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  • A year ago, life was different for Troy Duffy.

The Two Faces of Hollywood

By Sharon Waxman
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 10, 1998

  Style Showcase

    Smoke'm while you got'em! Director and screenwriter Troy Duffy smokes in his West Hollywood apartment. (Todd Bigelow/for The Washington Post)
Troy Duffy lives in a haze of uncertainty, adrift in the fog of an enervated existence as a Hollywood prince on hold.

Before him on the living room coffee table lies his world: a Filofax with numbers of agents, lawyers, producers and actors. Stephen Dorff. Brendan Fraser. Willem Dafoe. Emilio Estevez. Two copies of his screenplay, "The Boondock Saints." Old takeout food. A small cell phone. A large ashtray.

And he waits.

A year ago Hollywood anointed the 26-year-old would-be director as the hot new talent in town. Within the space of a few weeks Duffy went from being a penniless bartender in a West Hollywood dive to a millionaire with his finger on the pulse of the MTV generation. He sold his first script, "The Boondock Saints," to Miramax for $450,000, and signed a $500,000 deal with Paramount to write two others. The Post interviewed the young bartender turned screenwriter back when the world was suddenly his.

Anything was possible. Jim Carrey might star in his movie. Duffy's band would play the soundtrack. A record deal was around the corner. Miramax even agreed to buy for him the bar where he'd been working, J. Sloan's.

But a year later, reality – Hollywood's particular brand of reality – has set in. The movie's been off. The movie's been on. Carrey wasn't interested but Patrick Swayze was. Miramax wasn't interested in Swayze. Weeks of phone calls. Months of waiting. A screen test. A music video – all on Duffy's nickel. Then: Miramax dropped the picture. The record deal never happened. And Duffy got in a dispute with the manager of J. Sloan's. Now he can't even drink at the bar anymore, much less buy the place.

"It's been exhausting," Duffy says during a conversation the previous night at a bar on Sunset Strip. He perches outside, smoking some more, his solid frame doubled over to ease a sore stomach (something he ate – more takeout). The babes of Hollywood glide into the bar, oblivious. "It's an emotional roller coaster," he goes on. "When you're so hot you can make a deal in a second. When you're not . . ." He leaves the thought. "You have to constantly keep the middle ground."

He sighs. Today has been like most of the other days since last April. Calling, waiting, arguing. "You spend all day screamin' and yellin', and by the end of the day you're back where you started."

Troy Duffy/Post
Friend Tony Montana shoots film of Troy Duffy for a documentary he hopes to make. (By Todd Bigelow for The Washington Post)
This, Troy Duffy, is the land of dreams.

Here is what Duffy has learned about the movie business in a year: Don't trust early enthusiasm. Don't get emotionally attached to any actor. Get it on paper. Read the fine print. Get it signed.

Also: Without an actor attached to your movie, you have no movie. But signing one to a contract, it turns out, is a complicated business. Just about every young, up-and-coming Romeo-with-day-old-stubble has been considered for two choice parts in "The Boondock Saints," about a pair of Irish Catholic brothers who mete out their own bloody justice to bad guys and are pursued by a tenacious FBI agent (that's the other good part). Brendan Fraser ("George of the Jungle") came to see Duffy at J. Sloan's and recite an Irish poem, but he had a scheduling conflict. The writer bonded with Mark Wahlberg (Dirk Diggler in "Boogie Nights"), but it didn't work out. Norman Reedus, hot on the buzz circuit, did a screen test but couldn't wait around.

Similar snags tripped up deals with Ewan McGregor, Nikki Katt (you haven't heard of him, but you will) and Stephen Dorff. Chemistry counts. Timing is crucial. And then there are all the people in between.

"When you talk to one person, you're really talking to nine people," Duffy says. "It's all about knowing all those parameters. Every last person in between has the ability to soil that deal. . . . It's not about getting the right talent for the project, it's about relationships," he goes on. "You get this guy for a part because your producer knows him, or your agent works with his agent. Relationships are 90 percent of closing the deal with an actor." He pauses. Stretches his limbs. He isn't tired, he's just tired of dealing with all this. "I'll want to pair two guys up, but the agency wants two other guys – one's short, one's tall, but their foreign numbers [box office results] work. So I have to try and make that work."

Beyond that, there's the relationship with the studio. From the beginning things did not go smoothly with Miramax, run by the larger-than-life Harvey Weinstein. After the burly studio chief wooed Duffy with his enthusiasm and an offer to buy the bar, he disappeared. Weeks would go by before Duffy could get Weinstein on the phone. Then they disagreed over casting; for the key role of the FBI agent, Miramax wanted Bill Murray or Sylvester Stallone (who has a relationship with the studio) or Mike Myers. Duffy wanted Swayze.

"I knew it was coming," says Duffy. "It was still a shock when it happened, though."
Then one day six months ago, Duffy's agent called to say that Miramax had bailed out. That was it, he says; no call from Weinstein. No goodbye and good luck. Duffy could keep his fee for the screenplay, $300,000, but the rest of the money – his director's fee of $150,000 and $700,000 advanced to develop the project – would have to be reimbursed by the next outfit to pick up the script. "I knew it was coming," says Duffy. "It was still a shock when it happened, though."

A production company called Franchise Films eventually stepped in with a promise to finance the movie once all the other elements were in place. But since then it's been more of the same: Hurry up and wait. Duffy has nailed down actors for the parts of vigilante brothers Doyle and Connor McManus – Sean Patrick Flanery and rocker Jon Bon Jovi – but there will be no deal with them, no green light and no $700,000 check until a marquee actor is signed for the role of the FBI agent. Right now, it's down to the wire with Dafoe, whom Duffy went to see at the actor's experimental theater in SoHo last week. It looks good, he says. But he's been here before.

"It's completely friggin' maddening. Nine times we've had a movie. Everyone called with congratulations – 'Go make your movie!' – y'know?" he says. "And the deal doesn't get signed." He scowls and reaches for a Marlboro Light. "You can have the actor at the table, with the pen in his hand, about to sign, and – 'Oh, Oliver Stone wants me for his next project? See ya.' "

It is 3 p.m. at Duffy's apartment, two blocks from J. Sloan's in West Hollywood. He sits stretched out on his new brown wool couch with overstuffed pillows, his body a taut balance of pent-up energy and enforced sloth. His producer, Chris Brinker, lounges nervously nearby, while buddy Tony Montana, who is supposedly making a documentary about the making of "The Boondock Saints," keeps them company. Montana, currently unemployed, hopes to be a producer; in the meantime he's shot about 100 hours of Duffy's life. (It's not enough, apparently, to become a millionaire overnight; the thing has to be recorded for history, too.) Brinker, whom everyone calls C.B., was an ambitious underling at New Line Cinema before making the leap to produce "Boondock" with Duffy; before that they worked together at a strip joint.

Strictly speaking, nothing has happened today. But that could be a good sign; they're waiting for some news about Dafoe. In the interim, cigarettes are the one reliable way of filling the void. Smoking Marlboro Lights, their carcinogen of choice, substitutes for action when there is none. Smoking is an outlet for stress, which is constant, and a prop for moments of frenzied excitement, which are occasional. All the young people in Hollywood smoke; Duffy and his brood smoke constantly.

The phone rings. Duffy grabs it – "Yeah" – then listens, blows some smoke, concentrates. "So it looks like it's going to happen," he finally responds into the receiver. Pause. "I've been hearing from his agents. They're like, 'It's so good, it's so good.' Everyone in Dafoe's camp is extremely excited. . . . Okay, man, the ball's in your court." Pause. "My friend, I trust you fully. . . . I've never given you the idea that I'm not a team player." Another pause. "The way I see it with Dafoe – I've done my piece. Ball's in your court." He hangs up from the exchange with Elie Samaha, the head of Franchise Films, who is negotiating Dafoe's fee. Nothing firm, but things are advancing.

Duffy draws a deep breath and lets it out. Playing the diplomat is not his strong suit (come on – the man was a bouncer). Neither is being a salesman, which is something else he has to be. But he's learning. Before Duffy gets to put his vision on screen – and he does have a vision, as the dark, subversive script makes clear – he has to play the game.

He says: "You've got to make the water as warm as you can so they'll . . . jump in."

Being an overnight sensation has had other disappointments. The money, once the agents, lawyers and Uncle Sam took their cuts, was not as much as it seemed. All told, taxes and fees ate up about 40 percent of Duffy's payday for the Miramax script. And then, it's not like Paramount gave him a check for a half-million dollars for its deal. The studio gave him a sum in the low six figures to start the first script, which he has finished (it's called "Peregrins"), and will give him some more money with each rewrite.

There have been a couple of small extravagances, like the 1968 fire-engine red Chevelle he bought for $10,000. It sits under a tarp in his garage. And he took his pals to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a 10-day vacation last August, after a high-stress, low-budget shoot of a music video, on which everyone worked for free. Duffy paid for the video, which cost about $23,000; he also paid for and directed a screen test last summer with actors Flanery and Reedus to persuade Miramax to use them. He's bought some furniture, some music equipment; he's supporting his brother, Taylor, and another guy in the band, the Brood. And as "Boondock Saints" has been radically scaled back – from a $15 million picture to half that – Duffy has cut his director's fee three times, to make it all fit.

Still, the money is not his primary focus. However, the women – or rather the lack thereof – has been a real downer. Weren't the ladies supposed to be falling all over him?

"That was rather disappointing, to be honest with you. I was like – what the [expletive]?" He snorts. "Maybe I'm just too ugly. . . . Y'know, the women in L.A., they have a different take. They want to be approached. I've been up at Dublin's [the bar on Sunset] with Patrick Swayze; all the regular L.A. people don't bat an eyeball." He pauses a beat. "I thought, okay, sensitive genius." He shakes his head. No juice.

If Hollywood's hazing ritual has dampened Duffy's enthusiasm, it hasn't killed his dream. He still believes in himself and his talent, even if he's less certain than before that the film will actually happen. Two weeks ago he was ready to give up on "Boondock"; it was a Friday when everything appeared to have fallen through: the actors, the studio, the shooting schedule. Then Monday Dafoe called up, all enthusiasm and optimism, and things were back on track.

The would-be director tries to look on the bright side. This torturous time has been an education, one that Duffy – whose previous work experience included slinging suds, flipping burgers and playing guitar in the garage – badly needed. Now, when and if the film comes about, he'll feel he earned it. "I had to learn this stuff," he says. "I told [William Morris head Arnold] Rifkin, 'I made this mistake, I made that mistake' – deals that fell through for different reasons. He said that you can't be told those things. You have to go through them."

What happened a year ago, he says, was like a dream. "It never really felt real," he says. "The whole time there was always this sense that something was wrong. It was almost too easy. It did seem like a fairy tale. Now because of all this hard work of setting it up, I feel like I've done something just by casting the thing. Now I feel like it's a real thing I'm working on."

It's 4 p.m. The phone has not rung in 45 minutes. Duffy reaches for a new pack of Marlboro Lights. "Usually this phone is ringing off the hook. Why is it so dull?" Another silence. "When they sign Dafoe, I'll get smeared in oil and go to the beach. Go to Two Bunch Palms," a resort in the desert. And then: "I've been going [expletive] stir crazy."

Five days later, Duffy has some good news: His band, the Brood, was flown to New York to audition for executives at Atlantic Records, who gave the band a record deal. Still no definitive word from Dafoe, but negotiations look promising.

Very promising.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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