Toll worker's spec attracts big names


A Staten Island tollbooth worker in desperate need of a car wrote a crime thriller spec titled "Brooklyn's Finest" last year. Now he finds himself rubbing shoulders with some of Hollywood's finest, including Richard Gere, Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke and Antoine Fuqua.

Living in Brooklyn, Michael Martin had just totaled his car in an accident. While in physical therapy, he entered a screenwriting competition, hoping to win the prize money for his new set of wheels.

"I had never written a screenplay before," said Martin, who had studied film in college. "I thought, 'How hard can it be?' I was more like, 'If I win this, I can get a new car.' "

His screenplay came in second but eventually ended up in a far better place: the doorstep of Warner Bros.-based Thunder Road exec Mary Viola, who had been looking for a writer who had an authentic and gritty voice to write a sequel to "New Jack City," which was in development at Warner Premiere, Warners' direct-to-DVD division. Impressed by "Finest," Viola set out find the writer, who then had no agent.

Martin had moved out to L.A., staying at a downtown hotel, and hooked up with representatives at ICM and ROAR. He enjoyed a brief stint writing for Showtime's "Sleeper Cell," but homesickness overwhelmed him. He returned to New York and wound up back at the Transit Authority.

Meanwhile, in the hands of Viola, "Finest" became red hot, quickly attracting top talent. Gere and Cheadle are now polishing their badges to star in the ensemble police thriller, which Fuqua will direct for Avi Lerner's Millennium Films, which is financing. Hawke is also coming on board to star, a move that will reteam him with Fuqua, who helmed him to an Oscar nomination in "Training Day." Ellen Barkin is also booking a part.

The script almost brought Mel Gibson out of acting seclusion. He took a string of meetings, but things ultimately didn't work out.

Thunder Road's Basil Iwanyk is producing with John Langley. Viola and Fuqua are exec producing with Robert Greenhut and Jesse Kennedy.

The story, a sort of "Crash" meets "Training Day," is a dramatic ensemble with three intertwining story lines involving Brooklyn cops. "I worked for a bus company that got indicted by the Feds because of Mob connections," Martin said. "I could not have written 'Brooklyn's Finest' without that experience."

The movie is prepping for a May shoot in Brooklyn, in the very locations that inspired Martin to write the script. "Things are moving very fast right now. It's something I've been waiting a long time for," Martin said.

Fuqua, whose last movie was 2007's "Shooter," is repped by CAA. Hawke is repped by CAA. Gere, last seen in Todd Haynes' "I'm Not There," next stars in "Nights in Rodanthe." He is repped by WMA. Cheadle, repped by UTA, will next appear in "Hotel for Dogs."

Martin, a new dad, was recently promoted to construction flagger within the Transit Authority, working inside the subway system. He is writing "New Jack City 2," often during his breaks in the subway tunnels.

He drives a new car.