How to Finish Your Book When Robert Downey Jr. Already Wants to Be in the Movie (Guest Column)

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Robert Downey Jr.

After selling the megastar the rights to produce and star in 'Chasing Phil,' the true story of a charming con man, the author wrestled to complete his book accurately despite "Downey's commanding persona filling the screen inside my head."

I clambered to the top of the rock outcropping overlooking The Pond in Central Park, with its commanding views of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, to take the call from Robert Downey Jr.’s production company. I wasn’t trying for anything cinematic that May evening in 2015, nor was my perch intended as some kind of metaphor for a rapid ascent to Hollywood-writer status. I just couldn’t make it back to my office in time, and the rock was an oasis where I could think clearly.

Or at least try to. Team Downey had a few days earlier optioned Chasing Phil, my book about a groundbreaking, globetrotting undercover FBI operation in 1977. The target of that sting, Phil Kitzer, was a verbally gifted high-finance con man who had made millions of dollars conjuring shell banks and phony securities. The plan was for Downey to star as Kitzer.

I watched the late-day sun gild the towers over the Hudson River and listened to David Gambino, then the president of Team Downey, describe how much RDJ loved the story and the part. They were eager to get started — so eager that they were already looking to hire a screenwriter for the adaptation. I echoed back every bit of his enthusiasm.

There was just one issue. There was no book — not yet. In fact, there was not even a book contract. My book proposal had only just begun wending its way through New York publishing circles when my agent, Larry Weissman, and his Hollywood co-agent placed it in front of Downey and his people. They had pounced before anyone else — the publishing equivalent of drawing an inside straight.   

For me this presented an interesting dilemma. On one hand, Downey’s involvement was an obvious boon. He seemed an uncannily perfect choice to play Kitzer, who was, by all accounts, a transcendent speaker. Former agent Jack Brennan described him as “an artist at talking — a man who could talk you into a spell from which you emerged only after willingly disgorging the contents of your savings account.”                   

But on the other hand, I wondered: How would this play out, my quest to accurately portray a true-life character with Downey’s commanding persona filling the screen inside my head? Phil Kitzer, who died in 2001, needed to sound like Phil Kitzer to the agents and everyone else who knew him, not like Tony Stark hawking fake offshore-bank securities. The challenge of melding character and actor rightfully belonged to the screenwriter, David Bar Katz.

That knowledge didn’t necessarily make my task any easier. My initial interviews with the retired agents were long on scene but short on dialogue. That was understandable: We were scrutinizing events that took place 38 years earlier. It’s one thing to experience a maestro at the height of his powers, and another to recount every note decades later. Meanwhile, just as I began pushing forward with the book, having buttoned up a contract with Crown, The Avengers: Age of Ultron had emerged as the summer’s blockbuster. My son had just turned 11 at the time. Like many American families, we enjoy a pop-culture diet rich in Iron Man.

As autumn arrived, I made a decision: There would be no more Downey movies for as long as Chasing Phil loomed on my editorial calendar. Nor would I consume “White Collar” or any other TV shows or movies about con men. I needed to zero in on Kitzer free of all outside influence. I created a Dropbox to share materials with Katz, but otherwise he left me alone.

Then, that October, I broke through. I knew that the agents had finally arrested Kitzer after spending eight months befriending him, and that (spoiler alert!) he’d become a government witness. Following a decades-old trail of breadcrumbs, I tracked down the transcript from a federal trial in which he had participated. One of my enduring memories of the Chasing Phil experience will be that of standing in the National Archives branch near Kansas City, flipping through several hundred pages of Kitzer’s trenchant on-stand storytelling.

The con man leaped to life in those documents, fluidly parrying with defense lawyers, admitting to his intricate financial schemes while still subtly justifying his actions, and — this was the best part — recounting anecdotes that pulsated with dialogue. I found much more in archives in Chicago and Atlanta and San Francisco, and in a courthouse in Orange County, California.

Flesh and sinew grew over the skeleton of a character in those thousands of pages of testimony. Kitzer emerged in three dimensions into the man I’d stared at in photos, the stylish rogue in the fitted suits who smoked cigarettes with a distinctive white filter. Most readers will have to engage in an internal struggle to decide whether to loathe or love Kitzer — a complicated, contradictory, infuriating, ultimately redemptive figure. But I’m betting they’ll have no trouble picturing a certain Hollywood A-lister who seems right for that part.