Tuesday, July 1, 2014

'The Lost Supreme' and a Classic Hollywood Con... Part 1

The author of a Supremes-related biography was thrilled when a producer approached him to make a movie of the book — then things turned very, very strange

Florence Ballard
Florence Ballard
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The call that I'd been waiting for all my life came, naturally, while I was away from my Manhattan home in the summer of 2010.

"My name is Karen Spencer," a sultry female voice cooed into the phone of my Providence, Rhode Island, motel room. "I'm a film producer and investor and I just loved your latest book. I'd love to make it into a movie."

The book she was referring to was The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard. Ballard had been one of the original Supremes until she was forced out of the three-woman group by Motown founder Berry Gordy and Supreme diva Diana Ross.

Read Our 1977 Diana Ross Cover Story

After spending much of her post-Supreme life on welfare, Ballard died of coronary artery thrombosis at age 32 in 1976. I had interviewed her for eight hours over several weeks in 1975 and then spent 32 years looking for a publisher to print the biography I wrote based on those interviews. Chicago Review Press finally published the book in 2008.

During that decades-long quest, I had quit my job as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press and worked for, among other organizations, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York City Department of Investigation, the New York State Department of Labor and Columbia University. I'd also moved up and down the East Coast, been married, divorced and remarried and had written five other non-fiction books.
And now this, this call from the white-hot center of every writer's ambition — Hollywood. Of course, many writers say they would disdain such calls, and instead wish to remain pristine scribes whose books never migrate to the silver screen. They are lying.

I was mulling this over in my motel room while Spencer gave me the details of her proposal to option the movie rights to The Lost Supreme. Although I think I responded rationally, I was spending most of my energy trying not to drool audibly. Summoning up my most neutral tone of voice, I asked Spencer to send me her proposal in writing and I would send it on to Chicago Review Press. She did, I did, and after some back and forth, we all signed on the dotted line.

Two other would-be moviemakers had previously signed option contracts on The Lost Supreme story with my publisher and me, but these wholly legitimate options had expired without any movement toward even the earliest stages of film production. I had signed the first option agreement with a music industry figure I knew personally, Andy Skurow, and his filmmaker brother Matthew, before I had signed the contract to write The Lost Supreme. That option was based not on the book but on the eight hours of interviews I had audiotaped with Ballard during the last year of her life. My publisher and I signed the second option contract, after the book was published, with Karen Harris, a scriptwriter for General Hospital.

 The first agreement involved no upfront money at all. The three of us merely agreed to split all the money we received, but we received nothing before the contract expired. Harris purchased a six-month option on The Lost Supreme for $100, but agreed to pay much larger amounts when and if the book was produced as a film or television project. Neither of the optioneers was acting on behalf of studios or indie movie producers; they had hoped to establish such ties to produce this film. They were unable to do that, however, and their efforts came to no fruition. But my publisher and I didn't lose any money by signing these agreements, and the small amount promised us under the second agreement was duly paid. So when Spencer offered not only to arrange for the filming of the book, but to raise the money to finance the project and to pay $15,000 to my publisher and me on the first day of movie production and another $15,000 a year later, plus other sums on further down the line, neither my publisher nor I saw any reason to say no. Although I never met Spencer in person, I did have lunch in Manhattan with one of her associates, a presentable and intelligent young man who seemed to know what he was doing.

While hopeful about Spencer's effort, I tried to remember that the same fate that had befallen the previous two attempts to bring my book to the screen would likely befall her project. I am incurably superstitious, however, and believe, along with millions of others, that the third time is always the charm. Very soon, I had an inkling that that might be true.

First of all, the film was to be titled Blondie, a title Ballard probably would have loved, since "Blondie" had been her nickname. More significantly, Spencer soon sent a 55-page screenplay for my approval, certainly a sign that she was taking her option responsibilities seriously. 

I was shocked, however, to see how amateurish the screenplay was. It was not much better than a screenplay that I, a complete screenwriting novice, might have written. What I'd been sent was basically verbatim passages from the book, or summaries of those passages, with the margins adjusted to resemble standard screenplay style. For instance, wherever I had quoted Ballard's Supremes singing partner Mary Wilson in the book, the screenplay had Wilson saying exactly the same thing at the same place in the screen narrative. That would be followed by whatever scenic description from the book followed Wilson's quote, transferred perfectly intact to corresponding place in the screenplay. I found it difficult to believe that this was a screenplay produced by professionals who were serious about making a movie.

I called Spencer and asked her why she'd bothered to send me this atrocity. I didn't know what her reaction to my in-her-face criticism would be, and was pleasantly surprised when her only response was to say that she would have it redone. I figured I'd never hear from her again, but within a few months she had sent me a much longer, better screenplay that she said she had co-written with a Hollywood professional named Roy Fegan, who had appeared on television series such as The Shield and Will & Grace.

The Lost Supreme, Florence Ballard
The cover of 'The Lost Supreme.'
Not only was this new screenplay longer and better, it positively glowed on the page. Although I knew Ballard's story and had, in fact, lived with it for decades, I read the revised script in one sitting, quickly turning the pages as I smiled and laughed at the scenes of triumph, scowled, swore and pounded my fist on the table at the scenes of treachery and felt tears come to my eyes at the scenes of despair. Reading the screenplay was like stepping into a world suffused with magic. It took me a few minutes to get myself together after I put it down.

And there was a bonus. I had not appeared as a major character in my own book, but in this new screenplay, which told Ballard's story in flashbacks, I was portrayed as her friend and hand-holder rather than the neutral interviewer I actually was. I knew this was a distortion, but hey, this was going to be a movie based on the book, not the book itself.

My joy would have been complete except that I wasn't portrayed as the person I, rightly or wrongly, saw myself to be: a tough investigative reporter with an iron fist, a nasty wit and a brilliant mind. After all, my first book, Investigative Reporting, which I hadwritten with David Anderson, had become the standard college textbook in the field. In the script, however, I was portrayed not only as an ignorant sort of scribbler, but as an admirer of the fictional TV reporter John-Boy Walton. My character just trotted along with Ballard, unaware of the significance of much of what she was telling him.

I called Fegan to protest this and although he stuck to his guns, I got the feeling we could make changes later. In any case, my friends reassured me that everyone who knew me would know my real abilities no matter how I was portrayed on the screen. I reluctantly accepted this reassurance, sort of.
In late 2010, the casting began and Faith Evans was selected to play Ballard. Not only was Evans an excellent singer who strongly resembled Ballard, but she was a star in her own right, with three platinum albums to her name. 

As the widow of the Notorious B.I.G., Evans' personal life, of course, had been just as dramatic as Ballard's. What better person to portray the forgotten Supreme? Evans was the success that Flo could have been. I called to congratulate her, and told her of my admiration for her recording, film and writing career.

Soon afterwards, in another astounding demonstration that Spencer, now officially on board as the film's executive producer, was serious about her responsibilities, she and Evans traveled to Detroit, Ballard's hometown, to generate publicity and do research for the upcoming movie effort. They spent a weekend touring Motown sites and meeting with Ballard's three adult daughters, who were appointed co-producers. The Detroit Free Press reported that a soundtrack set to include performances by Evans, Lauryn Hill and others would accompany the film, which was budgeted at 7 million dollars.

The Michigan Chronicle, Detroit's African-American newspaper, exceeded the enthusiasm displayed by the Free Press by accompanying its own positive article with a photo of Spencer, Evans and several of Ballard's relatives pledging their support for the film. The Chronicle also published a picture of Michelle and Nicole Chapman, two of Ballard's daughters, posing with my book.

Evans, too, posed for a photo in which she held a hard-cover copy of the and smiled for the camera. I hung a framed copy of that picture in my Manhattan apartment and prayed to it daily. My prayers were at least partly answered, since Evans subsequently appeared on the Wendy Williams Show, the Mo'Nique show and 106 & Park to publicize the upcoming film.

According to Spencer, Bille Woodruff, the director of Bring It On: Fight to the Finish and the Jessica Alba-starring Honey had initially been signed to direct the film, but then had to leave because of conflicting commitments. Shortly thereafter, Spencer appointed Martha Coolidge to helm Blondie. My enthusiasm rocketed upward: Coolidge had directed the HBO film Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, starring Halle Berry, which had won five Emmys. I called Coolidge to congratulate her, reaching her just after she had returned from a horseback ride with her husband around their Los Angeles estate. I assured her that in my unbiased opinion, with her in the director's chair, the movie would be a high-quality monster hit.

Good stuff kept coming. Spencer said that Adrien Brody had been hired to play me. At first, I was somewhat taken aback, because Brody is the only actor I know of with a nose longer than mine. However, when I mentioned to several women that Brody would play me, I couldn't ignore the flush that rose to their cheeks. I immediately dropped my objections. 

Part 2

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