Filmmakers find their ally is murder suspect

While Hollywood is notoriously swift in signing the film rights of participants in news events and public scandals, two eager young filmmakers who were hoping to film a documentary about the country’s only silent movie theater recently found that their quick response time left them partnered with the man suspected of murdering the owner of the theater.

That suspect, James Van Sickle, subsequently was charged with hiring Christian Rodriguez to kill Laurence Austin, the owner of L.A.’s Silent Movie Showcase on Jan. 17. Van Sickle and Rodriguez also were charged with attempted murder for the shooting of a 19-year-old employee, two counts of attempted robbery and one count of commercial burglary. Van Sickle had been Austin’s live-in companion and worked periodically as a handyman and projectionist at the Fairfax Avenue theater.

Immediately following the murder, the producers, Mark Fusco of Twig Ceiling Prods. and Chris Perkins, approached Van Sickle about assisting them with “Silent Partners,” their documentary about the theater and Austin’s murder. They worked out a deal in which Van Sickle would receive one-sixth of any money the documentary brought in and would also get an associate producer credit in return for providing information and setting up interviews with Laurence’s associates, surviving silent movie stars and their loved ones.

Pre-arrest filming

Under Perkins’ helm, and with the assistance of veteran cinematographer Stephen Sheridan, the filmmakers shot nearly 2,000 feet of film before Van Sickle’s arrest March 8. Among the people they captured in their two-hours of interviews were the widow of Buster Keaton, and two organists who played music accompanying the movies during the theater’s heyday.

Even though they did not know Van Sickle before they began their film, the filmmakers said they had no idea he was a suspect in the case.

“Obviously my clients and myself were as surprised as anyone by Van Sickle’s arrest,” said attorney Eric J. Feig, who negotiated the original deal directly with Van Sickle. Feig also serves as the executive producer of the film. Feig said no one has spoken with Van Sickle since he was locked up.

Since their onetime associate is now in the slammer, their focus now includes his involvement in the crime — including lensing the LAPD’s press conference announcing the arrest of Van Sickle and Rodriguez.

Feature and docu

Fusco and Perkins are also proceeding with a feature film treatment they began around the same time they embarked on the docu project.

“Our goal now, because of James and his situation, is on taking this in a mainstream direction in addition to the documentary,” said Perkins. “Initially, one of the elements that drew me to this is that it was a uniquely Los Angeles story in a Raymond Chandler kind of way. Now the story’s developed into something like ‘Sunset Boulevard’ meets ‘Fargo.’ We’re just rolling with the punches, taking it as they come.”

Before Van Sickle’s arrest, Perkins told Daily Variety, Van Sickle had shown him a handwritten will, which named the suspect as the sole beneficiary of the theater and its film archives — a $1 million estate. Since then, the family of the theater’s former owner, Dorothy Hampton, has challenged the validity of that will, claiming Austin had swindled Hampton out of ownership of the theater in 1993. While providing ample source material, this most recent twist puts the future ownership and operation of the theater, which has been closed since Austin’s murder, on hold until the murder trial has ended.

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