Bradley Thomas turns a sensitive subject into an outrageous comedy

December 23, 2005|By CHRIS KALTENBACH

Bradley Thomas knew he and his producing partners - brothers Peter and David Farrelly - were asking for trouble with The Ringer, a comedy about rigging the Special Olympics.

Bad enough making a comedy that centers on people with intellectual disabilities. But with the Farrelly brothers' names attached to it (they're the writer-directors responsible for such outrageous comedies as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary) and with Johnny Knoxville, best known as the star of MTV's Jackass, playing the lead - well, there was no way the taste police would let this one slide.

Thomas, who grew up in Reisterstown and has been producing the Farrellys' films since 1995's Dumb and Dumber, worried about that. For a few seconds. And then he wised up, confident that The Ringer would be both a funny film and an important one.

"I never saw a movie made with people with intellectual disabilities who were accurately portrayed," Thomas, 39, says over the phone from his Los Angeles office. "They were always just sort of one-note [characters], very sad. You felt bad for them."

Like the Farrellys, who were given this script in 1998 by writer Ricky Blitt, Thomas felt the time was right for a movie that showed the mentally disabled as people first and disabled second - men and women who can be funny, vain, cruel, manipulative, cheerful, deceitful, whatever. The Ringer, he thought, could be that movie.

"We were just, like, `Look, we have to make this film.' I thought we were right, I really honestly believed we were right. I knew in our hearts that the idea of the movie was to have fun, show [these people] in a different light ... Everybody was saying, `OK, well, that's a funny idea, but there's just no freakin' way anybody's going to make that movie. And that's exactly what we found out."

Thomas, however, has made a career of trusting his instincts, and they've generally served him pretty well. As a producer with the Motion Picture Corporation of America (MPCA, which was eventually incorporated into Orion Pictures and, later, MGM), Thomas found a script back in 1993 about two seriously moronic friends, liked it and gambled his future on it.

"Bradley found Dumb and Dumber, which we had written a couple years earlier," says Peter Farrelly. "He read the script and loved it, got in his car, drove to his boss' house in Malibu, gave him the script, said, `Read this. If you don't like it, I'm working for the wrong company.' He sat there while the guy read it. The guy put it down and said, `OK, let's make it.' That was how it all started.

"Bradley," Farrelly says, "is the reason we're here."

Thomas didn't start off as a film producer. After a college career that, by his own account, was less than stellar, he made a trip to Israel. Inspired by what he saw there, he spent time in an Indian leper colony, working with Mother Teresa. While in India, he encountered producer Jake Eberts and director Roland Joffe, who were scouting locations for Joffe's next film, City of Joy.

Thomas got a job on the crew, liked it, then moved to L.A. in search of a career in the film industry. He eventually found one producing low-budget films at MPCA. After the Farrellys' enormous success with 1998's There's Something About Mary, he and the New England-raised brothers started their own production company, Conundrum Entertainment.

The Ringer, which includes speaking parts for several mentally challenged individuals and cast more than 100 others as extras, has proven their most difficult project so far. One of the trickiest tasks came early: Convincing Special Olympics not only to approve the film, but to assist in making it.

"They were like, `Well, it's funny, but ... no, we can't participate in this," Thomas says. "But the more they went through the process - they started realizing, `Hey, wait a minute, Knoxville's not making fun of anybody in the movie, he's really the one that's being made fun of.'

"Ultimately, they agreed," Thomas says, "after many years of negotiating."

But that agreement came at a price. Special Olympics officials were given final script approval And if there was any deviation from the script during shooting - and there was plenty, Thomas says - they could veto those lines as well.

Some proposed scenes were overruled, Thomas acknowledges, including one where Knoxville and several of the Olympians go to a strip club. But once shooting started, Olympics officials never exercised their veto power.

Thomas insists he couldn't be happier with the finished product. He says Special Olympics medalist Leonard Flowers, who plays a key role in the film, "came up to me and said, `I hope people now look at me, and they don't look through me.'

"It's about the most gratifying experience of my life," Thomas says of The Ringer, "regardless of how the movie performs."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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