Weren’t you supposed to write TOOLBOX MURDERS 3? What ever happened with that?

It all started with a conversation over dinner  with Morgan Gendel. Morgan is a screenwriter/television producer who’s written for shows like Law and Order, Nash Bridges, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. He also executive-produced that awesomely cheesy Pamela Anderson series from the late 90s, V.I.P. He’s kind of an old-timey Hollywood guy who’s still pushing forward in a town that has become unfamiliar to him. And I mean that in the most affectionate way possible.

We became friends after meeting during the MUF/Hollow Eyed Mary fiasco (See Ain’t it Cool News Article). We’d bounce ideas off of one another from time-to-time with the intention of finding the right project to work on together. That project eventually became the Outer Light comic book.

I attended a Star Trek Convention with Morgan in Cherry Hill, NJ. He invited me up on stage during his Inner Light Presentation and I got to say a few words about the comic to an auditorium full of Trekkies/Trekkors in full character. It was like some weird acid trip. Probably didn’t help that I was high at the time.

Every year after that, Morgan and I would meet for dinner whenever he was in town for the Cherry Hill Trek Con. During one of these dinners he brought up acting.

“You ever think about moving out to LA?” he asked. “I could put you in touch with a few people. It might take a little while, but with your martial arts and everything, I know you could get consistent work. You’ll probably be typecast as a ‘sonofabitch’ all the time, but you don’t give a fuck about that.”

Now, acting has always been part of the dream, but a small part compared to writing. I’m a writer first. Any attempt at chasing the acting part of the dream has almost always ended in what amounts to a giant waste of time that I could have used to expunge some of the scary words from my brain. Afterward it fades to the back-burner only to be occasionally reignited by some comment like Morgan’s, usually from someone in the industry.

Moving out to LA is something I should’ve done in my 20s. At the time I wasn’t mature enough to see that. But then I wouldn’t have met Brenda and I probably wouldn’t be the writer that I am today.

Long story short, Morgan’s comment ignited that spark again. He put me in touch with a few casting agents and I was off to LA to meet with them. Turned out that the AFM (American Film Market) was going on at the same time. My college roommate and good friend Tony Kern (who now lives in Singapore) was going to be in town to hock his film Afterimages. On his suggestion we got a room together a The Jolly Roger Hotel, which is kind of an awesome little kitschy place in Santa Monica just walking distance from Venice Beach.

The hotel was populated with foreign (mostly German) filmmakers, distributors, etc. There’s an outdoor deck that looks out onto Washington Blvd.  A little hot tub attached to the deck. This deck should have been renamed The Marijuana Lounge.

One day I’m sitting in the Marijuana lounge writing on my laptop when this very well-groomed older gentleman walks up the stairs chomping on a cigar. We make eye contact. A few seconds go by before we realize that we know each other.

“Tony DiDio?” I say incredulously.

“Andre?” he says in the same manner.

Tony DiDio has produced several films, most notably, the original Toolbox Murders in 1978 and the 2004 remake directed by Tobe Hooper and starring Angela Bettis. He’s another old-timey Hollywood guy with whom I’ve become friends over the years. We met back in ’08 when he was interested in producing my script for Hollow Eyed Mary.

The thing about old-timey guys is that they’re full of cautionary tales about the film business. Hanging with them is like taking private lessons from some wise old film historian. Occasionally you get the odd gem like, the time Tony almost worked with John Carpenter or working with Tobe Hooper or stories about his good friend Roger Moore. Roger’s son Christian was briefly interested in the Hollow Eyed Mary script.

So, back to the story…

We give each other a big hug. Tony tells me that he’s in town for the AFMs. It just so happens that he always stays at the Jolly Roger when he’s in LA. We get reacquainted over the next few days. I would wake up early every morning to work out and run. And he would walk to the end of the Santa Monica Pier and back every morning as part of his exercise. So I started walking with him every morning. The old timey stories are in full swing as we walk. At some point he goes into the problems he’s been having with Toolbox Murders 2. He comes right out and says that the film is “a piece of utter shit.”

A few years back during the MUF thing, Tony was still riding high from the moderate success of the Toolbox Murders remake. He always felt that the film never got the exposure it deserved. It was originally slated for a larger theatrical release, but according to Tony, it was shelved briefly to make room for Cabin Fever, which had red-hot word-of-mouth at the time. Toolbox eventually received a limited release in 2003.

Tony had hired Jeffrey Reddick (Final Destination) to write the script for the sequel which was going to be bigger and badder than the remake. So, when Tony mentioned how bad the finished film was, I said, “You mean the Jeff Reddick script you showed me years ago? That was a fun script.”

Tony tells me that they ultimately went with a guy named Dean Jones, and that they let him rewrite the script. Dean is a makeup artist/FX guy with an extensive resume, but I think this was his first shot at writing and directing. There was some issue with the finished film not being what was promised to distributors, etc., who were now threatening to kill the deal. Then there was an issue of ownership between the director and producers. Lawsuits were filed.

Tony invites me to the screening of Toolbox Murders 2 at the AFM. He warns me several times about just how awful the finished film is.

“We even dumped a chunk of money into the thing to fix it,” he says. “And it still sucks.”

What a fun experience that screening was. It had little to do with the film, which was pretty bad. People were walking out. Watching it made me feel like the director hated women.

Tony and I sat next to each other in the rear of the screening room. A few film buyers, etc., sprinkled here and there. The whole time Tony is sinking lower in his seat with his hand over his face groaning about this scene and that scene.

“What til you see this,” he’d warn, and then sort of chuckle nervously and shake his head in disbelief. Or “This has got my name on it,” he’d say sarcastically. It was 80-something minutes of Tony cursing the screen. Man. I never laughed so hard. He was so exasperated that he would eventually start laughing, too. It was the most fun I’d had in a theater in a long time.

“You want my honest opinion?” I said to him afterward.

“I know it’s shit,” was his response. He starts telling me how he wants to move the next one away from the gory slasher/torture porn stuff. He wants to take the material in a new direction.

The next day I pitch him an idea. It involved a strip club run by an Asian gang. My friend Tony Kern could direct and we’d do the film in Singapore or in some American Chinatown. The two Tonys had already met by this point and Didio had already expressed interest in maybe getting into the Asian market.

DiDio liked the idea and, for a moment, things were coming together.

Tony Kern was weary of attaching himself to Toolbox Murders, especially after hearing how bad the sequel turned out. But I’m like, “Fuck the title. Let’s just tell a good story.  Hopefully it’ll get us one more rung up the ladder. Down the road we can do our own thing.”

It was ultimately decided that there was “no market” for an American horror film with a predominantly Asian cast. Yep. Marinate on that one.

Next, I pitched him an idea called “Hoodie Girls.com.” It involved 4 female vigilantes dressed in hoodies and bikini bottoms. Each one had a different tool. One of them had a circular saw-blade dangling from a rope. We never see their faces, just darkness inside their hoods and maybe a few strands of hair spilling out. The vigilantes targeted sex offenders. Their sexualized look (hoods & bikini bottoms) is a play on actresses from a popular porn-ish website where girls dressed in hoodies (with the hoods pulled up) and underwear go through their daily lives while being filmed 24/7. Little pop-ups would appear that would say something like “Hoodie Girl Sarah is relaxing with a good book.” The public starts to cheer on the vigilantes. People think that maybe the website/actresses have something to do with the crimes. Maybe they do. You get the idea.

The idea came to me one night after Brenda walked past me wearing a hoodie and nothing else in an attempt to lure me away from the computer.  It worked.

I wrote an 8-page treatment for the thing. Everyone loved the idea. They got what I was trying to do. It was raw. Edgy. The film would have been controversial, but it had a brain. Tony DiDio is originally from Philly and wanted to do the film locally. He brought in a guy by the name of Bill Haley to direct. Bill owns a successful video production company here in Philly.

The distributor was excited to get the film going. They wanted a poster to market the project at Cannes even though there was no script yet. When they asked for ideas for the poster I suggested a riff on the Ms. 45 poster with our hooded vigilantes surrounding some random criminal.

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The poster you see is what we got.

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As time went on, people got cold feet. Raw and edgy became risky and riskier. People want to make their money back. I get it.

So I get notes like, “Could we change this sort of weird risky thing here to something much less weird and risky?”

That keeps happening until the original idea is whittled down to something resembling a generic slasher film. Like that poster.

And then the ball drops.

“The investors want to give their own guy a crack at it. He pitched them an idea that’s more in line with what they’d like to see.”

So, there you have it. Another one that almost was. You learn that the road to success in Hollywood is paved with almost was. If you’re lucky, each one gets you a little closer to the door.

Incidentally, Bill Haley and I have since become friends. We’re working on an idea that we’re currently trying to raise money for. Developing…

Whatever happened with the casting agents? Right? Well, they all played out pretty much the same. I went in, did the old headshots/demo reel tap dance. They blew smoke up my ass. Gave me their cards/contact info and told me to get in touch with them when I move out to LA.

Alas, here I am in Philly.

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