Durant’s Movie

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A movie has been made about Jack Durant, the founder of Durant’s, the iconic Phoenix restaurant. It debuts January 21. We’ll show you how Durant’s colorful character is the highlight of the film shot here in Phoenix.

Ted Simons: The man behind Durant's, the iconic Phoenix restaurant, is the subject of a full-length feature film that premiered today at the Renaissance Phoenix Downtown Hotel. Producer Christina Estes takes us behind the scenes to show us how and why the movie was made.

Travis Mills: I thought, okay, I keep passing this restaurant. And I heard all of these rumblings about it. So I thought, okay, I will dig a little deeper and I found out about Jack.

Christina Estes: More than 50 years after Jack Durant tried to make it in the movies, a movie is being made about him.

Travis Mills: He is a legend. He was never quite good and never quite bad.

Christina Estes: His life story never quite been clear, not even to Travis Mills. He wrote and directed the film "Durant's Never Closes," based largely on Mabel Leo's book, saga of Jack Durant.

Travis Mills: He came here from Tennessee, spent time in Miami, Arizona, supposedly helped run a brothel, worked in the mines and -- also spent time in Vegas, where he supposedly knew Bugsy Siegel, the famous mobster, and then he came to Arizona and opened Durant's in 1950.

Christina Estes: According to Leo's book, Durant landed a small part in a Western, but his movie career never took off. Still, Durant's became the place for Hollywood stars in Phoenix. Celebrity sightings, dim lighting, and a questionable owner attracted the locals.

BJ Thompson: The right people started to come here, and they would tell a friend and a friend and became, you know, the elite of Phoenix.

Christina Estes: For 15 years, BJ Thompson served as Durant's maître d.

BJ Thompson: Very busy.

Christina Estes: She knew who to see, where, and when. She often served up to 300 lunches in a single day. Thompson's laps around the restaurant were always made wearing high heels.

BJ Thompson: Mr. Durant required the girls to wear dresses or skirts, no slacks.

Christina Estes: Before people used the term politically incorrect, they probably would have used Jack Durant, known for using foul language, calling women "broads" and hitting on female customers. But Thompson says he always treated his workers well.

BJ Thompson: He would come in and go to the bar and stay there a while and maybe on his way out he would come by and take my hand and say, here, buy you a cool one on the way home. And it could be anywhere from $20 to $100 bill. It didn't matter. He with just reach in his pocket and whatever came out that is what you got.

Travis Mills: I heard a story about getting mad at a customer and him running into the kitchen to grab a meat cleaver and everyone in the restaurant having to stop him from killing the customer.

Christina Estes: Those contradictions became a key focus during filming. Tom Sizemore plays Jack Durant. It's the first time Mills has worked with Hollywood talent.

Travis Mills: I felt he had a great understanding. He said something to me like there is everything in this character that you would ever want, sadness, happiness, danger, loneliness, and everything is right here in this guy and when he saw that, I thought, yeah, he can do it.

Tom Sizemore: Durant's never closes, ever, thanks a lot.

Christina Estes: Michelle Stafford plays Susie, Durant's third, fourth, maybe fifth wife. No one knows for sure.

Michelle Stafford: I love a film environment. I love a bunch of creative people getting together wanting to make something great to entertain others. I really dig that. Any group that wants to do that, I want to be a part of that group.

Christina Estes: The film takes place in the '70s and includes a scene about the murder of Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolls. A source had promised him information about land fraud involving organized crime but never showed for the meeting. As he left, a bomb ripped his car apart. 11 days later he died.

Travis Mills: Supposedly the murder was planned inside Durant's, and that is what he claimed and what people have said for years. We don't make any grand statements in the movie about Durant's involvement, but it is definitely a representation, is Durant a good by, bad guy or walking a moral gray line, which is what the film is really all about.

Mills' team transformed a Sound stage into the replica of the restaurant. Going Hollywood on a Phoenix budget requires patience and practicality. Mills has both.

Travis Mills: Most people would make this movie for $3 to $5 million. We are making it for $500,000.

Christina Estes: That means spending less cash wherever he can. Buying used carpet tiles at thrift stores saved him $700.

Travis Mills: $700 doesn't sound like a lot, but it will matter if we save on every purchase. So, that is creative producing to me.
My hope is that this movie really puts Phoenix and Arizona on the map in terms of making it a film-making town.

Michelle Stafford: I don't think it is too local. Because it is -- it is a human story. And well told people will just be interested in seeing it.

Christina Estes: While Jack Durant struggled with his people skills, he aced his rapport with animals.

BJ Thompson: He loved his dogs. I think they were probably number one before any of us.

Christina Estes: His final pet was Humble, the English bulldog.

Travis Mills: Humble comes from his slogan, in my humble opinion, Durant's is the finest eating and drinking establishment in the world. He won second place in a competition for best slogans.

Christina Estes: When Durant died in 1987, he left Humble his house and $50,000 allowance. Humble plays a special role in the film's final moments but Mills won't reveal the details. The restaurant is run by the family of Durant's former partner, but the namesake is never out of sight. Photos line the walls of the restaurant that Durant never wanted to close.

Ted Simons: The film can be seen started tomorrow at Harkins Theaters. You can learn more about the film at durantsnevercloses.com. That is it for now. Thank you for joining us. You have a great evening.

Video: "Arizona Horizon" is made possible by contributions from the friends of Arizona PBS, members of your PBS station.

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