White Boy Rick came together as the result of a combination of two separate projects that were being developed on the improbable life story of Rick Wershe Jr., who entered into a Faustian bargain, becoming an undercover informant for the FBI and later a drug dealer, manipulated by the very system meant to protect him only to be abandoned by his police handlers and sentenced to life in prison.
Directed by French-British Yann Demange (‘71) and written by identical twin brothers Andy Weiss and Logan & Noah Miller., White Boy Rick is a tarnished American Dream, an improbable tale of fathers and sons, friends and family, a shifting landscape of loyalty and betrayal, where everything has a cost, including love and the ultimate price may be survival.
It tells the moving story of a blue-collar father, Richard Wershe Sr. ( Matthew McConaughey) and his namesake teenage son, Rick Jr. (newcomer Richie Merritt), and chronicles three critical years in the life of Rick Wershe Jr. as he rises from baby-faced teen to infamous drug dealer before ultimately becoming a pawn to some of Detroit’s most powerful and corrupt politicians.
In the years prior to 2016, the producer teams of John Lesher & Julie Yorn of LBI Entertainment, and Scott Franklin & Darren Aronofsky of Protozoa Pictures, were each developing respective films about the notorious undercover teenage informant who was serving a mandatory life sentence for getting caught with over 650 grams of cocaine.
At that time, John Lesher, the Academy Award® winning producer of “Birdman” and films such as Black Mass and End of Watch, and Julie Yorn, producer of the Academy Award nominated Hell or High Water, already had in-demand British director Yann Demange (‘71) attached to direct their project.
Meanwhile, Scott Franklin and his producing partner, producer-director Darren Aronofsky, co-owners of Protozoa Pictures, had been developing a film with executive producer Matthew Krul, who represented the team that owned life and film rights to Rick Wershe’s life. Krul’s fellow executive producer Michael J. Weiss, an entertainment lawyer who represented both Wershe and Krul, initially negotiated those rights in 2004.
Each producing entity had commissioned their own screenplays: Lesher and Yorn had a script by screenwriters Logan and Noah Miller, while the Protozoa team had one by Andy Weiss. Both teams were drawn more to the emotional familial elements of the tale over the “gangster” themes.
Lesher read about Wershe’s initial arrest and imprisonment in the 1980s, but it was not until he read a draft of the Miller Brothers’ script many years later that he felt he had found the right avenue to tell the story.
“To me, at its core, it’s a father-son story. It’s about this kid who’s fighting to keep his family together. That resonated with me beyond the story of a guy who had been in prison so long. Yes, it’s set against the backdrop of this war on drugs and the decay of the inner cities, but what keeps it universal is this kid struggling to keep his family together. And I think that people will relate to that.”
Lesher relates that the father-son relationships explored in the film are not only between Richard Sr. and Rick Jr. “You also have Richard Sr. and his father, so it’s a multi-generational father and son story,” Lesher adds. “And Rick also has a kid, so you even have kids having kids.” Rick will even develop father figure or mentor-protégé relationships with the leader of the drug gang, Johnny “Lil Man” Curry, as well as drug wholesaler Art Derrick.
Franklin, who produced the films “The Wrestler,” “Black Swan” and “Noah,” directed by his Protozoa partner, Darren Aronofsky, first heard about the White Boy Rick story from his friend, Matthew Krul. “I was blown away by the story,” Franklin declares. “To me it was a coming of age story. It’s the journey of this boy who does some wrong things and ends up growing up in prison. It’s a story of a family that’s been ripped apart. We focused on not making this just another drug dealer movie, gangster movie, or crime story. It really gets to the heart and soul of family. That’s what was really important to us.
Once he got on board with the film project, Franklin immediately got in touch with Rick Wershe in prison. The producer felt an instant affinity with the man who had spent in his entire adult life behind bars. “We forged a relationship immediately,” Franklin recalls. “It felt like I was talking to an old friend. With what this guy has been through and the amount of time he’s spent in prison, it just felt like something important that I had to be a part of.”
Franklin felt there was a lot of heart and character in the story, and potential to shine a light on an incredible injustice. “I don’t necessarily think we’re offering an opinion on that injustice, but I think it’s something that can at least spark the debate and potentially put a magnifying glass on situations like this. Let’s face it, he’s not the only person in America that may be doing a lot of time that maybe should have done a little less. But when someone who never committed a violent act is in there for 30 years, I think it’s something that should be looked at.”
At this point, Franklin wasn’t even aware of another White Boy Rick film in development until he queried his friend Yann Demange, to ascertain his interest in doing Protozoa’s film. “I called Yann up and said, hey, I’ve got this great script! I want you to check it out. And he said I’m already doing a White Boy Rick movie. It turned out that unbeknownst to me he was already working on John and Julie’s project.”
Demange had read an article about the Wershe saga and later the script. The story fascinated him but it was the father/son dynamic and the themes of love and loyalty that really intrigued him.
“What initially hooked me was the scenes with the father/son interactions. I saw that as a chance to take this true story and tackle the themes of the struggle for the American Dream in the face of poverty and the opportunity through a family trying to stay together and succeed against dire odds. That’s what excited me, even more than the informant story,” Demange says.
When Franklin discovered the director was already involved with John Lesher and Julie Yorn’s film, it made sense to join forces with the other project. The Lesher/Yorn team had the director they wanted, and Protozoa had the rights and cooperation of the real Rick Wershe. “There was no way we wanted to make this movie without Rick being involved during the entire process,” says executive producer Matthew Krul. “He knew how important it was to make this story correctly, and we all stood behind him and we went with the right people and the right team.”
The film would be financed by former Warner Bros’ film division head Jeff Robinov’s nascent movie company, Studio 8, and distributed by Sony Pictures.
Born in Paris and raised in London, Yann Demange earned global accolades for his debut film, the critically acclaimed drama “’71” starring Jack O’Connell, which followed a young British soldier who is accidentally abandoned by his unit following a riot on the streets of Belfast in 1971. The film was gritty, intense, suspenseful vivid and violent and Demange masterfully depicted the politics of Northern Ireland in way that was compellingly personal. In that way, it was the perfect template for the story of White Boy Rick. The film was nominated for a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut and earned Demange the British Independent Film Award for Best Director.
Lesher was first introduced to Demange’s work when he saw “’71” at the Telluride Film Festival and was just blown away. “I thought his energy, his point of view, and the fact that he’s not from America, would bring a unique point of view and integrity to a story I was really interested in trying to explore.”
“What I saw in Yann’s previous work was authenticity,” says Scott Franklin, who had known the director for years before this first collaboration. “His work is raw, gritty and he does an incredible job of capturing the moment. And at the same time does so with heart and soul. With this film we needed to feel the grit and authenticity of the street, of 1980s Detroit, and what life was like. Yann does a great job of capturing all sides of the spectrum.”
Demange had never tackled a biographical film, let alone one where the protagonist was still alive. He felt an added a layer of responsibility, especially to the titular Rick.
“The development phase was a long process because I had never done a true story and I didn’t feel comfortable just completely fictionalizing it for dramatic effect. It was imperative for me to see the real Rick in jail – in fact, that was part of my decision process, to figure out whether I could actually do this because initially there wasn’t a clear narrative – there were many ways to tell the story of Rick Wershe but, as I said, I wanted to focus on the family. And then there was the ethical questions – am I doing the right thing by this man? Am I exploiting a life story just to project the themes that influence me onto a film? It took about three years and it was a real process of not taking liberties with his life and distilling it down to the facts and its emotional core,” Demange explains.
In the early days of development, Demange and the producers visited Rick Wershe in prison and spoke with him on the phone on a regular basis. “It didn’t take a lot of convincing Rick to let us tell his story,” John Lesher recalls. “It was more like wanting to spend as much time talking to him to try and get the details of the story right, and the essence of the story, and his relationship with his family and what happened to understand and actually figure out how to tell the story. The challenge whenever you’re doing something based on real events is that we’re not making a documentary; we’re making a movie. So, you have to take liberties with the story and figure out what was important to hold onto and where we can kind of compress things to make a movie.”
“Rick was very involved in the initial script,” Scott Franklin states. “We’d ask him tons of questions, and he’d give us notes and feedback. You’d just hear these stories about the drugs, and the cops, and the family stories – there was so much color, so much amazing stuff. We didn’t use some of those stories as scenes because there just wasn’t enough room, but it helped us how to define his character in the script.”
Also, as Demange notes, the tale of White Boy Rick is not one but many, almost Greek in scope, in terms of characters and relationships and byzantine storylines.
“It was a long process because there was so much to tell. The trick was to distill it down, not to take liberties but to identify the key facts thematically.”
Demange adds that Rick’s unpretentiousness, his surprising humor against the intimidating and poignant backdrop of a looming prison sentence helped Demange find the underlining tone of the movie.
“He had a complete humility and humor in the face of everything that had happened to him. We definitely laughed a lot but also when he talked about his family it was very moving to me. This all happened to him before he was 17 and it reminded me of all the kids in poverty, writ large, not allowed to have a genuine childhood with real opportunity and hope. I felt passionate about telling this story and the way he spoke about it wasn’t overly polemical. If we could be true to Rick, to tell his story from the inside out, not projecting an outsider’s gaze on to it … he gave me a way into that,” Demange relates.
The politics and socio economics of the Wershe’s world fascinated and appalled Demange, particularly the mandatory sentencing and drug laws that decimated the African American community in particular but also the poor and disenfranchised in general. But the movie he wanted to make was more personal and intimate, not a diatribe, but rather a look at one family and their community that, for better or worse, becomes an extended clan.
“There are wonderful documentaries and books about these miscarriages of justice, but I didn’t want to make a documentary. The father/son relationship, a family trying to survive and overcome abject poverty without a lot of options. A father who really believed in the promise of the American Dream only to be betrayed by his circumstances, that interested me. The dynamic between Rick and his father and sister really hooked me but also his relationship with the Currys. He was completely embedded into their world and they were like an extension of his family. I saw an opportunity to draw a parallel between the Wershes and the Currys. Two families trying to survive a brutal, venal landscape, a city abandoned on every level. Everybody’s hands had to get dirty to survive and who are we to judge?” Demange relates.
Andy Weiss born and raised in Long Island, New York. In addition to “White Boy Rick”, his feature writing credits include “Middle Men”, “Bigger” and the upcoming “Backyard Legend”. All of his feature writing credits are based on true stories. Along with his brother Michael, Andy started Webros Entertainment in 2012, a production company focused on documentaries, TV series and feature films. Mr. Weiss resides in Los Angeles with his wife, Diane, and his two sons.
Identical twin brothers, Logan (Writer/Executive Producer) and Noah Miller (Writer/Executive Producer) are the writers, directors, and producers of two feature films, “Touching Home” and “Sweetwater,” the latter of which premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and starred Ed Harris, January Jones, and Jason Isaacs. In TV, they are currently writing “Den of Thieves” for UCP as a limited series with Doug Liman directing and adapting the Pulitzer prize-winning “The Executioner’s Song” for A&E Cable Productions.
They are the bestselling authors of two books, “Let the Good Prevail” (Rare Bird) and “Either You’re In or You’re In the Way” (HarperCollins), which was a San Francisco Chronicle #1 Bestseller and awarded Hudson Booksellers’ Best Nonfiction.