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Attorney turns scriptwriter after his kids leave the nest

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Published:   |   Updated: May 25, 2014 at 07:43 AM

— Three independent films about coping with middle age — written, directed and produced by the same team of filmmakers — will be produced in Tampa during the coming year.

The local attorney who wrote the scripts credits his own midlife crisis for the inspiration.

Tom Parnell, 55, was an involved father of two children until they grew up and moved away from home. Parnell cast about for something to do.

“I can only play so much golf, and I’m not a big fisherman,” Parnell said. “Parenting gave me fulfillment. When my kids were out of the house, I looked around and wondered, ‘Now what do I with this free time?’”

He decided to try his hand at screenwriting.

His first film begins production in July, the second is scheduled for later this year and the third sometime in mid-2015.

The first one, “120/80,” is about a middle-aged man whose nagging wife and boss are to blame for his high blood pressure.

“Hence the title of the film,” Parnell said. “When the lead character’s doctor suggests he blows off steam he does so in some creative and dark ways.”

The plot is reminiscent of the Michael Douglas thriller “Falling Down,” about a man who snaps under life’s pressure and goes on a murderous trek through Los Angeles. But in Parnell’s film, the lead character retains most of his sanity and carefully plans out his journey.

“It’s not graphic violence. It’s more like a dark comedy that I think everyone will find funny but middle-aged men will really relate to.”

The second film, titled “Pointless,” seeks to capture the drama of middle age. It is about a middle-aged man beset by loneliness, on the brink of suicide and searching for meaning in his life.

Parnell wouldn’t talk about the plot of the third film because it is still a work in progress.

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Other than their time of life, the lead characters have little in common with Parnell. “Not to worry,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m not going to snap. I’m having too much fun.”

The first two films have a budget of around half a million dollars. He expects the third to be double that.

At least 70 percent of the money will be spent locally.

Independent filmmakers reach out to people in the Tampa film industry regularly with boasts of six-figure projects, never to be heard from again, said Dale Gordon, Hillsborough County’s film commissioner.

The film “120/80,” Gordon said, is for real.

“We’re very excited about the project and think it is going to be very successful,” she said.

Parnell credits his success so far as a screenwriter to Mark Savage, an Australian native living in Laguna Beach, California, who will be directing Parnell’s scripts.

Savage is a 30-year veteran of the entertainment industry who has worked in commercials, reality shows and independent films.

They met through a mutual friend in September. Savage was preparing for his next film — “Pond Scum,” about a scorned woman setting out to confront her boyfriend when she encounters a monstrous killer — and he offered Parnell a small part.

“I’ve been acting in courtrooms my whole working life,” said Parnell, who was on the public stage in Tampa as attorney for families of the victims in the fatal 2004 Jennifer Porter hit-and-run case. “He figured that counted as experience.”

Savage said Parnell was like a sponge, hanging around the set even when he wasn’t part of a scene so he could watch everyone at work.

“It was his baptism by fire,” Savage said. “He caught the filmmaking bug. Once he was on set he didn’t want to leave and wanted to know how everything worked.”

When filming was complete, Parnell mentioned to Savage he wanted to write screenplays and asked if the filmmaker would read a film treatment he wrote based on his career as an attorney.

Savage admitted he rolled his eyes at the would-be screenwriter. He is approached by so many.

Still, not wanting to offend his friend but not expecting much either, he agreed.

“But he gave me a 40-page treatment filled with intricate detail,” Savage said. “Most people don’t take the time to do something that detailed unless that are very serious.”

Savage provided Parnell an honest critique and said he was willing to help.

Via Skype and email, the two bounced ideas off each other and eventually moved on from the legal script to new ideas that became “120/80” and “Pointless.”

Savage agreed to direct “120/80.” Parnell became the executive producer, putting some of his money into the pot and financing the rest through local business owners.

He hired an entertainment lawyer to handle all legal details.

“I’m not a fool,” he said. “Practice what you know.”

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However the films do in the market, Parnell is not ready to give up his career as an attorney.

“Never,” he said. “I love being a lawyer. What I want is two careers I love.”

Savage has no illusions about the films’ prospects. He doesn’t expect international theatrical release but maybe on DVD.

It’s already a success in Parnell’s view.

“My only regret is that I wasn’t doing this 20-30 years ago,” he said. “But maybe I wasn’t ready then. I’m ready now.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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