In the realm of cinema history, there exists a mysterious film, forgotten by most and locked away from North American audiences. “Don’s Plum,” an independent drama featuring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire, was shot in the mid-’90s but remains virtually unknown to the general public and banned in both the United States and Canada. This obscurity stems from a turbulent past marked by legal disputes, fractured friendships, and distribution complications.
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The Backstory of ‘Don’s Plum’
The origins of “Don’s Plum” trace back to a close-knit circle of aspiring filmmakers and actors in Los Angeles, including Dale Wheatley, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Kevin Connolly, and R.D. Robb. Bound by their shared passion for filmmaking, they embarked on an ambitious project initially named “Last Respects.” However, DiCaprio’s dissatisfaction with the screenplay led to a pivotal moment when writer-producer David Stutman pitched a new concept: “The Saturday Night Club.” Drawing inspiration from Kevin Smith’s “Clerks,” this envisioned film would capture their late-night conversations, set around a restaurant table, filled with cigarette smoke and fueled by camaraderie.
DiCaprio found this idea captivating, envisioning a film where actors could improvise freely. His commitment to the project drew other cast members on board. Departing from the usual script, the film’s scenes were outlined loosely, allowing actors to ad-lib their dialogue. Backed by a budget secured through the efforts of producer Tawd Beckman’s father, a key figure behind McDonald’s Happy Meal, the film began without formal contracts. Wheatley later lamented, “We believed we were making a film with our friends and foolishly didn’t pay attention to the paperwork.”
Drama Behind the Scenes of ‘Don’s Plum’
Production on “Don’s Plum” began in July 1995, adhering to a tight schedule. However, the film’s creation was marred by backstage turmoil. Concerning directorial responsibilities, David Stutman recalled, “I’m not saying that R.D. didn’t have input, but had it just been R.D. directing it, it wouldn’t have come out the way it was. In reality, John Schindler (line producer) directed Don’s Plum.” Schindler himself admitted, “Well, I directed the director, kind of.”
Drama extended beyond the director’s chair, permeating the ensemble of actors gathered around the restaurant table. Reports suggest that DiCaprio advocated for the removal of a co-star, Amber Benson, citing her perceived acting shortcomings. The resolution was to have DiCaprio’s character verbally berate Benson’s character, leading to her voluntary exit from the scene. Tawd Beckman explained, “So her getting upset at the table is real. And her throwing the Birkenstock at their head is real. She was actually upset. She was actually storming out.”
After a mere two days of filming, with DiCaprio’s parting request to Wheatley being “make me look good,” the actor left the set to work on “Marvin’s Room.” Several months later, additional scenes were shot, primarily featuring Tobey Maguire, amassing approximately 30 hours of footage across the two shooting schedules. The filmmakers realized they had enough material to expand the project into a feature-length film, though this decision was met with mixed emotions.
The Legal Battles and Ban on ‘Don’s Plum’
As the film expanded in scope, tensions escalated among the cast and crew. A turning point arrived when it was decided to showcase “Don’s Plum” at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. However, both DiCaprio and Maguire, growing increasingly disillusioned with the project, vehemently opposed its screening at the esteemed festival. Legal action was taken, leading to the film’s removal from the Sundance lineup.
Miramax, initially interested in acquiring the film, withdrew its offer, further complicating distribution. Legal disputes escalated, culminating in a settlement. Regrettably, this settlement imposed stringent limitations on the film’s release, essentially confining it to select international markets beyond North America.
The Legacy of ‘Don’s Plum’
The aftermath of “Don’s Plum” left an indelible mark on its creators. DiCaprio and Maguire went on to achieve Hollywood stardom, while those behind the camera found themselves essentially blacklisted from the industry. To compound matters, producer Tawd Beckman’s father, a key financial contributor, sued producer David Stutman in 2005 and retained the rights to “Don’s Plum” to this day.
Despite the challenges, Dale Wheatley remained steadfast in his commitment to “Don’s Plum.” In 2014, he penned an open letter to Leonardo DiCaprio and launched the website freedonsplum.com, where the film was made available for a limited time. However, DiCaprio and Maguire swiftly enforced copyright claims, rendering the film inaccessible to the public.
Nearly three decades after its creation, it appears highly unlikely that “Don’s Plum” will ever see a proper theatrical or home video release in the United States and Canada. What began as a creative venture among friends filled with ambition took an unfortunate and dark turn into the realm of pop culture obscurity. The intricate story behind “Don’s Plum” is as dramatic, compelling, and complex as any Hollywood film, and the full truth surrounding these events may forever remain known only to those directly involved.