Breaking In to the Movies
Rhys Southan admits that yes, he is somewhere in Austin, Texas, and yes, he is an undergrad at UT. But he's quick to add that he's not taking classes this semester, and the implication is obvious: Those who are looking for him need not search the campus.
The 23-year-old film student is on the lam, avoiding the letters and phone calls from the police force of Culver City, California.
Culver City police Lieutenant Dave Tankenson says he'd like to talk to Southan about numerous break-ins that the Texan committed over several months last year in the small burg, a slice of the greater Los Angeles area.
But Southan says he has no plans to turn himself in. He'll take his chances staying on the run, and extradition be damned.
Besides, he's sure that people won't believe that he's a menace, not if they understand why he stole into Culver City's most famous landmark, the movie studios owned by Sony, home to Sony Pictures Entertainment and Columbia Pictures.
Certainly, television journalists already hot on his trail seem unable to understand Southan's motivations. The story of his studio break-ins, perpetrated with accomplice Sara Rimensnyder, 24, managed to make a splash on the new tabloid show Celebrity Justice as well as EXTRA and the Today show, each time without input from the pair of lawbreakers themselves.
Treating it as little more than an unusual crime story, TV journalists didn't seem to fathom the reason the upstarts would break into such a storied institution and videotape themselves doing it.
As it turns out, the two miscreants had even dared to make a movie about their caper.
Their documentary, Sean Connery Golf Project, depicts Rimensnyder and Southan protesting bad Hollywood movies by stealing seven formulaic screenplays, rewriting one, and then surreptitiously returning them. The short film was featured earlier this year at Austin's South by Southwest and other film festivals, and gained the two a small amount of notoriety -- but the showings also alerted Sony, and the studio contacted law enforcement.
On August 28, Culver City police arrested Rimensnyder on a felony burglary charge. Tankenson says charges against Southan also will be filed, even though he has not been arrested.
Rimensnyder's charge was reduced to a misdemeanor when it was filed by the district attorney's office. She faces up to a year in jail and a maximum fine of $1,000, and declined to speak to the Houston Press.
But Southan was freer with his thoughts.
"EXTRA made us look like dangerous criminals," he says. "They said something like, 'Rhys Southan may still be on the run!' "
The television coverage of their crimes has completely missed the point, Southan complains, and he hopes that a full telling of how Sean Connery Golf Project came about might help explain why he and Rimensnyder filmed themselves slipping past less-than-vigilant Sony security guards, sitting on the roof of the Sidney Poitier building, riffling through files in the offices of Gracie Films, pilfering Columbia letterhead and cavorting in the sanctum of James L. Brooks, producer of The Simpsons.
Sean Connery Golf Project is not a great documentary, even by indie film standards. The camera work is sloppy. The sound is so bad that Rimensnyder and Southan resorted to subtitles in places. And even at only 17 minutes, it contains several minutes of extraneous material.
But it's not hard to see why film festival directors snapped it up.
Rimensnyder and Southan portray their invasion of Sony as a half-joking act of civil disobedience against a bloated industry turning out increasingly crappy cinema. Their premise: They attempt to strike a blow for better filmmaking by stealing and then improving one of the potboiler scripts without Columbia's knowledge.
Scott Beibin, director of the Lost Film Fest in Philadelphia, adores the mini-doc.
"I really like the spirit in which it was made Right now we're in a time when big media is consolidating more and more, and we're dealing with so many issues of censorship in the wake of 9/11 hysteria. It's very refreshing to have independent viewpoints," Beibin says. He showed Sean Connery Golf Project in June and said audiences reacted strongly: "People loved it."
The film also was chosen for three other spring film gatherings: South by Southwest, the San Francisco Documentary Festival and an international festival in Perth, Australia.
Southan appeared for the Philadelphia showing and says that "audiences really got into it." Nearly everyone, he says, had a question about the film's legality. "People always asked if we were afraid of legal consequences. I said no, I didn't think Sony would do anything about it It was just a question that I sort of brushed off."
He knew that Sony was aware of the film because some of the studio's executives attended the festivals. What Southan didn't know was that private investigators had obtained a copy of the film. In June, a Sony official claimed to Culver City police that the two scripts Sony was able to identify among those taken were worth nearly $1 million.
But Sony's internal investigation apparently was hampered by the lack of security reflected in Rimensnyder and Southan's film. The studio was never able to identify five of the scripts the couple took.
And according to the police report, when Sony started asking its own employees about the thefts in April -- nearly a year after the two filmmakers began their studio invasions -- the story department still had no idea that any scripts had gone missing.
Southan discovered the lax attitude on the Sony lot by accident, on a day when Sony employees had made him feel unhip and unwanted.
He was in Los Angeles in the spring of 2001 as an intern at Reason magazine, a Libertarian publication. It was another in a series of political internships for Southan. The year before, it had been the National Taxpayers Union. This summer, he schlepped for ABC correspondent John Stossel, a free markets fan.
Southan was particularly drawn to the Reason internship because of where it would take him. Going to L.A. was a pilgrimage for a young man with several student films already to his credit. At UT-Austin, Southan had turned out three documentaries that shared a common theme.
In each of his projects, Southan explains, he's found a likable person or place to profile, but then savaged that subject purely for entertainment value. "I do very mean things with the documentaries, and then you can't show the subjects the film. That's happened with about all of the films I've made," he says.
For example, a professor assigned students to make films about Austin, so Southan took him at his word. But he went to Austin, Arkansas. Although the people in that hamlet were as hospitable as could be, Southan admits that he stretched the truth to make the place seem like a Twin Peaks locale stuck in a time warp. "We definitely made Austin, Arkansas, look worse than it was. I guess it was a pretty weird place to begin with, but we made it weirder.
"I have no problem distorting the truth with a documentary if it makes it more interesting," he says. If that's an unorthodox view for a factual filmmaker to have, Southan explains that he's not really interested in documentaries for their own sake -- he's always seen them merely as a way to get a toehold in the competitive world of making fictional features.
Like untold others, in other words, Southan was looking for his own way to break into the movie biz. He just ended up taking it a little more literally than the rest.
For his next documentary project -- which he hoped would be his last -- Southan was leaning toward something involving sneaking into empty buildings. He stumbled onto the idea when he learned about the steam-tunnel system underneath UT. He started taking friends into the tunnels, and also became interested in climbing roofs on campus.
Then he discovered via the Internet that there was an entire community of people who spelunked in city tunnels or walked across the tops of buildings and called themselves urban explorers.
In case inspiration struck while he was in L.A., he brought along a digital video camera when he arrived for his magazine internship. He met a former Reason intern, Sara Rimensnyder, a UT-Austin grad and alumna of the school's paper, The Daily Texan, where Southan also had worked. Rimensnyder had managed to work her way up to Reason's associate editor position, winning awards along the way.
"She writes well and she writes about interesting stuff," says Reason editor Nick Gillespie. Citing Rimensnyder's criminal case, Gillespie says he doesn't want to comment too much about Sean Connery Golf Project, except to make it clear that his two employees did the film on their own time.
He does admit to liking the documentary. "I just wish if they had rewritten a Sean Connery movie, they had redone Zardoz," Gillespie deadpans.
Southan told Rimensnyder he had a movie camera, and the two brainstormed for documentary ideas while they drove to Paramount Studios one day to attend an advance screening of the movie Orange County.
After discussing his urban exploration ideas, Southan told Rimensnyder that for some reason the thought of clambering over roofs seemed like a good subject for a brief film. Then he mentioned the last time he'd been on a roof, which had been just a few days before.
Southan explained that he'd gone to Sony Studios for an advance showing of Scary Movie II. While he was waiting to go in, he was asked if he wanted to take part in a focus group and be paid $20.
After agreeing, he was taken to a projection room and asked to view three trailers for upcoming features. When those ended, only some of the people in the room were chosen to be part of the focus group. Southan got his $20 but wasn't happy about being left out -- particularly, he says, since it was obvious the employees had picked out folks for their coolness quotient.
Feeling shunned, Southan decided to stay when he was told to leave. No one seemed to notice when he slipped out of the building. He says he decided to walk a bit, then planned to protest his eviction by putting on the skates he was carrying and gliding around until he got thrown out.
He went to the Sidney Poitier building, an office structure that houses Sony's story department. When Southan walked in, the first thing that caught his eye was a staircase marked "roof access."
"I was into roofs at the time," he says, referring to his urban exploration. So he boldly walked up the stairs of the five-story building.
"I was very nervous about the roof hatch. But it wasn't alarmed," he says. He emerged onto the roof, and then ducked to keep from being seen. Above him, a large American flag hung on a pole.
"I guess I'll take it," he remembers thinking to himself, and says it as if it were the most natural thought in the world.
Southan waited several hours for the sun to set to make his theft less visible. Eventually, he made a grab for Old Glory.
"Once I got the flag, I felt really confident about walking around the Sony lot. It no longer seemed like such a behemoth to me."
With the flag, he decided not to skate or do anything else to draw attention to himself. Southan says he just started walking and wound up in the story department. Seeing stacks of screenplays, he picked up seven of them and left.
"It didn't even feel like I was doing something wrong. It was like I'd earned it for walking in there," he says. "It didn't really occur to me that I'd done something wrong until I talked to Sara about it."
Riding to the Orange County screening, Southan told her about the theft and got an earful. But Southan also mentioned that he planned to return the scripts. "She made me feel guilty about it, but then she was fine with it as long as I put them back."
Then Rimensnyder had an inspiration -- that would be their documentary. They would film themselves sneaking the scripts back. Southan added another wrinkle: Before they did, he wanted to rewrite them all. Realizing that would take a monumental effort, they decided to choose the most insipid one to rewrite, since that, they reasoned, would be the most likely to be made into a movie.
Which script deserved that honor? All seven of them were bad, Southan says.
There was Cutmaster Slide: DJ to the FBI, for example, which seemed so ridiculous they couldn't imagine it being made. But at least its premise amused them: A nightclub DJ spots a terrorist, sizes him up through a Holmesian assessment of his appearance and puts just the right record on his turntable. It so affects the terrorist that he breaks down into tears and drops his weapons. The FBI agents who had been trailing the suspect are so impressed, they hire the DJ to be their new secret weapon.
"It was a really cheesy plot, but it was the most well written of the scripts. I actually thought it was pretty funny. Sara thought so, too."
So Cutmaster Slide was out.
They also didn't want to touch the most dreadful of the seven, a script with the title Sean Connery Babysitter Project: Babysitter's a Spy. That screenplay had Connery as a spy who moves in with a woman and her children to keep an eye on his quarry, who lives across the street. While he's maintaining surveillance, he's forced to baby-sit the children when the woman gets a job.
Sony estimated the "developmental cost" of the script at $474,528.25.
"It's the most clichéd story you can imagine," Southan says. "He teaches one little girl ballet moves. Then, of course, it looks like he isn't going to make her recital later in the film, but he just makes it in time, slipping into the back of the room." Naturally, all of the kids end up getting kidnapped by the suspect Connery was supposed to be watching.
Southan says they had no desire to write a script that was so boring and predictable, so they chose another Connery project.
Sean Connery Golf Project was written by Peter Steinfeld, whose other credits include 2000's Drowning Mona and Analyze That, the upcoming sequel to Analyze This.
Southan says it opens with Connery's character being released from prison. He's a golf hustler who decides that it's time to go straight. But when he finds out his girl has been stolen by his best friend and that he's lost his house, Connery's character feels forced to go back to his criminal ways. (Sony's estimate of the script's worth: $513,598.69.)
"This, the ultimate cookie-cutter script, had about as much courage as a platter of Oreos," writes Rimensnyder in a Salon magazine article penned before her legal troubles. Steinfeld's agent, CAA's Scott Greenberg, tells the Press that the writer was too busy to comment on the matter.
Southan and Rimensnyder's rewrite was partly an effort at improvement, but mostly it was pure prank. They chose individual pages, added surreal elements and then made sure that the new pages still fit in place. Besides taking lines away from Connery's hustler and giving them to minor characters, they also gave Connery's golfer a yen for yoga.
"The film's ingenue was transformed from a poor waitress into a bad performance artist with a talent for balancing a stove on her head. She and her fiancé went from a couple who had sex so often they annoyed Sean Connery, to a pair of virgins who pretended to have sex just to annoy Sean Connery. We fulfilled the life of a bitter gangster by showing him the love of a mail-order bride. A storybook wedding -- the film's finale -- became a Vegas affair presided over by a Tiger Woods impersonator who moonlighted as a justice of the peace," Rimensnyder writes in her Salon piece.
The changes took the rest of the summer. "We did think we were making it better, although the changes were pretty outrageous," Southan says. Still, he asserts, they hoped some of the changes might appear in the film.
But for that to happen, they'd have to sneak the script back into the Sony story department.
Rimensnyder and Southan had already made their first invasion of Sony as a duo sometime before. They realized that for their documentary to make sense, they would need to film themselves taking the script in the first place. So they staged that part of the short movie with a romp through the Sony offices.
The two stole onto the lot by re-enacting Southan's first trespass, attending a screening of the film Serving Sara, which at that time still bore the more provocative title Servicing Sara.
They went back to the Poitier building to film the part of the documentary that must have disturbed Sony the most. Southan and Rimensnyder film themselves rummaging around, looking through files and pocketing items. This part of Sean Connery Golf Project plays like the kind of video that police sometimes retrieve from delinquents who have memorialized their acts of vandalism.
However, Southan says the two exaggerated their burglarizing for the camera. None of the areas they were in seemed sensitive, he says. And the stuff they took was trivial, of no value, Southan says. Rimensnyder, for example, pilfered a restaurant menu.
They stumbled upon the offices of James L. Brooks, the Simpsons impresario and producer of such films as Terms of Endearment and As Good as It Gets. (A Brooks employee said the filmmaker had no comment for this article.) In the documentary, Rimensnyder and Southan were clearly thrilled to find the office, and pointed excitedly to the producer's awards on the walls. That's when they discovered that they weren't alone.
Down the hall, a couple of security guards were playing a Simpsons arcade game, and Rimensnyder and Southan realized they could be in big trouble.
They knew there was no plausible story for why a couple of nonemployees were coming out of Brooks's office. For several minutes, the duo hid behind a couch, waiting for the game-playing guards to leave the area.
It turned out to be the closest call for Rimensnyder and Southan, who made five more forays onto the Sony lot. In September 2001, it was time to return the rewritten copy of Sean Connery Golf Project.
This time, they didn't wait for a movie screening. Instead, they boldly drove to the front gate and, without any identification, told the gate guard (truthfully) that they were delivering scripts to the story department.
As in Southan's first adventure, the two hid on the Poitier building roof, filmed themselves watching the sun set, and then descended to the story department after the employees departed.
Their hearts sank when they found copies of Sean Connery Golf Project already there -- with a new cover sheet.
The pranksters' rewrite had taken so long that a new draft had been commissioned by the studio, changing the script substantially. (Connery's hustler, for example, now had a love interest.)
"That's when we realized it wouldn't be so easy to trick Hollywood," Southan says.
Deciding to go through with the swap, they knew they'd at least have to doctor the script to make it look like the latest draft. And that entailed changing it back at home.
So they ended up breaking into the Sony lot twice in a single night.
Getting past the gate guard later that night with the same excuse -- dropping off scripts -- was tougher, Southan says, but it still worked.
By this time, Southan had come up with another goal for the caper: to leave a copy of one of his screenplays behind, disguised as a project already in progress.
While they were dropping off the Connery script, Southan grabbed some stationery with the letterhead of Amy Pascal, Columbia Pictures president, figuring it would be great for making his own screenplay look like an ongoing Columbia property.
He decided to return at a later date to drop off his own work. It would be his final act before returning to school at Austin. Southan scheduled his final break-in for September 11.
For obvious reasons, he put off that plan. When he tried the next day, Sony looked like an armed camp, with beefed-up security in the wake of the attacks.
And yet Southan talked his way onto the lot again. He told guards he didn't have an ID because he was a new Columbia employee who was dropping off scripts.
The screenplay he left there is a parody of the animal rights movement titled Animal Liberation that chronicles the experiences of a young ad exec torn by his loyalties to his trade and to his vegan family.
That sounds nearly as lame as a movie about an aging golf hustler. "I was hoping that I'd cause enough confusion that they'd actually pay me for the script. But they weren't that confused, I guess," he says.
Southan left for Texas immediately after his September 12 sally and heard nothing about his screenplay.
Diane Henry, a Sony spokeswoman, explains why, months after the invasions, the movie company hired a private investigator to track down Rimensnyder and Southan.
"Whenever a crime is committed against the corporation, we take it very seriously. We have a zero-tolerance policy toward theft, and we will pursue all violators," she says.
Southan says he has no plans to answer Culver City police requests to surrender. And he doubts the charges will result in his extradition from Texas.
"Officially, I think we're supposed to be repentant," Southan says, not sounding repentant at all. Asked if he's thought about how Peter Steinfeld might feel about his script being the butt of their jokes, Southan says he does wonder about it.
"This whole episode must be bizarre for him. I hope he's happy with the movies he's written. They're not the sort of screenplays I'd like to be known for. But then, his scripts have been made into movies, and nothing I've ever written has."
He's through with documentaries, Southan says. He and Rimensnyder are now working on a fictional screenplay, but he refuses to describe it. He denies that it has anything to do with the infiltration of movie studios.
In the wake of Rimensnyder's arrest, the duo asked Beibin to stop selling DVDs that contain their documentary, and they also pulled it at the last minute from a Los Angeles festival. Southan says he's eager to get the film out to more people but is waiting to see how Rimensnyder comes out in her criminal case.
He also didn't figure they had much to worry about in the likes of a civil lawsuit, reasoning that Sony would have a difficult time proving damages. The movie based on the Sean Connery Golf Project script -- whatever it turns out to be named -- may actually benefit from the notoriety, he says.
"I think our film could only do good for the release of the movie when it comes out. I know personally I'm going to see it," he says.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.