Back in the 1990s, when Stephon Marbury was one of the Timberwolves’ most promising stars, a self-taught beginning screenwriter in Brooklyn Park decided to adopt the lead guard’s nickname as a good-luck token. Mike Sims chose the pen name Michael Starrbury because his own sounded “too boring.” And while Marbury fizzled, Starrbury’s career soared.
He smoked the competition for IFP/McKnight Artist Fellowships for Screenwriters, winning the award three times. “I think they should rename it the McKnight/Starrbury award,” he joked last week, relaxing in a St. Louis Park Caribou coffee shop after an afternoon basketball game at the Jewish Community Center.
His winning 2011 entry, “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete,” attracted Alicia Keys as producer, Hollywood veteran George Tillman Jr. (“Faster”) as director, and Jennifer Hudson, Jordin Sparks, Anthony Mackie and Jeffrey Wright as stars. The feature-length drama premiered last week at the Sundance Film Festival, which is, Starrbury observed, “harder to get into than Harvard.”
The title characters are a streetwise, neglected Brooklyn eighth-grader and his vulnerable 9-year-old friend. Their bond of loyalty as they hide from police and forage for food, with only each other to trust, made a big impression on Shari Frilot, a senior programmer at Sundance. She called the coming-of-age tale “indelible … fantastic … stunning … a beautifully observed and tremendously moving film about salvation through friendship and the way transformation sometimes can happen just by holding on long enough.”
The film contains several small salutes from Milwaukee native Starrbury to his adopted hometown. Thirteen-year-old Mister, a would-be actor, entertains little Pete with impressions, including a rendition of Steve Buscemi’s sputtering kidnapper from “Fargo.” When Pete asks what that movie is about, Mister explains, “white folks who talk funny.”
At 25, Starrbury was living in Dinkytown with few possessions but an air mattress and a duffel bag full of clothes. When a neighbor moved out, he offered to give Starrbury a desk. “To fill up the apartment, I said yes,” he recalled. “I looked at that desk and said, ‘I want to write a movie now.’ ” He pulled a crew and cast of volunteers together, filming on Super 8. “I thought, ‘This is not too tough.’ Then I tried it and, wow, it was not as easy as they make it seem.”
While he was working as a computer-support tech, “I would come home and tinker and I didn’t really know what I was doing. But my wife [Tina Sims, an interactive design director] told me to go for it.”
“I was a complete outsider, with some books by Robert Rodriguez and Spike Lee, and the screenplay for ‘Pulp Fiction.’ I’d seen enough movies that I thought I could give it a shot. I knew I wasn’t very good, but I could get better if I kept going.”
In 2000, he became a finalist for the McKnight fellowship with a corny comedy called “Mood Swing,” about a guy who becomes whatever he touches. After his script’s encouraging reception, “I had some hope and started to concentrate. It took years, but I’m still learning. I actually like that. That’s the fun part.”
Starrbury, a 1993 Osseo High School graduate who turns 38 next month but looks younger, was planning his Sundance trip late last week. “Mister” has two public screenings, and Starrbury said he hoped to attend both. “Depending how well the movie does,” he added with a laugh. The film was shot last summer in New York City, and Tillman invited the writer to look at cuts of it. Starrbury, who is juggling a full plate of screenwriting assignments, didn’t have time. In 2011 he sold a series pilot to Comedy Central that was directed by David Gordon Green (“The Sitter”) and starred Ving Rhames.
“Black Jack,” about an ornery Iraq vet returning to civilian life, wasn’t picked up, but it put Starrbury on Hollywood’s radar. In short order, he sold another series idea to ABC, took on a rewrite of a Tupac Shakur biographical drama, and adapted the science fiction comic book “The Great Unknown” for Warner Bros. Now Starrbury writes while his 8-year-old, Jasiah, is in school and Jaxon, 3, is in day care. Posters for “Batman Begins” and “The Shawshank Redemption” flank his computer screen for inspiration.
His script “Watch Roger Do His Thing” made the coveted Black List of Hollywood’s best unproduced screenplays. Looking back, he’s happy he chose the nom de plume Starrbury, “the coolest name on Earth,” but surprised to hear people call him that.
“I never expected any of this to happen, so it’s weird to see that in the credits. The guys I play basketball with don’t know I’m Michael Starrbury. To them I’m Mike Sims.”
Colin Covert • On Twitter: @ColinCovert