Last year, before his passing, I was fairly close to making a film with Gene Wilder. I had been bugging them for three years, and after I won Portland, they finally gave me a chance to present him the script.
Now they wanted most of the details arranged before they would show him. So we had a location in CT. He wanted to film in San Diego so we switched. We had producers. A rough date for January 2016. The film was going to be a comedic love story based on my screenplay, 'Jigg Figg'.
Gene was to portray the lead, a timid landlord reacting against the most wicked and wacky collection of tenants of all time.
A mentor as well, Jigg lent his wisdom to troubled kids, serving as a gentle middle-man against their economic discontent. Even while his own building is threatened by a looming, oppressive conglomerate takeover, Jigg takes a wise approach, dancing a step (sometimes full-on where we would need to cut to a body double). “Crack the whip, dad, if the tenants won’t pay, evict them!” “But where would they go?”
A cook in the war, Eugene Dupree, or 'Jigg Figg', was known for his amazing Irish jigs that once halted combat on the enemy lines.
Center to all this is the love story, where Jigg finds his own Olive, a sweet schoolteacher rooming with a group deaf old women in 3C.
French is the word for all this. Jacques Tati. Tons of visual gags. Comedic set pieces. Godard, how it matches a sort of 60s revolutionary spirit with whimsy and cinematic experimentation. Yet on its surface level, it's just a gentle, sweet film like Peter O'Toole's ‘Venus' except by Jean-Pierre Jeunet.
(And they were especially optimistic that I had directed 85-year old academy award nominee Terry Moore, to a grand and funny affect.)
Within two weeks of great suspense, I heard back. Gene did not fully understand the script and would pass. I said, look, let me talk with him. Let me charm him so he knows I'm not some hollywood guy.
But the agent said it is definite, and to not take it badly, that he had turned down Spielberg just weeks ago (BFG? Ready Player One?)
Regardless, Jigg Figg starring Wilder was an unmade masterpiece, put together at a time when I was riding my power, with producers who wanted to finance me; where I was running on this kind of ‘Walt Disney’-like ability to impact reality and bring people together.
In fact, I had formulated the story as early as 2011 when film was just a pipe dream for me. I would tremble imagining the film, knowing how Gene Wilder was still around, that he needed a comeback and that I would be the one to do it. A film where he would be quietly funny against an elegant, colorful world. To pay tribute, without any hint of exploitation.
The fact that I even managed to bring it to his table at all, was in its own way, a bit of magic coming true.
- Hooroo Jackson