Film & TV

Pain & Gain Writer Pete Collins' 15 Minutes of Fame Have Arrived

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I begged him to shut up. He kept talking. I'm a sucker for plot, and this story had an old Chrysler Hemi of an engine. It was roaring in my head from the first needle drop.

So I began to gumshoe. I studied the Sun Gym Gang's sick escapades in reams of court papers at the State Attorney's Office near Jackson Memorial Hospital. Years in the making, it was among the best-documented cases in Florida history. Torture, two murders, and a bunch of steroid-using, half-witted Miami Lakes bodybuilders who were almost begging to get caught.

The trial began in February 1998 in courtroom 4-1 at the Metro-Dade Justice Building. Muscles, drugs, ambition, greed, murder, and lunacy were all on display. It was creepy enough to make me want to shower before and after I got out of the place. The trial lasted five months. I attended every day. None of the accused took the stand.

The most spectacular testimony came from former Penthouse model and Solid Gold center-stage stripper Sabina Elena Petrescu (Israeli bombshell Bar Paly in the film), one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen in person. She testified against mastermind Daniel Lugo (Wahlberg) and henchman Adrian Doorbal (Mackie).

Lugo told her he was a member of the CIA, she said. At first she didn't believe it, but he convinced her with a tale of living in a tree in Hong Kong for a week. She guessed that was because his parachute broke. Then he deputized her by giving her a beeper that flashed "007."

The courtroom exploded in laughter. Rattled, Petrescu took a drink of water and fell backward on the witness stand. Her nether parts were exposed for all to see. The bailiff swooned and the judge had to clear the courtroom.

Then came the return of the jury verdicts: Both Lugo and Doorbal were guilty. And there was a multiyear sentence for Miami Shores accountant John Mese, who owned the Sun Gym. He died in prison.

Marc Schiller, who had survived torture and escaped, returned from Colombia to testify during the death penalty phase. After stating his peace, the victim left the court. The FBI swooped down and arrested Schiller on the courthouse steps for a multimillion-dollar Medicare fraud. (He later went to prison on a lesser charge.) The perfect end to a perfect trial.

I spent almost a year writing the story. I had the good sense to keep out of the way of its haywire internal logic — and simply state the truth. I published it in Miami New Times, a monument to social realism, the Magic City, and the tenets of Tom Wolfe's new journalism. Published over three weeks, it was the longest piece to appear in that paper's pages.

As the calendar hit 2000, the phone rang. Just as I had hoped, it was a Hollywood rep calling for Mr. Collins. I'd get more calls during the next months. People loved it, but no one ever made an offer.

I earned a master's degree and picked up a one-year full-time English composition position at a swanky university in Coral Gables. I was rewarded with a $25K salary. After that year went by, I latched on to several adjunct teaching positions. That's the last exit before poverty. Then, one day, an agent called. Paramount Pictures wanted my story. A hot new director named Michael Bay would direct the movie. They offered a contract that gave them exclusive rights for three years.

Well. That's still pretty terrific, right? Not as much as I thought. There was a small payout and then nothing.

Soon I left Miami to be with my old girlfriend in a major theme-park Florida city north of here. Poverty wages continued until I snagged a three-year contract teaching job at the University of Central Florida for $23,000 a year. In 2004, Paramount sent some more money.

By this time, I had discovered a ping-pong pattern to Michael Bay's career. He would state publicly that he desired to do "his small film" (meaning Pain & Gain) and then make a major mainstream smash. He had directed Bad Boys in 1995 and then signed on for Bad Boys II, which came out in 2003. Both were set in Miami. Then came a sci-fi movie called The Island. To my horror, Bay next fell under the spell of some guy named Spielberg and turned his attention to some old TV cartoon called Transformers. As each installment of Transformers got bigger — there have been three so far (number four, starring Wahlberg, is slated for release next year) — Bay would mention his desire to shoot Pain & Gain.

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Pete Collins