Houston attorney Paul Danziger had a true story to tell. An urgent, life and death true story. He wanted to honor the vigilant efforts of his friend and former law partner Michael Weiss who tried, possibly at the cost of his own life, to expose a wholly rotten conspiracy in the health care supply industry.
(In this instance, the word “care” has no business being associated with the word “health.”)
Danziger, who had never written a screenplay in his life, was determined that the best way to get his story out there was through a motion picture. (Never mind a little thing like inexperience and no Hollywood connections.)
His drama begins when a young Danziger and then-partner Weiss were personal injury lawyers, representing clients in neck braces — accident victims. In 1997, however, an emergency room nurse brought their first big case through the door and irrevocably changed their lives.
It was a case they didn’t even want.
Ironically, the nurse didn’t want to be their client either, she wanted to be a whistleblower. She wanted Danziger and Weiss to take down a very big, very powerful bad guy.
“Vicky,” portrayed by actress Vinessa Shaw (3:10 to Yuma, Eyes Wide Shut) in Danziger’s resulting movie Puncture, which opens Friday at the River Oaks Theater, had contracted HIV and Hepatitis C from an accidental needle prick on the job. The single mother of two little children was now incurably sick.
A family friend, heartbroken by Vicky’s death-sentence-by-needle-prick, was moved to use his structural and mechanical engineering skills to develop a spring-loaded syringe that retracted its needle after use. His safety needle meant no more pricks, no more re-used needles (hugely responsible for the spread of disease, especially AIDS and HIV, and subsequent deaths worldwide).
From Vicky, the two lawyers learned a horrifying truth — kickbacks and greed in the medical supply world were preventing the fledgling Texas-based safety needle manufacturer from getting into the market. People were still getting pricked and still dying even though a preventative was readily available.
(Stop and think about this. The last time you had a shot or vaccination, did the needle safely retract into the syringe? Nope? Not mine either. )
It was Goliath whom Vicky wanted Danziger & Weiss, LLP to take on — the behemoth Group Purchasing Organizations (GPOs) who controlled which supplies were used by hospitals and doctor’s offices — and which weren’t. Apparently, what was best for the patient’s health had absolutely nothing to do with the buying process.
As a budding law firm, Danziger & Weiss had no clout; they weren’t “big shot lawyers.” Mike Weiss, however, was gripped by the case — heart, mind, and soul. He argued with Danziger that this was such an obvious case of right vs. wrong, about a good needle that could save millions of lives. How could they lose?
Well, for starters, one major roadblock was that Weiss was a serious drug addict.
A genius and functioning addict, but still an addict. Weiss died of a drug overdose during the case.
What follows is a gripping, OMG-hold-your-breath movie shot entirely in Houston last year. The performances are stunning and the subject matter so compelling that after seeing Puncture, movie-goers should exit the theater with both a new appreciation for the acting chops of Chris Evans (of Captain America fame) and with a shocking realization that our health care is in the hands of money grubbers who don’t give a flying you-know-what about our health care.
(OK, maybe that's not such a surprise but watching blatant proof on screen is.)
This film is about a Goliath that I never knew existed, and made me mad as hell.
Turning real life into a movie
How Paul Danziger’s own life experience became a feature film is a lesson for anyone who has ever wanted to become a filmmaker.
Fast forward 12 years from the real safety needle case to 2008. Danziger and his new law partner, Rod de Llano, have offices in the handsome Lyric Center, downtown on Louisiana, neighboring the prestigious Wortham Center.
The lawyers, whose practice still focuses on personal injury cases, are about get into the movie business as executive producers — the driving forces and primary investors.
Danziger began the journey by reading three legal drama screenplays. Using Good Will Hunting, A Civil Action, and Erin Brockovich as writing samples, he produced a rough draft of his intensely personal story.
Knowing what he didn’t know, he searched the Internet for a professional screenwriter to turn his script into a polished, industry-worthy document. He and de Llano (who had also been a friend of Mike Weiss) hired New York screenwriter Ela Thier. After about a year and a couple more drafts, Safety Point, as it was originally titled, was ready to market.
The harder part, they learned, was getting “Hollywood” to take notice.
“The way people talk to you in LA is extremely rude,” Danziger says in a whopping understatement.
Danziger sent out the script to the usual suspects — agencies and production companies in LA and New York — to receive the usual rejections. Not because the script wasn’t good (it wasn’t even read) but because unsolicited scripts are automatically rejected.
The lawyer learned he needed an agent to do his submitting, but it’s the old chicken and the egg thing. You can’t get an agent if you are nobody in the business, yet you are nobody if you don’t have an agent.
Fox Searchlight and other big dogs responded in their rejection letters with such missives as, “Your unsolicited submission has not been, and will not be disclosed to any executive or other employee of this agency or any other person. You should be aware that many ideas are generated by our employees and our clients or other sources. To the extent that any projects are generated which contain elements similar to what you submitted, the similarities are purely coincidental.”
That’s legal speak for covering the agency’s ass so the writer can’t later claim they stole his/her idea.
But, wait. Somehow, in one of those marvelous miracles that just happen, a couple of brothers making their way into the business did read the script.
Adam and Mark Kassen liked it, wanted to meet Danziger, and wondered if he would allow them to make some changes to the script?
The duo was looking to co-direct the film and one of the brothers, Mark Kassen, actually wanted play the part of Paul Danziger.
In a trip to Houston, the Kassens were shown around the city, including its gritty side, which would become the film’s screen-life setting. Danziger was relieved that the Kassen brothers were “nice and very unaffected.” A handshake deal gave the filmmakers 12-18 months to re-write the script and attach an actor.
The Kassens brought in screenwriter Chris Lopata to take the script to the next level. His draft was titled Retractable.
After actor Chris Evans came on board to play genius/drug addicted attorney Mike Weiss, the project became a true Texas venture with several local investors, in addition to Danziger and de Llano. “Once Chris was attached,” Danziger says, “he became the linchpin to attract other actors.”
One of those actors, a personal favorite of mine, is native Houstonian Brett Cullen. Cullen, a 32-year veteran of the industry, recently finished a role in the newest Batman and is a recurring character in ABC Family’s Make It or Break It.
In Puncture, he rides a horse of a different color. He's Nathaniel Price, the smooth senior partner of a “white shoe law firm” representing the medical supply purchasing industry (the bad guys). The script describes his character as having a “commanding presence, radiating success” and one who doesn’t “so much walk across his plush carpet, he glides.”
Cullen nails it — and then some.
The Hollywood Reporter deliciously described his character as “a heavyweight Texas corporate attorney who is so oily, big-bucks corrupt that you almost like the guy for his undisguised sense of sleaze.”
Cullen got a kick out of that. This role let him play the guy audiences love to hate. (He’s visiting his hometown, by the way, for private screenings this weekend).
According to Danziger, Cullen’s Nathaniel Price character is actually a composite of several real Houston corporate lawyers with whom he has worked.
Scary. There’s more than one!
With the exception of Mao’s Last Dancer (2009) and a few scenes for Tree of Life (2011) Houston hasn’t been much of a feature film location for a long time. We lost our formerly booming big film business in the late 1990s when other states created financial incentives to draw filmmakers to their areas. Texas finally got back into the ballgame about six years ago with our own incentive lures.
Though Houston’s incoming feature films have diminished, locally produced films have proliferated, according to Houston Film Commission director Rick Ferguson. These independents include Playing House, Spirit Camp, Cook County, The Preacher’s Daughter, Thunder Soul and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which came out this summer.
It felt doubly good to have Puncture shot here; a Houston story, produced in Houston.
According to Danziger, about 50 of the 60 or so people in the crew were locals from Houston and Austin. Some of those I recognize are Rona Lamont, costume supervisor; Craig Busch, location manager; Joe Grisaffi, extras casting; and Scott Szabo, sound mixing. Houston should be proud to see our professionals in the credits.
On screen you may recognize former local TV news anchors Bob Boudreaux and Linda Lorelle playing (surprise) TV news people. Houston actors in Puncture include Cheryl Tanner, Marc Isaacs, Kelly Burns Smith, Jake Messinger and Jennifer Joseph.
Another familiar Houston face, attorney Mark Lanier, played himself — convincingly. Lanier's home was also the setting for character/lawyer Nathaniel Price’s swanky digs.
Both Rod de Llano and the real Paul Danziger have cameos. In fact, for those who know attorney Danziger, one surreal scene is when he shakes hands with his actor self (Mark Kassen). Mr. Danziger, meet . . . Mr. Danziger.
Locations all around H-Town included a little bungalow in The Heights that posed as the real Montrose home for Weiss and his pets — a Gila monster lizard and an alligator (you’ve got to see this!) — and Park Plaza Hospital had a significant role. Ferguson, gave high praise to the hospital for being so incredibly cooperative and perfect for what the production needed.
When initially scouting for the hospital scene locations, Ferguson experienced a sense of déjà vu. “I thought I had seen the location before,” he remembers. “As it turns out, I had. It was the same as used for the ‘Give my daughter the shot’ scene with Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger in Terms or Endearment (1983).”
That movie won five Academy Awards. Maybe some of its mojo will rub off on Puncture.
When shooting wrapped, at the end of March 2010, the Kassen brothers headed to New York for editing. Danziger didn’t see any of it until the rough cut that July. Pleasantly surprised, he realized, “Hey, this is not bad!”
After the film's completion last fall, Danziger accepted the invitation from New York’s Tribeca Film Festival to host Puncture’s world premiere. That’s an important endorsement for an independent film. What’s more, singer, musician and humanitarian Bono was so taken by the story’s connection to one of his charities that he hosted a post-premiere party.
Bono’s Project Red helps to stop the spread of AIDS, HIV and other communicable diseases in Africa. Needle re-use is the main carrier; safety needles could wipe out the spread completely.
All this positive exposure helped get a distribution deal for the film with Millennium Entertainment, which means it is going to be shown theatrically. In addition to Houston, Puncture opens in New York and Los Angeles today, and with good reviews and word of mouth, its release will spread.
Houston, get thee to Facebook!
All in all, Puncture took about a year and a half to produce. That’s warp speed for a first-time film by “unknowns.” It was also a low budget film, under $10 million, which goes to show a riveting, meritorious drama can be successfully produced without sacrificing anyone’s first born.
Houston seriously helped make that happen. Danziger said many locations were used for free, people opened up their homes, and the city welcomed the production with open arms. When a scene called for young students outside a school, Danziger’s wife Susan sent out an email and 40-50 kids showed up.
When courtrooms were needed, Judge Michael Englehart helped make sure they got approval for shooting. The Lyric Center, where the real Danziger & de Llano law offices are located, allowed the lobby and other office spaces be used. Many of Danzinger and Rod de Llano’s friends became extras. (Danziger's mother, Avril, was on set nearly everyday to watch the progress, and he and de Llano spent at least half their time on location.)
The co-director Kassen brothers were equally taken by Houston, fully admitting,"When we came to start shooting in Houston, we were worried we wouldn't have the same support and expertise as in LA. After receiving all kinds of support from the Houston Film Commission and the people of Houston we said ‘Thank God we filmed in Houston!’ It made a huge difference to the movie."
For many of us who work in and support the industry here, we say Amen!
Since I am admittedly an unabashed cheerleader for Houston as a film location, I asked my friend and colleague Neal Hamil for his unbiased opinion of the movie following a press screening. He agreed the movie was great and kindly wrote, “Puncture shines a glaring light on a critical topic that is sad, shocking, infuriating and deadly. It’s beautifully shot, masterfully acted, written and directed.”
Couldn’t have said it better.