Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: Sony Pictures-based producer Matt Tolmach has acquired The Big Cigar, and has attached Little Miss Sunshine‘s Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris to direct. Tolmach, the former production president who most recently produced The Amazing Spider-Man for Sony, bought the project out of his discretionary fund. Joshuah Bearman and Jim Hecht are writing the script. The pic is based on an article that Bearman wrote in the December issue of Playboy Magazine, about Black Panthers co-founder Huey Newton and a successful covert effort to smuggle him out of the U.S. and into Cuba to avoid prosecution for murder and a second violent crime.

Newton was aided in that effort by Easy Rider producer Bert Schneider, a notable counter-culture figure at the time who among other things quietly funded Abbie Hoffman when he was living underground in the 70s after being charged with setting up a drug deal. Schneider, who hatched the TV series The Monkees and produced the Vietnam docu Hearts And Minds and The Last Picture Show, set up a movie built around Newton called The Cigar. He never intended to make the movie, but it provided Newton the cover he needed to get himself and his girlfriend at the time out of the country.

Newton had already served time for previous violent crimes and tried to duck charges he was involved in the shooting death of a 17-year-old Oakland prostitute, and also for pistol-whipping his tailor. His fear was that the government would use the charges to railroad a conviction and silence him. The fake movie premise is somewhat reminiscent of Oscar contender Argo, but here, The Big Cigar allows for a glimpse into the turbulent and politically charged period and the volatile figures at its center like Newton. It’s subject matter I find fascinating. Newton would return from Cuba three years later to face the charges, and he was eventually shot to death at age 47. Schneider died last year.

Dayton & Faris are known to be very selective about the films they get involved with. They took several years before following Little Miss Sunshine with the recently wrapped Ruby Sparks, the film that Zoe Kazan wrote and stars in with Paul Dano. They are repped by UTA as are the scribes. Hecht is managed by Gotham Group.