When it comes to success, some find it through persistance and perseverance; others stumble upon it by simply being at the right place at the right time. But for Michael C. Martin, a former MTA worker, his big break came in the form of a major car crash. Martin, 30, originally from East New York, Brooklyn, was a former film student with Hollywood dreams. Life intervened; he ended up working as a subway flagger for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Until, that is, Martin seriously injured his back in a 2005 car accident. To make some extra cash, he entered a screenwriting contest, hoping he’d snare the $10,000 prize.
Through an unlikely chain of events, in less than three years, Martin went from toiling in subway tunnels to working on Hollywood sets. His debut film, Brooklyn’s Finest, starring Don Cheadle, Ethan Hawke, Wesley Snipes and Richard Gere, captures the volatile and deadly world of the roughest precincts through the eyes of three conflicted NYPD officers. (It opens this weekend.)
How he finally got to the big screen might strain credulity, Martin says, but really, luck had nothing to do with it.
The Root: Your story is incredible. Describe your life before Brooklyn's Finest.
Michael C. Martin: In high school, I lucked into this film class, and it stirred up a passion. [After graduation] I didn't receive any amazing film scholarships, so instead I became a working man. Still trying to make my dreams to happen, I attended film school, never, however, to be a screenwriter. I studied movies; my plans were always to direct short films. After getting into my car accident in 2005, not having a car kept me from directing.
TR: When it hurts enough not to have it, you'll find a way to get it, yes?
MCM: Exactly, I needed a car. In 2006, I saw a screenwriting contest online, I entered solely to get the money. While I was in rehab for my back, the story finally all came together, handed it in on the very last day possible—and lost. I did become a finalist, but I definitely didn't win. A few months later, I met a producer named Jeanne O'Brien, who got a hand on my story and helped put me in a position to get a movie made. [Initially,] the script was submitted to Thunder Road Pictures to be used as a proposal/sample for me to write New Jack City 2. But they read Brooklyn's Finest, liked it, and sent it to the executive producer for Training Day, who then sent it to director Antoine Fuqua. After that, it pretty much took off from there.
TR: Wow, but how did the story, 'all come together’?
MCM: Brooklyn's Finest came about because my roommate at the time had just joined the police academy, and he was constantly telling me stories. One of which was when he wasn't yet a cop, and he had decided to make a citizen's arrest for people selling porn tapes to underage kids. He got chewed up by his higher-ups, who said it wasn't his business. It gave me an idea for a story: Police officers trying to do the right thing, but being told they are better off doing the wrong thing. I never wrote the Brooklyn's Finest script for it to ever be made into movie. I wrote the script from the perspective of, ‘I'm from Brooklyn; I'm writing about people I know and things I know.’ The situations, the dialouge … that is what people respond to.
TR: That has to be what director, Antoine Fuqua, responded to. Were your visions for the film similar?
TR: All the actors in Brooklyn's Finest are phenomenal thespians, but which actor do you really feel brought his character to life?
MCM: At the time of casting, it blew my mind that some of my favorite actors were auditioning for a part in a movie I wrote, especially Ethan Hawke that played the character Sal. It takes a really dedicated actor to really to get into the heart and soul of someone portrayed as ‘twisted.’ He would always say on set, 'It's great to play real people.' He understood that people are out here making really tough decisions daily, hence becoming my favorite actor when the movie was over.
TR: What's the biggest lesson you learned from this process?
MCM: It's one thing to sit in a room by yourself and write something; it's another thing to be in the production office with 50 people involved. It's then that you realize how every line, and every motivation in every line will be dissected. It's a process that makes you a better writer because of the questions you don't have as writer, but the director or editor will have. If you don't go through the process, you will never understand that.
TR: Do you feel like you were able to write an epic cop film with Brooklyn's Finest?
MCM: Yes, it's unique because the movie highlights a sense of twisted morality. There are certain decisions people can look at and will say, 'Well, when you’re put into that position, you have to do something.' That's what makes it epic to me, to bring someone to that reality. To have someone to walk into a movie theater with certain beliefs, but to go through a cinematic experience and walk believing something else? That is epic.
TR: How drastically has your life changed?
MCM: Everything happened very fast. They started pre-production much quicker than usual. Every day for a month, I would call in sick to the MTA, in 2008 I ran out of sick days, so I had to resign. I'm not Hollywood, but I do love what I do now; glad I no longer work 12-hour days in a subway tunnel. My family thinks they are all going to be stars, and I finally have a car—a Chevy Malibu. (Laughs.)
TR: Many hear your story, and say this guy, Michael C. Martin, got randomly lucky … do you agree?
MCM: I admit the quick story is: To see a guy, he's working a regular job, get in an accident, decide to write a screenplay … and it's that easy. But I've busted my ass on short films, editing jobs, [production-assistant] jobs and intern jobs—most I didn’t get paid for, having to work another job for money. I went through a lack of money, lack of sleep and an endless amount of ‘No’ to chase a dream that seemed so far away. Even this script first got a no, but the success story is a man who secretly tried countless times, and ultimately very publically got one. My story isn't as much about luck, as it is not being afraid to fail.
Shirea L. Carroll is an lifestyle/entertainment writer and event consultant. Follow her on Twitter.
The original version of this story included a picture of Michael Martin, instead of Michael C. Martin. He was misnamed in the Getty Images database. The picture has since been corrected.