The past few weeks have been particularly busy ones for Scott Budnick, the 36-year-old executive producer of the hilarious, cringe-inducing, and incredibly lucrative Hangover film franchise. In case you hadn’t noticed, this is opening weekend for The Hangover Part III, starring Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms. It is almost certain to kick ass at the box office—at least so long as they didn’t let Mike Tyson sing again.
Yet even as Budnick prepared for his big premiere, the ink was still drying on the incorporation papers of his other major launch this month. Unlike the comedies he produces—Starsky & Hutch, Project X, and Due Date are also among his babies—the Anti-Recidivism Coalition is serious business. It’s a nonprofit whose task is neither glamorous nor lucrative, and whose payoff will be measured not in ticket sales and licensing deals, but in bills passed, lives saved, futures salvaged, and families reunited.
ARC is just the latest of Budnick’s efforts to ensure a second chance for young California prisoners who have shown the will and the desire to make something of their lives. It’s partly a support network for high-achieving former prisoners—many of whom have Budnick to thank for the education they managed to get behind bars. But it’s also an advocacy group that uses the kids’ turnaround stories to convince jaded state legislators that rehabilitation is possible, if only they would enable it. His kids have already managed to restore $1.8 million in state cuts to prison college programs. In recent weeks, they have been rallying behind SB 260, a bill that guarantees a sentencing review after 10 years for prisoners who committed their crimes as minors. If a young offender has taken serious steps toward rehabilitation, the judge could reconsider his sentence.
“I was very skeptical when I first met him,” recalls Julio Marcial, who oversees violence prevention programs for the California Wellness Foundation, one of Budnick’s primary funders. That introduction took place at the Sylmar branch of LA County’s juvenile hall, circa 2003. Budnick was volunteering at the time (and still does) with InsideOUT Writers, a Hollywood nonprofit that brings journalists and creative types into juvie to help incarcerated kids find positive ways to express themselves. “I’ve seen Hollywood folks come and go. I’ve seen people do this to make themselves feel better,” Marcial says. “But when I asked the kids why this program was so important to them, they said Scott was the consistent adult in their lives. He became a fatherlike figure to them.”
“He’s the real deal,” confirms my friend Alex Busansky, a former prosecutor who has served on the Los Angeles County Commission on Jail Violence and now runs the National Council on Crime & Delinquency.
Marcial told me how Budnick carries around a little black book during his prison visits to keep notes on the kids: Names of kin, how they ended up in prison, case details, things like that. “He literally follows them up and down the state. There are 33 adult correctional facilities in California, and Scott has visited every one of them,” Marcial says. “He works with kids we’re extremely mad at or scared of. These are people we run away from. Scott runs to them.”
Perhaps it speaks to Budnick’s dedication that he was willing to speak on extremely short notice—and on the eve of his film’s premiere, no less—about how an Atlanta kid made it in Hollywood, the doors that star power opens, and what inspired him to become a voice for the voiceless.
Mother Jones: You were raised in Atlanta. How did you end up in the film business?
Scott Budnick: I was pre-med my freshman year at Emory University. My very first semester, TNT was shooting a miniseries called Andersonville, about a Civil War prison camp. They needed like 3,000 extras one weekend, so they came around and started recruiting students to portray soldiers. I think we went down at like 5 o’clock in the morning.
All the guys I was with hated it. It was probably 40 degrees out and we’re in tattered Civil War uniforms with, like, fake lice in our hair. [Laughs.] And we’re prison inmates, which is interesting foreshadowing for the work I would end up doing. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, John Frankenheimer, the director, said, “Let’s bring the rain machines in,” and they started raining on us! At that point all of the stuck-up rich kids from Emory were like, “Fuck this! We’re leaving.” But I was watching John Frankenheimer on a crane, swooping down filming this incredible scene, and it just blew my mind. It was in that moment when I said, “Holy shit! People get paid for this?” And pre-med went out the window.
MJ: What did your parents think about that?
SB: My dad was a doctor. I went and told him, “You know, I don’t think the medicine thing is for me.” And he said, “Thank, God. I never thought it was the right way for you. You’re much more of kind of a hustler who always has to keep moving. Medical school would have just killed you.” So Andersonville was fortuitous.
MJ: And then you went back for more.
SB: I started interning for the casting director of Andersonville, and became a casting assistant in Atlanta while I was going to college. I was going out to LA interning every summer. It was during my first internship, on Baywatch, after my sophomore year, that the prison bug caught hold of me, but that’s another story.
By the time I graduated, I had some cool movie and TV stuff on my résumé. The next day, I packed up the U-Haul, hitched it to the back of my Ford Explorer, drove cross-country, and set up shop in LA in June 1999. I spent three months struggling—couldn’t find a job, running out of money—and ended up getting a call from DreamWorks about a director shooting a movie in Atlanta called Road Trip. They flew me out and put me up in a hotel for this one film. It was [Hangover director] Todd Phillips’ first movie out of film school. Fourteen years later, we still work together.
MJ: How is it that they called you?
SB: I had kind of aggressively sent my résumé—often. Then, through some mutual friends, I met with some folks in the DreamWorks production department. When they decided they were going to shoot in Atlanta, they saw the experience I had, and decided to bring me in.
MJ: You were that kid who won’t take no for an answer!
SB: I definitely was. And the funny thing is, they still hadn’t offered me a job, but they really wanted to shoot at Emory, and Emory wouldn’t let them shoot there because they’d had some bad experiences. And I said, “If I can get you Emory as a location, will you give me a job?” They said, “We’ll do everything we can.” I ended up calling the chairman of the board of the president, whom I met when I was there, and gave him the hard sell of DreamWorks and Steven Spielberg and everything else. Emory said yes, and the producers were so blown away that they offered me the job.
MJ: Did Todd Phillips sort of take you under his wing?
SB: Yeah, he did. I started working in casting on Road Trip, and the more he got to know me, the more he started pulling me into the kind of stuff he was doing and working directly with him. By the end, I was kind of the go-to guy on everything. When he was going to do Old School, he sent me the script and asked me to give him notes. I did, and he called and said, “I want to bring you back on this, and you’ll be my assistant, and I’ll give you an associate producer credit.”
MJ: That’s great. So how’d you get involved with kids in prison?
SB: Back in 1997, the producer of Baywatch, Greg Bonann, gave me a Rolling Stone article and said, “Read this and tell me if it’s a movie.” It was about these four kids in Agora Hills [Los Angeles County] who ended up going to buy marijuana from another kid. There was a fistfight, and one kid pulled out a Swiss army knife and jabbed another guy, and the kid bled to death internally. It turned out the kid who got stabbed, even though he was dealing drugs, was the son of a high-ranking LAPD officer. And this officer used a lot of influence and got the DA to prosecute them under the felony murder law, where all four kids were found guilty of first-degree murder even though three of them never touched the weapon.
So four kids without any priors got life without the possibility of parole. That was my first taste of this type of injustice. I got in touch with the kids and the families, and I ended up sending the story to a producer, who loved it and optioned it for HBO. So I started flying out to California to visit the kids in prison before I even left Emory.
MJ: What were you studying at Emory?
SB: Business major, film minor.
MJ: So you got this personal look at prison life early on?
SB: Yeah. That really piqued my interest. Then when I moved out here, I spent my first few years working in Hollywood and kind of staying within the bubble, going out to nice restaurants and bars and hanging out with other assistants and talking about the business. After three or four years, I just found that so incredibly boring. And luckily Matthew Mizell, a friend of mine who works for another filmmaker, said—it was 2003 at this point—”Come down to Sylmar, I teach this creative writing class.” So I went. It was truly one of the most humbling, mind-blowing mornings of my life. And that kind of started my journey.
MJ: What was so striking about it?
SB: It opens your eyes to what’s really happening in our cities. I sat at a table with 12 kids, 14 to 17 years old, who were all facing life in prison. None of them had fathers and they’d all been physically or sexually or emotionally abused, and very poor schools and poor peers and very loose family structure—not enough discipline and not enough love. Most of them came from the foster care system. Then one day they decide not to be victims anymore and they commit a crime and they hurt somebody, and to me it’s like society threw them away and forget about them. The idea that intrigued me the most was, “They go from the kids that we pour our hearts out to to the kids we are terrified of because of one action?” I thought, you know what, I think I can have an effect here. I can understand these kids’ stories. I tried to just go in and be there for them.
MJ: You came from a pretty nice neighborhood, I take it.
SB: Yes, I had a nice upbringing. But I feel like I understand human nature pretty well. I don’t think it takes somebody that had personally lived that experience to relate to these guys and show them a better path.
MJ: It seems like your work in the prisons has expanded in tandem with your success in Hollywood. How has producing a few blockbusters opened doors for your prison work?
SB: I feel like there is a useful admiration thing with folks in government, with them being enamored by my business and me being intrigued with what they do. It definitely opened up doors within the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), where I could get in and talk about some of the problems I was seeing—a lack of programs and a lack of rehabilitation. And we were able to work together to create a few different systems of how we classify the kids coming in, how we get them into school and college and trade programs that are interesting to them. Especially with the success of The Hangover, I’ve been able to leverage the work I do to help the kids. I’ve been able to bring together different foundations or individuals I work with in entertainment. And last year I realized that so much is just purely political. In terms of legislation, having someone from my business coming to Sacramento and speaking to people who matter and raising people’s eyebrows felt like a game changer, too.
MJ: A lot of people view the California prison system as this vast, monolithic, uncaring institution. How receptive have you found them to be?
SB: It’s a mixed bag. You have corrections employees who believe that anyone that commits a crime is trash, and we shouldn’t spend a cent on them—and prison is for punishment and not rehabilitation; they probably amount to 15 or 20 percent of the folks in CDCR. Probably another 20 percent believe incredibly strongly that rehabilitation is the job of the prison system and that they could make a difference in inmates’ lives. And then there’s 50 to 60 percent who are bureaucrats that rose up the ranks, and they’re just going to clock in and clock out. Luckily the leadership over the last six or seven years has been nothing short of exceptional. But oftentimes those beneath the leadership believe in passive resistance—if they resist long enough, that person [the secretary of corrections] will be gone. It’s a culture that’s in desperate need of reform, and it’s going to take years for that to happen.
MJ: What do the kids think about this rich guy coming in and spending time with them?
SB: I think at first I was looked at as this rich guy from Hollywood who probably wears cool tennis shoes or something that’s intriguing to them. But after a while that goes away, and they’re wondering if this is really a guy who will fight for them. So it takes time. Once they realize what I’ll do if they show that they are serious about changing their lives and really doing the right thing, then I think that ends up defining our relationship. By the way, when I go into prisons, inmates are coming up to me literally every five seconds going, “Aren’t you the Hangover guy? Aren’t you the Hangover guy?” It definitely is an interesting identity.
MJ: That could get really annoying.
SB: How can one complain about a movie like that becoming a phenomenon? If that’s what it takes to open a door or open a kid’s mind or get them to think differently, then God bless The Hangover!
MJ: In 2012, Jerry Brown named you California’s Volunteer of the Year for an innovative program you initiated. What was innovative about it?
SB: If you are a child being tried as an adult, and you go to adult prison at age 18, previously the prison system would not look at you as an individual. They would just look at your age, your immaturity, the length of your sentence—no factors that showed who you were as a person and where you wanted to go. They would use that to calculate a certain number of points and send you to a high-level prison with a lot of violence and no programs and no real opportunities to educate yourself. I started seeing kids that were desperate to change their lives, but who were being thrown to the wolves. So I went to CDCR and said, “I feel like you guys are jeopardizing public safety. You’re taking kids who are passionate to change while they are in juvenile hall and as soon as they hit the adult system, you throw them into a place where change is virtually impossible. And we need to do something about it.”
And they did. We created a pilot program where every single kid in LA County coming into the prison system, if they are doing the right things on their own, gets to a place where they can get their high school diploma or GED, go to college classes, learn a trade, be in self-help programs and substance-abuse programs, and actually rehabilitate themselves.
MJ: But only in LA County?
SB: Right now. But the great news is that I was in a meeting last month where they decided to expand the program systemwide. That’s coming from the top—the secretary and undersecretary of corrections. But I can already tell there’s a bit of passive resistance from beneath in terms of prioritizing this, so I’m trying to deal with that right now.
MJ: That is great news.
SB: I’m sure my friends in the media can help me push the department to do this. And if the folks beneath the secretary and undersecretary don’t come around and make this happen in the next few months, there are a couple of legislators who will want to write bills to force them to do it.
MJ: You lead this sort of double life. Do people find it jarring that you create these nutty comedies, and then have this dead-serious passion on the side?
SB: Yeah, it’s crazy. Sometimes I realize it, too. I’ll hear that one of my kids who left juvenile hall and went to Men’s Central Jail at 18 is going through something difficult or was the victim of violence. So at 7 o’clock in the morning, I’ll be walking the tiers of Mens’ Central, and then leave at 8 to be at Warner Brothers for an 8:30 meeting about a comedy. It’s pretty surreal.
MJ: Who else from Hollywood have you gotten involved in this?
SB: I have guest speakers coming into juvenile hall virtually every week, so there are tons of writers and directors and filmmakers contributing. My lawyer, a former DA who used to send these kids to prison, is now a teacher at InsideOUT Writers. Jake Gyllenhaal, when he was doing research for Brothers, reached out to me—I didn’t know him—he was going to play an ex-con. I brought him into Sylmar and over to Men’s Central Jail and out to Lancaster Prison all in one weekend. He really bonded with the kids and stayed in touch with many of them and has come back to juvenile hall many times and has really been selfless in his help and his dedication. He’s probably stepped up the most.
MJ: How did the Anti-Recidivism Coalition come about?
SB: Over the years, a lot of these kids I’d worked with who took part in some of my college programs came out of prison and were going into universities, community colleges, great jobs. I started seeing this really cool network of ex-offenders, ex-gang-members, ex-inmates who were beating the odds in monumental ways. I see it as an incredible game-changer when someone who is told his whole life that he’s not going to amount to anything gets into prison, start taking college classes, and slowly but surely starts to view himself as a college student and worthy and smart and a good brother—or sister. Someone that can make a difference. You just kind of see their identity entirely shift. That to me is the most beautiful part of the work.
As these guys were getting out, we started doing these retreats where we’d just meet up for a weekend at these campsites and we’d bring mentors and lawyers, folks from different walks of life who work with this population. Then it just morphed into this really great private Facebook page where people supported each other and we had events, and people got together. It became this really kind of incredible family.
The lightbulb went off when we went to Sacramento to advocate for more humane sentencing for juveniles, specifically a bill called SB 9, and saw a bunch of our guys wearing suits and speaking incredibly articulately and being able to say, I was this, and now I’m just graduating from university, or I am working as an architect, doctor, or lawyer—and we have many of those—and show the legislators that if you believe in young people, look what can happen!
I started to see that there was not an organization out there that had high-achieving guys coming out of prison who could articulate why hope is important and why kids deserve a second chance and why kids are different from adults. I’ll give you a specific example: The governor slashed $100 million out of the prison program budget, which was going to end the entire college program for thousands of inmates. We organized a conference call with eight guys and girls who got their college degrees while in prison. And with an incredible staffer, Anthony Williams, who works for the Pro Tem Senate President Darrell Steinberg, they discussed the importance of college and why $1.8 million of funding should have been restored for college students. They provided research on recidivism rates for guys getting out of prison with AA degrees and going into universities—which is under 1 percent. So, these guys told their personal stories, and that day the funding for the college program was restored.
MJ: You must be really proud of that.
SB: I was proud of them. I mean, there are other groups that do this kind of advocacy, but it’s more of a kind of “Fuck the system” advocacy. Like “End the prison-industrial complex!” There wasn’t anyone that could go and sit down with both sides of the aisle. I mean these guys are so effective with Republicans, it’s unbelievable, because they can really show the cost-benefit of giving a young person hope to change their lives versus keeping them in prison for life. Even beyond the fact that you’re sending a changed person back into their community to help with their younger brothers and cousins and nieces and nephews, but just the financial savings of not having to lock someone up for their lifetime.
We sat down with one Republican legislator whom I won’t name. And he said he’d been thinking one way about young people in prison for 50 years, and not until these people walked in did he ever think he was wrong. And it was shocking to him that he had been wrong for 50 years of his life.
MJ: Julio Marcial tells me you’d rather be introduced as an advocate than as a Hollywood producer. Is that the case?
SB: I’m incredibly proud of the movies we make. I always felt like I wanted to make movies that made more of a difference than a comedy. But during the recession, when I saw people laughing at The Hangover as they did, and so many people coming up to me at different panels and stuff and saying, “Thank you for making that movie during the most difficult time of my life,” and giving me their personal stories, I really kind of appreciated the film work more. But obviously, the work with the kids makes so much more of a personal difference. It’s just a huge part of my life at this point. It’s something that I’ll never give up.