressman's executives called and said he didn't want to yank me around but there was still a chance he could get some money from a group of Washington-based restaurateurs. That money never came through and that was that--we closed for the year."
Bank wasn't used to losing; he was used to results. In the real world of capitalism--real estate, drugstores, any kind of business--a man's word is his bond. Put a good deal on the table, explain the benefits and risks, and they either buy in or they don't.
"But in movies, Jesus, I'd never seen anything so crazy," says Bank. "It was all ego. It was all me, me, me, me. They tell you they're going to do something and then they don't do it. And then they aren't even ashamed. People think it's so glamorous, and, I admit, there is some of that. But aside from the glamour, you have to deal with so many jerks."
Most frustrating was the almost pathological inability of so many potential investors to take a chance. Granted, movies are precarious investments, and true, Fried was untested. "A lot of people said, 'Get an experienced director and we'll come in,'" says Bank; no one knew if Fried could even finish a movie, let alone on time and under budget.
Still, Fried and Bank wanted to make a low-budget film. And no one was being misled; every potential investor received what Bank calls a "private placement memorandum, basically 100 pages of legalese--risks, benefits, tax consequences--that cost us at least 15 grand to have some lawyer prepare."
And yet they couldn't commit. After a while it was maddening. How could successful people be so cautious? Couldn't they recognize opportunity staring them in the face? The marketplace for basketball was expanding; stars like Jordan and Johnson were famous not just in America but all over the world. Sometimes potential investors would ask Fried or Bank questions: Does the movie have too many blacks? Are the sports agents realistic? Can you put in some more whites? What about a love interest? But they never seemed satisfied with the answers.
"With movies, no one wants to invest their own money," says Fried. "They'd rather try to convince other people to invest their money, which is kind of hard because no one wants to invest. It's the ultimate catch-22."
"There's something magical about a movie," adds Telander. "The big screen, the music, the romance, the action--it's larger than life, and most people, even rich, successful ones, don't know or understand it. It's not like a restaurant, where they know if you put out good food and provide decent service you'll make money. In movies, nobody knows. Even the experts, they don't know. Home Alone makes $50 trillion or whatever. Why? Who knows? Now everyone's trying to replicate it. But they won't hit the jackpot again because nobody knows what it was about Home Alone that made all that money in the first place."
After three years, Bank decided he'd had enough. "I'm a practical guy," says Bank. In November 1988 he left the project to run a clothing manufacturing company in Skokie.
Now Fried was alone. He thought about scaling back and financing a low-budget film with whatever money he could scrape together from family or friends, as Spike Lee and John Sayles had done with their first films. "But that would only compromise the project beyond integrity," says Fried. "This could not be a movie about a few people talking. It was about basketball, which, like cars crashing or trains zooming, requires choreographed action. I wouldn't do a talking-head, low-budget basketball film."
It was right about then that an ex-actor called to say he knew someone with money who might want to invest. A few phone calls later and Fried found himself talking to John Banta, a flashy 26-year-old investment banker.
Their first meeting began with a strange bit of culture shock for Banta and Fried. "When I walked into his office I thought I was in a scene from Wall Street," Fried says. The room was filled with young men talking on phones. I think I was the only one not wearing a tie." They were definitely children of different eras.
"I never made a lot of money; it was something I never even considered a primary goal," says Fried. "But John--and this is not a slap--came of age in the go-go 80s. Guys like him made a lot of money very young in life, and they aren't ashamed about it." Somehow or other the two connected, and within an hour or so they had struck a deal.
"I told him I could help him finance the movie independently, raising the money out of Chicago," says Banta. "Hey, I've done deals like that before. I do this for a living. It's like anything else; you show them the benefits and the risks. This process is predicated by the unfortunate fact that most movie investors do poorly. Our job, then, is to explain that this project is different because it's rooted in good old-fashioned midwestern values; we're not a bunch of flakes on the coast. Then you let the project's sizzle and pizzazz sell itself. You tell them that it's got Michael Jordan and then their eyes just light up."
Through Banta another Chicago trader, Tony Kamin, got involved, and soon both were out hustling funds. "Tony and John had this air of defiance about the odds," says Fried. "They jump-started the money-raising; instead of going after five or ten heavy hitters who could finance the picture among themselves, we were prepared to piece the financing together with the investments of two or three dozen individuals who could write a $20,000 or even $100,000 check in a heartbeat."
This meant trying to sell the film to Wall Street players and Merc and options traders. "We didn't talk about art or film to these guys; we talked money, risk, and payoff," says Fried. "I'd describe the movie's money flow, letting them see how they would get a return on a dollar of investment. Once a week I'd chair a meeting--me, John, and Tony--and I'd say, 'OK, how much have we raised? Not promises; how much is in the bank?' I had changed. I was far removed from that passion-fueled romantic who lived in that dead woman's apartment. I knew that my love of filmmaking was a luxury I'd only get to exercise after we were financed."
By February 1989 Banta and Kamin had raised roughly $200,000. Keith Bank, his enthusiasm rekindled, returned to the project to help raise more money. Billy Higgins projected a $3 million budget; RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video, a Hollywood conglomerate, pledged to finance half if Fried and his cohorts could come up with the rest.
Feeling confident, Fried held a small dinner party, his first in years. It was early spring 1989, and he was living on the 47th floor of Presidential Towers, in a studio with a spectacular view. He was a gracious host in a good mood. He said he felt great, that his life was in order. He wrote in the morning and kept his afternoons free for business. He exercised daily (jogging or basketball) and regulated his diet (no meats or fatty food). Mentally, he was in tip-top shape, thanks in part to Joseph Campbell's book The Power of Myth.
"That book gives me solace during difficult times," Fried said. "One of its theses is that the path, not the goal, gives meaning to life. There are obstacles, temptations, and pain on that path. But as long as you pursue the dream with your head and heart, you'll feel joy along the way. If I can keep that in mind, life is richer and I'll see the logic to this madness."
He still kept a box of memorabilia in his closet: an old, ragged paperback copy of Heaven, a letter from Jordan's agent, a picture of Telander (circa 1975) in a tank top and bell bottoms sitting near the blacktop of an inner-city park. He'd be relieved when this particular journey was over; he was working on other scripts, had other films he wanted to make. "I think we'll get it done this summer," Fried said.
Sure enough, by June they had collected their $1.5 million, and RCA/Columbia was contracted for the rest. They were assembling cast and crew and preparing a shooting schedule when they got the word: Jordan was bowing out.
The Bulls had gone on a surprising postseason run, sprinting past Cleveland and New York before losing to the Detroit Pistons. Jordan had led the charge (averaging nearly 35 points a game), and now he was exhausted, certainly too tired to make a film, though he wanted to do it next summer.
Fried immediately drove out to Elmhurst, where Jordan was conducting a basketball camp. They sat in a small room behind the gym; Fried begged Jordan to make the movie. Jordan called Falk and handed Fried the phone. This time Falk wasn't very friendly. In so many words, he reminded Fried that Jordan had just completed a grueling eight-month season and that he had commitments (multimillion-dollar commitments) that took precedence over Heaven.
"Falk said something like, 'We have very powerful friends in the media,'" says Fried. "I said, 'So do we.' He said, 'We have powerful lawyers.' I said, 'So do we--come on, David, let's get beyond this; we upheld our end of the contract.' When I hung up, Michael shook his head and said, 'Sounds like war.' I tried to cut the tension and be optimistic; I said, 'It will all work out.'"
At first Fried felt oddly triumphant, as though he had held his own against a schoolyard bully. But his glory soon faded, and as desperation set in, he wrote a long and personal letter to Jordan, equating his desire to make Heaven with Jordan's passion for the game.
Jordan never responded, and once again Heaven shuttered for the summer. This crash was serious. Jordan, initially only "sexy casting," had become the film's foundation--the one bankable element that had drawn investors.
A couple weeks later, Fried and Banta flew to Washington to talk with Falk about finalizing Jordan's commitment for the next summer. They waited in his outer lobby for two hours ("Falk told us that he was on the phone working out Danny Ferry's deal to play basketball in Italy," says Fried). Eventually Falk agreed that Jordan would give the project another go, Fried and Banta say. But within weeks, calls and faxes to Falk were not being returned. One last meeting was scheduled for January 1990, with lawyers and agents flying in from Washington and Los Angeles to gather in the main conference room of a Loop law firm.
There they sat, 18 strong, all of them except Fried and Higgins impeccably attired in business suits of blue, gray, or brown. At the head of the table sat Jordan.
Fried talked, as did Bank, Higgins, and Ken Kamins, senior director of acquisitions for RCA/Columbia. Then Jordan and his advisers left the room to caucus. They returned to announce their final decision: Jordan was dropping out for good.
Fried, his cohorts, and their lawyers were speechless, although Falk says he can't understand their surprise. "Michael was approached by Keith and Randy, who were unproven filmmakers," says Falk. "He liked them and wanted to help them--it wasn't like he was dying to get into this film. At the original conception of that deal it was represented that Danny Glover and Timothy Hutton would be male leads; obviously that never happened. Michael granted them several extensions. They used his name to acquire financing, but after several postponements his schedule filled up and he just couldn't do it anymore. When they were finally able to do it they gave him about a week's notice. But Michael can't do things on one week's notice. He can't tell a dozen companies that he was canceling their commitments because after three summers of not getting it done these guys finally got their financing. If you were Michael, would you do that? Would you cancel commitments worth millions of dollars for a film made by someone whose commitment wasn't firm?"
Fried counters, "I strongly disagree with almost every point Falk brings up, particularly his contention that we guaranteed that certain actors would be in the cast and that we only gave Michael one week's notice. But this is not the forum to go into contract details."
Reaction to the news among Fried's friends was strong. Some cursed, some cried, others advised Fried to sue Jordan for breach of contract. Almost all were shocked. Up until June, Jordan had been enthusiastic and supportive; they speculated for hours about why he might have changed.
"He chickened out," said Higgins. "When he realized he was going to finally appear before the cameras, he choked."
"Maybe he didn't want Heaven competing with his own video, 'Michael Jordan's Playground,'" said Lou Angelo, Fried's old film-school classmate.
"Falk probably figured that Jordan is too valuable a commodity to put in the hands of a first-time director," said Telander.
On one thing they agreed: without Jordan, Heaven was finished.
"After that meeting I was numb," says Fried. "I didn't sleep that night, and when the morning came I felt hopeless. I felt the film had reached its end. For the first time ever I felt that Heaven was dead and that the last nine years of my life would culminate in a big legal confrontation with Michael Jordan and David Falk. A lot of good people were hurt, and I was sickened."
This time it was Larry Edwards, the same fellow Bank had bumped into in that airport, who revived Fried's spirits. "I was so filled with anger and resentment toward Jordan and Falk, but Larry said, 'Forget them,'" says Fried. "Larry reminded me that Heaven was always intended to be an ensemble film, without a single personality to drive it. Once he said it, it seemed obvious. We had to forget about the automatic financing and box-office success we knew Michael would have guaranteed and just focus on making a damn good film. I was still depressed, but there's a difference between depression and hopelessness. I decided not to give up hope."
Most of his friends disagreed. "Rational people should know when enough is enough," says Telander. "I saw endless ways for Randy to destroy himself trying to make this movie; I saw him as a bitter, middle-aged man, screwed up by the system."
"The only time I lost my temper with Randy was after Jordan left and Randy called to say he wanted to continue," adds Tony Kamin. "I said, 'Randy, come back to reality, face the facts--Heaven's over. It will never get done.' I really ripped into him; I thought he had gone over the edge."
But these words of warning had only the reverse effect of inspiring Fried. He wasn't the first director who had to labor long and hard to get a beloved movie financed, he reminded his friends. Richard Attenborough had gone through hell to make Gandhi, same thing for Oliver Stone and Platoon. There was virtue in perseverance; one gained strength through adversity.
"I remember standing on a street corner with Randy on some miserable day in January with the wind and the cold rain hitting us in the face," says Tony Kamin. "It was absurd. I mean, we were getting physically abused standing there in that rain. And yet Randy didn't seem to care. He was going on and on about what we had to do next. I'd seen guys who could make a lot of money, but this was different. I've never seen anyone live solely on the nourishment of one idea for so long."
Fried and his colleagues decided to concentrate on RCA/Columbia. "I called Kenny Kamins and reminded him of all the low-budget black films--House Party, She's Gotta Have It, School Daze--that were viable," says Fried. "I reminded him that Heaven was a vital concept. That it never was intended to be a vehicle for Michael Jordan. That when we first went to Michael, he was relatively unknown, a second-year player with a broken foot. That maybe it would be better to find a guy at a similar stage of his career.
"After that, Keith took over and did a great job of closing; he said we intended to make the film at a rock-bottom price. Kenny said, 'How much?' Keith said, '2.6 million.' Kenny said, 'That's it--no more.' And suddenly we had to cut things to the bone."
For about a week Kamins and his superiors pondered the proposal. "Without Jordan I had doubts," says Kamins. "But even though Jordan was basketball's biggest draw, I knew that the game itself had a worldwide following that could be well exploited. We figured it was a risk worth taking."
In March 1990, Fried got the good word: RCA/Columbia would back the movie for $2.6 million, but the movie would have to feature at least three actors with marketable names.
They got Michael Warren (star of Hill Street Blues, a very popular show in Europe, which would help with the movie's overseas distribution) to play Byron and D.B. Sweeney (whose boyish good looks would appeal to the younger crowd) to play Zach. Now they needed a new Matthew Lockhart.
They ran down a list of logical candidates (Dominique Wilkins, Magic Johnson), and then someone suggested college star Bo Kimble. He wasn't well known, but he had gracefully handled the publicity surrounding the sudden death of his friend and college teammate Hank Gathers. Fried felt he had potential.
"Casting Bo was like casting Michael before he became 'Air Michael, Inc.,'" says Fried. "Kenny [Kamins] agreed it was a step in the right direction."
This left one last detail: Fried had to negotiate with Telander to option the movie rights for another year. Telander had kept track of Heaven's many ups and downs, and he genuinely grieved Fried's misfortunes. But he also kept his distance; he found the movie business too quirky and unpredictable.
"Making a movie is about money," says Telander. "You can eat lunch, stroke egos, and talk bullshit all you want, but until the money is in the bank, no movie's gonna get made."
It was a line Telander seemed to favor, though Fried found it a little glib. As Fried saw it, money didn't just come to Heaven; he and his partners brought it there. "Me, Keith, John, Tony--we made it happen," says Fried. "We worked our butts off. The money is the gas that drives the engine, but we built the car."
But Telander wrote the book; he owned the rights. He was in control. They had to come to him. It was basic supply and demand. There was only one Heaven and Fried wanted it bad; holding the option for a year had cost $2,500 five years before; now Telander wanted $20,000.
As a writer, Fried could appreciate Telander's position. "I can't blame Rick; he was sitting on a hot commodity," says Fried. "Every year we tried to make Heaven its value went up. Now that we were so close, it was hotter than ever. This has nothing to do with friendship or personal relationships--it's about business. I would have done the same thing."
Telander sees the final series of negotiations a little differently. "I jacked up the price to discourage them," says Telander. He raised the price after Jordan left and before RCA/Columbia had committed itself to the project. "I felt that Randy should do it or get on with his life. I didn't want to be the guy who kept allowing him to string his life along. If they could pay that price then they were serious."
The final negotiations took place while Telander was in Italy covering the World Cup Soccer Championships. "I was sitting by the phone at four in the morning waiting for a three-way linkup between New York, Los Angeles, and Italy," says Telander. "I was getting different things and faxing them back and forth, and then signing something else that says, 'Disregard the thing you just signed.' It was ridiculous. Half the time I didn't know what I was signing."
That deal done, RCA/Columbia could release the money. "We didn't really finance the film," says Kamins. "That is, RCA did not personally send Randy a check; that's not how it works. What we did is we acquired the worldwide rights to the film, and that agreement was taken to the bank, which then agreed to lend the money to finance the production."
And so at last Fried got to make his movie. Ironically, the making of Heaven was rather anticlimactic. Recollecting the hectic months on the set, Fried starts to sound a little like an Oscar recipient, reciting a long list of people who made it all possible. There was Gil Walker (who runs the Midnight Basketball League and choreographed the movie's basketball scenes), the players in that league (inner-city residents who had minor roles in the film), the Chicago Housing Authority (much of the film was shot in Cabrini-Green), his partners, Kamins, the crew, and (who else?) Larry Edwards. "Give Larry credit for this--he's a world-champion schmoozer," says Fried. "He'd put a lot of actors at ease; he'd tell them all sorts of stories about his friends, like Tom Waits and John Malkovich, and take them to the in spots for supper."
There were a few hang-ups--occasional confrontations between Sweeney and Fried (creative differences and all that)--but nothing major. At first the shoot seemed exciting, and investors would wander over with friends, spouses, or children in tow. But after a while the exhaustion of a five-week shoot set in.
Telander's spirits never flagged, however. He was a regular on the set, challenging just about anyone (men, women, children--it didn't matter) to games of one-on-one.
"I can beat them all," says Telander, "any time, any place."
"That little hacker. I'll beat him anytime, as long as there's a ref calling fouls."
"Telander's like Isiah Thomas," counters Fried, "a talented crybaby."
They filmed Heaven from mid-July until the end of August 1990. The last shot was a late-night/early-morning scene in Pilsen. "When the last shot wrapped, D.B. ran out on the set with a basketball that everyone had signed," says Fried. "He gave me the ball and I hugged him; it was very moving." After that, the cast and crew gathered on the sidewalk to share a drink of celebration--just in time to watch the sun rise.
In May 1991, after editing the film and mixing the sound track in Chicago, Fried moved back to LA; he's working on two scripts, talking to a new agent about directing other projects, and discussing setting up a production company with his partners in Chicago.
"It seems I'm living a mirror image to my old life," he says. "When I lived there I was always on the phone to Los Angeles; now I'm always on the phone to Chicago."
Most observers figure his future will be shaped by Heaven's performance. If it flops, he'll be back where he started--well, maybe not that far back. "I know more about the business than I did ten years ago," says Fried. "I never want to take this long or go this route again on one movie. But I can do it again if I have to, God have mercy on my soul."
Given the surging popularity of basketball, it's not likely that Heaven will flop. The studios, always a few years behind, are already catching on. There are at least six basketball movies in development, and one has already been shot--White Men Can't Jump, a $30-million effort directed by Ron Shelton (Bull Durham) and financed by Twentieth Century-Fox.
One way or another, Fried might find himself thrust into the ongoing debate over whether white directors should make films about blacks. "This is a very personal film to me--it's based on a book written by a white man who goes into a black environment; as I said, it's something I've experienced," says Fried. "I don't see anything wrong with me directing this particular film. Now, me directing The Autobiography of Malcolm X--that would be another story."
Others will call him a role model for young directors struggling to get that first feature made. He'll get more offers and make more money than ever before. Every agent and producer who ever talked to him (and even those who didn't) will want to get him on the phone. They'll take him to lunch, laugh at his jokes, and shower him with gooey praise--all the time angling to steer him their way.
"I anticipate big things for Randy, but it won't be easy," says Ken Kamins. "He'll have to walk that fine line between charting his own path and following the path everyone sets for him. The challenges won't stop. The education of Randy Fried is just getting started."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Townes, Paul Natkin.