Self-Made Storyteller

Former Detroit record-store owner Jay Anthony White finds his way in L.A. as a screenwriter
Photographs courtesy of Anchor Bay Films

The idea bounced around Jay Anthony White’s head for several months. That’s not unusual for the burgeoning screenwriter from Detroit, as ideas for movies routinely root around in his mind. But this concept was more nuanced.

Up to that point, in early 2009, most of White’s scripts focused on big-budget productions.

“Eventually,” he says, “I realized that studios would hesitate producing a big-budget script from a screenwriter with not much on his résumé.”

Motivated by that notion, White dusted off a dormant idea and penned a script in six weeks — one he felt would keep production costs low, thus improving the odds of it getting produced.

White’s attorney, Eric Feig, circulated the script to several producers. Ultimately, it caught the attention of Michael Becker, of Imprint Entertainment. Becker began putting the pieces in place to produce the script, including hiring first-time director David A. Armstrong (best known for his cinematography for the Saw movie franchise). A first-rate cast was assembled (see photos below), including Michael Chiklis (The Commish; No Ordinary Family), Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, Panic Room), and Ray Liotta (Goodfellas, Field of Dreams).

Before long, Pawn was born. The 88-minute-long hostage thriller enjoyed a limited theatrical release earlier this year. Its twists and turns leave the viewer wondering, “Why didn’t I see that coming?” “I wanted to approach Pawn as a character-driven script,” says White, “where a situation spins out of control and all mayhem breaks loose.”

The bulk of the movie takes place in a small diner, so the limited set changes, the swift 15-day shooting schedule, and the absence of special effects kept production costs in line.

White’s ascension to Los Angeles screenwriter relevance is quite a coup for a guy reared in a rugged section of Detroit near the Motown Museum on West Grand Boulevard. He distanced himself from the customary neighborhood trappings by working at the family-owned neighborhood record store, White’s Records (opened in the 1950s by his grandmother Ernestine White). White toiled there for 15 years, first becoming the manager and later the owner after his grandmother died. It was during his time as heir apparent to White’s Records that he developed a real interest in the entertainment business.

All throughout his life, White has been considered the family comedian. As a 5-year-old, he sometimes dressed up in various costumes and played different comedic characters. “I’ve always had a desire to make people laugh,” he says. As a 20-something, he decided to apply his skills by writing sketch comedy routines for Switch Play TV, a small-time local show that aired on Channel 50. White even began doing stand-up comedy, touring on and off for about two years throughout Michigan and Ohio.

After a particularly dreadful stand-up show, White chose to hang up his microphone for good. “I didn’t necessarily want to become a stand-up comedian,” he says. “I just figured it could be my way into the entertainment business and further my career as a comedic writer.”

White’s Records remained afloat, but barely. The introduction of Internet downloads and e-commerce — to say nothing of the sputtering economy — hastened the store’s demise. White figured he’d better reinvent himself — and fast. He’d written several comedy scripts but now admits they were “good ideas packaged in bad scripts.”

Having no formal training in scriptwriting, White consumed every book he could find on the subject. Part of his self-education involved watching his favorite movies — Scarface, Pulp Fiction, Dog Day Afternoon — over and over again while reading along with the script in hand. “That ended up being the best teacher for me because I got to see how the writer painted the picture, how he handled dialogue, how he told the story. That was huge.”

White put his enhanced knowledge to work and penned Project 313, his first non-comedy script. The movie was shot in Detroit and screened at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles in 2006. The following year, White closed the record store and made the decision to move to Los Angeles. “I knew that’s what I had to do in order to get where I wanted to go,” he says.

White has continued writing scripts and even has several in development. Casting director Shannon Makhanian is currently seeking talent for White’s See Jack Run action script. Brothers Fulvio and Antony Sestito have signed on to direct and produce White’s horror script The Chiller Room. With a smaller budget than See Jack Run and development funds already attached, production appears imminent.

White’s also in discussions to have another one of his scripts shot in Detroit. He and his mentor, veteran actor and director Bill Duke, have labored for several years to bring White’s coming-of-age comedy to the big screen.

Despite the inherent challenges of the film industry, White is doing what he loves. “I enjoy telling thought-provoking stories,” he says. “I have a drive and a passion to create worlds and the characters within them. I love it.”