There’s a lot of tough talk about braving the “art life,” and with good reason.
Trying times—from being exploited in entry-level positions for little to no pay, to juggling the oddest of jobs to make rent, to sleeping on couches or in cars—are par for the course for many aspiring moviemakers. For most, such toil has its upside, and is usually limited in duration. Imagine another scenario, though, where navigating the uncertain road of the art life includes shouldering the stigma of a criminal record.
Jamal Horsford—an inmate at New York’s Sing Sing Correctional Facility currently serving the final months of a 19-year sentencing for gun trafficking and drugs—doesn’t have to imagine. “I don’t have a track record in the film business. I expect to face quite a few obstacles as an ex-convict moviemaker,” the longtime MovieMaker reader wrote us in a letter. He’s not naive, he says, about the advantages “a person in the streets can get with one phone call or email” to production companies, agents, film festivals or the Directors Guild of America—from whom he claims he has requested a list of their members three times, to no avail.
America’s prison system persists as a revolving door of sorts that, for better or worse, ushers in new faces, stories and concepts to the film and television industry. In 2008, the HBO documentary An Omar Broadway Film marked its co-director and subject Omar Broadway’s shift from incarcerated gang-banger to moviemaker, as the film was made by way of his smuggling a camera into a state prison to capture its security guards’ everyday physical abuse and excessive force. An Omar Broadway Film premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival while Broadway was serving out a 10-year sentence for carjacking, and while his subversive efforts shed much-needed light on his prison’s culture of corruption, his life ended in tragedy when, in June 2017, he shot himself as police attempted to arrest him for the murder of his 18-year-old nephew in Essex Country, New Jersey.
In 2016, miniseries like HBO’s The Night Of and documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s Netflix-backed 13th further probed the inadequacies of America’s criminal justice system and critiqued the savagery of its for-profit prison-industrial complex. Dominican writer-director José María Cabral’s latest film, Woodpeckers, blurred the boundaries between dramatization and nonfiction when it cast actual prisoners to perform its tale of romance, and shot on location at the Najayo Prison in the Dominican Republic. The film saw its way to a premiere in competition at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Yet the world of incarceration intersects with the world of moviemaking in ways that go beyond mere compelling subject matter. A number of prison inmates around the country harbor dreams of big-screen storytelling as ambitious as any of their free countrymen’s.
In a brief, sobering moment during his heady 2013 counterfeit spending spree, Spencer Penney saw an issue of MovieMaker at a newsstand in the well-to-do neighborhood of North Park in San Diego. Seeing the magazine reminded him of personal ambitions that he was at risk of letting die forever—dreams that had developed at the ripe age of 14, when he shot his first amateur short on Hi-8 video, but that had since become eclipsed by a life of crime.
“On that day, I purchased the magazine—with real money—and went home to read it cover to cover,” he recalls. “Admittedly, my routine of printing and passing fake bills resumed the next day—but I started occasionally purchasing items that would help me in moviemaking.”
The purchase of one such item, a RED camera with an advertised price of $29,500, was going to be Penney’s “cash-out event.” His plan: Print enough high-quality fake bills to buy the RED, quit counterfeiting, and pivot to making a movie full-time. He’d followed his self-imposed rules (“no gas stations, liquor stores or hotel rooms could be paid with counterfeit cash”), printing between the hours of 2 and 5 a.m. until he’d produced almost $28,000. Then he was caught and sentenced to an eight-year prison term for multiple counts of grand theft by fraud. His victims had contacted the Secret Service and identified him, with the help of surveillance footage, in a line-up.
Another stark camera image is that of 1990s hip-hop promoter turned real estate mogul Antonio Servidio and rapper/record producer Gerald “G-Eazy” Gillum, standing side-by-side in orange jumpsuits from behind bars at Federal Correctional Institution, Florence, a medium-security prison in Colorado. It was featured at the top of a Change.org petition entitled “Overturn Verdict For Innocent Man Antonio Salvatore Servidio,” and posted to a website for a short film called “Tunnel Vision” with a message to anyone reading: “WRITE THE REAL JOHNNY RUSSO IN PRISON.”
Gillum, 28, a white Ukrainian rapper who made his bones in the East Bay Area hip-hop scene of the late aughts, had been tapped to play “Russo,” the fictionalized version of the 43-year-old Servidio, in “Tunnel Vision.” The film would be based on actual reports from the FBI, ATF, DEA and The Department of Justice on Servidio’s criminal case. The two men stood in solidarity in the photo to plug the film that Servidio hopes will both make his name and save him: by raising awareness of how Servidio’s ex-attorney, as the petition puts it, “ran a fraudulent scheme on him and set him up on a complicated ‘money structuring’ case.”
Not long before the photo was taken, Servidio had never heard of G-Eazy. “My assistant [Daniel Hubbard] suggested him for the part,” he recalls. When they met, he realized G-Eazy was a perfect fit. “We were both from the Bay Area. He has a real cool swagger about the way he carries himself. He didn’t have any acting experience, but that didn’t matter to me.” That Gillum appeared at ease talking business scored points with the ambivalent-toward-Hollywood Servidio. “We were close to locking in [Adrian Grenier], but the deal came with G-Eazy faster, and it was pretty much whoever said yes first.”
On the day of his sentencing in February 2016, Servidio had been given about five months before going to Florence in early June, and “if I didn’t get the film done before I got to prison,” he explains, “it wasn’t gonna get done.” Throughout this race to the finish line, he had only the coaching of “Tunnel Vision” director Sarah B. Downey, a moviemaker he met through a mutual friend in L.A. while struggling to write the script on his own, to turn to. “She told me, ‘I can’t tell you how to make a movie. You just have to jump in with both feet and have confidence. You’re gonna make mistakes, but you’re gonna learn from them.’”
Servidio claims to have owned 20 different businesses—among them major real estate developments in Mexico and various detail shops. He also claims that producing a movie has been more challenging than running them all. “There are so many different roles you have to play, especially when you’re an independent guy,” he says. “I’m in charge of marketing, I’m in charge of securing talent, co-writing the screenplay [with Downey], coming up with the money, being involved with editing, I picked out the music… I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t have anyone to show me how we were gonna start this thing and where we were gonna finish.”
On a phone call to the MovieMaker office from Florence in June, Servidio joked that he isn’t even good with basic electronics, let alone technically proficient enough to have navigated his way through a film shoot. “Why do we need 12 lighting guys? Why can’t I hold the light?” he asked Downey one day on set, desperate to find ways to cut costs. “Trust me,” she replied, patiently. “We need all these people.” By the time he was behind bars doing PR for his first wrapped picture, he no longer had to take her word for it.
When a freshly convicted felon manages to produce his first feature and premiere at a festival, all while facing a daily countdown to his incarceration, it’s tempting to chalk it up as an amusing anomaly. But independents like Servidio, Penney suggests in a letter he sent us from East Mesa Correctional Facility in San Diego, don’t achieve those kinds of results by accident.
“Reformed criminals have a skill set naturally transferable to moviemaking,” Penney writes. “Criminals are misguided visionaries. Before a crook commits a heist, he has a vision for how the robbery will go down, and he gives it his all to make his vision occur exactly as planned. Before a con artist tricks someone, he has a fantasy world he must convince them of and he uses everything in his power to make this imaginary world a reality… then give the performance of a lifetime to create a scene.”
In his own way, Servidio also has the integrity of his reputation to defend. Unlike Penney, he maintains that he’s innocent of the crime for which he’s currently serving his sentence, though he’s forthcoming about his past in gun trafficking that preceded his hip-hop promoting career and the run-ins with the feds that it courted. He even used that experience, he says, to coach G-Eazy on how to “forget that the cameras are there” when they shot a scene in “Tunnel Vision” in which his “Johnny Russo” character purchases a bullet-proof vest.
And yet, neither man sees the term that Penney uses to self-identify—“imprisoned moviemaker”—as one to shy away from. Conventional wisdom might have it that the company of criminals is anathema to an upwardly mobile professional life. But in a way, both Servidio and Penney have found it to be the networking opportunity of a lifetime.
“It’s amazing how much talent is behind the walls in prison,” says Servidio. While shooting hoops with an inmate nicknamed “Hawk,” he shared his story about making “Tunnel Vision.” Hawk quickly introduced him to a rapper-turned-urban fiction writer going by the name of Silk G. Over a two-hour conversation, Servidio saw a potential partner in Silk G. The next logical step, he says, was for the two jailbirds of a feather to flock to Florence’s Sunday screenwriting classes, where they’ve since continued to hone their creative chemistry.
Silk occasionally accompanied Servidio during his calls to MovieMaker, and the latter would pass along their combined remarks: “There’s a lot of talent. Sometimes we just take notes. You’ve got musical talent in here—some guys who’ve never even played a guitar [before] are now writing songs and doing full-blown concerts.”
Servidio rattles off a list of people he’s encountered whose stories he imagines telling: a real estate mogul with a $180 million Ponzi scheme; a kid who was involved in the online illegal drug black market known as the Silk Road. “We like to listen to their stories. Silk and I might work on another script that incorporates some of that.”
Penney, too, is drawing from his surroundings. “In the time I’ve been locked up, I have only met one other moviemaker, but I have been collecting contact info from numerous men I cross paths with here, with the intention of casting them in future projects, as themselves. They are such unique individuals and they all have epic stories.”
Their filmmaking successes and shortcomings, both Penney and Servidio agree, live and die by sheer persistence of will.
Servidio swears by the Napoleon Hill books Think and Grow Rich and Outwitting the Devil, works that stand in stark contrast to his pre-incarceration Vegas lifestyle, which he describes as: “Nights out ’til 5 or 6 a.m., loud music and the smell of weed.” Hill’s self-help manifestos, Servidio says, boil down to “never give up, basically. Your failure is adversity. Learn from your mistakes. My case is a complicated case, but if I was just gonna sit here and quit, then I would’ve never had a movie.”
For Penney, the refusal to relent, or to resign himself to some doomed derelict’s fate, is “not a question of how to find artistic inspiration. It’s more like an instinctual survivalist choice, between emotionally dying inside, or choosing to keep hope alive,” he says. “Quite regularly I get struck with the inspiration of some wild, new, never-before-done act of criminality, but now, instead of conspiring with other guys in here on how to commit this perfect crime, I have decided it is better to adapt the idea into a movie.” Writing these ideas down, Penney says, “serves a dual purpose for me. First, it’s pure gold in my library of subject matter, and second, it’s therapeutic. I consider my moviemaking ambitions to be my pathway to becoming a productive member of society again.”
Looking toward the future, for Penney, is a way of revisiting and revising an unfinished past. For motivation, he clutches tight to the memory of his last production before turning to crime: a four and a half-minute stop-motion animation music video that took him over seven months to produce, about a dinosaur’s visit to the “Dino Dentist.” Making it, he says, “required me to turn the entire front room of my one-bedroom apartment into a miniature robot city set for filming. To say the least, I alienated many friends. But such is the sacrifice of a filmmaker.”
He took part in “Playwright’s Project: Out of the Yard,” a workshop for inmates to write plays that were later performed by professional actors who visited East Mesa. “A friend and I wrote a play about two competing street cart food vendors with a politically charged message about immigration.”
Penney was released from East Mesa July 22, 2017. Having recently completed a one-year intensive boot camp program that shaved a year off of his sentence, Servidio will be released from Florence September 7, 2017, and will do six months of house arrest before finally tasting total freedom. Horsford will be released from Sing Sing in 2018.
They expect, of course, to have to make a number of adjustments as they become re-integrated into civilian life. Penney is prepared, “at the very least, to finish college, and to not break the law anymore. Committing to those two things will take me farther than I ever could have made it counterfeiting.” He vows that after he publishes Bad Economy, the autobiographical novel he’s been writing in prison, the entertainment world will know his name. Horsford plans on signing to the independent film company G7 Films to make three or four resume-building features, and will apply to attend Manhattan’s Digital Film Academy. On the West Coast, Servidio’s supporters have a “Welcome Home” party planned with G-Eazy and other colleagues, friends and family in his hometown of Napa Valley. On the heels of its several award-winning film festival showings and successful limited theatrical runs, he has secured “Tunnel Vision” representation from UTA’s Oren Rosenbaum, and is in talks to produce a screenplay he co-wrote with Silk for a new in-development feature, Out On Bail.
Servidio, Penney, Horsford and many more like them will head back onto the streets as a graduate of their facilities’ rigorous, albeit informal, training grounds. For now, all three men have finally begun to see themselves as moviemakers. A room full of Oscar-winning screenwriters would be hard-pressed to find a better story arc. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue. Top image: (L-R) Cast member Nilla Da Huzpla, Antonio Servidio, cast member DJ Paul of rap group Three 6 Mafia and co-producer Daniel Hubbard on the set of “Tunnel Vision.” Courtesy of Tunnel Vision Movie