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Tom Morgan makes documentaries about unseen heroes, perils

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Charlotte’s Tom Morgan produces documentary films, so it would have been no surprise to encounter him this summer with his hand outstretched for money.

The location – Trade and Tryon streets – was unusually public. The 43 investment bankers and UNCC professors he recruited to beg alongside him looked odd. But in this case, he was making a point: A proposed city ordnance to forbid panhandling was a bad idea. And that ordnance did not go forward.

This is not the Tom Morgan who made a rewarding living as an investment banker for more than a decade. It’s not even the funky Tom Morgan who owned a Michigan bar where Grand Funk Railroad prepared for a comeback tour in the early ’90s. (More on that later.)

It’s the purpose-driven Tom Morgan, and his new purpose is to alert you to the realities of homelessness in “These Storied Streets” and the generosity of a Nepalese woman who pulls small children out of prisons in “Waiting for Mamu.”

He makes public wake-up calls because he answered one himself three years ago.

In his investment banker days, he wrote a fictional screenplay, “Death Insurance,” that had homeless people in it. After a public reading at Story Slam, a stranger asked what he really knew about the homeless population. Answer: not much.

Morgan found out that many homeless people aren’t mentally ill or substance abusers: They’ve slipped out of the mainstream when a check didn’t come through, and they couldn’t pay the rent. His daughter told him four homeless girls attended her public school. The tipping point came when he went to New York to pitch an investment deal to Malcolm Bricklin, designer of the Bricklin SV-1 sports car.

How it first went down

Morgan met Jonathan Bricklin, who’s making a documentary (“The Entrepreneur”) about his dad, with Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”) as executive producer. Tom Morgan remembers things this way:

“I’m telling Morgan Spurlock my idea. Susan Sarandon walks by – she was dating Jonathan – and Morgan says, ‘Tom’s gonna do a movie about homelessness.’ Susan asks, ‘How can I help?’ Half-jokingly, I say, ‘Well, you could do the voice-over.’ She casually says, ‘Sure, whatever you need.’

“The next day, Malcolm looks me in the eye and says, ‘Son, you’re in the wrong place. You’re a good investment banker, but that’s not your path. I see how your face lights up when you talk about this movie.’ So I go home and tell my wife, ‘We have to find a way to make this happen.’ ”

Malcolm Bricklin laughs when he thinks about that encounter: “I’ve sort of adopted Tom as my seventh kid. I have six boys, and my advice to them all is to follow your dream, and that will make you happy. When Tom’s feeling like he needs pumping up – maybe he’s not sure if his direction is correct – then we sit and talk.

“It’s so simple, the advice I give him: ‘Just put one foot in front of the other and keep doing it.’ A lot of people stop at a spot where they don’t know what they’re going to do next. If they look back, they realize they’ve solved problems like this one before. Tom’s got balls, and he perseveres.”

So how did Morgan get to this point, for which nothing in life had prepared him?

Bred to do business

After majoring in marketing in college, the eastern Michigan native bought a biker bar in Vernon, Mich., with a buddy.

“Vernon Pub was the biggest space in a one-block town,” he recalls. “Grand Funk played there before their reunion tour. I bought a Harley and rode it up the stairs to my apartment – very ‘Animal House.’ ”

He needed a fresh start in 1994, came to Charlotte to sell corrugated boxes and went through “a horrible divorce.” He got into real estate, then commercial real estate, then financed commercial real estate deals, then became an investment banker.

“I always wanted to write,” he remembers. “But that was considered useless where I grew up. You were supposed to go to work for GM in Flint or East Lansing.”

His professional life changed dramatically after his sister, Jennifer Anne Morgan, died in a still-unsolved 1994 homicide at Francis Marion College in Florence, S.C. A decade later, Morgan exorcised his sorrow by writing “Among Brothers,” a fictional screenplay in which a fraternity covers up the death because a member killed the girl. (Charlotte director John Schwert filmed Morgan’s script in 2005.)

He figured out how to be a writer, leaning on longtime TV producer and former Charlottean Barry Weitz for advice. (“He was the first person to show me how a script should go,” says Morgan.) Weitz later moved back to Los Angeles, so Morgan has had to teach himself how to produce and direct.

“Tom’s ‘secret’ skill is that he doesn’t always know how to do what he agrees to do,” says Deborah Bosley, who was chairman of the board at The Light Factory when Morgan became a board member. “Does he need to go to film school to learn to make a film? No, Tom will figure it out as he goes along. He is not thwarted by lack of experience or knowledge.

“Tom is a consummate networker: He has been able to make connections in a relatively short time that would take others years. He does this because all you have to do is spend five minutes with him to know that he means it: He will dedicate his life to what he believes in.”

Friends, family and good fortune

Morgan knows he’s been lucky in his compassionate second wife and family, who sometimes show up in his blog “One Foot on Life’s Banana Peel.” (The title refers to the uncertainty we all face. Read it at onefootonlifesbananapeel.com.) He says spouse Jenny Bonk met his change of heart “not by saying ‘Are you crazy?’ but with ‘Absolutely. We’ll cut back on what we don’t need and make it happen.’ ”

When he needed a crew for “Streets,” Jonathan Bricklin introduced him to Jack Henry Robbins, Sarandon’s son, who had just graduated from the University of Southern California film school and was driving to New York with fellow film students. Robbins ended up as his co-director

When an investor pulled out, and the “Streets” crew couldn’t finish its shooting schedule, Morgan sold a valuable TAG Heuer watch Bonk had given him for his 40th birthday. He didn’t want to tell her he’d used it to pay movie bills. But when she found out, he says, her response was simple: “No big deal. It’s only a watch. I’m glad, because I thought you’d lost it.”

Morgan is amazed that people “come out of the woodwork to help. I’ve never paid an attorney on a film. I had a conversation with a guy at Panera Bread – who wants to remain anonymous – and after I told him about ‘Streets,’ he wired $50,000 to help us meet a $120,000 budget.”

Maybe they’re drawn to Morgan personally. Bosley believes “You can see ‘success’ surrounding him.” Bricklin says Morgan “has magic: He’s an attractive person, one that people want to be around.”

Or maybe they’re drawn to work like his 40-minute “Waiting for Mamu.” It’s about Pushpa Basnet, a 28-year-old woman who skipped the traditional Nepalese marriage path to start an orphanage for children.

Basnet takes them from prisons, where the state “raises” them with jailed parents if they have no guardians. She’s one of 10 CNN Heroes, all of whom will get $50,000 for their projects. A top prize of $250,000 is at stake; it’ll be awarded Sunday at a ceremony Morgan will attend in New York, with Susan Sarandon as his escort.)

Either way, Morgan churns forward, always keeping in mind his favorite new motto: “Don’t quiet your inner crazy.”

He’s seeking distributors for “Streets” and “Mamu,” creating a nonprofit corporation through which to make future films and planning a documentary called “Running at 18,” about teenaged runaways who find the streets safer than abusive homes.

“I can’t cure cancer,” he says. “I can’t cure heart disease. But I’m making movies about issues that have practical solutions.

“As a kid, I used to put on Superman Underoos and run around the house, preparing to save the world. We all need to remember those days and put our capes back on.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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