RIP 'Mummy' and 'Raising Arizona' Producer James Jacks

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by Anne Thompson
January 21, 2014 10:44 AM
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James Jacks Anne Thompson

"The Mummy" series producer James Jacks died January 20 of a heart attack. He was 66. He started his producing career with Richard Linklater's "Dazed and Confused" and three early films by the Coen brothers, and introduced Hollywood to John Woo, backing his first Hollywood production "Hard Target." I first met Jacks on the set of "Raising Arizona" and we became fast friends. He was one of those rare people who navigated this risky business with cheer and grace. He deeply loved movies and creative people and worked hard to come through for his filmmakers.

Since he left Alphaville Productions in 2004, which had an exclusive overall deal at Paramount Pictures, where he was partnered with former Universal Pictures president Sean Daniel and produced such films as Billy Bob Thornton's "The Gift" and William Friedkin's "The Hunted," Jacks had been developing five mid-budget projects under his Frelaine banner that were ramping up to start filming over the next two years. He wrote three of them himself. 

Jacks was in the midst of a long negotiation to start a new company with Asian financing. He had been trying to put together a group of investors that at one time included Shaman Bakshi, an auditor-turned-banker who worked in media financing at GE Capital, and financial consultant Ugo Amobi, with financing from Hong Kong's Triad Capital Partners Fund. But it didn't come together, and the last time I saw Jacks at the Independent Spirit Nominations brunch (where I took this photo), he was discouraged. The plan was to raise hundreds of millions to back production and P & A on a slate of five films, hang on to world rights to the projects and sell the completed pictures to the highest bidder.  

Jacks' had seven projects in various stages of development that were geared toward today's global marketplace. If he had raised the financing, he wanted to shoot some five pictures over five years. Jacks was eager to produce a movie with his old friends the Coen brothers, for whom he produced "Raising Arizona," "Barton Fink" and "Miller's Crossing," Billy Bob Thornton ("The Gift," HBO's "Don't Look Back"), Richard Linklater ("Dazed and Confused") and Sam Raimi ("Dark Man" and "A Simple Plan"). 

Jacks saw an opening for movies in the mid-budget range between $15 and $50 million. "The studios don't make many of them," he told me a few months ago. "They want to make expensive tentpoles. There seem to be opportunities for co-productions there." 

I wanted to see what Jacks would come up with if he was freed from studio constraints. "It's the first time in my career I'll be able to dictate what gets made," Jacks said. 

Well, that didn't happen. 

He was prepping to shoot in Germany, Belelux and Spain his own adaptation of Sir Walter Scott's classic action adventure "Ivanhoe," which had attached director Ian Softley ("Backbeat," "Wings of the Dove") and the "The Last Station" producers Jens Meurer and Stuart Pollack of German production company Egoli Tossel and Indomitable Entertainment, respectively. 

In the works since 2004 was "The True History of the World," a mainstream PG-13 time travel adventure comedy in the "Back to the Future" mold from writer-director and green-screen tech whiz Kerry Conran ("Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow") with whom Jacks had wanted to make "The Princess of Mars" adaptation that Paramount eventually put in turnaround. Also in development was Jacks-scripted Afghanistan actioner "Hindu Kush," based on true stories by Navy SEALS, with partner Lakeshore Entertainment. He was hoping that Peter Berg's "Lone Survivor" hit would help to push this one forward. 

Jacks also had in his copious trunk two more screenplays: "Tuhon," an edge weapons action thriller about the world of special operatives who fight with knives, machetes and swords, and "The Hundred Fires," a pre-Civil War western based on Homer's "The Iliad." He was a wonderful action writer. 

In 1992, Jacks formed Alphaville Productions with Daniel. They produced western "Tombstone," starring Kurt Russell and Bill Paxton, which I wrote up for Entertainment Weekly; the global blockbuster series "The Mummy" and "The Scorpion King" (the four films grossed a total $1.5 billion worldwide), the Coen Brothers' comedy, "Intolerable Cruelty," starring George Clooney; John Woo's first American film, "Hard Target," starring Jean-Claude Van Damme; "The Jackal," starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere; Sam Raimi and Billy Bob Thornton's "The Gift," starring Cate Blanchett and Hilary Swank; Kevin Smith’s "Mallrats," and Ron Shelton and James Ellroy's "Dark Blue," starring Russell.

Trained as an engineer, Jacks took a film class at Georgetown, where he met Washington Post film critic Gary Arnold, who encouraged him to write screenplays. After Jacks won a scriptwriting contest, he attended USC film school, but went back to Washington as an entertainment analyst at Paine Webber. He took on a job at Circle Theaters with the Pedas brothers booking theaters, and was so good at it that they not only released "Blood Simple" but bankrolled three films by the Coen brothers: When they turned down the sequel to Sam Raimi's "Evil Dead," he moved on to a job at Universal as VP of acquisitions. 

Jacks' Alphaville partner Daniel wrote in a Facebook post:

“Nobody loved movies more. Passionate, loyal, generous, accomplished, noble, caring, heavily armed, creative, dare I say obsessive on occasion. A good man, a good friend, a wonderful partner, a loving son to his family.”

Correct. We have lost a dear friend.

UPDATE: The family is holding a private Catholic funeral on January 29 followed by a memorial at Jacks' favorite West Hollywood hangout, Craig's Restaurant. 

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4 Comments

  • Carol Cling | January 21, 2014 7:31 PMReply

    My condolences on the loss of your friend. I hate to nitpick at such a sad time, but "Ivanhoe's" author is Sir Walter Scott, not Sir Walter Raleigh ...

  • Joel Lambert | January 21, 2014 5:00 PMReply

    He always talked about you, Anne. You were very dear to him. He was genuine, generous to a fault, and a loyal, faithful friend. He will be sorely, sorely missed.

  • Cotty Chubb | January 21, 2014 12:34 PMReply

    Anne, your care and affection for Jim shines through your writing. It wasn't always easy for him to admit real friendship but he was able to be hugely fond of you. In a way, that's a lovely gift you gave him. Thanks for your true appreciation of a complicated and upright man.

  • Annette | January 21, 2014 11:43 AMReply

    This is sad news indeed. I remember Jacks fondly from the Telluride Film Festival, where his love for movies--seeing them as well as making them--was on ample display. He will be missed.

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