David Klawans digs. He burrows, tunnels and sifts, constantly prospecting for gold — Hollywood gold, the kind of gold that gleams in the eyes of so many seekers but fills few pockets because no one really wants to roll up their sleeves every day and do the dirty work themselves.
Except Klawans. If there are few “idea guys” in Hollywood anymore, there are fewer “weird-idea guys,” which is what Klawans might best be called, since he has taken it upon himself to comb the Earth for true-life tales, the odder the better, because that way he knows he’s the only one with a map to that particular mother lode. If you thought Nacho Libre’s wrestling priest was a bizarre premise, that’s because truth is stranger than fiction: There was in fact a padre who moonlighted in lucha libre and used his winnings to save more than 3,000 orphans in a small parish in rural Mexico. Klawans ran across that story one day in 2001. “Fray Tormenta,” or “Brother Storm,” was the name of the real priest’s alter ego, and his heyday was the ’70s, until he was unmasked by a fellow wrestler, Hurricane Ramirez, during confession.
(Photo by Kevin Scanlon)“When I first heard about it,” he says, “I thought it was a joke, that it couldn’t be real. But I gathered more information and found out the full story, which is incredible.” Klawans and I are at Rose Café, in the parking lot. We’ve met for lunch, but he wanted to show me the trunk of his car, which was filled with boxes of his files — each a thick dossier full of notes, Xeroxes, newspaper clippings and microfiche printouts. “Initially,” he says, pulling out the Fray Tormenta file he’d assembled over the years, “people thought I was crazy.” But Klawans got Fray Tormenta’s rights and started shopping. He first got some traction at Antonio Banderas’ company, then talked to Benicio Del Toro, but eventually wound up at Nickelodeon Movies, where they brought on star Jack Black, director Jared Hess and writer Mike White, and created Nacho Libre. “If you look hard enough, find the right nugget and polish it well, the right buyer will come along,” Klawans says. “When I found out about Fray Tormenta, I knew instantly it would be a movie someday.”
Klawans was also certain about being a producer since childhood. “I grew up in Belgium,” he says, still sifting through his trunk, “and I’d get the Sunday ?New York Times. This was when I was 10 years old. I’d just stare at the movie ads for hours. I knew then what I wanted to do.” Years later, he finished NYU film school and interned for legendary producer David Brown (Jaws, Driving Miss Daisy), one of the last cigar-chomping bastions of the old guard. When Klawans decided to set out for Los Angeles, Brown’s advice to him was: “Read! Read everything you get your hands on. Read, read, read!” “So, as you can see from what’s in these boxes, that’s what I do,” he says. “At the gym, during meals, even in the car on my Sidekick.”
The boxes in Klawans’ trunk represent a fraction of the research piling up in similar boxes at home. He estimates he spends 10 hours a day reading, starting each day at 9 a.m., when he canvasses several-dozen newspapers and Web sites for interesting tidbits. These days, The New York Times won’t do, because everyone sees The Times, and to beat the big guys, Klawans says, “you have to fish in deeper waters.” At 2 or so, he breaks for lunch and takes the best ideas to the library. If the film business didn’t work out, Klawans always thought he could become a detective. “The key is the spadework,” he says. “I start cross-referencing, looking in books, old periodicals, making connections. I buy out-of-print books. I get into the microfiche. You can read papers back into the 18th century. Sometimes, I’ll be looking at a roll of microfilm that’s never been opened. I have to peel back the seal and open it up for the first time. It’s really exhilarating. That always keeps you looking for more. And I love piecing it all together.”
Wearing glasses and almost academically attired, Klawans looks like a researcher. It’s a lonely business, but it pays off. An hour after finding Fray Tormenta, we’re still browsing files. “Sometimes I feel like the serial killer who keeps the crazy scrapbook on his victims,” he says, riffling through story ideas that range from an unemployed dockworker who inherited a fortune by finding a message in a bottle in San Francisco Bay to a Beverly Hills neurologist who suffered a brain injury and thereafter spoke only in rhyme and began joining rap contests in Leimert Park as MC Dr. Flow. “I have dozens of boxes like these. And then there are all the binders. All of it’s organized and indexed, but it’s my own made-up system.”
That system includes the more than 1,000 stories Klawans has collected since he arrived in Los Angeles in 1991 with no car and no money. For years, he worked as a PA, pixilated porn for the Japanese market and interned for a down-on-his-luck producer named Sandy Howard, all while trying to sell the ideas filling his files. A friend of a friend introduced him to an executive at Columbia, and Klawans used to ride his bicycle across town to pitch meetings. “I’d have my folders in my bag,” he recalls, “and a change of clothes that I’d put on in the bathroom before I went in to the meeting.” On the Columbia lot, he eventually met current Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger, then a producer, and Shmuger eventually gave Klawans his first break with a deal at the studio.
Klawans has since used his folders to set up many projects, including a TV movie (based, of course, on a true story) in which a series of tornados attack a nuclear power plant in Ohio. He self-produced a documentary called Togbe, about a Dutchman on disability who became a Ghanaian king. He once sold a story about a feckless singer who lives out his dreams of stardom by impersonating the R&B great Shirley Murdoch. (The cross-dressing scheme worked — until the guy ran into the real Shirley Murdoch in a hotel in Washington, D.C.) Nacho Libre has been his first big success, but Klawans still spends his time in library basements, prospecting for that next story. “Everybody has their talents. Mine is finding needles in haystacks,” he says. “When I go to these meetings, and the executives ask me, ‘Where do you get this stuff?’ it’s the biggest compliment. That always makes the long search worthwhile.”