John DeLorean movies ready to duke it out

The race to make a movie based on the life of John DeLorean has been a slog, not a sprint. During a span of nearly three decades, there have been books, TV movies, documentaries and a raft of failed feature projects and unproduced screenplays left by the side of the road.

Now producers Steve Lee Jones and David Permut think they have the vehicle that can reach the finish line, one fueled by a screenplay from an Emmy winner, the unearthing of 27-year-old FBI surveillance tapes, consulting agreements with DeLorean's brother Charles and his former lawyer and, perhaps most importantly, the only official involvement of his estate and its executor, DeLorean's fourth and final wife.

For years, the estate had spurned numerous overtures until Jones came calling. He was given an exclusive option in September 2009, according to attorney William Courtney, who represents the estate and executor Sally DeLorean.

"John's wife liked the way Mr. Jones said he would portrayJohn as the last American maverick," Courtney said.

There are four other DeLoreans racing around on the feature-development track, at least two with significant financial backing and with DeLorean's children Kathryn and Zachary as consultants.

For his big-budget take, Permut has teamed with Jones, who was an executive producer on HBO's "You Don't Know Jack." Adam Mazer, who won an Emmy for the script, is finishing the DeLorean screenplay.

"There's a reason people are so keen to make this movie; the story is so powerful," Permut said.

Still, there are reasons the tale of the colorful auto tycoon whose gull-wing dream didn't fly hasn't made it to the big screen. It's a drama at a time when dramas are a tough sell, it's set in the world of business when there is an anti-business climate and it's about an anti-hero who for all his vision failed in business and was caught trying to sell cocaine to an undercover FBI agent.

Attorney Howard Weitzman eventually got DeLorean off in a 31⁄2-month trial by proving the feds entrapped him, but by then, DeLorean's company, reputation and career were a wreck.

Jones thinks the time has come to tell this tale.

"It is a story that exemplifies big business and conglomerates and government involvement with business, which is of course very topical today with the bailouts that took place," he said.

The story as he sees it is of a "maverick" who bucked the system.

"John was running General Motors, had a beautiful wife, a cushy position, and he basically told them to screw themselves and left because he wanted to take it to another level," Jones said. "He foretold the fallout of the major car companies in America and predicted that if GM didn't get with the program and start considering the amount of energy cars were using, they would eventually fail."

The story of a titan of industry who experienced a spectacular fall from grace also is what fuels the other contenders.

"It was an American dream in that he came from a blue-collar family and had the opportunity to do a lot, but it was almost too much," said Aram Tertzakian of XYZ Films, one of three producers of another DeLorean movie project. "He flew too high, and then the powers that be made sure he wasn't successful, and all the freedom and fame and glamour that came with rising so high got in his way and led to a great fall."

Like Permut and Jones, Tertzakian and fellow producer Nick Spicer want to attract a star to play DeLorean, but they have a more modest goal of making their movie with a budget of less than $20 million.

Two other projects on the fast track also are looking for major feature treatment. One is based on a script by James Toback being written for producers Brett Ratner and Robert Evans, with financing already set up through India's Reliance Big Entertainment (as part of a deal with Ratner's Rat Prods.). The other, with Kathryn DeLorean on board as a producer, is from Evolution Entertainment, Nine/8 Entertainment and former agent Michael Menchel, with a script by "Saw IV" writer Thomas Fenton.

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Several documentaries are more about the car than the man. While the DeLorean automobile didn't sell well during its time, it has become a collector's item; it helps that it was the basis for a time machine in the three "Back to the Future" movies. For car enthusiasts, owning a DeLorean remains a badge of honor and has made them part of a cult that has newsletters and conventions.

Tamir Ardon, a DeLorean historian who is consulting on the XYZ project, also is making a documentary that revolves around three DeLorean owners. He plans to shoot his final scenes in Ireland in May at a big party marking the 30th anniversary of the plant where the cars were assembled. In Ireland, the DeLorean legacy serves as a tourist attraction.

"There are three types of DeLorean owners," said Jordan Livingston, a Northern California filmmaker who is making a doc titled "Back to the DeLorean" on a budget of less than $1 million. "First are the 'Back to the Future' fans. Then there are car enthusiasts who just love cars and want this iconic piece of automotive history. And the third group are people who were inspired by John himself and what he represented -- the rebellious, pioneering individual who took pleasure in bucking the system -- all traits they identify with him and with the car."

The DeLorean story also is part of the legacy of another maverick who inserted himself into the story 27 years ago. In 1983, when DeLorean was about to stand trial on charges of trafficking in cocaine, Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt acquired eight hours of FBI surveillance tapes that showed not just DeLorean doing the drug deal but also how the feds entrapped the desperate automaker into doing a cocaine transaction to raise money to save his company.

Flynt initially said he bought the tapes from a government agent, then paid thousands of dollars in fines for refusing to tell a judge where he got them. His antics in court (including wearing an American flag diaper) were so outrageous that Flynt was cited for contempt and jailed for more than a year. Eventually, Flynt revealed that he purchased the tapes from a legal clerk in the office of the Los Angeles law firm leading DeLorean's defense. That clerk, who acted without permission, was fired, and his boss resigned from the case, leaving Weitzman to lead the DeLorean defense.

Flynt, a pornographer and champion of the First Amendment, sent at least some of the tapes to CBS' "60 Minutes," and the network rushed to air the arrest three times (though not on the newsmagazine).

According to Jones, when Flynt had the tapes and was fearful the feds might raid his offices, he sent copies to the offices of a Christian broadcaster. Around that time, DeLorean had become a born-again Christian in jail, so there was a twisted logic to Flynt's actions.

Jones recently paid to acquire copies of the 3⁄4-inch videotapes that had been hidden away for 27 years by a production company in the Northwest that did work for the Christian broadcaster. The tapes are grainy, black and white and low resolution.

Through his assistant, Flynt said this week that he sent all the DeLorean tapes to CBS and didn't remember sending any to a Christian group or anyone else.

A spokesman for CBS News couldn't determine how many hours of tapes CBS received but provided The Hollywood Reporter with transcripts of the three 1983 broadcasts. In one, CBS legal correspondent Fred Graham said the network did not have tapes of all the conversations, indicating that there were others.

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Jones and his consultant, attorney Mike Morganroth, who was DeLorean's lawyer for a decade (but not involved in the cocaine trial), said he believed the tapes had been lost and that they had not been seen since the '80s.

Weitzman, who isn't associated with any of the five movies in development, said all those hours of tapes were given to the defense as part of the discovery process when DeLorean was being prosecuted. The attorney said he introduced hours of the taped material into evidence, after which they were shown by other news organizations.

"Calling them the lost tapes is just baloney," Weitzman said.

"I don't know that they are so readily available," Jones countered. "I hadn't been able to find them through our archival sources."

Jones said the tapes provide an important resource for Mazer as he writes the script. Jones also hopes to use them as he did with videos of Jack Kevorkian in "You Don't Know Jack," using "Zelig"-style technology to insert Al Pacino into real-life scenes involving the so-called Dr. Death.

For those who want to see a DeLorean movie race back to the future, it ultimately is the passion that matters. Randal Atamaniuk is a filmmaker in Edmonton, Alberta, who has written a script for a feature or miniseries but has been unable to set it up.

"I've been interested in this for 15 years," he said. "I drive a DeLorean. I named my company (Stainless Steel Prods.) after the car. I've been to Ireland to visit the factory many times. I've spoken with so many people who are involved. I may not have the rights or financing or distribution, but I've got passion."

It seems a lot of people share that passion. DeLorean's story is "one of those American dreams gone wrong," Ardon said, "that just continues to resonate." 

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