Producer Peter R.J. Deyell (Road to Nowhere) has acquired the film rights to TRAPPED! THE STORY OF FLOYD COLLINS for an undisclosed sum. The book by historian Robert K. Murray and famed cave explorer Roger W. Brucker is based on the true story of a Kentucky farmer who attracted national attention after becoming trapped in a cave in 1925. The book was previously optioned by Billy Bob Thornton, and reportedly was greenlit by Paramount Pictures in 2006, with a script by Thornton's writing partner, Tom Epperson. However, Thornton's option reverted, and when Deyell learned the property was available, he stepped up.
"The Floyd Collins story is compelling on many levels, and is still relevant," said Deyell. "It's about the pursuit of the American dream in life-and-death circumstances, incompetent politicians, clashes of egos, cutthroat news media, a fractured family and questions of faith."
Collins became trapped while exploring a remote cave that he hoped to develop as a tourist attraction to capitalize on the lucrative tour business of world-famous Mammoth Cave, nearby. Although volunteers were able to reach him, they could not get him out. A massive rescue effort continued for two weeks, attracting thousands of spectators, the National Guard and journalists from across the country. A cub reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal, William "Skeets" Miller, ventured into the cave and conducted a series of face-to-face interviews with Collins, later winning a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the ordeal. Miller's newfound fame landed him a job at the burgeoning National Broadcasting Company (NBC), where he worked for many years as a reporter and news executive.
The Floyd Collins tragedy inspired songs, books, a stage musical and the 1951 Billy Wilder movie Ace in the Hole (a.k.a. The Big Carnival), starring Kirk Douglas. However, Wilder's film and most early accounts of the events at Sand Cave were based on erroneous newspaper stories, wild exaggerations, and unsubstantiated rumors.
"As good as the Wilder film was, it did not tell the real story of Floyd Collins," Deyell said. "Wilder changed many significant details, including characters' names and the location. He made the newspaper reporter a villain, which was not the case in real life. The reporter tried to save Floyd. TRAPPED is the real deal."
TRAPPED! THE STORY OF FLOYD COLLINS, first published by G. P. Putnam's Sons and currently by University Press of Kentucky, is widely regarded as the most accurate telling of the Collins tragedy. The New York Times wrote that the book "offers fascinating glimpses of Collins as an eternal adolescent, who seemed at home in a subterranean world, and of a clan whose rural simplicity was marbled with dark conflicts." (Ben Brantley, March 4, 1996)
The book revealed details that were not previously known to the public. While researching their subject, authors Murray and Brucker studied hundreds of documents and interviewed dozens of eyewitnesses, some of whom were involved in the rescue attempt or knew Floyd Collins personally. Brucker even risked his life crawling into the cave where Collins died, which no one had done since 1925, to understand why rescue efforts failed.
"It was one of the scariest experiences of my life," said Brucker, who has consulted for National Geographic Television and is known for his exploration of Kentucky's Mammoth Cave, the world's longest. "Most caves are safe, if you know what you are doing, but Sand Cave is very unstable and prone to collapse. While I was crawling through the tight passageway down to where Floyd was trapped, rocks kept falling from the ceiling onto my back. I felt lucky to get out."
Deyell recently co-produced the award-winning independent film Road to Nowhere, which was directed by Monte Hellman and written and produced by Steven Gaydos, executive editor of Daily Variety. He is now in talks with prospective talent and producing partners about Floyd Collins. Whether Billy Bob Thornton will continue to be involved, or the Tom Epperson script is used, remains to be determined.
"Billy previously said in interviews that he wanted to direct and star in Floyd Collins," Deyell said. "I am certainly open to the possibility of working with him, but we have not spoken about it. All options are on the table."
Budgetary concerns were reportedly the primary roadblock to Thornton moving forward with the film, when he controlled the rights. However, Kentucky has since enacted tax credits for film productions, which Deyell said could be an important factor. If possible, he said he would like to shoot Floyd Collins in Kentucky.
"I want this movie to tell the real story of Floyd Collins, in the place where it happened," Deyell said. "Kentucky has some of the world's greatest caves. I expect to be in touch with the Kentucky Film Commission very soon."