Three months before his death, Michael Jackson committed to co-directing and financing a movie -- a poignant drama about foster children -- and planned to get started as soon as he completed his London concerts.
The news is the latest in a series of revelations that are helping to shed light on the pop star's passions and projects, even as the investigation into his abuse of prescription drugs and a tussle over custody of his children rage on.
The movie project also is eerily keyed to one of the most haunting aspects of Jackson's life: his apparent feeling that the Jackson 5's huge success robbed him of his childhood.
He was very excited about making movies and wanted his hands on everything, from working on screenplays to producing, to writing the music. However, he never showed any interest in acting, B-movie producer, writer and director Bryan Michael Stoller said of Jackson, who starred in the 1978 pic The Wiz.
Stoller said he had a 23-year friendship with the pop star and was his partner in the film company Magic Shadows. He was to have co-directed the movie, called They Cage the Animals at Night, which Stoller said they had been developing for seven years.
INSPIRED BY BOOK
The project was based on a 1985 book about the real-life experiences of author Jennings Michael Burch, who bounced around foster homes as a child. Jackson showed the book to Stoller in 2002 at his Neverland estate and asked if he wanted to produce and co-direct a movie version.
Michael told me often he felt like he grew up as an orphan, like a foster kid, because he never was in one home, Stoller said. To him every hotel was like a different foster home. He said he used to sit in the window and see kids playing outside and cry because he couldn't be part of that.
Stoller optioned the book for $1 -- initially without telling Burch about Jackson's involvement. When he did tell him, Stoller said the author was excited to work with the singer.
Jackson, meanwhile, was concerned that Burch, then 67 and suffering from cancer, might not survive to see the movie made. So Stoller suggested bringing Burch to Neverland in 2003, where Jackson turned the tables and interviewed him for what was to be a TV special and for the eventual DVD.
During their highly charged conversation, Jackson asked the author if he had ever considered suicide. Burch said he had, and Jackson said he too had considered it during his darkest days. (A clip from this footage is available at THR.com.)
Stoller recorded their meeting, an addition to a collection of videos he made with Jackson over the years, and to hours of audio recordings from their meetings.
Stoller told The Hollywood Reporter he has now come forward because he believes this material humanizes his friend at a time when much myth-making about Jackson is taking place. The producer also is marketing his video, audio and photos either for outright sale or as a project he would produce and direct.
He said he already has had interest from NBC, CBS and E!
But insiders in the Jackson camp said there was no formal deal in place for any Jackson involvement in Cage; discussions between the artist and Stoller occurred when Jackson was without management, which may have frowned on any distractions as he prepared for the London shows.
'CAST AWAY' CAST OFF
Jackson's last film foray was a 2005 comedic farce, Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls, produced, written and directed by Stoller and starring Eric Roberts. Jackson is briefly in the movie as Agent M.J., who comes to the rescue of various characters on a beam of light. The movie was a direct-to-DVD release sold briefly at Blockbuster stores.
When Jackson was indicted on child molestation charges shortly after its release, Blockbuster pulled the film from its shelves. Miss Cast Away has been sold overseas by Showcase Entertainment, and Stoller said he has offers for a new domestic video release for Jackson's last movie appearance.
They Cage the Animals also was affected by the molestation charges, Stoller said. In 2003 the producer arranged a three-hour meeting in a Universal City hotel between Jackson and Mel Gibson, who besides being an actor is a producer and partner in Icon Prods. They got along great, Stoller said. It was kind of funny. Mel was a little nervous. He was hugging a pillow the whole time, kind of playing with it. Michael was kind of shy.
Icon signed a deal to develop the project with a budget of $12 million-$20 million, according to Stoller, who was paid by Icon to write the screenplay. A couple of months later, when Jackson was indicted in Santa Barbara, Calif., Icon dropped the project, and Gibson stopped returning Stoller's phone calls. There were news reports in 2005 that Icon had dropped the project. A spokesman for Icon said the company briefly was involved in developing it in 1995 but had lost interest by 1997. Stoller has a copy of his contract with Icon dated 2002.
Stoller said Icon still owns the screenplay, but an Icon representative rebutted that, saying the company has had no involvement or ownership for 10 years. Gibson declined comment for this report.
Jackson lost contact with Stoller for about two years during the period when the singer was on trial. But after his acquittal, Jackson reached out to him. They had watched dozens of movies in the Neverland theater; Stoller said Jackson's favorite was To Kill a Mockingbird, and that they also discussed doing a remake of the comedy musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
When Jackson called in 2007, he still had movies on his mind, Stoller said. He had begun to purchase movie production equipment. He was always asking how things work, but I never saw him really work things. But he wanted all the toys. He bought a dolly and wanted me to show the kids how to use it because they were using it as a play toy, riding around on it.
Jackson wasn't interested in making a blockbuster. He wanted to do movies the Academy would like, Stoller recalled.
Three months before Jackson's death, he and Stoller had a pretty serious meeting about reviving They Cage the Animals as an indie feature, the producer said.
Michael was going to put up $8 million and not have to deal with any studios or producers and then take it to the studios afterward, Stoller said. He was very passionate about being a director. He was determined to make this movie.