‘Deadline’ updates tale of Charlotte reporters’ quest for justice

Tale of Charlotte reporters’ quest to solve murder aims for ‘CSI’ generation

ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com April 15, 2012 

From left, Matt Harper played by Steve Talley and Ronnie Bullock played by Eric Roberts get pulled over by Olen Perringer played by Joe T. Blankenship in "Deadline."

  • The Raleigh premiere of “Deadline” starts at 6 p.m. Wednesday with red carpet arrivals at Regal North Hills Stadium 14, 4150 Main at North Hills St. The screening is scheduled for 7 p.m.

    Tickets are available at http://deadlineraleighpremiere.eventbrite.com. Prices start at $25.

An avid reporter never wants to let go of a piece of news until it receives its due. But that can work the other way, too: A piece of news may bite hard on a reporter and never seem to let him go.

Charlotte’s Mark Ethridge has been hooked by the killing of a black teenager in Fairfax, S.C., for almost four decades. He brought the story to light with fellow reporter John York in the mid-1970s, as a Charlotte Observer newbie. In 2006, he came up with “Grievances,” a novel about the incident.

Now comes the movie, renamed “Deadline” to make its journalistic roots clear. It gets a red-carpet premiere Wednesday in Raleigh. Premiere proceeds will benefit the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina.

“This is not Mark Ethridge’s life story,” said Ethridge, president of Carolina Parenting Inc.Producer-director Curt Hahn noted it is “inspired by a true story. As Mark likes to say, ‘It’s not all factual, but it’s all true.’ ”

The killing happened in 1970, the same year as a racially motivated murder in Oxford that inspired the nonfiction book “Blood Done Sign My Name.” But the S.C. murder had never gone to trial.

“A few years later, an academic type shows up in the Observer newsroom with a stack of folders,” Ethridge recalled. “He says, ‘I think I’ve solved a murder.’ You had to talk to these people, in case this was the one out of a hundred who was telling the truth. He was a rich Yankee blueblood named Beekman Winthrop, and he was right.”

The tale contain a lot of detail from Ethridge’s life: The main character marries an intelligent and independent ceramicist, as he did, and comes to grips with a father – a famed journalist dying of cancer – who has never fully expressed his love.

Hahn and Ethridge had known each other as classmates at Phillips Exeter Academy in the 1960s. Decades had passed without contact when they met at a 40th class reunion.

“He said he’d been approached about optioning ‘Grievances’ for a movie,” Hahn recalled. “Mark really wanted to stay involved with the story. But when he expressed the desire to write the screenplay, Hollywood people would say, ‘Thanks very much. We’ll get a professional to write it.’

“When I first talked to him about partnering on the movie, I told him I’d want him to do it, because he’d lived that story.”

Financial constraints inspired changes. Hahn knew Tennessee locations, so the “Charlotte Times” office was reproduced in the Nashville Tennessean. Ethridge trimmed a couple of dogs from the story because their handler wanted $10,000 to put them on the set.

Hahn felt the plot had too many male heroes of roughly the same age. So they kept the crusading reporter (played by Steve Talley), crusty newshound (Eric Roberts) and crafty editor (Jeremy Childs). But they turned the character based on Winthrop into a woman, played by Lauren Jenkins.

More crucially, they updated the story to the present.

Now they had no worries about possible 1970s anachronisms or depictions of clunky computer monitors, which might be off-putting to the flat-screen generation.

“We wanted this film to be accessible to all ages, especially people in their 20s who don’t appreciate newspapers as much as they might,” Hahn said.

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