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Steve Lee Jones knows 'Jack'

Pikesville-bred producer nurtured Emmy-nominated HBO film for six years

August 27, 2010|By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Jones studied business at Emory University in Atlanta, then jumped from one work address to the next, from a private nursing company that went public to Giorgio Armani's Luxottica, the world's largest optical manufacturer. He reignited a childhood dream when he moved to Florida and became involved in syndicating educational TV shows. He was nearing 40. He thought it was time to focus on his essential dreams, including his desire to produce "real entertainment."

He married and moved to Los Angeles. He and his wife, Michelle, went California in a big way. They started a natural foods company, Michelle's Outrageous; they joined PETA and became pesco-vegetarians. They also made some money in real estate. But Jones' goal was to get into the film and TV business.

He founded Bee Holder productions, with the tagline "Beauty is in the eye of the Bee Holder." He knew that too many fledgling filmmakers hung on to one project and ended up waiting tables. So he tried to pursue all possibilities, and when good luck struck, he was ready for it. Six years ago, a neighbor of Kevorkian's, Harry Wylie, finished co-writing a book about the doctor with Neal Nicol, Kevorkian's assistant. They didn't know how to find a publisher. A friend of Jones', a plastic surgeon, was engaged to Wylie's niece. Jones already had the reputation of "a man who knew people." The plastic surgeon put the manuscript in his hands.

"My first thought was, 'Everybody knows this story. The media beat it to death.' But after I read the manuscript, the first thing out of my mouth was, 'You don't know Jack.' I found Wylie and Nicol a publisher, and it came out in numerous countries." Jones got the film and TV rights.

He had a hard time convincing screenwriters that he didn't want it to be a courtroom drama — "That was the part everyone knew about." He hoped to encompass other aspects of Kevorkian's life, including his often macabre painting. He respected the way the doctor "gave decades of his life to ensure the natural-born right of every human being to decide when enough is enough. I don't believe our forefathers meant to take that right away from us. From the beginning of time, kings and men like Socrates have decided for themselves when enough is enough. Why not the common man?"

Ultimately, Adam Mazer came through for Jones on the script, and HBO, unlike the major movie studios, gave it the green light and welcomed its controversy. When HBO Films' Len Amato mentioned Levinson as a possible director, Jones thought he must be dreaming.

"When you think of the big directors who came out of Baltimore — John Waters, Barry Levinson. … Waters has done wonderful, creative things. But when I was a kid, he was doing all that stuff with Divine, and Barry was making movies like 'Sleepers!'"

Meanwhile, with Kevorkian out of prison, news media clamored for the doctor's attention. Jones had earned such trust from Kevorkian's confidantes that the doctor's lawyer, Mayer Morganroth, approached him. The result of his unprecedented access was "Kevorkian," a documentary that salutes the doctor's efforts to educate the public about the Ninth Amendment — the one that says, "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people" — including, in Kevorkian's view, the right to die.

Waters' outlaw sensibility didn't click with Jones as a kid, but as a full-grown film producer he's got his own cutting-edge sensibility. He's tightlipped and coolly confident about a futuristic sci-fi tale called "52" (after the 52nd president). He's open and ebullient about screenwriter Mazer's work on two more offbeat Jones-produced biopics: "Rube," the story of America's longtime porn-distribution giant, Reuben Storman, who hated porn but liked making money from it; and "DeLorean," the story of auto visionary John Z. DeLorean, who continues to inspire motor dreams every time someone sees his flip-lid car in "Back to the Future."

"We own the rights to the story from the DeLorean estate," Jones said, "His brother Chuck is a consultant. He's 84; we're in touch all the time. He's an amazing guy who was in the auto business as well and was very close to his brother. It's an epic tale."

Mazer and Jones have finished the first draft of "Contingency," a Baltimore story from Jones' childhood. It's about the moment in legal history when lawyers won the right to advertise. Jones sees it as a legal "Boogie Nights."

"Because of that change into 1-800-SUE-ME, we have the only system in the world in which an illegal immigrant can walk into a grocery store, where a sign clearly says, 'Wet Floor! Be Careful,' slip, fall and break his tailbone, sue the store, settle with the store and then be deported."

Jones hopes to pull together "some of the same team we had on 'You Don't Know Jack' on 'Contingency.' Use your imagination." He wants to shoot it in Baltimore. He acknowledges that economic realities might get in the way. "But I would be proud to go back and shoot this film in the city where I grew up. I will do everything in my power to produce 'Contingency' in Baltimore."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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