How an Ex-con Kicked Heroin and Became An International Drug, Sex, and Literary Icon

by: Kidman J. Williams

 

Heroin addiction, federal prison time, an alleged new case pending, and even mixing business with the drug cartels in his addicted past. These crimes are not usually uttered in the same sentence about a successful author with a cult hit bookthat’s being made into a movie by the infamous creator of Spun, Will De Los Santos, and starring Nick Stahl (Bully, Terminator 3).

Love in Vein is an uncivilized ride through the dark throes of heroin verse; exemplifying a potential life of love, freedom, and success.

It can be amazing what six months can do for a person. Good and bad, ups and downs, and some people just can’t lift their lives out of the puke filled toilet that they try to drown themselves in.

That is not Ryan Leone.

In these last six months Leone had been slapped with a new pending court case and could be looking at another four years in prison.

This led to a destructive threesome between Leone’s girlfriend Karina Franco and Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Not quite the threesome that leads to any real fun. It was a two-fifths a day habit that reduced them to homelessness, and Franco getting pregnant ,forcing the two to either die in an alley while the devil laughed at them from the furious pit below or for them to get sober once and for all.

The couple chose sobriety and Leone started hustling to provide, he quickly signed contracts for two major television shows and sold the rights to his first novel to become a feature length film.

With the two shows in development, the adaptation of his book Wasting Talent was cast and went into development as Love in Vein with Stahl set to play the lead role. Will De Los Santos is also directing the script he adapted and Chris Hanley (executive producer of American Psycho, Buffalo 66, Spring Breakers) will be producing this gruesome and hilariously macabre look at heroin addiction.

This put Leone in the throes of success with the screenwriter of Fight Club attaching himself to write a documentary about Leone called, “Idiot Savant: The Savage Life of Ryan Leone,” celebrities are throwing charity events for him, along with million dollar offers for the rights of his life story.

It really seems like the next six months will solidify Leone as a true blue Hollywood “IT-boy.”

We caught up with Ryan Leone and the producer/director Zack Warren

 

GONZO TODAY: Ryan, you’ve reached an entire new level of success. How are you feeling about it?

RYAN LEONE: I think every writer has fantasies about their first book being life-changing with the unspoken promise of grandeur. I wrote Wasting Talent during a long stretch in federal prison and those internal promises literally saved me from losing my fucking mind. There were times when I was in the inhumane and cruel confines of solitary confinement; the only thing I had was dissecting my past and paving an idea for my future. I had these visions of stardom and believed in the dream so strongly that it carried me through the long, dizzying intervals of silence and helped heal those torturous gasps of introspection. I can honestly say I’m happy right now and I’m reaching the success that I envisioned back in those really difficult years of incarceration. Unless you’ve experienced prison, there’s no way to understand it. Jail isn’t even close in comparison to the kind of violent penitentiary I started my first prison sentence at. It was terrifying: hell on earth. It’s more than just the ominous tension or the inevitably blasé exposure to extreme violence. It is the sheer inhumanity and animalization of predominately drug addicted or mentally-ill inmates.The guards are insufferable and they constantly told me how worthless I am. I went into prison a gentle drug addict and came out a hardened man. I love myself but hate some of the lingering attributes that refuse to leave me from prison. The biggest psychological blemish was my deflated self-esteem. I got out of prison confident and even cocky, but deep down I looked at myself as a defective. I made a lot of unorthodox career decisions and then all of my dreams just started to manifest recently. I finally have my pride and confidence back. Karina got pregnant and it changed everything. It was like injecting my ambitions with steroids. I’m ecstatic that I’m financially independent and getting a lot of international recognition, all for my writing and without formal education. I did it, I reached the goals I set out to reach. That stuff is amazing but I I’m most proud of the son I’m about to have. He has a beautiful mom that I love and adore and I can’t wait to start this journey with her. It’s the most profound feeling I’ve ever experienced. When I see my friends and the joy that their children brings them, it shows me what I want. At the end of the day, it’s not going to be the press I received or the films being made about me or books being published; it’s going to be those precious memories that I create with Karina and my son and giving my wonderful parents a grandson that they deserve. That’s the memories that I’d think about if I was ever stuck in solitary confinement again. That’s the shit that matters most to me.

 

GONZO TODAY: Is Wasting Talent a metaphor for your life?

RYAN: I intended it to be a metaphor for my life. I was saying that all human beings inherently possess mechanistic tentacles that dictate what they chase in life. Some people pursue money while other people go after love, sex, power or fame. We are creatures that have multiple “needs” and misspend the majority of our energy towards a single obsessive “want. ” I’m a drug addict and an artist, my life story is a living and breathing contradiction; I have success looming ahead but I always find ways to self-destruct and subconsciously sabotage my own opportunities. I know that I’m not the only one cursed with these tortured attributes. It was always hard for me to discern what I was ultimately chasing in life and I learned while writing Wasting Talent, that a lot of drug addicted artists are chasing the exact same paradoxical “want” — a fear of isolation and a desire to be left alone.

GONZO TODAY: What was your first impression of each other ?

RYAN LEONE: I’m not going to go into all the gory details because of legal reasons but I was in a bad place when I met Zack Warren. I was flat broke and my relationship with Karina was tumultuous. We spent a lot of time at parks or abandoned houses because we had nowhere to hang out. Nobody wanted us around with all the drama we would bring with us. I would show her skateboarding videos on my phone, she always seemed totally unenthusiastic until she saw Antwuan Dixon, who is essentially the bad boy of professional skateboarding. He had just gotten out of prison for assaulting three police offers while he was touring and his career was on a rapid downward trajectory because of his addiction problems. He was covered in tattoos, his face and everything. She was fascinated by him and I thought it would make a good show. I didn’t know what the show would be and honestly didn’t have a way to even make it happen. I used to work with Spike TV years and years ago and was thinking if I could somehow reach out to Antwuan, that maybe I could figure it out once I got him involved. I tracked down Antwuan and he said he was down for a show. He brought up Zack, saying he had been filming him for years and that we should “like join forces.” He put me in touch with Zack and we instantly connected. He used to be the head of original content for Havoc TV and had done a ton of high-profile original ad content, everyone from Red Bull to Warner Brothers. We just clicked and we conceptualized an idea for a TV show: an Intervention for millennials. We thought it would be more accessible for the millennial demographic if it was someone with a pre-existing established following (e.g. MMA fighter, underground hip-hop artist, DJ, pro skater.)

Most importantly we both believe in progressivism and using media as a way to make the world a better place. Zack taught me about marketing decks and he owned Wingtip – so we had fantastic in-house production. It took us like two weeks to make an 8 minute sizzle and a cohesive piece that he had directed and I had written. I took it to Spike TV and it wasn’t a good fit for them. I had already brokered a deal for my dear friend and favorite writer Tony O’Neill, and was going to be an EP on a premium show so I wanted to use my momentum to take meetings and it worked. I taught Zack what little I knew about the film and television industry and this amazing symbiotic creative relationship blossomed. We made something that industry people really loved and we were proud and knew we were capable of projects that were much more ambitious and larger in scope. We became incredibly close and I can say this honestly, I love Zack like a brother. He got money in my pocket and really believed in me, helping me refurbish my self-esteem and making me feel confident again. We started hearing at pitch meetings, that my story was the big story. I agreed to it to provide for my family and because I trust Zack. He’s an amazing talent, young and self-made, and just like me — loyal to a fucking fault.

ZACK WARREN: At first I didn’t know how to take Ryan.  Antwuan called me and told me that he had a guy he was speaking with that used to work with Spike TV and he wanted to do a show with him.  I’ve worked with a lot of pro

skateboarders over the years and I’ve seen a lot of phony and weird agent/producer types try to make “youth culture skate tv” so I was essentially accessing the situation for Antwuan.  We jumped on a call and Ryan was 100% honest with me about his background, his idea for the show, and I was transparent with where I was at and from there it was solid. The show morphed into subject matter that was extremely impactful and from that point we have just continued rolling out a ton of other socially-minded intellectual properties.

 

GONZO TODAY: How was it working on Resurrection?

ZACK WARREN: The only way I can describe that project is seamless. We both grew up skating and the main subject matter at the time, Antwuan Dixon, was a friend of mine that I had already produced one-act, short form docs with him as the subject. Throw in Ryan’s expert ability to write and it really opened my eyes. I’ve been making content for over 12 years, and I’ve  been blessed to make a good living doing so but the one thing I was missing was actual writing. With the advent of streaming services digital content needs to be spoon-fed daily, it’s easy to get wrapped up in making branded content. That said, once I saw the writing and structure that he was bringing, coupled with my in-house production capabilities, it became seamless and we got it done in literally two weeks.

GONZO TODAY: How did Idiot Savant come to be?

ZACK WARREN: Ryan & I were working on the Resurrection project together and after that particular project’s package was finalized we started to take meetings. We were aggressively pitching Resurrection and a ton of networks and services were jumping on it but time and time again all signs kept pointing to doing a documentary on Ryan’s life.  Not to sound corny… but the stars aligned. We were stunned we got Jim Uhls from Fight Club. Ryan has had an insane, one-of-a-kind life and career. That, with the copious amount of existing footage Ryan had amassed over the years and you get a recipe for a story that has to be told. He’s fascinating, It’s going to be absolutely groundbreaking.

RYAN LEONE: I’ve thought about a documentary about my life before. I had my first short story published when I was nine. I grew up in an upper middle class family and got into drugs young, spending most of my teenage years in lockdown facilities for troubled adolescents. I started working in television in my early twenties and started simultaneously  selling heroin, got accidentally entangled with a huge international cartel, served a five year prison term, and became a cult novelist, television and film producer. I think there’s a lot of questions to seek to answer that will resonate and are universal. We have it all on archival footage. It’s remarkable how much footage we actually have and it’s not always flattering. I’m hoping I don’t embarrass my parents or extended family. 11 years ago an extremely talented underground filmmaker named Steven Gabriel was working on a pilot for Spike TV with me and started filming my heroin and crack addiction. We lost touch and I tracked him down for this project. He was living in San Antonio and had pretty much given up on the dream. When I found him on Facebook his first response was, “Dude! You’re alive? I told people stories about you and thought you died. I told people that!” We flew him out yesterday. He’s an incredible talent just like everyone else involved and he’s completely undiscovered in my opinion. He reminds me of Larry Clark in the Tulsa photography days, totally Cinema Vérité, raw, and avant-garde. We are excited to incorporate Zack’s impeccably glossy vision with Steve’s groundbreaking eye. He released some short-form docs and the material is fantastic, he doesn’t demand from the audience – he lays it out naked with true journalistic objectivity. The aesthetic is honestly the best portrayal of heroin addiction I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait. Jim Uhls has been amazing. He hasn’t written the script yet but we talk everyday, I love Fight Club and it still trips me out when I ask him about a scene and he tells me the inside scoop about how he wrote it. The script for Fight Club should be mandatory reading in film schools. That’s an important indictment on contemporary masculinity; scarily prophetic and it set the standard for transgressive films that came after. I’m a shameless fan. He has been so kind with his endless wealth of knowledge and insight. We’ve become friends and it isn’t all business, we talk politics and conspiracy theories and trade inside jokes daily. He’s a sweetheart and I have the outmost respect for him as a human and his artistry is incredibly special. We are thrilled to have Nick Stahl narrate. Karina and I watched Bully our first date. He’s so raw in that film. It’s a real honor. I’m thrilled that Tony O’Neill will be the music director. He was actually in The Brian Jonestown Massacre – the hippest junkie band of all time. Tony and have been working on a collaboration together and my second novel will be the first installment of a series we created. His writing is unmatched, I’ve said before that he’s my favorite living writer. Sick City is the best novel written in the last twenty years. Although I know him on a close personal level, I still feel star struck when he calls. He’s incredible. All of our crew are friends, the producers are my best friends of twenty years – who had addiction issues of their own, cleaned up, and have become successful in their respective careers. I’m forever indebted to Geoff Derose and Max Perutz. Will Santos is also an executive producer and just like Nick Stahl being involved, Love in Vein has an obvious and direct relationship with Idiot Savant. Will is a friend and has seen me at my worst and never given up. I’m grateful that he continues to offer his guidance and support, I’ll forever be thankful for everything he’s done.  I’m hoping they are released together. Either way, this thing came together quickly and I’m humbled by it all.

 

GONZO TODAY: What do you hope you accomplish with Idiot Savant?

ZACK WARREN: I hope to tell an impactful and honest story about Ryan’s insanely complex life. I hope to give youth something and someone they can relate to. I hope to pull the veil off of the unjust prison system to show America the reality of how unfairly we treat addicts and non-violent offenders in society.  I have a lot of hopes but honestly, if just one kid doesn’t go down a similar path or we open a national dialogue and shed light on these archaic policies that desperately require sweeping reform, then it will be worth it for me personally, and I hope to have the kind of positive societal implications that Ryan has always hoped to foster with his writing.

RYAN LEONE: It’s hard for me to look at all of this with any kind of objectivity. I’m an artist and I want to contribute as much creative power to create a groundbreaking documentary. But it’s about me and I’m the main subject so I have to be sensitive to myself and make sure that this isn’t exploitative. Zack was kind enough to give me final cut and he’s been incredibly supportive from day one; both financially and as a committed friend. I need to remember that there’s a lot of private home video footage in this film, from my warm and benevolent childhood to my juvenile delinquency, legal issues, nightmarish drug addiction, career success, and turbulent personal relationships. I won’t allow my parents to be embarrassed and ultimately I’m writing a cautionary love letter to my unborn son, “Hey, this is what I did wrong and these are the mistakes I made that you don’t have to.” I want to celebrate my life because parts of it are incredibly special to me but I also see an opportunity to illuminate the fallacies of our criminal justice system. I want to address addiction and mental health. I just want to be part of the solution. If I can change a small decimal point in the toxicity equation of mass incarceration, police brutality, and the hellacious drug epidemic, then I feel like we did something worth doing.

GONZO TODAY: How did the Jerry Stahl thing happen?

ZACK WARREN: Ryan has spoken extremely highly of Jerry Stahl and considers him his literary mentor. At this point, with the barrage of of national media attention, Ryan facing another lengthy prison sentence, becoming famous and financially independent, expecting his first child, and the terrifying potential obstacle of him returning to addiction, it’s just hard for him to trust people. Jerry is the only guy he trusts to adapt some unreleased material from Ryan that’s only a two hour audio recording at this point, that’s frankly, the most compelling story I’ve heard in my entire life (its been circulating Hollywood for a week or so with extreme interest from big name players.) I reached out to Jerry, we had an amazing conversation and connected on a personal level. Jerry isn’t just an illustrious talent or author celebrity that had Ben Stiller play him in a biopic; he’s also very kind, cool, and mellow.  I sent him the audio file Ryan recorded from his home, Jerry listened to it, and he said, “I’m in.”  It was pretty quick and natural, and I’m excited to be a part of that project as well, I’m certain it will be truly special just like anything that has come from Ryan’s fascinating but tragic life experience.

 

Image #1 by Tyler Kindred – photo editing by Kidman J. Williams

Image #2 by Tyler Kindred

Image #3 by Ryan Leone

Image #4 by Geoff Derose