Jeff Benedict talks about ‘Little Pink House’ film and Steve Young autobiography
Here’s the harsh truth: Very few books that are optioned for movie versions actually get made.
Author Jeff Benedict knows that first-hand. His 2001 nonfiction book “Without Reservation,” about the Mashantucket Pequot tribe and its casino, was optioned four times but has yet to be made into a film. His “Little Pink House,” the 2009 tome about Susette Kelo’s fight against losing her Fort Trumbull home to eminent domain, was likewise optioned a couple of times to no avail.
And then Korchula Productions stepped up.
Korchula is a company founded by the husband-and-wife team of Ted and Courtney Balaker.
Benedict says of director-writer Courtney Balaker, “I believed in Courtney the first time we talked on the phone.”
Even so, based on experience, he tries not to get too excited about things until they actually happen.
By last fall, they were truly happening.
The movie was being shot in Vancouver, and Benedict recalls walking to the set, a real neighborhood standing in for New London’s Fort Trumbull area.
“When I rounded that corner that first morning ... I saw all these people milling around and the cameras and lights and actors — that’s when it really hit me that this is actually going to happen. It was an enormous sense of satisfaction,” he says during a brief stop in southeastern Connecticut earlier this month.
The movie adaptation of “Little Pink House” is in post-production now, and the filmmakers hope to release it in theaters in late 2016.
While the action featuring Catherine Keener and Jeanne Tripplehorn was shot in Vancouver (where it’s less expensive to shoot movies), some members of the production team traveled to New London in February to get some exterior shots.
Benedict, who grew up in Waterford, says, “For people who live around here, the footage that was shot (here) gives people the ability to say, ‘Hey, there’s the waterfront’ or ‘There’s the bridge.’ People will potentially recognize streets and different cityscapes.”
Courtney Balaker wrote the screenplay for “Little Pink House” based on Benedict’s book. The Balakers became interested in making a film adaptation after someone from the Institute for Justice told Ted that the rights to “Little Pink House” were available. The duo had become familiar with the institute when they both worked at ABC News.
Some authors decide that, once they sell the option for a given book, they should just let it go. And Benedict figured that’s what he would do. But Courtney and Ted wanted Benedict’s participation. They asked him to read each draft of the script, and he made some edits. He says he tried to be judicious with his comments, which were intended to make the film better, not to make a different film.
“This is not my movie — this is their movie,” Benedict says.
Benedict was on set, too, for nine days of the month-long filming, and he helped craft some new dialogue while he was there.
As for the cast, the actress playing Kelo is Keener, who was nominated for Oscars for her roles in 1999’s “Being John Malkovich” and in 2005’s “Capote,” in which she played author Harper Lee.
“When I saw her the first day on set, I said to Courtney, ‘That’s Susette.’ She looks like her, she moves like her, she had the subtle mannerisms that were fascinating to me because she never met her,” Benedict says. “... I could tell how serious and dedicated she was to being Susette Kelo in a way that people who lived this case would say, ‘That’s on the money.’”
When Benedict met Keener, she had no idea who he was. He was standing with a group of people on set, and Keener came up to them and asked Benedict who he was. He said he was Jeff, which didn’t mean anything to her. Director Balaker then said he was the Jeff who wrote the book.
“At first, it seemed like it didn’t register, and then it was like, ‘Oh, that Jeff!’ It was a great way to meet because there’s no pretension with her, which is what I like,” he says.
The other major name in the cast is Tripplehorn, who co-starred in the movies “The Firm” and “Basic Instinct” and on the TV series “Big Love.” She plays Charlotte Wells in “Little Pink House,” according to postings on IMDB, the movie database website.
If you don’t recall a Charlotte Wells from the Fort Trumbull fracas, that’s because there wasn’t anyone by that name. Some of the real names are, in fact, present in the cast list: Mayor Beachy (played by Garry Chalk), Fort Trumbull property owner Billy Von Winkle (Colin Cunningham) and Institute for Justice attorney Scott Bullock (Giacomo Baessato) among them.
Other names don’t turn up on the list, including some New London Development Corporation stalwarts: No Claire Gaudiani, the Connecticut College president who headed up the NLDC. No Dave Goebel, the NLDC's executive director. No Steve Percy, a longtime NLDC board member.
Benedict and the director via Benedict declined to discuss the Charlotte Wells character's relation to reality. So viewers will have to make the call on Charlotte Wells when they see the finished product: Is she a composite character? A real person with a different name? A fictional character?
Meanwhile, one of the aspects of the movie that Benedict did discuss was something he heard from a driver on set. Because “Little Pink House” was shot in a real neighborhood, people involved with the movie parked offsite and took shuttles to the set. Benedict was talking with a shuttle driver, who told him, “If it wasn’t for you, none of this would happen and I wouldn’t be working — I wouldn’t have a job today if you hadn’t written that book. There are 200 people today who have a job because you wrote a book.”
Benedict says, “That had a really different impact on me than just the coolness of seeing your work become a film. I had never thought of myself as someone who created a job for someone.”
And, he notes, “These are Canadians who were excited about something in a little town they’d never heard of in Connecticut called New London. And so, for me, that’s when this movie became really real and exciting.”
Working on Steve Young autobiography
Benedict also is involved in books about two different sports figures. He is about a year into researching a biography of golf legend Tiger Woods, which he’s writing with Armen Keteyian.
And, in October, he’ll see the release of the autobiography he wrote with former quarterback Steve Young. He spent four years on that book.
Working on an autobiography, he says, is “a different writing experience from sitting with someone who, first of all, is famous and who’s had a very public life. Now you have to climb inside them, put their clothes on, find their voice, and you have to write it as if you are him. That’s a totally different thing.”
Young is a football great who spent most of his career with the San Francisco 49ers. He was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1992 and ’94. He was named the MVP of 1995’s Super Bowl.
And he is a Mormon, as is Benedict.
“One of the reasons I was so attracted to the project in the beginning is because, when I was growing up here as a boy, I was the only Mormon in my neighborhood and in my school for a long time,” Benedict says. “There was a little period at Waterford High School when there was one or two others, but I was basically it. Fortunately, this is the kind of area and I had the kind of friends where I never felt shunned or outcast. I was very much accepted, but I will say there’s a lot of times as the only Mormon around that I felt awkward just because there were certain things (where) I knew I was different.”
He knew, for instance, that he was never going to drink alcohol. Teenagers, though, can feel self-conscious, and they can feel peer pressure.
“I had great friends, but despite how good my friends were, there were a lots of things about being a Mormon that made me at times different in a way that was lonely,” he says.
Young, too, grew up as a Mormon in Connecticut; he was raised in Greenwich. He was the only Mormon in his high school. He was four years ahead of Benedict and, Benedict says, “He made my life easier — he didn’t know it — because sports are so important in our culture and in the halls of your high school and in the locker rooms. The fact that Steve was what he was made it easier for me to be who I was and feel a little more at home in the Mormon faith.
“So when he asked me if I wanted to help write his life story, there was part of me that was, like, this is not only a dream come true, it’s a way to relive a part of my own life that Steve doesn’t know he was a part of — he does now because I told him,” Benedict says.
Benedict hadn’t done a book like this before. He says it was great preparation for doing the Tiger Woods biography, although, obviously, there’s a difference between autobiography and biography, and Benedict had written biographies previously.
The Steve Young autobiography, he says, “is a book I couldn’t have written when I wrote ‘Without Reservation.’ I wasn’t mature enough to write it when I wrote ‘Little Pink House.’ I think this comes with age — age as a writer. I was mature enough four years ago to do this.”
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