A pudgy guy with curly hair exits a store on slummy NE 79th Street. In a van, two buff gym rats prepare to kidnap him. The bald, muscular stud in the passenger seat jumps into the back.
Then they stop what they're doing.
Then they start again.
Pain and Gain
"Come on, guys. This is boring shit," shouts movie director Michael Bay, of Transformers fame. Wearing a Gulfstream airlines baseball hat, white pants, and a blue jacket, he leaps onto a moving camera that's filming the scene. "Dolly faster. Dolly faster."
The gym rats are actors Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Mark Wahlberg. The pudgy guy is Tony Shalhoub, who played Monk in the well-known TV series. Also appearing in the $25 million movie shooting this spring in Miami are stars Ed Harris and Anthony Mackie.
Pain and Gain is the latest evidence of a Tallahassee-signed, Hollywood-sealed, Michael Bay/Tom Cruise-delivered film renaissance in South Florida. Magic City, a Starz TV series about the mob in Miami, debuted April 6. In June, Rock of Ages, an $80 million musical comedy starring Cruise that was shot here, will open in theaters. Then there's Burn Notice and myriad reality shows. Thanks to increased state subsidies, Miami has recently entered the top three moviemaking locales outside California, along with Chicago and New Orleans. In Miami-Dade County, production is up 70 percent since 2010, to about $275 million a year.
Pain and Gain is based on a three-part Miami New Times series penned by onetime staff writer Pete Collins and published during Christmas 1999. It's an astounding tale of kidnapping, murder, drugs, and comical ineptitude that Bay — who owns a home here and is perhaps the most successful action film director ever — fell in love with years ago. He blackmailed the studio to make it.
"Michael worked out a deal with Paramount that he would do this before he did another Transformers film," says Ian Bryce, one of Pain and Gain's two producers. "It's different in terms of story and pace than anything he's done before, but he has been attached to it for years."
I interviewed Bryce in a big-windowed building at NE 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard that has been transformed into the Sun Gym, a Miami Lakes place that was the center of action in Collins's series. Bikini babes and Lycra-clad weightlifters with bowling-ball muscles lolled about that day. Bay was shooting a scene at a pool just outside. A catered spread of pomegranate and kiwi juices, organic bunny snacks, espresso, and bubblegum awaited the actors.
It was scant blocks from where Collins grew up in El Portal. He graduated from North Miami Senior High and then worked for the Miami News until it closed December 31, 1988. He's a 57-year-old free spirit who likes to tell the story of being handcuffed by cops on Biscayne Boulevard while playing drunken naked golf ("When I would hit a ball, I would remove an article of clothing.") or when he was fired by my predecessor, Miami New Times editor Jim Mullin ("I urinated on his car. He didn't appreciate that.").
After leaving this newspaper in 1990, he entered a master's degree program and was soon looking for a thesis topic. One morning at a Miami Shores park on NE 96th Street, he discovered the tale that would become his series Pain and Gain. A neighbor and private investigator named Ed Du Bois was washing his van. "I was taking a jog around the field, and Du Bois called me over and said, 'Pete, if you want to stop running, I have a story for you.'"
Du Bois, it turns out, was hired by an Argentine-born businessman named Marc Schiller, who had been kidnapped and tortured for a month. His attackers were a group of bodybuilders from Sun Gym. Employing a Taser, a lighter, and a loaded pistol, they had forced him to sign over bank accounts and even his home. They had also kidnapped, killed, and dismembered Golden Beach couple Frank Griga and Krisztina Furton after robbing them. The bodies — minus heads and hands — were buried in 50-gallon drums in the Everglades.
And, oh yeah, the criminals were a bunch of screwups. Kidnap vehicles wouldn't start, chain saws failed to cut up bodies, and too much horse tranquilizer was used on one victim. Two gang members would end up on death row. Their tale was Miami's Pulp Fiction.
Local Judge Alex Ferrer, a handsome former cop who would later star in a television show called Judge Alex, heard the case. He grew attached to Collins, who attended the proceedings every day. "That was the longest criminal prosecution in Dade County history," Ferrer says. "A brutal and gruesome case."
Darcy Shepard was a juror. "It had all the makings of a movie from the first day of testimony," she says, “the kind of thing you could never imagine in real life."
After sitting through the trial, Collins wrote a book's worth of material but couldn't sell it. Then he showed up in the New Times offices and delivered the manuscript to his former boss, Mullin. I was managing editor at the time and one of those who devoured the manuscript and recommended publishing it. Editor Dinah McNichols did much work on the piece. I did a final read.
Soon after the story ran, it made its way to Michael Bay, who was fresh from coproducing Armageddon, one of the most successful movies of that era. The director, who declined to be interviewed for this column, wanted to film right away, but the studios wouldn't allow it. They wanted big-budget action stuff. In 2001, Bay directed Pearl Harbor, and in 2007, the first of his Transformers films brought in millions of dollars.
"[Mike] has been attached to Pain and Gain for a long time," producer Bryce says. "It is different for him, size-wise and story-wise. And he's very serious about authenticity. It will be true to the story."
J.J. Hook is the film's location manager. He spent three months in Miami before shooting for the film began a few weeks ago. He scouted 700 locations and settled on three areas: Biscayne, South Beach, and Coral Gables. For just the Schlotzky's sandwich shop locale, where a kidnapping attempt failed when a car wouldn't start, he considered 50 places. "That's almost as many as we have for a Transformers film," he says.
There are about 125 members of the crew. Around 100 of them, and 60 extras, are from Miami. "This is a hard place to find extras," one crew member says. "Not many show up in the first place, and then they don't come back."
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Mackie, who plays a member of the Sun Gym gang, is staying in a place downtown for two months while filming. He played a lead in 2009's much acclaimed The Hurt Locker and is clearly the up-and-comer of the Pain and Gain cast. "What I find fascinating is that these criminals failed so many times," he tells me on the set. "It was impressive that they kept going. They were dedicated to jacking this guy."
The film, which will take eight weeks to shoot, is scheduled for release next summer. Collins now lives in Orlando but came down for a day on the set. He says he was paid but has already spent his cut for use of the story. "I got it and it's gone," he adds, declining to name the dollar figure.
Then he ambles across the room, gathers three outlandishly beautiful models who are extras, puts his arms around them, and asks me to snap a picture. "It took me two years to write the story," he says, "and 12 to get the movie made. I am extremely happy."