by: Herb Wilmot, Westar International
"Highly entertaining", "a fun movie", "a good time", "a lot of action". That's the consensus buzz about the up-coming pool movie Poolhall Junkies. On February 13th at the Darryl F. Zanuck Theater on the 20th Century Fox lot in Los Angeles, an "invitation only" crowd of about five hundred people arrived to see the first public screening of this much-anticipated film, many of whom were Hollywood and billiard industry professionals. Jim Chapman, President of Westar International, whose company is handling the promotion of the film throughout the billiard industry, was on hand making notes and taking photos both at the theater and afterwards at the party at The Atlantic. Associates or friends represented the four sponsors of the movie-Olhausen Billiards, Westar International, Southwest Cues, and Sardo Tight Rack. A high level of energy ran through the packed auditorium as Mars Callahan-director, writer, actor-took the stage prior to the curtain rising.
"This is a dream come true for a lot of people in this movie", said Mars. He then reeled off a list of names, of whom many would recognize in the movie and billiard world-actors, agents, producers, executives, sponsors, promoters, etc. who have helped him along the way. But most importantly, his personal accolades about the support his friends and family have given him throughout the years, emotionally moved he and the audience the most. The movie is dedicated to his late godfather, a writer, Phillip Robert Dixon. In his closing comments, Mars pointed to a central figure in his life, "...my best friend in the world, who, I would not be alive today if he didn't grab me at nineteen years old in a poolroom and teach me how to write-my writing partner, my best friend-Chris Corso." A standing ovation then erupted from the crowd.
Then, the movie. Afterwards, the excitement. The comments covered nearly every aspect of a viewer's experience. "It's fun to watch," said Robert Le Blanc, pool Technical Advisor for the film. "Every guy that sees this movie will think, 'Damn, I wish I was doing that in a poolroom'". Dave Thomson of Medium Pool (an advertising agency in LA that works with billiard products and billiard players) commented thus: "It made me laugh; it was funny and entertaining". Mike Massey, World Champion pool trick-shot artist who played the role of St. Louie Louie in the film, added, "There was some really good acting and the movie was fast-paced. I think everyone will like it." Donny Olhausen of Olhausen Billiards who drove up from San Diego with his brother, Butch Olhausen, Mike Clark and an entourage of others said, "I liked it. I'd like to see it again."
So goes the mood and the attitude. Many thought that this movie would appeal to a wide audience beyond the pool spectrum. Phil Messina, a veteran writer and director of many theatrical and TV movies said, "It's a mixed bag. Some people will like the movie just for its entertainment value." Thomson more specifically said, "This movie has a very broad appeal. Also, it will definitely do well in the cult scene because you've got two or three name actors in there. Christopher Walken is the chief cult factor. He's the biggest draw, I would think."
Of the acting in general, everyone interviewed expressed praise. From the young actors in the film, all the way up to Chazz Palminteri and Rod Steiger, the comments ranged from favorable to amazing. Aside from Christopher Walken, who seemed to be everyone's favorite, drawing adjectives such as "terrific" and "awesome" and "superb", it was Mars Callahan who garnered the most kudos. "It's amazing what he did at such a young age-writing, directing, acting," said Le Blanc. Jay Helfert, a well respected and long-time promoter of pool in the West, chimed in, "I'd like to see Mars and writer Chris Corso get some recognition because they did a good job". And Messina, "Mars is an entertaining actor with a lot of potential." And Donny Olhausen, "He did a fine job."
Many people thought that the movie would be good for the pool industry if enough people saw it. "It will certainly generate interest and increase sales," said Donny Olhausen. "All the movie can possibly do is excite interest for pool," expanded Le Blanc.
And without a single exception, everyone loved the ending. A play upon words and a hasty decision provided the thrill. Thomson, who first saw the script in 1992 said, "It was funny watching the evolution of the script and see how it changed. I thought the ending was a nice little twist."
But perhaps the most objective opinions came from a non-pool player who was totally unbiased, who has never even seen a pool movie and who regularly walks out of movies she doesn't like. Laurie Britton, a friend of Donny Olhausen, put it all together. "I didn't expect to like it, so I was quite pleased that it was as good as it was. I stayed glued to it. It had a good story line. The acting was good. Mars was actually quite a good actor and I had never heard of him. And I was a bit surprised that it got me enthralled about pool in general. It made me actually want to learn how to play pool. I would like to see it again."
Doesn't that say it all?
The next big question remains the same: When will the film appear before the general public and where? The answer leans towards late summer of this year. Get ready!
Watch for upcoming articles following the progress of Poolhall Junkies by Westar International, a billiard wholesale company based in Las Vegas and Seattle. 800 995-8605
By Herb Wilmot -Westar International
It was July 24, 2001, a Tuesday. Jim Chapman (President of Westar International) and I (Herb Wilmot, Sales Manager for Westar International) had just escaped the modest 108 degree heat of Las Vegas and were driving towards Los Angeles for a long-awaited and much-anticipated meeting with the key principals of the next big pool movie that will be premiering soon-Pool Hall Junkies. Mars Callahan (Star, director, writer) would be there; Karen Beninati (Producer) would be there along with Chris Corso (Writer), Robert Le Blanc (Technical Pool Advisor) and Lissa Pallo (Actress). We were to meet at a hip restaurant/poolroom in West Hollywood where the making of the movie actually started, owned by Robert Tobin, a lifelong friend of Mars. The sun was beginning to set, the upcoming meeting was very important, and we knew we couldn't be late. Jim always drove less than 90 mph, so I felt comfortable.
While driving through the desert and the mountains my thoughts turned to the effects and possible consequences upon players-current, past and future-promoters, industry people both in the U.S. and around the world and potential sponsorship for current and future pro tours, etc. Many people's futures could be dramatically impacted by the release of this movie. Jim and I had been on the set of Pool Hall Junkies in the fall of 2000 in Salt Lake City. I took photos and got to know people and Jim (a paid sponsor of the movie who also played the tournament director in the film) and Tom Shaw (writer for Pool & Billiard Magazine) collaborated on a major article about the movie, which appeared in Pool & Billiard Magazine in the January 2001 issue, and in most regional pool newspapers. But much had happened since then. How was the movie coming along? What do the insiders think? What are the responses of anyone who has seen the movie? That last question was in fact answered a day or two earlier in a phone conversation between Jim and Mars. I remembered it well as we rose into the mountains.
Callahan: Okay, well, we had a screening of the film Pool Hall Junkies on the Sony lot and the National Research Group (NRG) is the number one test-marketing research group in the country. It does film test-marketing and they had a controlled audience in there- randomly selected people of diverse demographics and diverse ages, races and sex. The lights went out and the movie started and the crowd was just totally into it from beginning to end. I mean, they were groaning when bad stuff happened and cheering when the heroes did great stuff and cheering at the different pool shots and different pool sequences. There were just overwhelmingly, extremely positive responses."
Chapman: On a scale from one to ten, you'd give it a ten?
Callahan: They were giving it eight's, nines and tens the whole way through.
Chapman: And the producers were there, probably?
Callahan: Yeah, all the producers were there. The executives from the film companies-from Gold Circle Films, from Newman/Tooley Films were all there. The executives from the William Morris Agency were there. And they witnessed the audience's response and they were completely beside themselves. They couldn't believe it. None of us could. Everyone was just amazed at the response.
Chapman: What about the sound tracks, the music?
Callahan: We've been doing an extensive sound mix with sound effects of pool balls cracking, all the ambient sounds of a poolroom-the whispers, the money talk. And then there's the music composition, scoring the film with great pool hall rhythm and blues.
Chapman: What's the buzz on the streets with the movie?
Callahan: Everyone and their dog is dying to see this movie. And the beautiful thing about it is that no one has seen it, with the exception of the test-market and the people within our camp.
Chapman: Well I'm happy for you and I'm happy for the billiard industry.
Callahan: Oh yeah! It's gonna do wonders for the billiard industry. It is gonna explode the billiard industry! Because it's so youth oriented. Those other pool movies were great but I felt like they belonged to an older audience. This opens up billiards to the youth of America. That's where your long-term pool hall junkies are going to come from. You want to get kids enthusiastic in billiards so that they will be supplying the billiard industry for the next forty years.
Nice thoughts to reflect upon when you are only thirty minutes away from more truth and knowledge in the heart of LA. Exciting stuff was on the horizon.
Jim and I entered a building on the corner of Fairfax and Santa Monica in West Hollywood, then took the elevator to the second floor where we then walked into Sky Sushi. Robert Tobin, the owner, probably described it best.
Tobin: Basically it's a nightclub/poolroom. We have two dance floors; we can accommodate about 500 people. It's got a great outside patio, smoking, lots of good-looking young girls hang out here in the evening time. It's a fun spot.
And fun it was. The first thing I noticed in a backdrop of casual, yet stylish comfort, were seven well-maintained nine-foot tables. In a corner area Mars Callahan, Robert Le Blanc, Chris Corso and Lissa Pallo were relaxing and playing pool. When Karen Beninati arrived we all moseyed outdoors onto the beautiful wooden patio and sat for several rounds of sushi, refreshments and good conversation. The fact that it was 72 degrees and breezy just barely caught my attention.
Callahan: It was such a great spot in the city of Los Angeles- to find a place that was elevated with views of the city and a cool atmosphere. It was the only place in town to shoot the trailer for Pool Hall Junkies so that foreign companies and distribution companies could get a flavor and a taste of the style of the film that we were about to make. It was a great little piece of film.
Jim Chapman then went on to ask about where the movie is going from here.
Callahan: Well, the next major film festival coming up is Sundance. I think that would be the best place to debut the film. Sundance really caters to independent films of this nature-writer/ director/actor driven films and it's always a bonus that we shot the whole movie in Salt Lake City. It's like kismet; it could be a great serendipitous situation for us.
All along, I had a few questions that were burning in me.
Wilmot: In this movie you have an amazing array of actors. You have two Academy Award winning actors: Christopher Walkin and Rod Steiger. Chazz Palmintari along with Rick Schroder, who is a big television star, both play major roles. How in the world did you get these people?
Callahan: Well, I had a lot of help from Karen Beninati. She was able to bring this project to the William Morris Agency and she was really able to champion it there. She was able to convince the people there to give me a chance, and meet with these actors.
Wilmot: And who picked the actors out? Did you have a preconception of who they may be?
Callahan: Chris and I had written the script years ago with Christopher Walken in mind for that role. I keep pinching myself hoping that I've not been dreaming and hopefully I'm not going to wake up. And out of all the people in the world with all the different scheduling problems and all the different factors that could become involved-it's a million-to-one shot that we could get Christopher Walken. So, I think there was perhaps divine intervention. I think there was a lot of luck involved.
Beninati: At the end of the day it comes down to the fact that it was a good script and it starts from there.
Wilmot: How did you get that opportunity to get the script to him?
Beninati: Well, umm, it's called persistence and believing in something and knowing that now there's a goal. And we wanted Christopher Walken and we wanted Mars to star in the movie and direct it and that was it.
Callahan: A lot of people said, "Oh, you've got to be reasonable".
Beninati: Forget it.
Callahan: We don't believe in "reasonable".
Beninati: Not going to happen.
Callahan: You gotta start somewhere and we wanted to start where our dreams were. Ultimately, also, I have to give kudos to Christopher Walken because he...
Beninati: ...he stuck in there.
Callahan: ...because he was the first person to sign onto the film. He was the first actor to believe in the film before anybody, which is the hardest point, because an actor wants to know who else is going to be in the movie. He wants to know that he's not just the only guy carrying the movie. So the fact that he did sign on first to do the film, that he believed in me, and took his chance on a young filmmaker was...I'm just eternally grateful for that.
Wilmot: Well, did Christopher Walken have any influence on obtaining the other actors?
Callahan: Well, he didn't get on the phone and make phone calls and say, "Hey, do this movie", but he might as well have, because every actor in this business wants to work with Christopher Walken. He's one of the most appealing actors to work with. It became substantially easier to cast the film after Christopher Walken. But I also have to say that Chazz Palmintari was the next big step, because equally, Chazz had to take a chance on a young film director, and a young star of the film to play opposite me, and that was a big leap of faith for him as well.
Wilmot: Well, what was it that made his opinion to accept the role in this film?
Callahan: When I went to meet with Chazz in New York we spoke, and the thing that was so great about Chazz is that Chazz's career was sort of similar to mine in the sense that someone took a chance on him and let him star in a film that he wrote. [A Bronx Tale, co-starring Robert De Niro] And so he saw a lot of me in him at that early stage and he said, "I'll do this film for you on one condition". And I said, "What's that?". And he says, "Some day when a kid comes up to you and needs a break, you'll do what I did for you for somebody else". And I said, "You got it".
Wilmot: Well, I'm glad I'm still a kid!
Chapman: How about some of the other stars? How did they come along?
Callahan: I wasn't really friends with Rick Schroder, but we knew each other from back when we were child actors together. So Chris Corso and I went to the set of NYPD Blue to talk to him in his trailer and we started sharing war stories. He was enthusiastic about the project from the get-go. He was amazing to work with. You know, he's a big TV star, and yet he was still humble enough and gracious enough to help us move equipment when we were under time constraints. And Alison Eastwood was amazing. She was actually a friend of a friend of mine, and so, right before we left to go to Salt Lake City, we still didn't have a female lead. And so this friend of mine said, "What about Alison Eastwood?" And I said, "Amazing, fantastic." So Chris Corso and I had dinner with her and she was very enthusiastic about the project and very supportive. She's been a big champion of independent films throughout her career, and so she came forward and championed this project as well. And then of course, we had no idea we were going to get Rod Steiger. We were actually in Salt Lake City already and we needed someone to play the role of Nick, but I thought that in a million years we'd never be able to get him at this point. But the cast had started to shape up and the script was tighter than it had ever been so we sent this final polished version over to Rod in the eleventh hour and he came aboard. I'm just very blessed to have him.
Wilmot: How did you happen to pick Robert Le Blanc?
Callahan: When we were first writing this, we would all hang out at the Hollywood Athletic Club and shoot pool and tell stories and Robert Le Blanc is one of the most colorful and interesting human beings I've ever known. So he would always entertain us with all these amazing stories of being on the road and things like that. And Robert Tobin, Robert Le Blanc and myself used to go have lunch every single day. The three of us would sit around and tell stories and then Chris and I would go and write every day. We had about 3 or 4 scripts worth of material that we had to hone down into one movie. And so when it came down to it, we always had Robert Le Blanc in mind for something in the movie. So it was great when Robert was able to come up and work as technical advisor and play the role of the Number One pool player in the world.
Le Blanc: The main reason it worked was because of Mars, because Mars is an "action" kinda guy. Mars has been in the "action" world for many, many years...gambling, cards, pool. And that's why the whole thing came together. He brought that to the set and that was what the mood was. It was totally believable.
Chapman: What about Mike Massey?
Callahan: Paul Sorvino was supposed to play the role of St. Louie Louie but had to drop out at the last moment. Fortunately for us, Mike had heard about the movie in Chicago from Mike Clark of Olhausen when they were doing the ESPN Trick Shot Magic Championship.
Chapman: Which he won, by the way.
Callahan: Yes. Mike coincidentally had a trick shot show in Salt Lake City the next day or so. He invited us and he was great. So he got the role.
Chapman: Possibly the best role a professional pool player has had in a pool movie. I also noticed that the actors really showed you a lot of respect. They really listened to you.
Callahan: Well yeah. There's a combination of a couple of things there. The first thing is that they are tremendous professionals. There are no "B" actors in this movie. These guys are the best of the best. And so when you're a top professional at anything, you take what you do very seriously and you grant the people around you the respect that they deserve. By doing that, they made me be able to do my job a lot better and I was able to step up my acting game and my directing game. You know, this is a special world that we all live in-in the billiard community and the pool world-it's a very unique sort of backdrop and a subculture. And because I'm so familiar with it, I know how to walk-the-walk and talk-the-talk. They [the other actors] were able to recognize that. So, it was a mutually beneficial relationship in that respect.
Chapman: And I think they saw you put forth the hours and the energy...
Callahan: Well, you know, you get opportunities like this once in a lifetime...if ever. And there is no room for being tired; there is no room for any kind of complaints. When you have an opportunity like this you have to show up, be professional, dedicated, cheerful, and delivering. This is something that I've dreamed about my whole life-to be able to live my dream and to do this project the way I wanted to do it and with the people I wanted to do it with.
Jim then asked a good question that every pool fan would want to know the answer to.
Chapman: So how did the name "Hard Times" come about? [The name of the main pool room in the movie.]
Callahan: Well, we always liked the name, "Hard Times". The original pool hall that we wrote the story about was actually the old Hollywood Billiards that used to be on Hollywood and Western. It's the old underground pool hall with brick walls and posts holding up the ceiling. It was a great old place-lots of character; lots of stories in there. But it was called Hollywood Billiards and we originally wanted to set the story in New Orleans, so Hollywood Billiards was not an appropriate name. We wound up shooting at E.O.'s, which was great. And I gotta say, because this is very important to me, that the people at E.O.'s [In Salt Lake City] were the nicest people I have ever met in my entire life-Darren and Momma and their entire family.
Beninati: They totally took care of us.
Callahan: They were like family; they embraced us like members of their own family.
Corso: How about all of the sponsors who came through?
Callahan: Oh, amazing. Olhausen was wonderful.
Corso: Southwest...Lori Franklin...
Callahan: The cue that she gave us for the film is such a beautiful cue. And it shows up so beautiful on film-it's the rich, dark, ebony wood. It's the perfect cue for the hero in the film to have.
Chapman: But now that the cue is broken...smashed...
Callahan: Ah, it was never really broken...it was a prop!
Beninati: And Olhausen built 18 pool tables for us. They shipped them up; they set them up. They tore them down and they took them home. And they donated all the balls and the chalk.
Callahan: They were wonderful and of course, let's not forget Jim Chapman and Herb Wilmot of Westar International who have been great promotional supporters for all of us and made life on the set so much easier. They provided the cues and accessories for the set. And Lissa Pallo, upstairs in this beautiful hotel, looking gorgeous...
Corso: And Sardo Tight Rack. Jim was able to bring them on board as a fourth sponsor.
Chapman: Well, being the distributor of the Sardo Tight Rack, it just made good sense to me.
Corso: And I just want to make a quick mention of AAA Billiards.
Callahan: Oh that's right. We were doing some "insert shots" for the opening scene itself and we were stuck. We needed to shoot some extensive abstract pool sequences of close-ups of pockets and the length of a pool cue as well as some other "filler-shots" that we didn't have. So Chris got on the phone and spoke to Bruce down at AAA Billiards in Beverly Hills and Bruce was instantly accommodating. They brought a pool table down there and got it set up and everything at the last minute and the stuff turned out beautiful and wound up being the whole opening sequence of the film.
At that point, more sushi and libations were brought in. There was laughter and stories and I couldn't help but notice that a special aura hovered above the group...people who were infused with inspiration and success. But I also knew that that had to be built upon a foundation, and Karen Beninati and Chris Corso were the cornerstones of that foundation. Nothing of value ever comes without a struggle. And no one gets to the top without help. The moment couldn't be lost; I had to find out.
Wilmot: Karen, what has been your path to get to this point?
Beninati: Actually, I have been producing now for about two and a half years. I started off in the film business by working for various producers and distribution companies and foreign sales companies and kinda finding my way through. And I have a knack for talent and a knack for writers and working with them in pictures and projects. Mars and I met in the early stages of my career and together we were able to grow and build something together.
Callahan: We hit it off instantly. Actually Karen and I met on the set of my first film. She knows the ins and outs and everyone loves her and they all respect her instincts for product and scripts and her eye for talent. So when she went to the William Morris Agency and said, "This is somebody that you guys need to pay attention to," they listened. And so she is the reason why we are all here right now.
Wilmot: How do you feel about this movie Pool Hall Junkies? How would you compare this to the other films that you've been involved in?
Beninati: Well for me, the fact that we did this film, and the fact that we did it the way we wanted to do it...it's a dream come true. I set out to do one thing and that was to make this film the exact way we wanted to make it. I wouldn't settle for anything else.
Wilmot: There seems to be a common theme between Mars and yourself and that is-you will not compromise.
Callahan: If a studio came by and said, "Here's a hundred million dollars to go make Pool Hall Junkies and we're going to get Steven Spielburg to direct it and Tom Cruise to play Johnny," we had to all agree to say no.
Corso: We made that agreement.
Callahan: We're gonna say, "No, we're not going to go ahead and take that choice". So we had to be of like mind in that respect going into it because it did come up many times. People tried to get us to compromise.
Beninati: They'd beat you down and they'd say, oh...
Callahan: ...you'll never get the movie made, and we're not gonna give you the money and this and that. So we had to be able to say, "Well okay, we'll walk away then". And eventually because of the support of the cast and our other producers-Tucker Tooley and Vince Newman of Newman/Tooley Films, everybody at Gold Star Films and Cutting Edge Entertainment-we were able to convince all the nay sayers that they should say yes, take a chance.
Wilmot: So it happened piece after piece; obstacle after obstacle.
Wilmot: And with the faith that you had and the belief, the will and the determination...
Callahan: Yeah, but I tell you also what's really great is that at no point during this whole ride did we ever lose the support of the people around us-my family, my parents, Robert Tobin, the William Morris Agency, which includes Rena Ronson, Cassian Elwes and Janine Giaime-they championed this project, believed in it. You know, on a personal level, if the rest of the world is saying, "Who in the heck are you? How are you gonna get a chance to make this movie? What have you ever done before?" And your friends and your family say, "You can do it. Don't give up". Those are the people that help you renew your confidence and help you go out in the world and slay those dragons.
Chapman: You say, "Hey, we won't compromise and Pool Hall Junkies is going to be it and we are going to direct, we are going to star, we are gonna write."
Callahan: And you know what, I think the quality of the film reflects that. If I was asked to direct a movie about doctors, I'd probably not be the best guy for the job. But if you're asking me to direct a pool movie or a poker movie then you better call Mars Callahan!
I turned then to Chris Corso. None of this could have happened without him either.
Wilmot: Chris, when did you meet Mars and how did you both get involved in the writing of this?
Corso: That's a good question, because we met in the poolroom and we met within the pool world, which is a world that we love.
Wilmot: How did it come about that you both knew that you both were interested in writing a script about pool?
Callahan: Well, I'll tell you. When Chris and I met, I was hustling pool at the Hollywood Athletic Club and I was beating everybody down there and then Chris comes up and I say, well, I haven't played this guy yet. So I try to get him in a game. Of course, Chris plays way better than I did at the time...he still does.
Corso: We arranged a spot.
Callahan: He gave me some weight and he wound up taunting me a little bit. He wound up beating me; so it was instant respect. So then we started talking and we became friends. I said, "You know, I think it's about time to make another pool movie." And from our discussions we sort of came together and we wrote Pool Hall Junkies.
Wilmot: But if you co-wrote it, did you collaborate side-by-side or did you trade scripts back and forth?
Corso: No, no. We spent every moment together.
Callahan: Every moment together. We wrote the script every day, Monday through Friday from ten in the morning till seven at night. We wrote the script every day for six months. Chris' strengths as a writer complimented my weaknesses, and my strengths complimented his weaknesses, so together we were able to write a pretty good script.
Wilmot: So this has been a dream of yours-to have this become a reality for ten years?
Callahan: I gotta tell you-every coin tossed in the fountain, every birthday cake that I blew out and made a wish, every eyelash that comes out you make a wish-for the last ten years has been: I want to make Pool Hall Junkies. And so it was like...it's a dream come true, really.
It was Jim who then asked the $64,000 question.
Chapman: So when is it coming out?
Callahan: I would predict...don't hold me to it, but I would predict it should come out sometime mid 2002.
But Karen had a different opinion-the one I liked better.
Beninati: It'll probably be February in 2002. February or March.
Music to our ears. We all rose, went inside around the pool tables, chatted a bit and I took some more photos. The evening was waning, but I couldn't help but think that this was just the beginning. More, much more, was to come. And it will.
Produced/written/photos Jim Chapman, Herb Wilmot, Westar International
This is the first in a series of articles following the progress of Pool Hall Junkies authorized by writer/director/actor Mars Callahan. Westar International has also been authorized to handle all promotional efforts for the film to the Billiard Industry. 800-995-8605