HeldenFiles: Producer brings local books to screen

By Rich Heldenfels Beacon Journal pop culture writer

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Former Kent resident Jim Tully, author and journalist. Tully is the subject of a biography and a new documentary. (Used by permission from authors Bauer and Dawidziak)

You don’t have to look much beyond the frenzy over The Fault in Our Stars to understand how a compelling book can draw people to its movie adaptation. But local producer Mark Wade Stone has made the connection even more specific, creating documentaries as direct companions to the books that inspired them.

His The Fourteenth Victim is a companion to the book In the Wake of the Butcher; Dusk & Shadow matches up with the print Twilight of Innocence and the series Doris O’Donnell’s Cleveland grew from journalist O’Donnell’s memoir Front Page Girl.

Newest on the list is Road Kid to Writer: The Tracks of Jim Tully, a documentary based on Jim Tully: American Writer, Irish Rover, Hollywood Brawler, the well-received 2011 biography of the former Kent resident, by Paul J. Bauer and former Beacon Journal critic Mark Dawidziak.

Tully’s life, work and circle of acquaintances (among them Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney and W.C. Fields) was epic, and it’s a tight squeeze into Stone’s film.

But Kent State University Press is preparing to offer the DVD of Stone’s film in a bundle with the book, and WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45/49) may televise it, as it has other Stone productions.

Stone, who more often pays the bills with corporate and other commercial work through his Storytellers Media Group, sees the documentaries as “fun to do. It’s something that occupies my time when I’m not working to make my bread and butter.”

The book connections began when he went independent after working for WVIZ (Channel 25).

“I was in search of really good stories,” the Minneapolis native said. “Because I’m not a native of Cleveland, I didn’t know enough of them, so I started picking up books by Cleveland writers.”

True crime seemed an especially rich field, and particularly the story of Eliot Ness and the so-called torso murders, which led to The Fourteenth Victim. While working on that, he met O’Donnell, and then read her book — which was so rich that it became a series instead of a single documentary.

Always aware of the need for financing, Stone said he approached the Kent press a few years ago about possible collaborations. In 2012, the press’s director, Will Underwood, called him about making a companion to the Tully book.

Asked “Are you interested?” he said with a laugh, “You know what the answer to that is: What’s the budget?”

“But of course I was [interested],” Stone said, adding later that he read the biography in a single sitting. “And I decided to partner with him and half-underwrite it. So Will came up with some money, enough to get the production rolling and finished, and on we go.”

Stone is already working on a couple of other pieces for the press. “This is like a buffet for me.”

At the same time, Stone was quick to say “I owe any sort of success for our stories to these great writers.” Indeed, with the Tully book and other projects, a documentary that runs less than an hour “is nowhere near the depth of detail as in the book. It’s enough to tell the story and hopefully draw people to the book.”

But how then does he translate the book to a screen effort?

For Tully, he sat down Bauer and Dawidziak for separate on-camera interviews to tell the story. Dawidziak in particular “is — what’s the word? — voluble. So he will go off. You just stick a quarter in that fella, and he goes.” (Journalists, Stone said, are especially useful in storytelling.)

The interviews then provide a foundation for a chronological telling of the story, the comments forming “a string of beads” with which to arrange the documentary, adding in location footage, archival images and other voices as needed.

Looking beyond telecasts and DVDs, Stone and Kent are planning to make his works available as digital downloads — electronic companions to e-books, as it were — possibly this summer. But there are also big-screen presentations.

A California theater recently offered a triple-feature showing of The Fourteenth Victim, Dusk & Shadow and a Doris O’Donnell’s Cleveland segment under a True Crime Cleveland banner. A Michigan venue has also expressed interest, and Stone said “I didn’t even see this coming.”

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582 or rheldenfels@thebeaconjournal.com.

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