Saturday, June 20, 2009
DIY Spotlight: Writer/Director Jon Hart, AMERICAN SWING
How the writer/co-director of AMERICAN SWING took the bull by the horns and made the damn movie himself!
by Jim Cirile
I’ve never actually met Jon Hart, but I’ve known him seems like forever. It all started with a comedy script he cowrote with my friend, comedian Johnny Lampert, called BEER MAN. A funny and charming screenplay about a washed-up baseball pitcher forced to sell stadium suds who finally gets his mojo back, the script made the rounds in Hollywood, landed those guys a manager and then… well... (crickets chirp.) Yet another one of those “Man, this seems like a natural -– I can’t believe it didn’t sell” stories.
A few years later, I consulted on a fascinating script Jon had written about the rise and fall of the famous ‘70s NYC sex club Plato’s Retreat. This thing had ‘tough sell’ written all over it, but it was also a great piece of writing and research. Whatever happened to that project is an interesting tale. Rather than let it turn into just another script collecting dust on his shelf, Hart decided to DIY. “American Swing” was reborn in spectacular style -- as a documentary. The film went on to land theatrical distribution, stellar reviews in national publications and even screened at the prestigious Toronto Film Festival. We asked Mr. Hart about how this “no-holds-barred exploration of the meaning of sex” (“The Hollywood Reporter”) came about.
Jim Cirile: Jon, tell us a bit about yourself and your writing background.
Jon Hart: I started off as a journalist, writing for newspapers and magazines. Eventually, I branched out to other genres - screenplays, among others.
JC: I first became aware of you when you and Johnny Lampert were sending out BEER MAN about ten years ago. So whatever happened with that?
JH: Thanks for reminding me on the lengthy timeline. Anyway, I’m still fine-tuning it, talking it up. It’s my Mona Lisa, my piece de resistance. Meanwhile, Lampert has sworn off screenwriting, so we’ve gone our separate ways as far as writing together – but we’re still friends. We’re like the guys from Wham – except not as pretty.
JC: I dunno, have you seen George Michael lately? Then later I read a cool and well-researched script you wrote which was a true story about the founding of famous sex den Plato's Retreat in 1970s NYC. How did you get started on that one and what was your in to the subject matter?
JH: Back in the day, I was working on a newspaper article on cab drivers and I got a lead that the owner of Plato’s, Larry Levenson, was (now working as) a hack. Larry was a rich, complex character. He wanted me to tell his story, and I wanted to tell it. After months of interviews, my profile on Levenson was published in the “Village Voice.” I always believed that the Plato’s story – an untold story – deserved a larger venue though, so I wrote a screenplay... which was basically ignored. You know the drill. As far as rights, I got permission from the individuals involved.
JC: Basically ignored as in...
JH: I was given the Heisman by many low-level, unworthy development people. And I use the word ‘development’ generously.
JC: I hear you, my brother. How/why did you decide to take the Plato's material and DIY as a documentary? And what were the challenges of making it?
JH: Early on, I started collecting archival material on Plato’s. When the screenplay wasn’t able to generate interest, I decided to put my years of research and treasure trove of material to use. It seemed like the logical step.
JC: And so the narrative screenplay morphed into the documentary “American Swing.” Any great (or harrowing) stories from the making of the movie?
JH: The major obstacle was - big surprise – financing. Fortunately, my co-director, Matthew Kaufman, is a real pro in that area. We were introduced through a mutual friend. I'm not a great networker, but the story was so strong that I didn't have to be. When we started, we did not know how much money we needed. We created the trailer and beat the bushes, working the phones. No secret. Nothing fancy. As far as financing, we took what was offered and went from there. One way or another, this documentary was going to get made. That was the attitude. People are more apt to get on a bandwagon that is moving forward rather than an idle idea. OK, I'll get off my soapbox now.
JC: OK, you finish the film — what do you do with it? How did you get Magnolia to come aboard to distribute? And how did you get it into Toronto?
JH: At the beginning, we made a six-minute trailer and got some interest from HDNet Films (billionaire Mark Cuban’s company), which was affiliated with Magnolia Films. It was a matter of getting to the right people at the right time. You've heard it before – but that's the truth. As far as Toronto, we submitted like everyone else – and prayed – a lot.
JC: The film got great reviews including an "A-" from "Entertainment Weekly." That’s amazing! Tell us a bit about the theatrical run.
JH: We had three glorious weeks at the Quad in New York City, one week at the Sunset Five in West Hollywood. Things went exponentially better in New York. But that’s understandable, as Plato’s has much more cache on the east coast. Little known fact, Plato's opened a franchise in LA in the late ‘70s. After a few months, it closed. New York and LA: two different animals.
"American Swing" is a rags to riches to rags story. When I met him, Levenson was driving a cab. Ten years earlier, Levenson owned one of the hottest, most insane clubs in the world. His journey was very compelling - funny and sad. I found Levenson to be extremely likable. What's it like to have the world by the balls and lose it all? As far as I was concerned, Levenson's tale had to be told. Sadly, Levenson passed away in 1999 following quadruple bypass surgery. He would have enjoyed the documentary.
JC: Where can folks get a copy of “American Swing”?
JH: It’s available on On Demand and Amazon. It’s also available at DVD outlets, including Netflix. If someone wants to catch “American Swing,” it’s right at your fingertips.
JC: Thanks, man. What's next for you? Any final words of encouragement/advice to our readers who may also get fed up with pursuing the spec script game and seize the means of production?
JH: I’m leaning towards fiction – but you never know. I’ve written a few screenplays. You know how that is. I very well might be calling on Coverage Ink. for a quick tune-up. As far as advice, disregard all advice. Follow your heart and tell the story that you have to tell. As far as leisure, hey, Lampert just got a boat. He must be doing something right. Anyway, I hope to spend some time on it. During which, I'll definitely harangue him about Beer Man – how he's missing out on the next big screenplay. Lampert – great guy.
Check out the official “American Swing” website HERE.
Posted by Admin at 3:29 PM