Why Can't This Man Write?
Oscar-winner Joe Feury's fury isn't directed at the movie biz. It's aimed at his own brain.
Feury has produced 11 documentary films
for HBO, 62 biographies for Lifetime
Television and nine feature films. Whether
he'll be able to sell a single screenplay
remains to be seen.
Photograph by Shane McCauley
Why Can't This Man Write?
Oscar-winner Joe Feury's fury isn't directed at the movie biz. It's aimed at his own brain.
Call it a face-off between Joseph Feury and his laptop.
Seated at a 9-foot-long table in the living room of his apartment on the Upper West Side, 5-foot-10 Feury looks tiny. His Hewlett Packard laptop looks even smaller. Yet it seems to have big powers over him.
For five long seconds before turning it on, Feury stares at the computer as if it were Unicron, the evil Transformer. When at last he begins to type, it goes slowly. One. Letter. At. A. Time.
He swears as he goes, especially when he retypes a three-letter word for the fourth time. He drops the F bomb repeatedly. His index and middle fingers pluck, but his hands can't move as fast as his brain. He often writes the same line six times. He slams his right palm on the mouse and makes another correction.
"Writing," he says, "is rewriting."
Feury is attempting one of the most difficult things known to man: writing-actually selling-a hit screenplay.
Writing isn't what made Feury famous. Nor did it buy him the opulent lifestyle in New York City's swankiest neighborhood.
Feury is a producer, one of HBO's most respected, in fact. In addition to the 11 docs he's made for the channel, he's produced 62 biographies for Lifetime Television and nine feature films.
He oversees entire productions. He's involved from the time of story acquisition till a deal is struck for distribution. He hires directors, costume designers, cinematographers, composers, actors. He acts as a film's business manager while ensuring returns for investors.
Yet Feury is bent on writing. He doesn't need the money. His multi-million dollar art collection would attest to that. He doesn't need the accolades. He's already earned an Oscar, an Emmy and a Peabody. And he certainly doesn't need the criticism, humiliation and rejection all aspiring screenwriters face.
So why put himself on the line now?
Because he has to.
For a dyslexic like him, writing a screenplay would be a very big deal.
Feury's shoulders are hunched. He squints to see the icons on the HP's desktop. His nose is about 2 inches from the keyboard because he has to look directly at the keys below him.
Feury has a hard time seeing letters at certain times of day, so has he moved his files into the living room. The light is better there, and it lasts longer. To his left are two Oscars. One is his. The other belongs to his wife of 40 years, actress and director Lee Grant, who won it for her role in 'shampoo." The statues suggest a standard of excellence that Feury wants to keep achieving.
"Trust me, if Joey wants to write, he'll write," says Albert Vietri, Feury's old friend from Wilmington's Little Italy, where they grew up. "We were poor, tough kids. We never said, "Can you?" We said, "Just do it.""
As usual, Feury is juggling several projects: some fluff stuff like "The History of Blondes in America," a look at peroxide babes such as Jean Harlow and Marilyn Monroe, and a pilot called "Gay Mate," essentially a gay "Newlywed Game." But there's also the possibility of a sequel to his 1986 Oscar-winning documentary "Down and Out in America" about homelessness in America, and there's a study of disadvantaged children in the works.
His screenplay-in-progress is a comedy called "Fantasy Camp," based on an unpublished manuscript Feury optioned from novelist Tom Parker. Four revisions are piled beside him. "Could be a dozen more," Feury says. Most screenplays run about a minute a page, and an audience's attention wanes after two hours-or 120 pages. Feury started with 230 pages. He has some cutting to do.
When he's done, he'll pitch the script to Ben Stiller. (Feury knows his parents.) "I want to put it right in Ben's hands," Feury says. "If not, it ends up in some $10-an-hour-reader's hands, some kid who gets to determine your fate."
If "Fantasy Camp" is rejected, Feury is out chump change from buying the option. But this isn't about money.
"I'll feel very depressed if it doesn't sell," he says. "But I'll also feel that I at least did something I never thought I could do. Like with anything else, writing is a never-ending learning process. I've never walked through a door and all of a sudden something magical happens. Everything's been hard."
Few understood dyslexia when Feury was a student at St. Thomas Grammar School, except maybe his younger brother, Ralphie Fioretti, also a dyslexic. "All they did was call me stupid," Ralphie says. "They did the same to Joey." The disorder, Feury says, "was always a handicap because of my inability to spell and to use the language."
Like most dyslexics, Feury has a family history of learning issues. He can't spell. He confuses left and right. And he writes letters or numbers backwards. Also like most dyslexics, Feury has other strengths. He's great at math and creative work. He has great physical coordination and empathy for others.
So he doesn't give a well-known part of a certain rodent's anatomy about punctuation or good spelling. Technology, like Spell Check, can fix that. And though he doesn't know the difference between nouns and adverbs, "It doesn't matter. What's really important is what's in my brain."
His mentors have encouraged him. And those mentors happen to be legendary screenwriters Elaine May ("Heaven Can Wait") and Waldo Salt ("Midnight Cowboy").
Add James Breslin, the former Newsday reporter and Pulitzer-prize winning columnist.
"It's quite a thing Joe is doing," Breslin says. "You take a book and read it'major for a dyslexic. Then you transpose it into your own voice for a script. It requires all the effort in the world. And he is very good at it."
Feury hates to fail. But when he flops, he flops big.
In 1996 he set the scene for "Broadway Brawler," the first major feature film to be shot in Wilmington. Grant was to direct. Feury arranged housing for the crew via his old pal, local builder Verino Pettinaro, then cast his friends as gangsters and set up his star, Bruce Willis, at the Hotel du Pont. The News Journal reported the events daily. Feury had already won his Oscar, but "Brawler" was the most rewarding thing he"d done since then.
"Brawler was a dream come true," he says. "I was like the prodigal son coming home."
Then, 20 days into filming, Willis quit, killing the film"and Feury's chance of becoming a hometown hero. Feury and his partnering company, Cinergi, found themselves $14 million in the hole.
Scott Mantz, a producer of NBC's "Access Hollywood," explains. "Brawler was not going well," he says. "The dailies were not looking good to Bruce. It had all the makings of a bomb."
Willis struck a deal with Disney, "Brawler's" distributor, to take the $14 million out of paychecks from his next two films. Whether he ever looked back, no one will say.
Feury, distraught, thanked Wilmington via a letter to the News Journal. He wrote: "The wreckage that was left after two years of our work is so shocking, that as I write to you, the full impact still hasn't hit."
Eleven years later, it still hasn't .
"We never forget the one person we were in love with who dumped us," says Vietri. "For Joey, that film was the same thing. Here's the thing: We all didn't love Joey because he made movies. We were friends long before that. And I don't care what the hell anybody says. Joey was a hometown hero then, and he still is now."
Feury's reputation was made long before "Brawler," and it has maintained its luster ever since.
Under Joseph Feury Productions (later Feury/Grant Productions) Feury oversaw biographies of some of the most influential women in history"Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and others"for Lifetime Television. His feature films have starred icons such as Carol Burnett ('seasons of the Heart') and Jean Stapleton ('A Matter of Sex'). His documentaries are critically acclaimed.
"With docs, you have the opportunity to change people's consciousness and their thinking," Feury says. Since the 1980s, he has tackled issues such as breast cancer ('say It Fight It Cure It'), childcare ('Childcare Crisis in America') and gun control ('The Gun Deadlock'), among others.
Feury was one of the first to focus the lens on America's downtrodden and oppressed. "Unfortunately, until Michael Moore, these films were unknown to 99.9 percent of the country," says WHYY film critic Patrick Stoner.
Yet Feury paved the way for today's big-budget documentaries, Moore's 'sicko,' Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" and Spike Lee's exploration of Katrina's horror, "When the Levees Broke."
Feury's films also set precedents. "Women on Trial" chronicled how a bigoted family court judge in Texas granted full custody to fathers who sexually abused their children. The judge successfully sued Feury and HBO for defamation, so the film aired only once. But, Grant says, "That judge lost his next election."
Feury's 2006 doc, "Baghdad ER" won four Emmys. The piece was shot at the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq. The New York Times called it an unusually commendable film, one that "forces the viewer to focus on the clinical facts of physical injury, a consequence of war that lacks the narrative grandeur of death or psychological displacement."
Until "Baghdad ER" aired, the Bush administration kept the war on terror as quiet and sanitized as possible, according to the political publication The Independent. The film "disposed with the illusion of normality as brutally as an improvised explosive device."
So brutally that Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense, and other Pentagon officials boycotted its preview at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., even though the army initially sanctioned it. More than 2,400 American soldiers had already died in Iraq. The film was so intense"and so truthful"that Rumsfeld feared it would kill public support for the war.
The film succeeded anyway. George Stoney, a Goddard professor at New York University, says "Baghdad ER" was painful to watch. "But it excelled in that it made us face the human consequences of war, showing us the carnage as well as the emotional and physical strain of those trying to care for the injured. It celebrated humanity."
At the end of "Baghdad ER," a 21-year-old U.S. Marine dies. Until the broadcast, his mother knew nothing of his final moments.
"I believe she was grateful," says Feury.
Feury settles into a recliner. Sunlight streams through the mammoth windows, bouncing off his head and six diamond, emerald and sapphire earrings (three in each lobe). He can see the stretch of his 3,500 square-foot coop, worth about $4 million. There are at least 100 framed photographs of his five grandchildren, his still-stunning wife and his old pals. He's never left Little Italy behind. He'll return this month for the 50th reunion of his Wilmington High School class.
The scene makes you wonder how "Broadway Brawler" still has so much impact on a man who has spent years examining America's oppressed.
"I guess "Brawler" took on an unhealthy proportion," he says. "I learned to never want anything that much again."
Then he pauses.
"But I"ve seen guys who lost limbs. I talked to a mother who watched her son die. At the end of the day, what counts is that I have had the same loyal friends for 50 years, good health and a family I love."
It is what counts most-and it isn't .
Feury has one more goal to achieve, and it involves a Hewlett Packard laptop.