It's been a long and sometimes winding road for neophyte filmmaker Pete Jones.
It started more than a year ago when he, with a song and a prayer, got in line with 7,500 other aspiring filmmakers and submitted his script for a movie by e-mail to the Project Greenlight Web site. The brainchild of Matt Damon, Ben Affleck and Chris Moore (their producing partner on "Goodwill Hunting"), the project was designed to give a neophyte with no industry connections the chance to hit the big time the first time out.
When the smoke cleared, the 31-year-old Jones emerged the winner of the competition. It guaranteed him a budget of $1 million from Miramax Pictures to turn his script into reality, with Affleck, Damon and Moore producing.
The movie, "Stolen Summer," was shot in 25 days in Chicago earlier this year, and on Jan. 12, it will be unveiled publicly for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. In late February, Miramax will release Jones' opus in North America.
Set in Chicago in the '70s, it tells the simple story of a friendship between two 8-year-old boys, Pete, an Irish Catholic, and Danny, who is Jewish. Pete is terrified when told by his nun teachers that unless he radically changes his ways, he's on a sure path to hell.
He is taken to a shiva house in Chicago's Jewish area by his fireman father, where he meets Danny. The youngsters strike up a friendship and begin a dialogue over the summer on the subject of getting into heaven.
Danny, it turns out, has cancer, which is in remission, but as the boys' friendship and competition grows, he has to undergo aggressive chemotherapy. As a result his health goes downhill.
Pete devises a "spiritual decathlon" involving running, swimming and throwing rocks to get his Jewish friend into heaven
"It's not sappy," Jones insists, "and I wanted to avoid the 'disease-of-the-week' type of movie. So we avoided that pitfall by keeping the kids dialogue real, by not trying to build up emotion if it wasn't there. We show two little kids talking to each other the way kids talk to each other and not the way adults view them talking."
Ironically in the film, the Catholic boy is played by Adie Stein, the son of New Jersey Rabbi Jay Stein, who became a consultant on the picture. Danny is played by young actor Mike Weinberg from Los Angeles.
Even with his sparse budget, Jones' script attracted a solid cast of adults, including Aidan Quinn, Bonnie Hunt, Kevin Pollak and Brian Dennehy. The actors were so impressed with the story that they worked for union minimum.
Though Jones' prize-winning script is fictitious, he grew up as one of six in a large Irish Catholic family. "A lot of my pals at school were Jewish," says the ruddy-faced Jones, who looks like a rather chubby leprechaun. "Stolen Summer" never happened to me, but the environment of Danny and Pete was one I knew well."
The philosophical background of the story also resonated with him personally. "Growing up, there was a lot of talk about the differences between Christianity and Judaism. But I saw a lot of similarities, especially when it came to annoying mothers," he laughs.
HBO viewers already know the history of Jones' impossible dream. His climb from obscure innocent to embattled movie auteur has been chronicled weekly in the 13-episode documentary "Project Greenlight," which has been airing on the cable channel throughout December and continues into January.
In the film, which Jones says was more reality TV than documentary as far as he was concerned, we see his battle to get the movie made from the initial screening process in the competition -- the judges were not unanimous on the choice of Jones and even Affleck felt the film might come across as "an after-school special" -- to hard-nosed conflicts with the money men at Miramax.
The movie and the documentary, which will conclude with the Sundance screening, has dramatically changed Jones' life since the days when he and his family were about to go back to the Midwest with their tails between their legs.
"People are calling and friends I went to sixth-grade school with have been calling to congratulate me," he confesses.
It was, he admits, an ordeal by fire but he would do it again.
"This was the most rewarding thing I've ever done. I never had a job where I wished there were more hours. And I learned a lot: filmmaking is an incredible balancing act, to stick to what you believe in and at times defer to others who have experience. Making a movie is above all a collaborative experience."
And when it comes time to pitch his next film idea in Hollywood, he'll have a heck of a calling card, and they may even recognize his face. Oh yes, and he has Ben Affleck's home number.