The Writer behind 'Pawn': Jay Anthony White

"Pawn," the crime thriller recently filmed in West Hartford, was written by Jay Anthony White. I interviewed him to find out how he found success as a screenwriter.

In 2006, Jay Anthony White was living in Detroit and working at a family-owned record store. Today he is a screenwriter living in Los Angeles. A screenplay of his, Pawn, is being made into a major motion picture starring Nikki Reed (Twilight), Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, Michael Chiklis (The Shield), Common, and Jessica Szohr (Gossip Girl) that was recently . How did all of this happen? As most success stories go, it was a combination of talent and tenacity.

Bored with his job at the record store five years ago, White was determined to become an established screenwriter. He had started getting into screenwriting in 2002, devouring any books on the subject and writing multiple screenplays across all genres. White did the occasional stand-up comedy routine, utilizing the material for some of his initial screenplays. Self-described as a “multi-personality writer,” he had an urge to pen a variety of characters, styles, and time periods. “I just love to create stories.”

One script White wrote was called Project 313, a crime thriller with Detroit street life as a backdrop. Wanting to make the script into a movie, White and a few friends went about raising $15,000. The screenwriter did whatever he had to do to raise the capital, using money from the record store and setting up a small t-shirt printing operation in order to fund the film. After wrapping Project 313, White and his friends did whatever gorilla marketing they could do on their shoestring budget. They went on tour throughout Michigan with the film, had it play in regional theaters, and had it selected at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.

It was at this festival that Project 313 first caught the attention of Bill Duke (Predator, Sister Act II), a veteran actor/director known for mentoring emerging talent. Besides catching Duke’s eye, Project 313 also received a national distribution deal and started building White’s writing resume. More importantly, it planted the seed in White’s head that he wanted to make screenwriting his livelihood.

The following year, he was back in LA to attend a film conference when he reconnected with Duke. This trip became a pivotal moment in White’s life. Although he was scheduled to fly back to Detroit, ongoing discussions with Duke and other filmmakers in LA led him to continually push back his returning flight. With every passing few days came another reason to delay going back to Detroit. After multiple flight changes, White decided to take a massive leap of faith – he canceled his ticket and stayed in LA.  

The first few months weren’t easy. White was without a stable home, doing the requisite couch-surfing at a friend’s apartment and then crashing for a short time with Duke. After about a year, White was able to get the attention of manager Michael Becker. Impressed by some of White’s unproduced screenplays, Becker took him on as a client and started pitching his scripts. Meanwhile, White began collaborating with Duke.  

After a few scripts that didn’t take off, White started receiving interest in his screenplay Pawn. His manager signed on as a producer, and soon Michael Chiklis came aboard the project as an actor/producer. Chiklis helped with recruiting talent and was able to bring on Forest Whitiker, a former co-star from The Shield. With Whitiker and Chiklis attached, other name actors came on and a true ensemble cast was born.

The crime thriller involves a chess-like interplay between the mob, Feds, and local police. Tensions come to a head when a few ex-cons hold up a diner that is a front for the mob. The robbery goes awry and becomes a suspenseful hostage situation. The mob-fronted diner, the main set piece for the movie, was the in downtown West Hartford.

Discussing the movie by phone from Detroit, where he was visiting family and friends for the holidays, White had nothing but good things to say about the production in West Hartford. “The cast and crew all had a great time and a positive experience. Being close to both New York City and Boston allowed everyone to pool their resources.”

While filming for Pawn takes place in West Hartford and Los Angeles, the majority of the film happens in and around the mob diner. Besides making the filming process more streamlined, the large focus on a primary location had a benefit to White as a screenwriter.  “Having limited scene changes allowed me to really focus on story and character.” Stylistically, the film is in the vein of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs or the Denzel Washington bank robbery flick Inside Man. In order to get it just right, White has been doing regular rewrites for director David A. Armstrong.

While doing multiple rewrites is no-doubt a tedious task, White embraces any constructive criticism he may receive. “I don’t want to hear what’s right with it; I want to hear what’s wrong with it.” Writers are notorious for fragile egos, but White stands out for actually seeking honest feedback. In his own opinion, his earlier scripts aren’t as good as Pawn or his current writing in general. However, having grown as a screenwriter, he’s now going back to rework some of his earlier material.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success, the author continually refers to the “10,000 hour rule.” Gladwell argued that success doesn’t derive from mere raw talent and/or luck; instead, success is a matter of doing the same task a minimum of 10,000 hours. Jay Anthony White has certainly put in his share of hours, churning out script after script for the last ten years. His advice to any new screenwriter is to read everything they can on the topic and just type away. “The secret to writing, is writing.”

So perhaps White has reached his 10,000 hours. He also took some great risks in his life by putting all of his money into his first film and then later moving out to LA without a solid plan in place. White always continued to write and always continued to knock on doors. It paid off through the mentorship from Bill Duke and being able to land a manager three years ago. It’s best summarized, however, by White’s recent Twitter post. “After three years of dealing with Hollywoodn't, it finally looks like Hollywill.”  


Click on the link below to see photos from the West Hartford film shoot, taken by and used with the permission of Craig Norton:


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