As a top adviser to Jeb Bush’s failed 2016 presidential campaign, Mike Murphy was unable to convince Republican voters that Donald Trump was a disastrous businessman and charlatan unfit to run the country.
Now Mr Murphy is hoping to have the last word, this time via the big screen. The veteran Republican political strategist is shopping an unflattering movie project about Mr Trump’s ill-fated Atlantic City days.
Eighteen months ago he quietly bought the film rights to the book Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump — His Cunning Rise and Spectacular Fall, a first-hand account by John O’Donnell of his agony as a top executive at Mr Trump’s Atlantic City casinos in the 1980s. Dan Sterling, writer of the current Hollywood hit Long Shot, has turned it into a screenplay, which the two have begun circulating.
“We see it as kind of an origin story about young Donald Trump, who took his bad initial habits and kind of got worse in Atlantic City,” Mr Murphy explained. “And our main character, Jack O’Donnell, is kind of a metaphor for the country — attracted to the success gospel and everything but the more he learns about Trump and the more he works for him the more he sees that the emperor has no clothes and, in fact, has massive character flaws.”
Mr Sterling’ screenplay, titled The Drop, opens with a shocked Mr O’Donnell, then a 33-year-old executive, being rushed to Mr Trump’s new Taj Mahal casino on the eve of its grand opening in 1990 to discover a chaos that, Mr Sterling writes, “feels like the fall of Saigon.” The casino has not secured its licences from state authorities. A panicked Mr Trump comes into view. His first words are an expletive. And then a meek plea for help.
Mr Murphy has never been shy about his distaste for Mr Trump. He has run campaigns over the years for John McCain and Mitt Romney, and was a charter member of the so-called “Never Trump” contingent of the Republican party.
Less appreciated is that in addition to his political work, he has spent the past 10 years toiling as a writer in Hollywood. Mr Sterling, meanwhile, is no hack: Besides Long Shot, he has also produced episodes of Girls and written for The Office and South Park, among other shows.
The two men believe the recent revelations in the Washington Post and New York Times about Mr Trump’s business stumbles — denting the image of the self-proclaimed Master of the Deal — have given their project urgency. Yet their efforts to market the script were interrupted by the recent labour dispute between the Hollywood writers guild and talent agencies. To comply with guild rules, the writers were forced to fire their agents.
Not wanting to delay, they decided to take a novel approach: advertising their script on Twitter. “It’s a story that — in addition to being entertaining — it’s just something that people really need to know,” Mr Sterling said.
In attempting to bring Mr Trump to the big screen, they face the dramatic challenge of telling a story about one of the most visible — and polarising — characters on earth. Love him or hate him, audiences may already feel they know everything they care to know about the 45th US president.
But Mr Murphy and Mr Sterling believe they have a fresh take. Unlike other Trump observers, Mr O’Donnell worked alongside the man for three years, giving him an insider’s perspective.
Moreover, it is not the Trump from the White House or reality television so familiar to the public but an earlier version. “This is Trump in his mid-30s . . . which is not the caricature we see on Saturday Night Live,” Mr Murphy explained. “This is young, chasing Marla Maples down the elevator, swinging bachelor Donald Trump in 1988.”
Asked if he had a star in mind, Mr Murphy did not hesitate: “[Ryan] Gosling would kill it!”
Mr O’Donnell’s book, published in 1991 to respectable reviews, may have been overlooked because it predated Mr Trump’s political career. It includes plenty of titillating and peculiar details — from his boss’ energetic courtship of Ms Maples to his love of the “binary contest” of boxing, his mortal fear of baldness, and his disdain for the working-class folks who flock to his casinos.
The larger impression it conveys, though, is of an erratic executive who knows little about the gaming business, and does not care to learn. At one point, according to Mr O’Donnell, Mr Trump is determined to throw out a Japanese high roller who is winning big money at his casino rather than following the tried-and-true approach of keeping the gambler at the table so he can give it all back. As Mr Trump’s over-extended empire tilts, he becomes desperate to extract as much cash as possible to keep creditors at bay.
“[Trump’s] greatest negotiating trick is the fact that he doesn’t mind breaking the deal. A handshake? A contract? It doesn’t matter. It means nothing,” Mr O’Donnell said, reflecting on those years. “That’s what he did to every vendor in Atlantic City — he just refused to pay.”
He wrote the book out of disgust at the way he felt Mr Trump disparaged two senior executives, and close friends, who died in a helicopter crash while on company business.
One place where Mr Sterling’s script veers from Trumped! is the attempt, as with any Hollywood biopic, to provide a neat psychological explanation for the man at the centre of the action. In their telling, Mr Trump’s hard-driving father, Fred, has much to answer for.
“Fred Trump is a big part of the equation here,” Mr Murphy said, speculating that the young Mr Trump was ultimately motivated by an attempt to please his distant father.
In an early scene of the script, their contrasting business approaches are displayed. “You know how I got rich? I built something working people needed,” Fred says, disdaining his son’s Atlantic City dreams.
“Yeah, you build what they need,” Donald replies. “But I’m gonna build what they want.”
“Donald started cutting a lot of corners to get some love from his dad that, you know, it’s hard to see he ever got,” Mr Murphy observed. Then he said of his script: “It’s somewhat sympathetic to Trump.”