Angelo Pizzo recently finished the screenplay and locally based My First Bike Productions is lining up financing, and hopes to start casting this summer and filming this fall.
"We have recently hit some major milestones, and we're gaining serious momentum," said Justin Escue, My First Bike Productions founder and president.
Escue, who has been working on the project for four years, enlisted Pizzo in 2006 to help tell the tale of Indianapolis 500 founder Carl Fisher and the first two finishers in the 1911 race, Ray Harroun and Ralph Mulford. Harroun was declared the winner after a controversial finish, but Mulford swore until the day he died that he had won the race.
"In reality, nobody really knows who won the first race," Escue said. "It's the greatest sports controversy never talked about."
Escue and Pizzo met with Indy Racing League and Indianapolis Motor Speedway Chairman Tony George last April at the IRL race in Kansas City to discuss the project.
Speedway spokesman Fred Nation said George has been approached by several companies interested in making a movie about the Indianapolis 500, but the local project is one of the most intriguing due to Pizzo's involvement. Nation said if the group is able to pull together financing for the project, the Speedway will consider lending support of some kind, but he wouldn't say what form that might take.
Escue hopes to have $30 million to $60 million secured from private investors in the next 90 days. He recently signed a deal with Dallas-based Global Hunter Securities to line up investors. Escue's target budget pales in comparison to the $150 million budget for such movies as "Iron Man" and "I am Legend," but compares favorably to such box office successes as "Slum Dog Millionaire" ($15 million) and "Superbad" ($20 million).
"We need to be doing pre-production work by March, so we need to have the finances in line soon," Escue said. He added that some local investors have already committed, but he declined to say who they are.
The goal is to release the movie in May 2011, in conjunction with the centennial anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500.
Jeffrey Sparks, president and CEO of Truly Moving Pictures, the local organizer of the Heartland Film Festival, said while Escue's group has a tall task in front of it, it's not impossible.
"They don't have much time to put all this together, but they have a really good story and they're passionate about it," Sparks said. "That's their ace in the hole. And they have Angelo, and he's a very good screenwriter."
The 33-year-old Escue is a Hoosier native with a deep affinity for open-wheel racing and the Indianapolis 500. But he has only two low-budget films to his credit: "Saving Star Wars," a comedy, and "Open Mic'rs," a humorous documentary about stand-up comedians.
Escue earned an undergraduate degree in telecommunications from Ball State University and a master's degree in new media from Indiana University.
After college, Escue worked in the film industry in Austin, Texas, which is rapidly becoming a mecca for independent film production. Escue, who was the producer and writer of his first two films, plans to make his directorial debut with the as-yet-untitled Indianapolis 500 movie.
"His other two movies got solid reviews, had a cult following, and made some money, but this project is on a much higher level," Sparks said. "It's an ambitious undertaking."
Escue's efforts to complete the film are made more difficult by the sour economy. Last year, three of the nation's best-known independent filmmakers and distributors went belly up, Sparks said, and others are facing financial difficulty.
Escue is undaunted.
"The film industry was one of the few flourishing sectors during the Great Depression," he said. "People will continue to find recreational outlets even in the most difficult times, and filmmaking has proved to be a solid investment."
Pizzo is also optimistic. And the award-winning screenwriter isn't put off by Escue's lack of experience.
"I think he's talented and resourceful, and has the stuff to make a really good movie," said Pizzo, who works from an office in Bloomington. "I believe in him 100 percent."
Pizzo had never met Escue until Escue called him out of the blue a little more than three years ago.
"He had a vision, and I saw it and believed in it," Pizzo said. "Any film by its nature is a long shot. Justin knows that. But all it takes is one person with a checkbook to believe in your project. I think this film has a lot going for it, and has a good chance of getting made."
Pizzo is not dissuaded by the fact that most racing movies, including the likes of "Days of Thunder" and "Driven," have been panned critically, were a box-office flop or both.
"Most racing movies haven't gone into the memory bank, because there haven't been any good ones," he said. "That doesn't mean the genre is doomed."
Pizzo is likely to get David Anspaugh, who was instrumental in helping him direct and produce "Hoosiers" and "Rudy," to work the project.
Escue enlisted Roger Brummett, a longtime local businessman with contacts in motorsports, to assist as associate producer. Brummett recently helped secure an option on more than 200 acres in Whitestown, just north of Indianapolis, to construct a 1911-vintage Indianapolis Motor Speedway replica.
"The Speedway doesn't now look anything like it did in 1911, so we couldn't shoot there," Escue said. Brummett has contacted well-known Indianapolis-based racetrack architect Paxton Waters to design the track.
Brummett and Escue also have secured a deal with Tennessee-based Coker Tire Co. to make 40 replica 1911-era Indianapolis 500 race cars. Coker officials have promised Escue's group they can make all the cars in six months.
Brummett has even secured the use of the Hampton Inn downtown for the filming of the movie.
"It closely resembles the old Claypool Hotel in Indianapolis where a lot of the drama of this story took place," Brummett said. The race's founder, Fisher, allegedly burned all the records of the first Indianapolis 500 at the Claypool Hotel, after the race's controversial finish.
Escue said he is also in discussions with several "A-list" actors to be in the film, though he declined to say which ones.
"It amazes me the calls I've gotten from name actors and actresses that want to read the script," Escue said. "We are negotiating with some very familiar faces. I think that has everything to do with the story we're telling plus working with the team that did 'Rudy' and 'Hoosiers'."
Saying no to Hollywood
All the activity surrounding the movie has gotten the attention of Hollywood-based movie companies, Escue said, with three making offers to take it over. But Escue's local group has resisted the overtures.
"They wanted to take all the filming and production to California and Canada," he said. "We wanted to keep it right here, and make it as authentic as possible."
Pizzo strongly supports the idea of keeping the film independentfor now.
"If you keep it outside Hollywood, you don't have people in suits looking over your shoulder second-guessing every line of dialogue," Pizzo said.
The movie should find an international following due to auto racing's global appeal, Pizzo said, but the story emphasizes the characters' personal lives as much as it does their racing careers.
"I write for the aficionados of the sport, and at the same time for people who could care less about the sport," Pizzo said. "It's all about artfulness."
But Heartland's Sparks said without partnering with a major film company, wide distribution will be difficult.
"This movie has too big a budget to go the film festival route, so they'll have to find a distributor," Sparks said. "This is an uphill climb, but Pizzo knows all about these challenges. Even after it was made, 'Hoosiers' almost didn't get released. If this film tells the right story, Angelo will find a way to get this done."