Hero of the Day: Malcolm Mays

I considered re-writing this, but it's such a good article on what is an incredible story.

What was that I said about chasing dreams?


December 27, 2007

Based on a True Story

LOS ANGELES — At home, in gang territory near the 10 freeway, Malcolm Mays, 17, sleeps on the faded carpet of his grandmother’s living room.

For the last week or so, however, he’s been sleeping as often as not in an editing room on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, crashing there late at night after viewing rushes of the movie that he is shooting by day.

To a degree that would make any adult desperate to get into the film industry jealous, he has mustered the support of studio executives, a powerful producer and a top talent agent. It would be easy to tell this as the story of a bunch of Hollywood people doing a good deed in time for Christmas, except that it isn’t. They all say they hope to get as much out of Mr. Mays as he gets out of them.

When he was in the eighth grade, Mr. Mays says, he told his friends he would become rich and famous making movies one day — he hoped to use his money and fame to “make a difference” somehow — and that he’d have his first movie out before he turned 18. “They all laughed,” he said.

A year later he entered Fairfax High School, where the racial tension among students bused in from far and wide was a jarring contradiction to its upscale West Hollywood neighborhood. That fall he was caught up in a black-and-Hispanic melee. A friend was attacked with a knife; Mr. Mays says he saw the assailant lunging and headed him off with a punch. His mother abruptly transferred him to another school. The violence continued without him. Three of his best friends, he said, were killed that year.

But Mr. Mays had found his movie. He banged out a screenplay that year and gave it the name of his main character: Trouble, a boy who means well but always gets into jams, who does the wrong thing for the right reasons. An incorrigible Romeo, Mr. Mays gave his alter ego a Juliet: the sister of a Mexican-American gang member. And he imagined an ending in which the cycle of violence between black and Hispanic teenagers might be broken, after a shocking, sorrowful twist. He bounced from school to school, finishing 9th grade at a community magnet; 10th grade at Dorsey High in South-Central, where his father is a coach; then, at his mother’s insistence, another move, to University High in West Los Angeles, which was safer but a long bus ride from home.

He never stopped pursuing film. When the producer Peter Guber of Mandalay Entertainment spoke at his church, Mr. Mays, a leader of the youth ministry, wangled a meeting. That didn’t go anywhere. But when he injured his leg at Dorsey, the athletic trainer mentioned that his wife worked for Martin Campbell, the director of “Casino Royale,” and Mr. Mays soon had an internship in Mr. Campbell’s office on the Sony lot.

At 15, he co-directed the first of several dramatic shorts, “Open Door,” which was accepted to a Los Angeles short film festival. At 16 his script and plans for “Trouble” were recognized by Panavision’s highly selective New Filmmaker Program, which lets novice directors borrow a camera package.

He just needed a plan to put its camera to use.

Last year he signed up for a mentor program at University High that is run by the United Talent Agency. Howard Sanders, of the agency’s book department, commended Mr. Mays for his interest in a film career. Mr. Mays corrected him.

“He says: ‘It’s not what I want to do, it’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a movie,’” Mr. Sanders recalled. “He knew exactly what he wanted, and nothing was going to stop him.”

The mentor quickly found himself more inspired by the teenager than the other way around. “I learned so much about who I want to be from Malcolm,” said Mr. Sanders, who is 48. “This kid, obstacles are thrown in his way, and yet he remains utterly positive, passionate and confident in his abilities.”

Mr. Sanders introduced Malcolm to DeVon Franklin, a junior executive in Sony’s development department and one of the few African-American executives at any studio. In this “scrawny little kid,” Mr. Franklin said, he saw a glimmer of hope for a new generation of black filmmakers.

Mr. Sanders also pointed Mr. Mays to Todd Black, a producer of the feel-good, true-life movies “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “The Great Debaters,” who had discovered another eventual movie subject, Antwone Fisher, when he was a security guard. Mr. Black too was blown away.

“I never met a kid that age who was that in command of, and secure with, who he was and what he needed and wanted,” Mr. Black said. “He really made me listen to what he was saying, quickly and efficiently. He wanted to get his scripts made into movies, he wanted to go to U.S.C. film school, he wanted a career in the business. He wanted to lift himself out of the situation he was in. He’s almost entrepreneurial. He knew exactly how to work it, but not in an obnoxious way. In a very professional, proper way.”

Mr. Black steered Malcolm to Gary Martin, the president for studio operations at Sony, who said he was reminded of a 21-year-old John Singleton making “Boyz N the Hood.” “You just got the feeling this kid’s got the same kind of chutzpah,” Mr. Martin said. He laid down one condition for helping Malcolm: “Trouble” must have its premiere on the Sony lot.

Mr. Martin got Kodak to donate 50,000 feet of film, about $25,000 worth. He also made a call to Panavision when, according to Mr. Mays, it threatened to cancel the New Filmmaker Program in response to the Hollywood work stoppage. The result? “I had Bob Beitcher, the C.E.O. of Panavision, calling me in my third-period class, assuring me I’d have a camera,” Mr. Mays said.

As Christmas vacation approached, Mr. Mays was a walking whirlwind at his school, lining up actors, hiring a tiny crew, obtaining permits and insurance, putting out one fire after another as problems arose, even while taking his exams. He planned to begin shooting on Monday, Dec. 17, with exteriors at Fairfax High.

But at 3:10 p.m. the Friday before, he learned that his permission had been revoked. An assistant principal at Fairfax, David Siedelman, had just found out that Mr. Mays hadn’t yet graduated.

“You were very professional, I agree,” Mr. Siedelman told Mr. Mays. “You convinced me that hey, you were a former student, an alumni here. You never said you were still a high school student.”

Mr. Mays politely said that Mr. Siedelman had never asked, and that he’d never lied. But Mr. Siedelman said his decision was final and wished him luck.

“As usual, things crash down, right?” Mr. Mays said as he hung up. “But we’ll pick ’em back up.”

True to his word, as night fell that Friday, Mr. Mays bought time by rearranging his production schedule to start with interiors. One of Mr. Black’s location managers began making calls on his behalf to other Los Angeles schools, hoping to find one to replace Fairfax. Mr. Mays raced across Hollywood with a $500 deposit to release the camera from Panavision. And a giant lighting truck with a generator in tow rumbled up to his grandmother’s tiny house, vainly searching for a safe place to park. (Mr. Black and Mr. Martin wrote personal checks for $850 apiece when Mr. Mays couldn’t come up with the truck insurance fast enough, the only cash his powerful supporters have laid out on his behalf.)

He also stopped at Sony to meet with a postproduction supervisor about the arduous editing and mixing process. The supervisor asked if Mr. Mays had a deadline in mind, say, for submission to a film festival.

“I’d like to get it done by Feb. 14,” Mr. Mays replied softly. That’s when he’ll turn 18.

Source: The New York Times.