From senator to filmmaker: The Brooks Douglass story

How a personal tragedy fueled a political career and, now, the film “Heaven’s Rain.”

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

The movie, “Heaven’s Rain,” tells the story of Malibu resident Brooks Douglass, the former Oklahoma politician who became the youngest state senator in the Sooner State’s history, but this is no ordinary rise-to-the-top biopic.

Douglass’ parents, the Rev. Richard Douglass, pastor of Putnam City Baptist Church, and his wife, Marilyn, were shot to death at their Okarche home in 1979. Douglass, then 16, and his sister Leslie, 12, survived the shooting and went on to testify at the murder trials of two men charged with their parents’ deaths. Douglass, now 47, has adapted his personal account of tragedy and success to the big screen with his movie, which opens Friday.

“It was a great thrill for all of us who know Brooks to watch him cross the finish line with this movie the other night,” his wife Julea Douglass said, regarding last week’s Hollywood premiere of “Heaven’s Rain.”

Douglass cowrote and coproduced the drama with the film’s director, Paul Brown. “Rain,” which stars Mike Vogel, Erin Chambers, Taryn Manning and Douglass as his father, also covers Douglass’ political career and his response to the tragedy, which culminated in a 1994 meeting at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary with Glen Burton Ake, the man who shot his parents. (Ake and Steven Hatch were convicted of the murders. Hatch was sentenced to death and executed in 1996, but triggerman Ake received multiple life sentences.)

“The event [meeting Ake] was life-changing, perhaps more than anything other than the shooting itself,” Douglass said.

Three years ago, Douglass, who had always wanted to work in entertainment, took a screenwriting class in Hollywood that was taught by Brown, a screenwriter whose professional credits include working as a writer/producer during the 1994 season of “The X-Files.” Brown read three pieces Douglass had written and wondered if he had worked for a senator at one time.

“Actually, I was a state senator,” Douglass had told Brown.

On a post-Reagan platform of small government and low taxes, Douglass ran a humble Republican-ticket campaign and became Oklahoma’s youngest senator in 1990 at 26.

“It was a tough job market,” Douglass recalled. “I was broke. The other guy wasn’t running again. People came up to me and said, ‘Why don’t you do that?’ I went out there and I won.”

Douglass learned on the job and quickly became disgusted with the laziness of the state’s judicial system, particularly with the high-profile Hatch Case (Bernard Hatch, no relation to Steve Hatch, was sentenced to life in prison for the 1973 brutal murder of 56-year-old Mary Turner of Utica during what is believed to be the longest trial in Oneida County history).

“The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals had lost the file for two years. I went ballistic when I heard this,” he recalled. “I went on the Appropriations Committee, which funded the judiciary, and I told them, ‘Until you find that case, I don’t care what the decision is, you better learn how to do the job with a No. 2 pencil and a writing tablet.’ Within 60 days, they had put it together and a decision was handed down.”

Douglass’ parents would have been proud of his achievements. Then again, the brutal double-murder has indirectly fueled the former senator’s drive in politics and Hollywood.

“It’s been a two-sided coin,” Douglass said. “There were unique opportunities and a unique voice given to me in the system so that when I stood up to talk about certain issues, [they carried weight].”

Upon retiring from the Senate in 2002, “I was ready to leave Oklahoma City [to pursue Hollywood aspirations], but my-then wife got a good job, so I had to stay. All of those creative pursuits went out the window.”

He completed his Master of Public Administration degree at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, but his true passion lay elsewhere.

So three years ago, Douglass-who married Pasadena-native Julea in 2004 and relocated to Malibu where they reside with their son Brody, 3, and daughter Cali, 1-signed up for Brown’s course.

Regarding Douglass’ gut-wrenching story, Brown told Douglass that he should write it.

“I told him, ‘I don’t think I can write this, I’m too close to it,'” Douglass recalled. “[Brown] said, ‘Actually, where I come from, that’s exactly why you should write it.'”

Douglass hired Brown to co-write the screenplay: “We started working on it for three days a week and that went to seven days a week.”

“As Brooks was writing the details of his parents’ lives and personalities, I am sure he was writing to share it with our kids later,” Julea said, “but also to share it with his sister, Leslie.”

Of how he and his sister have dealt with the horror of that fateful night more than 40 years ago, Douglass said, “My life and my sister’s life has been made more difficult by the things that happened. Fortunately, I believe we haven’t always let that hold us down or dictate how our lives would turn out. We’ve chosen to keep going and live our lives the best we can.”

It was important for Douglass to tell the story accurately, so he decided to raise the $1-million budget for “Rain” himself; avoiding studio rewrites. A friend recommended actor Mike Vogel, who portrays Douglass as a teen and as an adult.

“We think [Taryn Manning] can win an award for her performance [as Leslie],” said Douglass, who added that his sister, a vice principal at an Oklahoma school, approved of the film and flew to Los Angeles and back home overnight to see the premiere.

On Tuesday this week, “Heaven’s Rain” enjoyed its hometown premiere at the Oklahoma Science Museum, where Gov. Brad Henry (one of Douglass’ closest friends) and his family (who have cameos in the movie) attended.

If there’s a parallel between his career in politics and moviemaking, it’s Douglass’ team pulling together behind something they believe in, as “Rain” was a labor of love.

“It’s exactly like a political campaign,” Douglass said.

Now that he has exorcized some demons with the heavily autobiographical “Heaven’s Rain,” Douglass said he wants to make an unrelated movie next time: “I would love my next project to be a comedy.”

“Heaven’s Rain” screens Sept. 17-23 at Laemmle’s Fallbrook 7 in West Hills. More information can be obtained by calling, 818.340.8710.

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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