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MATCHSTICK MEN

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"People are fascinated with con men like they're fascinated with mobsters - at least the fictional kind," says novelist Eric Garcia, whose manuscript for Matchstick Men was being considered for the screen even before Random House could schedule its first printing. "There's something mythical about them that draws us to them and makes us want to watch them operate.

"Maybe it's the idea that they're using their wits to make a living while everyone else is accomplishing the same thing through toil and effort," he muses. "I think the lifestyle appeals to us because the day may come when we get laid off or the mortgage is on the line and we'd like to imagine that, given the opportunity, we have the potential to make a quick buck the 'easy way' -- if only to see if we could do it."

Garcia, known for his imaginative series of "Rex" books, featuring a modern-day Los Angeles private detective who is actually a latex-disguised dinosaur, is represented by a talent agency whose clients include producers/screenwriters Ted Griffin and Sean Bailey. Garcia's agent, who loved the Matchstick manuscript, sent copies to Bailey and Griffin, thinking it might strike a chord with them.

"It's a freight train of a plot with emotional depth, which is rare," says Bailey, a recent Emmy Award nominee as executive producer of the innovative HBO documentary series Project Greenlight. "It sparked both of us."

Griffin, who previously collaborated with Bailey on the noir drama Best Laid Plans and more recently was the screenwriter on Steven Soderbergh's stylish 2001 hit Ocean's Eleven, had a similar response. Jokingly calling it "Paper Moon in color," Griffin says, "it's primarily the story of a man coming to terms with himself through meeting his daughter and the relationship that develops between them. The con scenario is essential but secondary."

With Bailey committed to produce and Griffin to produce and write, Nicholas Griffin next came aboard to share screenwriting duty with his brother, marking their first official collaboration. To hear them describe the process brings to mind the Frasier episode in which siblings Frasier and Niles attempt to co-author a book and wind up wrestling on the floor. "Nick is the older brother but I outweigh him by 20 pounds and I believe weight outclasses age," quips Ted. "How did we write together? By not being in the same room. If we had to be in the same room we'd just start tearing at each other like a couple of kids in the back of a station wagon on a long road trip."

"Plus," adds Nicholas, "there's the restraining order…"

Nicholas Griffin did some prep work by speaking with two FBI agents on the subject of con men. "It's not as far-fetched or antiquated as people might believe," he says, dispelling the notion that such small-time crooks only exist in the 1930s nostalgia of The Sting. "These characters still exist and they're still running the same old games, but they have also branched out lately to include the Internet and telemarketing."

Meanwhile, buzz on the project reached renowned filmmaker Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, Cast Away), who signed on as executive producer, with his ImageMovers Productions partners Jack Rapke and Steve Starkey joining the producing team. All that remained was to find a director to do it justice.

Rapke, who launched his producing career with What Lies Beneath in 2000, following a successful 15-year run as a talent agent, couldn't have been more pleased when one of his former clients, three-time Oscar nominee Ridley Scott, expressed interest. "I was in the agency business for a long time because I love talent and I love to be working with talent and supporting their visions," Rapke

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