The independent film, which comes out in 16 theaters, on iTunes, Amazon and on-demand on Friday, tells the real story of Eugene Brown (Gooding Jr.), an ex-con who started a Washington D.C. chess club for underprivileged youth. But the making of the project tells a similarly interesting tale of popular Yahoo sports columnist-turned-screenwriter Dan Wetzel.
The script was penned nearly a decade ago by Wetzel and current-ESPN Public Relations director David Scott (Full disclosure: TheWrap has worked professionally with Scott in his ESPN role). At the time, the two old UMass friends and screenwriting partners were inspired by a story that someone told Wetzel: “A youth basketball coach I know in D.C. mentioned to me that there’s a lot of programs to help inner city kids — but they’re only helping 6-foot-10 guys,” he recounted to TheWrap.
But there was one equal opportunity program — and it was run by a former bank robber.
Brown grew up disadvantaged in Washington D.C., and in his later teen years became the “world’s worst bank robber,” as Wetzel described to TheWrap. Why? Well, after robbing a bank, Brown called a cab as his getaway car. “It took about 5 minutes to catch him,” Wetzel said.
Getting sentenced to 20 years in prison (he’d serve 18), Brown took up chess to pass the time. What he found is that the lessons in chess are the lessons needed in life — such as thinking before you move, sacrificing a pawn for a king, and so on.
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When Brown was released, he brought the game to his old neighborhood, inspiring children and creating a place where they could go to avoid some of the harsh realities of inner city life — the Big Chair Chess Club.
While the movie is a story about Brown’s unique tale, the making of — like all independent films — is a whole other story. The screenplay that sat untouched for years eventually found a home, as well as strong leads on a small budget.
The longtime buddies and writing partners were long-pessimistic about the future of the film, but one person in their corner was not. “It’s a tribute to Jim Young at Animus Films that he never gave up on this project,” Scott told The Wrap. Adding, “It means so much to me and Dan to be able to share Eugene’s story with a national audience — we need more Eugene Browns in the world.”
The duo that never imagined their film would be made, certainly didn’t dare dream of casting Gooding Jr., an Academy Award winner, to play Brown. Though Wetzel joked, “We wouldn’t have turned down Denzel (Washington) had he come around before.”
Wetzel, who started as a police reporter, has written 6 books, made his bones writing about college basketball and is now one of the nation’s foremost online sports columnists. He’s written plenty of other screenplays, but this is the only one he’s sold. It’s probably no surprise that it revolves around a game. While a different format than he’s known for, the material made this a natural story for the columnist and his writing partner.
“It’s not that different from what I do normally,” Wetzel said. “You just try to find good stories.”
“Life of a King” comes out in limited theaters, on iTunes, Amazon and on-demand on Friday, Jan. 17.