Decades ago, Stephen K. Bannon was just another hungry aspiring filmmaker trying to make it in Hollywood, co-writing scripts on subjects like the Rwandan genocide or Shakespearean hip-hop moralists caught in the middle of the 1992 L.A. riots.
Today he’s running Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
The notorious Breitbart News honcho and “CEO” of the Trump campaign has a colorful history as a Hollywood Republican. For years, Bannon coasted through Hollywood as an unabashedly right-wing filmmaker (one openly influenced by Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl). But before he went full-on conservative documentarian, his artistic aspirations were more eclectic and unconventional.
No one knows this better than Julia Jones, who was Bannon’s Hollywood writing partner for a whole 18 years, working with him on various projects intended for film and TV. Jones, now based in Massachusetts, describes herself as a “Bernie Sanders liberal” but still considers Bannon “like family.” They keep in touch, even as Jones is trying to wrap her head around the reality that her former partner in crime is leading Team Trump.
“I never knew the ‘racist Steve’ that’s being reported now,” Jones told The Daily Beast. “I never heard him make any racist jokes, and his best friend was an African-American who went to [college] with him… I never saw even a hint of racism, but I did see this elitism… He would always look down on poor people of any color. At one point, he told me that only people who own property should vote.”
For all the ideological difference between the two of them, they managed to keep very close, personally and professionally. “Artistically, we agreed 99 percent on everything we did,” Jones remembers.
But the last time Jones and Bannon wrote together was in 2009, right at the dawn of the Obama era.
“Over time, he went from great ideas to pure politics,” Jones said. “I will confirm that he is a screamer—and a very creative screamer—and that he’s absolutely brilliant.”
(Bannon did not respond to requests for comment on this story.)
In the years that the two of them typed out their screenplays side by side—the bleeding-heart leftie Democrat and the hard-right Hollywood Reaganite—there was a time when Bannon was on something of a Shakespeare kick.
According to Jones, at one point Bannon wanted to adapt William Shakespeare’s brutal and bloody tragedy Titus Andronicus for the big screen. Jones says she pitched setting their adaptation “on the moon with creatures from outer space.” Bannon was apparently so thoroughly taken by the prospect of intergalactic carnage that “that’s what sold him on” her. (Bannon would later co-executive produce Titus, the 1999 thriller and Shakespeare adaptation starring Anthony Hopkins. This one had nothing to do with Jones and was not set in outer space.)
Bannon also had an idea for a movie musical that even Lin-Manuel Miranda might find too aggressively left field: to take Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (based on the life of the Roman leader Caius Marcius Coriolanus) and, according to Jones, “make a rap film out of it set in South Central during the L.A. riots—that was Steve’s idea.”
A copy of excerpts of the screenplay that was shared with The Daily Beast—The Thing I Am, written by Jones and Bannon—includes rap music, racial tensions aplenty, looting, gangster “foot-soldiers,” and chaos at “ground zero of the 1992 L.A. riots.”
Coriolanus’s Menenius Agrippa, a senator of Rome, is recast as “Agrippa, ‘Mack Daddy’ of South Central, an ORIGINAL GANGSTA (O.G.) upper-echelon Blood.”
The rap lyrics were penned mostly by Jones and the son of Wendy Colbert, Bannon’s assistant. “Steve [then] added stuff—all the ‘dudes’ are him,” Jones recalled. “It’s not strictly rap. It’s more Shakespeare in rap [music].”
“You choose. To act and die—or lie ’neath whitey’s boot!” the gang-member version of “BRUTUS” declares, standing on a chair, “talking trash, shouting to be heard.”
“Die, die, die!” the crowd roars back.
Much of the drama in the scene that follows feels drenched in the kind of race-war spectacles that Bannon’s then-future website would later cash in on.
“Dear? We’re cheap, not dear,” Brutus says. “Whitey’s dear. His kibbles ‘n’ bits, if wholesome, would relieve us, but they call us dear and cast us nothing. Our suffering’s their gain. Let’s avenge with guns and knives—a score for a score. I speak from hunger… Our business is no mystery to the pols and popo. For two weeks they have known what we intend to do… which now we do in deeds.”
Soon after the musical begins, Agrippa and Brutus are already debating politics and class.
“They don’t care for us,” Brutus argues, enraged. “Their houses, crammed with good shit; their banks grow fat and daily they repeal fair acts against the rich while passing laws to chain the poor. If their wars don’t eat us up, they will. And what’s the love they bear us?!”
Agrippa fires back, and in doing so commands the crowd’s attention.
“South Central is the belly, you, niggas, its mutinous members; look on and you’ll see that the benefits which you receive proceed… from them to you. In no way from your sorry black asses,” Agrippa retorts.
According to the unproduced script, the Blood subsequently “crosses to Brutus and grabs his crotch.”
“Hey, motherfucker, YOU—what you think—YOU—as the great dick of this… assembly?” Agrippa asks.
“Did you call me…” Brutus replies.
“A dick,” Agrippa says, cutting him off, “in his face.”
“You motherfucker…” Brutus responds.
Agrippa grasps at Brutus’s penis, one extra time.
In July 2006, Bannon and Jones were still excited to share their work of art with the world—or at least a part of their work.
That summer, the writing duo sent out an invitation to a special reading of The Thing I Am, to be staged at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center. According to the invitation shared with The Daily Beast, actors Robert Guillaume and John Wesley produced the staged reading.
“Shakespeare was a natural rapper,” the flier reads. “This becomes evident in the delivery of this updated blend of two seemingly disparate genres—street rap and Elizabethan drama… Where does Shakespeare end and street rap begin?”
“Coriolanus, the adaptation, will shed light on the continuing subversive effects of racial abuse going back centuries—from the mines of Apartheid in South Africa, [to] slavery, prejudice and brutality, to gang cultures and the growing disregard for the disadvantaged in society today,” the invitation continues. “It will show how the culture of greed, elitism, discrimination and inhumanity repeats itself today in a self-defeating replay of atrocities…”
This project appears to embody the progressive, social-justice principles that Bannon’s media flagship—the Breitbart network—emphatically rejects. And to his ex-creative partner, Bannon’s association with the racist alt-right cheerleaders—who define far too much of Breitbart’s, as well as Trump’s, audience—remains an unsolved mystery.
“The Stephen I know was incredibly generous,” Jones said. “He would give you the shirt off his back, literally… My fear of him being involved with Trump is knowing how effective he is. If anyone can pull this off, it’s Steve Bannon.”
Jones concluded by saying she will likely never get the chance to work with Bannon again—that is, of course, “unless he comes across with some Shakespeare thing he wants me to work on.”