Based on the unbelievable, but true story, Billionaire Boys Club, is the crime story of ambitious outsiders who became the rock stars of the L.A. social scene – a world dripping with money, sex and celebrity – and whose lavish lifestyle and impressive returns obscure a snowballing fraud and grew into a Ponzi Scheme that turned homicidal in the Summer of 1984.
The film was directed by James Cox (The Rock Star, Highway, Wonderland) and co-written by Cox and Captain Mauzner (a writer and producer, known for Wonderland (2003), Factory Girl (2006)).
Cox wrote the script in four months after an exclusive research of the events with his brother Stephen, who spent another four months on it. Cox gathered the material for the screenplay from court documents, oral transcripts, and published articles. He said, “as we were writing this, I thought, ‘What if ‘Wall Street’ became ‘Alpha Dog’ halfway through?”
Like a cross between Less Than Zero and The Wolf of Wall Street, Billionaire Boys Club traces the wild ride of financial whiz kid Joe Hunt (Ansel Elgort) and tennis pro Dean Karny (Taron Egerton) whose investment pool propels them into the upper echelons of L.A. in the early 80s.
Joe has a gift for numbers and Dean’s got the connections to L.A.’s powerful and privileged trust fund babies. With their charisma and unbridled ambition, the two convince a clique of ex-classmates from the Harvard School for Boys to invest in the Billionaire Boys Club (BBC). Overnight, Joe and Dean become the rock stars of the L.A. social scene – a world dripping with money, sex and celebrity. Their lavish lifestyle and impressive returns obscure a snowballing fraud, as it attracts investors like Ron Levin (Kevin Spacey), a Beverly Hills high-roller. But when Ron’s seven figure stake in the BBC turns out to be a total scam, Joe’s efforts to close a billion-dollar energy deal are shattered. Success at all cost drives Joe to extortion and things turn horrifically violent. As Dean’s loyalty wavers and the body count rises, Joe must make a moral choice, to choose between freedom and his own redemption.
When the law finally catches up with Joe and Dean, their hollow empire collapses under the weight of their own greed.
According to Producer Holly Wiersma the journey to bring Billionaire Boys Club to the screen began for her about seven years ago.
As Wiersma explains, “I was at my home on my computer and I was trying to figure out what movie I wanted to develop next. And I started googling L.A. true crime stories. Previously, I had done Wonderland and a lot of other crime movies and true stories because I’ve always had a fascination for that kind of film. So I googled the 10 biggest crime stories in L.A. and there was the Cotton Club murders, the O.J. Simpson case, the Menendez brothers – and then I came across this thing called The Billionaire Boys Club. And I just thought, ‘Wow! That is such a cool title. Now that’s a movie I would want to see right away. Los Angeles, Ponzi scheme, the young kids.
“So I started reading more and more about it,” Wiersma continues. “And I called Cassian (her husband Cassian Elwes) and told him I’d just found the next story I want to do! And he asked what it was. And I said, ‘it’s called The Billionaire Boys Club.’ And he says, ‘But it’s already been done! My friends made it – because he was really good friends with some members of the Brat Pack in that day. And Cassian explained it was a TV movie in 1987 or something.’ And I said, ‘It was?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, ironically, everyone wanted to play the role of Joe Hunt when this happened.’ He said that Rob Lowe, who was the biggest movie star at the time, Judd Nelson, who’d been around for a while, and Tom Cruise, who was very up and coming and about to break through, all were bidding to get the rights to the story. And Judd managed to get it first. So it became this TV movie, a multi part mini-series.”
But Wiersma was still determined to proceed with the project, which she considered fresh and exciting for today’s movie audiences. As she explains: “The TV movie version was made in 1987 and most people don’t wait even four years to do remakes anymore. So I still wanted to do it. Then James Cox, the director I made Wonderland with, came over to my house because he was also trying to figure out what movie to do next. And I said to him, ‘Well you should do this movie, Billionaire Boys Club. This would be a great film for you – you should go back to L.A., back to the roots of making a movie, and just do it.’ So he got his brother, who at the time was thinking about being a screenwriter, and they co-wrote a script. They wrote it in about six months and it was pretty good. So we went out with it – we saw all the different agencies and James met a bunch of actors. But it really didn’t go anywhere. At the time we were interested in Zak Effron who was about 24 years old then.
“So we put the script away,” recount Wiersma. “James Cox went off and made another movie; I went out and produced a few other movies. Then about two years ago, Captain Mauzner came on to the project to do a rewrite with James. They had written Wonderland together and were best friends, attending both Berkley and NYU together. So I asked Captain Mauzner to come on the project, I begged him. And he agreed. But because he now lived in New York and had a regular job, he flew to L.A. from N.Y. on five different weekends and during that time rewrote the script with James Cox.
“In that space of time the script took a different turn, with an exciting twist,” Wiersma continues. “Instead of the story everybody knew – where Joe Hunt was a monster and Dean Karny turned him in – they decided to use something different to tell the story. As they started investigating and talking to more and more people, they found out that may not really be the case. When enough time goes by people remember things differently. And so what they decided to do was go through all the court transcripts. Everybody has a different version of the story so every story that someone tells probably has some truth in it as well as some lies. Basically, everyone involved has a different version of what happened.
“So that’s what James and Captain decided to do,” says Wiersma. “And it was interesting because the more they went and researched and based the script on all these court transcripts, the more they decided that maybe things weren’t quite as they seemed. They ended up meeting a couple of people who knew Dean Karny. And also, when you meet different people, everyone has different perspectives and remembers all these guys very differently. Some people said that Dean Karny was actually the devil because he had sold out all his friends. Some people had a perspective that rationalized the events that occurred – ‘Yes, Joe and Dean may have killed two guys, but the guys they killed were really bad people so isn’t the world a better place without them?’– which is a very strange justification! But it’s very interesting where we are now in the world. Dean said one of the men they killed, Izzy’s father, died in a trunk which he and Joe were using to smuggle him to L.A. from S.F. Dean maintains that. But Joe said in court that Izzy’s father made it to L.A., then had an altercation with Dean and Dean killed him. And all they found for forensic evidence was the dead man’s jaw bone – by the time Dean brought the police to the body in Soledad Canyon, all that was left was a jawbone. So based on that limited evidence, it was difficult to determine who was telling the truth about the murder – Joe or Dean.
“Basically, everything everybody said was a little true and a little bit of a lie,” emphasizes Wiersma.
“We based the screenplay and film on a true story and used all the testimonials and transcripts from the court trials to make a version of the story that the writer and director believed happened. At the time when the TV movie was made, at least one of the trials hadn’t happened yet. So we used a lot of information that wasn’t available back then. But there are liberties obviously one always has to take to get to the essence of the story to make it dramatic. And like I said everybody has a different version of what happened. An example of this is that Ron Levin’s body was never found – Ron Levin was wanted by the authorities because he conned many people in his life – in fact he even conned Andy Warhol. Andy Warhol was his friend, yet Levin stole one of Warhol’s paintings and then made Warhol buy the painting back from him. That’s a true story.
“So Ron Levin had all these other people he’d been scamming for years,“ explains Wiersma, “so Joe Hunt took the position and maintains to this day that he didn’t kill Ron Levin and maybe Ron Levin isn’t even dead, but alive somewhere. In fact, some people actually claim to have spotted Ron Levin over the years in three locations – in Brentwood, Ca, in Greece, and somewhere else. So Joe maintains that Ron Levin is alive. And in 1995 or so, ten years after the murder, Tim Pittman, who was Joe’s bodyguard, went on the TV show “Current Affair” after he’d had his trial. And he said, `Yes, I killed that motherfucker. I shot him in the head! But you can’t get me anymore because of double jeopardy.’ So he admitted to killing Ron Levin. And then you have Dean’s version. So everybody has a different version of the story. For anyone that was there, anyone involved with the BBC and the crimes, everything very much varies, their individual accounts of what happened varies. Personally, I think Ron Levin’s dead, but you never know.
“So two years ago, after the six weeks of writing that Captain and James had done we had a script which we were comfortable with and liked,” recalls Wiersma. “I didn’t feel it was the finished script, but it was a good start and I knew I could begin sending it out.
What attracted James Cox to the project? According to Wiersma, ‘He was very much into the L.A. story, the crime story. James had covered 1981 with Wonderland, more of the porn side of that world. And he thought it would be interesting to cover the opposite end of the L.A. spectrum – what was going on in the early 80s in Beverly Hills. And they both had murder in common.”
As for Ansel Elgort’s interest in the material and the role of Joe Hunt, Wiersma thinks it was that the subject matter, genre and character were all very different from the kind of movies and roles he was being offered at the time. He had just come off of the romantic drama The Fault in Our Stars and the action blockbuster Divergent series of films for Lion’s Gate,” explains Wiersma. “So our film was very different in terms of the genre and the role for him. The whole cast – they were all fantastic and they all became best friends overnight, which I think was really interesting and organic to watch. They all loved being in the film together – and they all still keep in touch and are very close. They really became that clique like in the movie. But what was interesting was that Ansel, through most of the shoot, was a little bit on the outside. He would do things with Taron. But it was very much like his character in the film, only hanging with Taron – I think Ansel knew exactly what he was doing. He kind of kept to himself a little bit more. But as the production progressed through the shoot days and as his character became close to the other members of the club, he started to fit right in as well. But I thought it was interesting that that happened.”
And what attracted Taron Egerton to the character of Dean? “It’s so funny, but before Ansel committed to the film, when actors and their agents were reading the script, everyone would always say that Joe Hunt was the standout role,” recalls Wiersma. “And it was so funny hearing that, because I always thought Dean was the more interesting role. It kind of sneaks up on you, but without giving anything away, it’s almost like Edward Norton in Primal Fear In Billionaire Boys Club there’s this thing all of a sudden where you think you’re watching one man’s story and then it becomes another’s. And that’s one of the things I really like about the film.
What attracted Kevin Spacey to the role of Ron Levin, considering that he’s a really sought after actor and his schedule was full? As Wiersma recounts: “I think Kevin Spacey knew of the story and I think he was interested in the different point of view James wanted to take. Right before he was offered our movie, he was offered Baby Driver with Ansel and he had met Ansel. So I think he was a fan of Ansel, thought he was someone special and someone he wanted to work with. And I think he was also a fan of Taron’s. So there were a lot of reasons Kevin was drawn to the project. I think Ron Levin’s a very interesting role. And I think Kevin played Ron Levin in a way that he’s never played a role before. I think Kevin’s different in this one. For years there were rumors that Ron Levin was gay. And I think Kevin played it that way. He’s just brilliant. There’s never a movie that he’s not great in. But I just think with this movie there’s something different than what you’re used to seeing in Kevin.”