To get a book turned into a film takes tenacity. Sometimes, it takes serendipity. In the case of “The Irishman,” it took both.
“This project was born under a lucky star,” says my friend, Gerald “Jerry” Chamales, a businessman who is the central character in this tale. The story begins 15 years ago, when Jerry’s wife, Kathleen, an avid reader, decided to go to Idaho’s Sun Valley Writers’ Conference and heard author Charles Brandt speak about his book, “I Heard You Paint Houses,” the story of a self-confessed Mafia hitman named Frank Sheeran who claimed to have a major role in Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa’s mysterious 1982 disappearance. When she got back to Los Angeles, Kathleen raved to Jerry about the book and about Brandt’s talk. Shortly thereafter, they were back in Ketchum, when they walked by Cheryl Thomas’ Chapter One Bookstore, where the cover of Brandt’s book happened to be prominently featured in the window.
Who knew that more than a decade later, that visit to Chapter One would change their lives, and soon they would be in business with iconic names like Scorsese, De Niro, Pesci and Pacino?
Thomas, it turns out, knew Brandt, who lived nearby and called him on the phone. A couple is interested in your book, she told him. Brandt said, “Don’t move, I’ll be right there.” Three hours and a three-year option later, Brandt and Jerry Chamales were partners in the idea of doing something, likely a documentary, with the explosive material in Brandt’s book.
Chamales then gave the book to his son, Ryan, who read it and said, “This would be a great movie, dad.” So much for the documentary idea. Jerry, the founder of Rhinotek Computer Products, suddenly became an aspiring film producer. On his own, he started the rounds of studios, but got no traction. “I went to Warner Bros., I went to HBO, pounding the pavement for about a year and a half,” Chamales recalled. “Finally, I thought maybe I’d better call Jake.” That would be Jake Bloom, one of the most successful and respected entertainment lawyers in Hollywood. Chamales told him about the book, whose option was running out. Bloom suggested that they wait for the script to be finished, Chamales said, and if it was good maybe he could sell it to a more established producer like Jerry Bruckheimer or Graham King.
Then came serendipitous moment No. 2. Later that week, Robert De Niro happened to call Bloom, and at the end of discussing another matter, the actor asked Bloom to find out who had the rights to a book called “I Heard You Paint Houses.” Bloom quickly replied, “My client Jerry Chamales has the rights.”
Chamales laughed as he recalled his luck: “I went from friend to client in a nanosecond.”
After some revolving studio interest, the project eventually ended up at Netflix, albeit with a new title, “The Irishman” (De Niro plays Sheeran and serves as one of the producers). Al Pacino signed on to play Hoffa. Martin Scorsese came on board to direct. Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian adapted the book. At that point, the author is often left out of a film project, but Brandt said that Zaillian consulted with him on every draft.
“There were several,” Brandt said, “but finally I said, ‘OK, I don’t have one note.’ My wife and I were even invited to the wrap party.” Jerry and Kathleen walked the red carpet at both the New York and Los Angeles premieres and gave some non-Hollywood insights to De Niro and Pacino. “De Niro is very careful about what he says,” Kathleen Chamales said, ” but you can feel his internal clock working under his skin.” Pacino, she said, is the opposite: “When we met, he threw his arms up in the air to say hi — even though he was wearing a bathrobe and it fell open. He was just totally effusive.”
The story also proves unique value of independent bookstores, which have a firm knowledge of their clientele–and neighbors. Cheryl Thomas, who has been at Chapter One for 43 years, is proud of her supporting role in the making of “The Irishman.” “I’ve been waiting so many years for this movie to happen,” she said. “Calling Charlie, and introducing him to Jerry, turned into a great night and a happy ending.”
Fast forward from that bookstore encounter to the film’s wrap party, when De Niro noticed Jerry Chamales with Ryan, and said aloud, “Oh yeah, and that’s Jerry Chamales. He put this whole thing together.”
“He said that right in front of my son,” Jerry Chamales recalled. “It was the peak experience for me. I am just pinching myself to think I am a producer on this film. What a great journey.”
Ryan Chamales, 32, is proud that his dad could fulfill a longtime dream. “When I was in high school you said you wanted to make a movie one day,” he said. “I never thought you would start here.”
“The Irishman” opens on Netflix Nov. 27.