Hey, who cares if you don't have the money for a ride if a Hollywood movie studio is sending a limousine your way? This past April 11, Lennie the limo guy stacked my mixed assortment of family and friends into his large, gleaming black Cadillac at the old-school Eden Roc hotel in Miami Beach. Realizing there was no room for me, he suggested I cruise next to him, in the front passenger seat.
Of course, sitting shotgun! Then Lennie — executive chauffeur, personal assistant, and security consultant — wheeled us to the opening night of an ancient dream.
I had been cursed with a vision for nearly 20 years. Don't believe me? Fuck you! Despite all signs, I was sure that someone, somewhere, some way, would feel compelled, yes, duty-bound, to make a big-ass silver-screen epic about "Pain & Gain," my masterful crime-time Miami comic thrill ride. I had penned this durable tale of Miami when I was backed into the corner — broke, jobless, and near bottom.
Now, Pain & Gain is a $25 million Michael Bay movie starring Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson, and Ed Harris. It opens in theaters this Friday, April 26.
But before I get to that, let me take you back to when I was a kid growing up in El Portal, back in the '60s, when Miami was a very different place. My dad was pure Marine, First Division, Fifth Regiment, a machine gunner on Guadalcanal and other tropical atolls in the Pacific. One Father's Day, I scraped together nearly $10 so we could watch Patton together at the old Lincoln Road movie palace. "Not everyone can be a Marine, Pete," he explained.
My mom taught me to love movies too. She insisted the whole family drive down to Coral Gables on South Dixie Highway in 1963 to see It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, a comedy about a dozen-or-so motorists who see a traffic accident, rush to help the driver, and hear his dying words about a big pile of missing loot. They all begin a scramble for the buried treasure. It was Jonathan Winters' performance as Lennie Pike, an earnest lunkhead truck driver, that I remember best. He had a manic, gleeful, outsmarted-yet-never-outwitted nature. Kind of like me.
I grew up in Miami and got a job as a writer at Miami New Times in its early days. I lost that employ after urinating on my editor's car (that's another story) but continued writing. I penned some freelance stories for the Miami Herald — tales of the early '90s that were all over the place. There were three cover pieces for the newspaper's Tropic magazine — a string of jailhouse yarns about Miami's most prolific con men that had landed me on 60 Minutes, Dateline, and Day One.
Then came a simple Saturday-morning jog in 1996. The outing was intended as a brisk, stringent corrective to mark the beginning of what I could still do in those years — rein myself in from increasingly long stretches of debauchery and begin a health kick, then stick to it.
In short, more water, less vodka. Less bar blather with bored brunettes, more reading and writing. I washed my face; stripped down; put on the T-shirt, white cotton underwear, long Russell sweatpants; and took off with a loping stride. I worked south and east from NE Second Place, determined to make it to Biscayne Bay.
As I rounded Grand Concourse and NE Seventh Avenue, I came upon a friend named Ed Du Bois, who was outside his house washing a van. Du Bois (who's played by Ed Harris in Pain & Gain) was a big-deal Miami private eye. He had been the NFL's lead security guy in Florida. When I stopped running and started talking with him, a stream of vapor smelling suspiciously like Sterno escaped from my pores.
Du Bois asked if I was ready for a great crime story. I surprised myself when I said, "Nah, I'm leaving the trade." I was losing interest. Dishonest crooks bugged me.
It was always the same: Someone wants you to write a story because it makes them look good — or someone else look bad. Really, they're the same thing. You listen. You finance the whole research, reporting, and writing thing, based on a prayer of getting a publisher. Sometimes it works. Usually not. That's when you lie to your cousin, your landlord, about rent.
So I was finishing a graduate writing program at Florida International University and picturing a cushy college gig.
But when Du Bois asked me to drop by his office to hear the case he was involved in, I said, "Sure." Out of respect. Later that week, I let him prattle for a couple of minutes. He described a group of sadistic bodybuilders called the Sun Gym Gang, as well as some guy from Colombia who wasn't from Colombia and who could, it seemed, survive nuclear winter like a palmetto bug.
I begged him to shut up. He kept talking. I'm a sucker for plot, and this story had an old Chrysler Hemi of an engine. It was roaring in my head from the first needle drop.
So I began to gumshoe. I studied the Sun Gym Gang's sick escapades in reams of court papers at the State Attorney's Office near Jackson Memorial Hospital. Years in the making, it was among the best-documented cases in Florida history. Torture, two murders, and a bunch of steroid-using, half-witted Miami Lakes bodybuilders who were almost begging to get caught.
The trial began in February 1998 in courtroom 4-1 at the Metro-Dade Justice Building. Muscles, drugs, ambition, greed, murder, and lunacy were all on display. It was creepy enough to make me want to shower before and after I got out of the place. The trial lasted five months. I attended every day. None of the accused took the stand.
The most spectacular testimony came from former Penthouse model and Solid Gold center-stage stripper Sabina Elena Petrescu (Israeli bombshell Bar Paly in the film), one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in person. She testified against mastermind Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) and henchman Adrian Doorbal (Mackie).
Lugo told her he was a member of the CIA, she said. At first she didn't believe it, but he convinced her with a tale of living in a tree in Hong Kong for a week. She guessed that was because his parachute broke. Then he deputized her by giving her a beeper that flashed "007."
The courtroom exploded in laughter. Rattled, Petrescu took a drink of water and fell backward on the witness stand. Her nether parts were exposed for all to see. The bailiff swooned and the judge had to clear the courtroom.
Then came the return of the jury verdicts: Both Lugo and Doorbal were guilty. And there was a multiyear sentence for Miami Shores accountant John Mese, who owned the Sun Gym. He died in prison.
Marc Schiller, who had survived torture and escaped, returned from Colombia to testify during the death penalty phase. After stating his peace, the victim left the court. The FBI swooped down and arrested Schiller on the courthouse steps for a multimillion-dollar Medicare fraud. (He later went to prison on a lesser charge.) The perfect end to a perfect trial.
I spent almost a year writing the story. I had the good sense to keep out of the way of its haywire internal logic — and simply state the truth. I published it here in Miami New Times, a monument to social realism, the Magic City, and the tenets of Tom Wolfe's new journalism. Published over three weeks, it was the longest piece to appear in these pages.
As the calendar hit 2000, the phone rang. Just as I had hoped, it was a Hollywood rep calling for Mr. Collins. I'd get more calls during the next months. People loved it, but no one ever made an offer.
I earned a master's degree and picked up a one-year full-time English composition position at a swanky university in Coral Gables. I was rewarded with a $25K salary. After that year went by, I latched on to several adjunct teaching positions. That's the last exit before poverty. Then, one day, an agent called. Paramount Pictures wanted my story. A hot new director named Michael Bay would direct the movie. They offered a contract that gave them exclusive rights for three years.
Well. That's still pretty terrific, right? Not as much as I thought. There was a small payout and then nothing.
Soon I left Miami to be with my old girlfriend in a major theme-park Florida city north of here. Poverty wages continued until I snagged a three-year contract teaching job at the University of Central Florida for $23,000 a year. In 2004, Paramount sent some more money.
By this time, I had discovered a ping-pong pattern to Michael Bay's career. He would state publicly that he desired to do "his small film" (meaning Pain & Gain) and then make a major mainstream smash. He had directed Bad Boys in 1995 and then signed on for Bad Boys II, which came out in 2003. Both were set in Miami. Then came a sci-fi movie called The Island. To my horror, Bay next fell under the spell of some guy named Spielberg and turned his attention to some old TV cartoon called Transformers. As each installment of Transformers got bigger — there have been three so far (number four, starring Wahlberg, is slated for release next year) — Bay would mention his desire to shoot Pain & Gain.
A few years into this, my agent called to put me out of my misery: "Listen, Pete, I learned to never say never in Hollywood, but your story, 'Pain & Gain,' will never be filmed."
There was something more, something about an IRS audit and California residency. I never understood the whole thing. And I didn't care. I just wanted to see my story on the screen.
Then, one day early last year, I was in Tallahassee and turned on an iPad. As I had done many times before, I typed in two words separated by an ampersand. A flood of new articles about Bay possibly, finally, making his "passion project" appeared.
I had never given up believing it would happen. Bay and Paramount were preparing to spend $25 million putting "Pain & Gain" on the big screen. The director, who had been talking about my story for years but whom I had never met, maneuvered an entire entertainment juggernaut into allowing him to make the movie. More stunning was that in paramount's commercials for Pain & Gain, they featured my name. I figured it was a mistake.
Finally, Lennie picked me up in that gleaming black Cadillac on April 11, 2013. On the way to South Beach for the red-carpet premiere, I stumbled into a good, old Jurassic tune as we rode to the theater. Traffic's "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys" flowed from the car's speakers. It stung me when I realized that the last time I had been in a chauffeured car with family and friends had been after my Marine dad's funeral service in 1985.
If you see something that looks like a star
And it's shooting up out of the ground
And your head is spinning from a loud guitar
And you just can't escape from the sound
Don't worry too much, it'll happen to you...
The crowd was five or six deep as Lennie glided us to a stop. "This is it," he said. "They're waiting for you, man! Here's your 15 minutes, Pete."
Some lady yanked open the door and grabbed the midnight-blue sleeve of my suit. The frenzied phalanx of movie lovers and celebrity worshippers went silent, got still. Pete Collins, muter of the multitudes.
They looked at me with distaste. Who is this guy? What is he doing here?
But in the collective unconscious of that group, they could never have known the turns, twists, potholes, and flats of my wayward trek to the red carpet. Jesus, I thought, as I made my way into the theater, I only wrote the damn thing. And I wished my movie-loving mom, who died three years after my dad, was there to see this day.
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