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Jeff Benedict: A Hollywood ending

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 8:45 a.m. MDT

Recently my publisher announced that Lifetime is making a movie based on "Little Pink House," and Brooke Shields, who is currently on Broadway playing Morticia in "The Addams Family," will star in the film as Susette Kelo.

I've been anticipating this for six years. It was Nov. 28, 2005, when I met Susette Kelo for the first time. I had gone to introduce myself and seek her cooperation in a book I wanted to write about her epic struggle to save her home and her neighborhood from an eminent domain taking. She had no idea I was coming.

Five months before I showed up the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that all the homes in her neighborhood had to go to make way for a private development. Virtually every structure had been demolished. Approaching Susette's front steps, I looked around. The area reminded me of a war zone. All except Susette's bright pink house with white trim. Even on a gray wintry day, her home looked like a shining beacon in a barren wasteland.

I didn't know the full story yet. But I could already see the book title: "Little Pink House."

The crazy thing is that I didn't have a book contract at that point. I hadn't even talked to my editor about my idea. For all I knew, the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, both of which covered the case, might already have a writer working on a book. That would kill my chances of doing one. So would a rejection by Susette.

I knocked on Susette's door. She opened it and stared at me with sad, defeated eyes. I told her my name and why I had come.

"What took you so long?"

Those were her first words to me. I just smiled, unsure whether she was going to invite me in or tell me to get lost.

"I've been waiting for you," she continued. "C'mon in."

Waiting for me? She didn't even know me. But three hours later I was still there and I was starting to get to know her. The more I knew the more I wanted to be her storyteller.

Then she took me on a walking tour of what used to be her neighborhood. It was almost dark by that time. But that's when I saw past the book to the movie. Witnessing piles of splintered lumber and crumbled brick did it to me. That rubble used to be walls and floors and ceilings.

I hadn't written a lick yet. But in my mind the story had box office written all over it. I went to see my editor Rick Wolff in New York and told him the story I wanted to write. I described Susette as a cross between Erin Brockovich and Norma Rae.

My editor liked the idea. But my publisher turned me down. The commercial merits of the story just weren't immediately obvious. After all, Susette lost her case and the neighborhood got wiped out. Not exactly a Hollywood ending.

No book contract meant no money. No money usually means an idea is nothing more than a pipe dream. But Susette had been waiting for me. I couldn't stop now. I spent the next year and a half researching and writing without a contract. By the summer of 2007 I had more than half of the manuscript penned. I took it to my editor and asked the publisher to reconsider.

Publishers almost never take a second look at something they've previously turned down. But mine did and this time I was offered a contract. Everyone agreed that the title was perfect and the cover should be an image of Susette's house.

Even before the book went on sale in January 2009, I went looking for a film agent. I didn't know where to start. But I showed my manuscript to my friend Dave Checketts, the former CEO of Madison Square Garden. After reading it, Checketts said he wanted to introduce me to his friend Stanley Jaffe, the legendary film producer who made blockbusters like "Kramer vs. Kramer," "Fatal Attraction" and "The Accused."

I'll admit I was a little intimidated when I called Jaffe's office and requested a meeting. His assistant asked me to send my manuscript in advance. A couple weeks later I took a train to New York. While waiting in Jaffe's office, I looked at pictures of Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep from "Kramer vs. Kramer." Then Jaffe walked in.

The first thing he said was that he hadn't had time to read my manuscript. He asked me to summarize it for him. I did. Then he said he wanted to be honest. Very few non-fiction books are made into movies these days. And he was terribly busy and probably wouldn't be able to read my manuscript for quite some time.

I said I was willing to wait. I left his office discouraged. But two days later he called me. He said that he had read the entire manuscript and that it should be made into a movie. He gave me the name of film agent Ron Bernstein in Los Angeles and told me to tell him that Stanley recommended I call him.

A call like that is what I mean about life being richer when you dare to dream. It doesn't get much better than getting a stamp of approval from Stanley Jaffe.

It took another two years to get from there to a movie deal with Lifetime. But now we're there. Soon, a much larger audience will see Susette's inspiring story. She may have lost her neighborhood. But her fight has led to sweeping changes in eminent domain laws across the country.

Now there's an O. Henry ending.

Jeff Benedict is the author of "POISONED: The True Story of the Deadly E. Coli Outbreak That Changed the Way Americans Eat."

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