Finding The True Story: “You Don’t Know Jack” Producer Steve Lee Jones
Producer Steve Lee Jones is on a mission. He’s purposely chosen a slate of non-fiction projects featuring individuals whose rise to notoriety provides both entertainment and cautionary tales, highlighting the downside of power and wealth.
“I like smart material,” said Jones. “I gravitated towards these true stories because they are fascinating, they impart meaning, and they are lessons to live by. We present them visually so that people can see the illustrations by which other people lived, and how they either sank or swam by their choices in life.”
A newcomer to the Hollywood production community, Jones spent years in the corporate world, holding various sales and marketing jobs. He was bitten by the entertainment bug while working as a partner at 5 Star, a Florida-based production company, where he was executive producer on several syndicated educational TV series. His debut as a feature film producer was the made for television movie “You Don’t Know Jack,” which garnered 22 award nominations, a best screenplay Emmy, and an Emmy and Golden Globe for lead actor Al Pacino.
When Jones was first presented the manuscript for a book about Jack Kevorkian, his initial reaction was familiarity with the subject’s life and court case. After he read the manuscript, however, he realized there was a lot more to the story.
“Even though ‘You Don’t Know Jack’ was a dark subject, I knew there was a big audience for it,” said Jones. “There would be an audience of people that wanted to understand why this guy did what he did, what exactly it was that he really did and not what the media said he did.”
Working from the manuscript written by pharmaceutical expert and Kevorkian’s assistant of 25 years Neal Nichol and Kevorkian’s closest friend Harry Wylie, Jones knew that presenting the most accurate portrayal of Kevorkian’s story would hinge upon extensive research. His primary resource was conversations with the people who lived the story first hand.
“I was visiting Dr. Kevorkian in prison in Michigan,” said Jones. “We engaged everyone around him that was willing to talk to us. His assistant Nichols, his legal assistant Ruth Holmes, all his friends, people that were in prison with him. We really learned the story from the people who lived it. That is really the benchmark for my research process.”
Armed with substantial research, Jones’ next goal was to find a writer who would share the passion for crafting a portrait of Kevorkian that was equally entertaining and provoking. After meeting Adam Mazer, the two east coast natives found they shared many commonalities and sensibilities, including a passion for true stories.
“Adam’s a wonderful writer, we work together seamlessly, and he loves true stories as I do,” said Jones. “I’m so happy he received the Emmy for “Jack” – he worked so hard on that project.”
Jones believes in the value of cementing strong partnerships such as his continued collaborations with Mazer. Their next project together, “Rube,” focuses on the life of Rueben Sturman, the ‘anti-porn porn godfather.” Although he never endorsed porn, Sturman’s business sense in selling nude content made him a billionaire by the 1970s. Actively pursued by the government, he was eventually arrested and imprisoned on tax evasion. Prior to beginning the research for the script, Jones obtained the rights from the Sturman family estate. Jones’ research began by interviewing Sturman’s son, who was also imprisoned, as well as Sturman’s grandson. As his research took him into the workings of the porn industry, Jones and Mazer found the hook for their story.
“It’s not a porn story, it’s about a guy’s struggle to succeed in America, by providing material that this country loves,” said Jones. “He came from immigrant parents and was trying to live the American Dream. It’s an underdog story which I think a lot of people can relate to.”
Another project Jones and Mazer are currently collaborating on is “DeLorean.” Similar to Sturman, John DeLorean came from an immigrant family and aspired to live the American Dream. A Detroit native, DeLorean developed a love for cars and became an engineer and developed cars such as the Pontiac Firebird, Grand Prix, and the DeLorean DMC-12. As with “Rube,” Jones received the rights from the DeLorean estate to the story before commencing research.
“It’s all about gaining the rights and gaining the trust of the right people, because one could easily take the John DeLorean story and focus on a split second of his life, which was a cocaine bust,” said Jones. “It is relevant, and that’s why it’s such a strong cautionary tale. But the goal of our story is to capture the breadth of his glory, not just his cocaine bust.”
To get the DeLorean story correct, Jones and Mazer spent a month going over details with DeLorean’s brother Chuck, who lived with DeLorean and had access to all the business dealings, wranglings, and court cases DeLorean was involved with.
While attention to detail in the research stage is extremely important to Jones, he’s also very involved in hiring directors. One example: his search for a director for “Ponzi for Idiots.” The script focuses on two uneducated brothers who, during the 1990s, were able to orchestrate the operation of a ponzi scheme that lasted 13 years in the US. Jones wanted to find a director who could balance the humor found in the uneducated and colorful orchestrators of the scheme and the severity of the effect their business had on its victims.
“I was looking for a director who could juxtapose the comedy and the darkness, and I met with a number of agencies but couldn’t really find a fit,” said Jones. “When I saw the film ‘Telstar,’ I knew I found my guy in Nick Moran. It was an incredible film, very funny but also dark in lots of ways, and it looks amazing. We met and were on the same page tonally.”
While Jones would prefer to steer clear of making technical decisions on set such as what camera should be used, he does want to be involved in choosing the cinematographer and department heads that will bring the words of the script to life. While he wants to maintain and authenticity to the facts and oversee the details of the creative process, he embraces the concept that no two people will have the same feeling towards his film. This sentiment is incorporated into his production company’s name: Bee Holder Productions.
“I always find it interesting that different people watching the same film have a different take on it,” said Jones. “People find beauty in very different things and modes of entertainment. So beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, and film is the ultimate example of that.”