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Bobby Moresco: From Hell’s Kitchen to Cinequest Maverick

Academy Award-winning writer Bobby Moresco received the Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award, the festival’s highest honor.
The straight-talking screenwriter/producer of CRASH (2004) and co-producer of MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004) was joined on the San Jose Repertory Theatre stage by producing partner Mark Harris (CRASH, THE BLACK DONNELLYS). The lively Q&A with moderator Robert G. Phelps and an audience sprinkled with aspiring writers was part of the Film and Technology Forum titled "Sight, Sound & The Dollar Sign - Day 2."

Moresco grew up in gritty Hell’s Kitchen, the working-class and organized crime-infested Irish American neighborhood of Manhattan that served as the setting of his 2007 television series, THE BLACK DONNELLYS. When he was 11 years old, he got his first role playing Prince Charming in a Police Athletic League production of Cinderella. The acting bug came back to bite him big time. Moresco quit school at 15 and enrolled in acting classes two years later, after deciding bartending and construction work were tough ways to make a living. He opened the Actor’s Gym in New York, and in 1978 moved the company to Los Angeles.

Those formative years inform his work. Loyalty. Integrity. Family. Living by his own code and refusing to sell out. Sticking by his guns. Moresco’s value system surfaced as he talked about his life and career—and gave advice to fledgling filmmakers.

“The day after I won the Oscar, I thought ‘Maybe I won’t have to go back to bartending anymore,’” Moresco joked about a lifetime without money and the difficulties of working in the film and television industry.

Neither he nor Paul Haggis was paid a nickel to write CRASH and MILLION DOLLAR BABY. Both were spec scripts. Both men had directed one feature film, ONE EYED KING and RED HOT, respectively, and Moresco said that “both sucked.” They had envisioned CRASH as a television mini-series, until Mark Harris convinced them the 35-page treatment should be a movie.

They wrote the script in two weeks. Harris shopped it around for six months. And two years later, the indie project was ready to go.

“I’m an obstinate kind of guy,” Harris said. “I’m from Brooklyn. Anything I love will eventually get made.”

Surprisingly, Japanese distributors put up $1 million as a pre-buy even though the Moresco-Haggis-Harris team didn’t think the urban story had international appeal. When interested parties voiced objections to having Haggis attached as director, the trio would walk out of meetings. The same loyalty extended to casting; 13 members of Moresco’s theater company got parts.

“You get the actor to get an indie film made. They don’t buy the script. They buy the actor,” Moresco insisted. “Don [Cheadle] sat down and he said, ‘I’ll do anything you want on this movie. I’ll do craft services.’”

But they wanted Cheadle as a producer, too, because of his Rolodex.
“Don is an actor magnet. Without Don, we’d have no movie,” added Moresco.

Although CRASH was in development before MILLION DOLLAR BABY, director-actor Clint Eastwood finished the female-boxer feature first and racked up Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in 2005. Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Academy Awards for CRASH followed in 2006.

What did it mean to win the Oscar?

“Not a damn thing!” Moresco gruffly replied, still angry over having his acceptance speech cut off during the 78th Academy Awards ceremony. He did admit that the Oscar changed his life financially. “I spent my whole life broke, my whole life. Now I’m a little less broke. Here’s what doesn’t change: You don’t become a better writer.”

The Bobby Moresco formula for success is no formula at all. It’s about hard work, perseverance and staying true to oneself.

“Nobody can stop you from writing. They can only stop you from getting paid. Stick with what you love,” he advised.

Sounds like a statement made by a true Maverick.

Susan Tavernetti

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