LA Times: In the eye of the zeitgeist (6-04-04)
By Reed Johnson, Times Staff Writer.
In a shady plaza on a tranquil Sunday morning, Pierce Brosnan and Greg Kinnear are having a quiet chat about murder. This city is so unique-looking," says director Richard Shepard, who has been here since March directing a cast that includes Brosnan, Kinnear and Hope Davis in "The Matador," a black-comedy thriller that he also wrote. But apart from the two movie stars, a dozen cafe tables and a handful of extras, the setting is pure Mexico City, an authentic sliver of the artsy-genteel Coyoacán district on this far-flung capital's south side.
The film, co-produced by Brosnan's Irish DreamTime company, stars the actor best known as British Agent 007 as a jaded, spiritually bankrupt hit man named Julian Noble. During a business trip to Mexico City, Julian has a breakdown and soon after meets Danny Wright (Kinnear), a recently downsized, down-on-his-luck Denver businessman, at a bar.
Filming of "The Matador" has taken the crew across the metro area, from Coyoacán to the massive Plaza de Toros bullring to the gleaming Fortune 500 corporate towers of Santa Fe, to the Camino Real hotel, a kind of cubist reimagining of a pre-Hispanic monument. "The architecture here is so much more interesting than what's going on in America, it's night and day," Shepard says. To the surprise of the film's producers, Mexico City and its also have proved varied enough to stand in for other locales: Denver, Budapest, Tucson, even the Philippines.
Both in reality and in movies like Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Amores Perros" (2000) and Tony Scott's current "Man on Fire," this restless mega-city of 20 million people has a well-earned reputation as a place where you'd best watch your back.
It was this violent and unpredictable image of the Mexican capital that many cast and crew members of "The Matador" that many cast and crew members of "The Matador" were bracing themselves for when they arrived here to begin shooting several weeks ago.
It's a little different for us," says Kinnear, warming to the irony of the situation. "There's a lot of insurance taken out. They don't need any harm or difficulty or lost actors. They don't want us traipsing around back alleys. I'm sure if you come down here as just a regular person without [knowing] what you're doing it could be dangerous. But that's not the sense I get — as I glance over to my bodyguard to the right! He will kick your [butt], man! I haven't been driven around in an armored car before. So yeah, I feel absolutely safe here!"
Though "The Matador" is a genre film, Shepard says he wanted "to turn the hit-man genre a little on its head." Beyond an obligatory bombing scene or two, the movie shapes up primarily as a the movie shapes up primarily as a very modern tale of misplaced identity and emotional rebirth, of two lost souls who find new meaning through their friendship -- and through contact with a strange new environment.
“It's just such a layered society," says Brosnan, scarfing down a banana sandwich in his trailer, "and it's not one that you can really make a passing comment on in one visit. It's a culture which works on so many levels of aesthetics, sensuality, violence, passion, religion. And that's what's kind of intoxicating about it."
The Matador's" Shepard admits that he had the noir Mexico City in mind when he shot a previous feature here, a thriller about an American woman whose brother disappears while the pair are traveling together
Only the most Panglossian of tour guides would argue that Mexico City isn't a place to be reckoned with. Crime rates are high, poverty endemic, the traffic is horrendous, and the air barely breathable at times. While the privileged elites barricade themselves behind stone walls and razor wire, even they aren't beyond the reach of Mexico City's abundant hazards.
“Amores Perros" depicted Mexico City as a dog-eat-dog society where the rich, the poor and the middle class inhabit grotesquely different environs and make contact only through chaotic head-on collisions. And "Man on Fire," in which Denzel Washington takes bloody revenge on a gang of kidnappers, envisions a city on the verge of blowing apart, like the massive volcano Popocatépetl that hovers above it.
despite the attention
a recent cluster of of Mexican films including "Amores Perros," "Y Tu
También," "Like Water for Chocolate" and "Sexo, Pudor y
(Sex, Shame and Tears), on average only a couple of dozen movies a year
are produced in Mexico.
Matador," will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "It's
a black comedy," Brosnan said of the movie, about an unusual encounter
between a hit man (Brosnan) and a businessman (Greg Kinnear) in Mexico
City. "I studied films [about hit men] and went to criminal
and talked about it."
Comedic Brosnan plays 'anti-Bond' opposite Kinnear
By Jana McQuay, Record guest writer
The last time Richard Shepard joined the Sundance Film Festival lineup was in 2000, as the producer of "Scotland, P.A." This year, Shepard walks the red carpet as writer/director of the offbeat dark comedy, "The Matador."
Along with an indie-style character-driven script, another feather in this flick's cap is a dynamic A-list cast.
Pierce Brosnan plays a down-at-the-heels hit man opposite Greg Kinnear as the innocent Denver businessman. Hope Davis adds comic relief to the already humorous entourage, rounded out by Phillip Baker Hall, Adam Scott and Dylan Baker.
"I wrote this film about two very opposite people who meet, randomly, in a hotel bar," said Shepard. "Hotel bars are the great equalizer. You can meet people from all walks of life there, and you can tell them all sorts of secrets and know that you will never see them again."
But what if you did? Hence the odd relationship between an unlikely duo.
Having directed other thrillers and small theatrical releases, Shepard says "The Matador" stands out, and he's ecstatic about the prospects of the feature's world premiere at Sundance.
Much of his exuberance stems from being affiliated with such a fine cast.
"It was a dream situation as a director, to have Pierce and Greg and Hope Davis coming very seriously to play," he said. "These guys are great actors. Pierce, especially, knew this was unlike anything he'd ever done and gave his all to the performance."
So, how did Shepard wrangle the trio on board?
"Somehow, Pierce got a hold of the script and said he wanted to star in it and produce it," Shepard said. "And, of course, that was the greatest news we ever could have possibly heard."
Once Brosnan signed on, they were able to raise money for the film, and Kinnear and Davis came on.
"It's an actor's movie," said Shepard. "They all shine in it."
Now that the film is in the can, Shepard can't imagine any other actor playing the seedy hit man, who is featured in one scene smoking a cigar, decked out in a black Speedo, cowboy boots and sunglasses.
The filmmaker recalled the cast and crew laughing throughout the production.
"Greg and Pierce," Shepard added. "It's like they have been doing this for a long time together. It's a departure for Pierce. Unlike anything he's ever done. He's very funny, but dark and vulnerable."
For budget reasons, the entire movie was filmed in Mexico City, which also served as a backdrop for scenes set in Denver, Budapest and Manila.
"It was quite a challenge for the art department, location department and everyone to pull it off," Shepard said. "If you see the movie, you'll have no idea it was all shot in Mexico."
The filmmaker also is pleased with the movie's transformation from script to screen. His original vision of the film, a thriller with a comedic spin, evolved into a hybrid mix of genres touting comedy first and foremost complemented with Shepard's thriller-based narrative.
"It's always best if you have great actors to let them take the character where they feel they must go," he said. "The film did become more humorous as we shot it because the chemistry between Pierce and Greg was so great, and Hope was so funny, they found humor in their characters."
Though it's not the first time Shepard made it to the Sundance Film Festival, he is, at once, excited and nervous.
"Sundance is a festival to show our movies to an audience, but we also have to show it to critics, which has its own set of things to get you nervous. We are also trying to find distribution," Shepard confided. "Not only do I want the audiences to love it, I want the critics and distributors to love it."
The filmmaker is counting the days until the big show.
"It's very exciting," he said. "When we started making this movie, I hoped it would make it to Sundance."
He distinguishes the Sundance audience from other film fest viewers.
audiences are very
smart," Shepard concluded. "They like sophisticated comedy."
With big deals
breaking at Sundance
-- including the biggest ever -- here are some films that will
be coming to a theater near you.
Jan. 24, 2005 | PARK CITY, Utah -- Festival-goers were shedding their coats on Sunday as the temperature peaked at a sunny 40 degrees in Park City, and some big deals were heating up as well. Variety reported that Miramax would likely pick up "The Matador" by late Sunday night for roughly $7.5 million, and "Hustle & Flow," which enjoyed early buzz as a fiercely original but also potentially lucrative commercial film, was picked up by Paramount for $9 million, part of a larger $16 million, three-picture deal for producer John Singleton. This multipicture arrangement constitutes the biggest dollar deal in Sundance history, a fact that should make plenty of filmmakers with pictures to sell all the more hopeful that this will be a big spending year for the studios.
pursuit of "The
also makes perfect sense, and not just because it stars Pierce Brosnan
in a complete departure from his typical suave tuxedoed role. The film
lies somewhere between a character-driven heist along the lines of
Beast" and a slightly dark buddy movie. It's small and a little odd and
the payoffs are inconsistent, but when Brosnan's lonely assassin meets
up with Greg Kinnear's hopelessly square yuppie, the unlikely
that forms is unpredictable enough to hold our attention to the end. Of
course, Hope Davis' brilliant turn as Kinnear's naive but slightly
wife -- who asks, breathlessly, to see Brosnan's gun soon after meeting
him -- is the cherry on director Richard Shepard's sundae. And just try
to imagine Brosnan with a tiny mustache, spitting lines like, "I look
a Bangkok whore on a Sunday morning after the Navy left town." Tough to
picture, isn't it? Better go see it for yourself.
By IAN MOHR, CATHY DUNKLEY
As Sundance finished out its first, crowded weekend, Miramax Films co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein were the latest A-list execs to hit Park City. The brothers closed a pact to pick up Pierce Brosnan starrer "The Matador" from CAA. CAA agents were extra busy wheeling and dealing in the mountains Monday, also sealing a pact to sell off worldwide distribution rights to hip-hop doc "Rize" to Lions Gate Films.After making a preemptive buy on the Oz-set horror pic "Wolf Creek" that stunned the acquisitions world -- one that assumed Miramax was sidelined due to the Weinsteins' contract talks with Disney -- the brothers followed up by forking over $7.5 million for rights to "Matador" for English speaking and other territories "
Their "Creek" was set to premiere here Monday.
Directed by David LaChapelle, "Rize" is an insider's look at "krumping," a form of competitive dancing that originated in South Central Los Angeles as an alternative to gang violence.
Meanwhile, bidding was heating up on "Hard Candy," David Slade's tale of a teen girl who meets a man in his 30s on the Internet and the sexual politics that ensue after they rendezvous in person.
Lions Gate, Focus Features and New Line were vying for the pic. U.K.'s Redbus picked up distribution rights for what was thought to be in the neighborhood of $1 million from William Morris Independent, while Spanish rights sold to Aurum and Icon picked up pic for Australia.
Warner Independent and Focus, among others, were interested in "On a Clear Day," being repped by Cinetic Media. Pic, which was the fest's opener Friday in Salt Lake City, is the Glasgow-set story of a 55-year-old blue collar worker who gets laid off and determines to swim the English Channel.
Park City was also buzzing that Sony Pictures Classics was closing in on Rian Johnson's contempo-noir feature in competition, "Brick."
Other pics in play include Ira Sachs' competition entry "Forty Shades of Blue," competish doc "The Education of Shelby Knox," comedy doc "The Aristocrats" and the Jenny McCarthy starrer "Dirty Love."
Sunday night preems of "Hard Candy" and "Thumbsucker" had execs behind closed doors. And after a weekend that presented execs with highly anticipated fare from "Hustle & Flow" to "Matador," Monday brought possibly the most hotly tipped pic outside "Hustle," the Wes Anderson-produced "The Squid and the Whale."
Other buzz pics skedded to screen Monday included "The Dying Gaul," Kevin Bacon's directorial effort "Loverboy" and Phil Morrison's "Junebug." Also still to come is Hal Hartley's "The Girl From Monday."
One of the fest's most intriguing twists this year had financier and distrib ThinkFilm meeting with MTV and other outfits Monday to field co-distrib offers on the paraplegic rugby doc "Murderball." Pic has emerged as one of the fest's left-field hits.
Over at rival fest Slamdance, the confab's opener "Mad Hot Ballroom" was expected to clinch a deal over the next few days, as a second screening in Park City was being held today.
Happily free of his super-spy role, Pierce Brosnan takes a new direction in The Matador
PARK CITY, Utah - The mob outside the small Main Street storefront is practically impenetrable. Hungry for a sighting of Pierce Brosnan, these celebrity gawkers stand outside -- immobilized by the crush of humanity -- and stare through the plate glass windows at the man sitting on the couch inside.
Brosnan seems to take it all in stride, smiling patiently at the surrounding chaos. After playing the most famous super spy in cinematic history, he's used to the attention. At this particular moment, he also needs it.
As producer and co-star of the new movie The Matador, Brosnan is happy to give his company's film as much limelight as his celebrity can afford. The dark comedy co-starring Greg Kinnear entered Sundance without a buyer, but since the Irish-born star's arrival in Park City, the film's writer-director Richard Shepard has been in meetings with distributors hammering out a deal.
The Matador marks a shift for Brosnan. Though he still handles guns and courts the ladies in this new project, he doesn't exactly do it in style. He wears loud shirts, sports a gold chain, and in one scene lopes through a hotel patio area wearing a snug black Speedo bikini and cowboy boots.
Playing a seasoned hit man suffering through a moral crisis that cripples him on the job, Brosnan almost seems to delight in the wilful systematic destruction of his former persona. "I don't think I'm really spoofing anything," says Brosnan, wearing five o'clock shadow and worn blue jeans -- nailing the "Sundance look" with ease.
"I think I'm just able to be bold and to risk more now that I'm free of Bond. It's a real liberation," he says. "This character, Julian, is very much adrift. He's rudderless. He has no idea where he's going, and that moral confusion is part of what made this script stand out. When I first read it, I had no idea where it's going and what would happen next. I just kept turning the pages. People think I get a lot of scripts sent to me, but that's not really the case. This script was really a gift."
According to Shepard's remarks after the premiere screening, he sent Brosnan's company, Irish DreamTime, the script for The Matador as a writing sample only.
He was looking for a job penning The Thomas Crown Affair 2, but when Brosnan's staff read the picture, they forwarded the screenplay about an unlikely friendship between a burnt-out assassin and a normal family man from Denver to the star.
A few weeks later, Shepard was in his New York apartment -- in his underpants -- when he got the call from Brosnan himself telling him he wanted to produce and star in his movie.
"What I loved about it was that it has so much theatricality to it. It read a lot like a play. There were scenes that had 10-15 pages of dialogue, and that was really wonderful. Like I said, it was a real gift," says Brosnan. "I was trained as an actor, and taught to believe I could play anything, but so much of the acting I've done has been about personality -- playing at being a movie star -- instead of character.
"I've made other movies that took me outside that personality -- Evelyn and The Tailor of Panama -- but it really feels as though my movie career has just begun," he says. "I've had good luck, but I realized if I was going to sit back and establish a movie career, I'd have to find performance-oriented projects, and those weren't all that easy for me to find, so I went out and created a company to go out and find those scripts.
"This is a great liberation. What I love about being free of Bond -- and I don't want to talk too much about Bond because I'm sick of it -- is that it feels like I'm taking my life back. Don't get me wrong, I'm very grateful for having the opportunity to play such an icon, but having the freedom to make my own choices and develop projects through my company that are personally interesting and challenging for me, is really a wonderful feeling."
As he scans the surrounding insanity and the faces outside the fish bowl, he says as silly as it all is, it does have personal meaning.
"Making people happy should never be underrated. I want people to head out to the theatre on a Friday night and say: 'That was a great movie.' Sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn't. Either way, I feel I've been blessed to have the opportunity to even try."
It's definitely easily transmitted, but no one knows exactly how it starts or evaporates.
By Gina Piccalo, Times Staff Writer
PARK CITY, Utah — The hills are alive with the over-caffeinated chatty cliques of New York and Los Angeles purged from their native habitats for the Sundance Film Festival. And everywhere they go — from the slushy street corners to the overheated shuttles to the hyper-styled swag houses — they generate and devour that ephemeral, intoxicating, all-powerful, sometimes devastating elixir: buzz.
It's buzz that's behind the $9-million acquisition of "Hustle & Flow" by Paramount and MTV Films. It's the reason people lined up five hours early to see Pierce Brosnan portray the "anti-Bond" wearing a Speedo in "The Matador," now a Miramax property. It's personified by blogger Jason Calacanis, who speaks so fast he doesn't seem to breathe, racing from theater to theater, armed with a PDA, a laptop and two cameras. It's that insatiable need to know the next big thing that colors every chat on the shuttle buses that crisscross the town.
The hunger for it motivates indie filmmakers to parade down Main Street in silly costumes, place branded merch in every handshake and, in the case of "Unknown White Male" lead producer Beadie Finzi, to write the film's title in the grime of a dirty parked car.
Buzz can be a distraction from truth and authenticity. But here, at the intersection of art and commerce, buzz is oxygen. Without it, entire tribes of film buyers, publicists, agents and journalists would simply cease to be. The festival crowd would lose all perspective, aimlessly wandering this 12-square-mile burg with no sense of urgency. In other words, Sundance wouldn't be Sundance without it.
"People are in one area, obsessed with one major topic, and that's what you have to talk about," says publicist Michele Robertson, who has worked on three films at the festival this year. "It's like being held hostage and talking about how much water you have left."
is like mercury,
to contain once it's released. It connects people to the experience, it
makes them relevant, critical even, to the business of pop culture. "It
begins with a sliver of truth, which is someone seeing a film," says
Safford, Fox Searchlight's senior vice president of acquisitions. "And
then there's this kind of expanding spiral of collusion that occurs,
we all want to think we are in the know."
When does it start?
In the indie film world, buzz happens in different ways, depending on the film's commercial appeal and the team that's selling it. Sundance is the first stop on the annual film festival circuit and some say a film's buzz begins after Sundance Director Geoffrey Gilmore and his staff announce their selections. Others say the buzz starts the minute someone with credibility, and without an obvious interest in the project, raves about it. Then there's the buzz generated by the audience after a public screening — organic buzz, if you will — that takes place on buses, at after-hours parties and on festival blogs.
When it happens, it happens very quickly. "Murderball," a documentary about quadriplegic rugby players, was among this year's entries with great word of mouth. It screened at 2:30 p.m. on the festival's first Friday, prompting cheers from the audience. Within hours, it had rocketed to the top of the must-see list among the shuttle bus crowd. "There's the machine and then there's human nature," says Sundance director of programming John Cooper. "And human nature is always going to override everything else."
Films with celebrity names attached, whether as cast members, directors, producers or even high-profile sales agents, attract buzz without trying. Dozens of filmgoers stood out in the cold, trying to scalp tickets to the first screenings of Brosnan's "The Matador"; "Marilyn Hotchkiss Ballroom Dancing and Charm School," which starred Robert Carlyle, Marisa Tomei and John Goodman; and "Pretty Persuasion," which featured Evan Rachel Wood, Ron Livingston and James Woods.
The key, in these cases, is to control the buzz. And for film buyers, sometimes that means generating negative talk about a film to force competing buyers off the scent. Nothing kills buzz like a little bad word of mouth, like the banter of these two film buyers comparing notes before one screening: " 'Brick' looked great, but the story's too slow. A bit of a slog for relatively minor payoff," said one. " '40 Shades of Blue' wasn't fully realized," said the other. "It didn't hit me where I live."
Usually, films are kept top secret until the festival premiere, screened only for VIPs to avoid building unrealistic expectations. This strategy produced a sold-out crowd for the premiere last weekend of "The Matador." But buzz is temporary, and by the next day it had moved onto "Hustle & Flow," the crowd-pleaser about a Memphis pimp-turned-rap artist. By Monday, chatter was diverted to "The Squid and the Whale," a semiautobiographical film directed by Noah Baumbach and co-produced by his friend, director Wes Anderson. And Thursday, reports of Focus Features' $2-million acquisition of the British picture "On a Clear Day" shifted the buzz yet again.
"Often the movies that are buzzed about before Sundance are not the movies that are buzzed about once they're seen at Sundance," says Jeremy Barber, who co-heads with Rich Klubeck the packaging and financing of independent film for United Talent Agency. He also represented "Hustle & Flow." "And ironically [those] movies … are not the movies that are buzzed about once they come out." Everyone's favorite example of this phenomenon is "Happy, Texas," the 1999 comedy starring Steve Zahn and Jeremy Northam that had enormous popular appeal, was acquired for a whopping $10 million by Miramax and then tanked at the box office.
Often filmmakers will show the film before the festival to a few select people who possess some useful authority and are likely vehicles of buzz — a well-placed film executive, influential filmmaker or veteran film journalist.
"It's like a genie in a bottle," says Robertson, who represented two buzz-worthy films at this year's festival, "Marilyn Hotchkiss" and "Game 6." "You can sit there and it plays and you see the acquisition people come out and you can say, OK, we've got something here. You're going to know where you stand from your first screening."
Vocabulary used to describe the film is critical. It's better to be emotional than factual. Films that are described as "human" or "terrifying" or "hilarious" or as having "powerful performances" that "stay with you" are those that earn buzz. "The best buzz is non-information," says Peter Guber, chairman of Mandalay Entertainment and co-host of AMC's "Sunday Shootout." "It's when they give us emotional resonance. That's the kind of buzz that's vital and viral."
Having a movie on the edge also helps. The buzz on "Wolf Creek," a horror film bought by Miramax before the festival began, sustained the week because everyone wanted to say they saw the festival's "super-violent" picture. "The Aristocrats," a documentary about the world's filthiest joke, was similarly popular.
"Game 6" executive producer Michael Nozik said that during the promotion for last year's Sundance entry "The Motorcycle Diaries," he and his staff worked hard to prevent people from deeming his movie as "too something," as in "too dark," "too esoteric" or "too commercial."
Film sales agent Dan O'Meara, whose company, Epstein, Levinsohn, Bodine, Hurwitz & Weinstein, represented last year's art-house hits "Garden State" and "Open Water," had refined his pitch for this year's film "212," a romantic comedy about three sets of New Yorkers. His language was crucial because the movie has a no-name cast and a first-time director (Anthony Ng).
been describing it
and interesting and delightfully intimate, refreshingly uplifting,
and magical," he says. "It's something that kind of enters you and
you with a warm feeling."
The blogging phenomenon
While the media often rescue a handful of Sundance pictures from obscurity, the perceived objective view of festival blogging has become an even faster — and, for some, more credible — source of buzz. Blogging, by its very nature, is the perfect vehicle for buzz. It moves rapidly, morphs by the moment and travels electronically. The festival doesn't track the numbers of bloggers because, as Ian Calderon, the Sundance Institute's director of digital initiatives, says, "they're organic and they're self-generated and they're spontaneous." But, he adds anecdotally, there are dozens of people blogging from their laptops, their PDAs and their cellphones. And their numbers increase every year.
"For every journalist out there, there are 4,000 [bloggers] looking for tidbits," says blogger Calacanis. "People find it very refreshing to get that sort of unfiltered view of the world."
In some cases, "unfiltered" simply means a platform to whine. Calacanis, on the other hand, is an independent blogger whose website bloggingsundance.com is devoted exclusively to his festival experience with an aim to give readers up-to-the-minute, articulate reviews of the half-dozen films he sees each day. Sometimes he even posts during the screening.
On one recent morning, he was camped at the festival's headquarters typing and talking and checking his watch because he had to catch the documentary "After Innocence" in 10 minutes and he still hadn't posted a review of the film he saw last night — "Murderball" ("great, tense"). But he kept getting distracted by reporters, festival staff, filmmakers and studio execs who wanted to exchange festival favorites.
There was the Magnolia Pictures executive with his opinion on "The Matador" ("liked it"). And the two British filmmakers pitching their film "Unknown White Male" (their pitch: "an extraordinary portrayal of an amnesiac"). He nabbed an invite to that film, then dashed off to "After Innocence," slipping into the theater just as the lights went dim. Two days later, he posted a review of the documentary titled "The most important film at Sundance this year."
a day after that, his
had snagged one reader's attention: "Anyone have any idea which studio
owns this film (or is bidding to get it)? It sounds very
Fiercely independent, if occasionally a tetch unpolished, the festival barrelled to a heady close amid a record flurry of offers from major Hollywood distributors, writes LIAM LACEY
PARK CITY, UTAH -- Everything was bigger, richer, more congested at the 21st Sundance Festival, which comes to a close with its awards ceremony tonight. A record estimated 45,000 people converged on the Utah town for the 10-day event, reducing traffic to a crawl through midweek. The demand for taxis was so great, there were fistfights between Park City cabbies and Salt Lake City poachers who drove in for the festival.
In the festival's attempt to assert its roots, the word "independent" was stamped in black letters on a red background on this year's programs. That was also the theme of an ill-conceived series of cartoons that preceded the screenings, in which a road painter, a demolitions expert and a dogcatcher each asserted that they refused to work for "the man," and did things their own way. In each case, the message seemed to be that independent films cause people to get hurt. It didn't help that audience members noticed, as the graphic faded, that the word "independent" inadvertently became "in-ep-----t."
Though Sundance has the most convivial staff and volunteers of any major festival, they haven't completely taken the "inept" out of independent. For example, the festival maintains an odd and frustrating refusal to provide microphones to the audience during the question-and-answer sessions, which makes the questions indecipherable. Then there is the practice of offering absurdly inflated introductions to the films: "One of the world's greatest actors -- Steve Buscemi!"
The buzz film of the festival was undoubtedly director-writer Craig Brewer's Hustle & Flow, which earned producer John Singleton a $16-million, three-picture deal with Paramount. The film's plot is decidedly improbable -- a pimp, suffering a midlife crisis, decides to go into a rap career -- but mostly it works, thanks to a charismatic lead performance by Terrence Howard (Ray).
The critics' favourite was undoubtedly Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale, a dark comedy based, he says, on his parents' divorce in the mid-eighties. Baumbach, who co-wrote Wes Anderson's last film, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, has a gifted ear for the pretensions of intellectuals. The film stars Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney as competing spouses and writers who divide their two children and the family cat in a nasty custody split.
For more visceral fun, there's director David Slade's accomplished cat-and-mouse thriller, Hard Candy, starring Canadian actress Ellen Page as a 14-year-old who ends up in the house of a sexual predator, but turns the tables.
Fans of film noir will have to love Rian Johnson's Brick, a savvy high-school drama that is essentially a remake of The Maltese Falcon, with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the role of the hardboiled senior, trying to find what happened to a girl who got involved with the wrong crowd. With a high-school vice-principal as the surrogate police chief, a rich girl as the femme fatale and Lukas Haas as the Sydney Greenstreet double (a 26-year-old who deals drugs from his basement), the drama covers all the bases.
Also visceral, even emetic, was The Aristocrats, in which everyone from Phyllis Diller to Robin Williams discusses a filthy joke known since vaudeville times by comedians. Since the joke is only a minor part of the story, the documentary becomes about comedy and how comedians write.
Thomas Vinterberg's Dear Wendy, based on a Lars von Trier script and starring Jamie Bell, is a political allegory about gun culture. With von Trier's usual mathematical logic, softened by Vinterberg's more humane perspective, it's a Lord of the Rings tale for the age of drive-by shootings.
Video artist and short-story writer Miranda July's first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, is deceptive, an almost kitschy romance tale with a conceptual artist's intelligence. The story stars July as a driver for the elderly who falls in love with a shoe salesman, but the most interesting characters are the salesman's two sons, one of whom is trying to make time stop.
Rize, an exhilarating documentary from fashion photographer David La Chapelle, chronicles the rise of "clown groups" and "krumpers" in South Central Los Angeles as an alternative to gang activity. The clowns perform at birthday parties and street dances in full makeup. The krumpers mock street-fight, using dance moves so fast the camera appears to be speeded up.
Pierce Brosnan has done a series of roles offering grungy variations on James Bond, but he surpasses himself in The Matador, as a ripely sleazy bisexual assassin who befriends a mild-mannered businessman (Greg Kinnear).
Finally, Sundance 21 was a record year for the distributors picking up new films. Paramount Pictures led the way by ponying up for Hustle & Flow and the preteen ballroom documentary, Mad Hot Ballroom. Lions Gate got Hard Candy and Rize. Samuel Goldwyn Films picked up Lila Says, Lebanese-born director Ziad Doueiri's Marseilles-set drama, as well as Pretty Persuasion, a dark teen comedy starring Evan Rachel Wood.
Miramax Films acquired The Matador and Warner Independent bought Strangers With Candy, based on the cult television show starring Amy Sedaris. Universal's Focus Features picked up On a Clear Day, director Gaby Dellal's feature starring Peter Mullan as a 55-year-old unemployed Glaswegian who decides to swim the English Channel.
ThinkFilm bought the comedian-heavy Aristocrats. The same company also acquired the Slamdance entry, Ill Fated, for Canadian distribution.
The Sundance Film Festival used to be about young filmmakers breaking through, but this year it's about middle-aged actors looking for a second wind. Pierce Brosnan, Kevin Costner, Michael Keaton and James Woods all show up in unlikely roles in movies screening in Park City, Utah.
Of the group, Brosnan and Costner come off best, both scoring laughs playing boozehounds. Brosnan is a hoot as a salty-tongued hit man in The Matador, a sharply written comedic thriller that has been picked for distribution by Miramax.
In the entertaining The Upside of Anger, an unshaven Costner is all lazy charm as a former pro baseball player who, between beers, woos an embittered neighbor (Joan Allen) after her husband abandons her. Opening nationwide March 11, Anger proves once again that baseball has been very, very good to Costner. Just think Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and, even, For Love of the Game.
Commercial prospects are more questionable for the films that brought Keaton and Woods to Sundance. Keaton stars in Game 6, playing a Broadway playwright who's obsessing over the famous 1986 World Series game botched by the Boston Red Sox. The movie's screenplay is by novelist Don DeLillo, a celebrated but not exactly populist writer. The film received tepid reviews and has yet to be bought for theatrical distribution.
Woods shows up in a black comedy called Pretty Persuasion, a clueless Clueless. He portrays the vulgar father of a manipulative teenage girl (Evan Rachel Wood), telling racist jokes, parading around in his underwear (not a pretty sight) and overacting with relish. Persuasion was picked up by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions.
Another over-40 actor, Kevin Bacon came to town with wife Kyra Sedgwick for the world premiere of Loverboy, which he directed. Loping up to the stage at the 1,270-seat Eccles Auditorium, Bacon told the audience, "It's so much harder to come to Sundance as a director than as an actor. If you're an actor, you are sitting out there with the thought in the back of your mind that if the movie doesn't work, well, it's the director's fault."
So how'd the movie work? Only okay. A drawn-out tale of a mother's obsessive love for her young son, Loverboy spends too long chewing on too little, though Bacon gets a sterling performance from Sedgwick.
As always, the documentaries also have people talking. Several already won distribution deals, including Inside Deep Throat, a fascinating look at the making of the controversial 1972 porn classic Deep Throat. Inside opens in theaters Feb. 11.
Other docs receiving favorable responses:
• Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story, which follows the career of the 1960s boxing champion who was secretly gay.
• Murderball, an inspiring look at quadriplegic athletes who play rugby with a wicked competitiveness.
• Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, a muckraking look at how greedy businessmen at the powerful Texas corporation decided they didn't have to play by the rules.
• Grizzly Man, director Werner Herzog's look at Timothy Treadwell, an outdoorsman and writer in Alaska who was killed and devoured by the very grizzly bears he had spent years studying.
The big winners at Sundance -- ''Hustle & Flow'' and ''The Matador'' were among the acquisitions at the Utah festival by Gillian Flynn
It went down just before dawn, about 60 hours into the 11-day 2005 Sundance Film Festival. It was the biggest deal in fest history, and that giant cash register ka-ching! tauntingly echoed throughout Park City, Utah, all week. Leaping to the mic before the midnight premiere of the feature Strangers With Candy, Stephen Colbert gloated about his film selling for $16 million: ''Oh, no...,'' he paused. ''That was Hustle & Flow.''
Yup, it was Hustle & Flow, starring Terrence Howard as a pimp who wants to become a rapper, that ignited a bidding war among Paramount, New Line, Miramax, Focus, and Columbia. Producer John Singleton pre- orchestrated the madness: ''The buzz on this picture was created by me,'' says the Boyz N the Hood director. ''I showed it to the right people before we even got to Sundance. And that's why we had so much hype around us.'' Paramount ultimately scored the movie for its MTV Films banner with a $16 million deal that includes two forthcoming films from Singleton, each with a price tag of $3.5 million. (Thus, Hustle alone sold for about $9 million, just short of 1999's reported $10 million payday for the famed flameout Happy, Texas.) Singleton's producing partner Stephanie Allain says the bustle around Hustle hit its peak early Sunday morning: ''It was like a Pied Piper parade to the lobby of the Marriott. I sat by the fire, watching those guys do their thing, until about 5 a.m. when [the deal closed]. I fell asleep at 6:30 a.m., but by 7:30 my phone was lighting up with calls of congratulations. So I got up and called Paramount and MTV's publicity people and said, 'Let's rock and roll!''' MTV Films is ready: The studio has some serious swagger after helping Fox Searchlight make last year's $3 million Sundance acquisition Napoleon Dynamite a $45 million indie smash. Van Toffler, president of MTV and MTV Films, says that success persuaded Singleton to sign. ''He saw what we did with Napoleon,'' he says. ''We took a quirky story and made it a cult hit.''
The second-biggest payout went to The Matador — starring Pierce Brosnan as a dysfunctional assassin — which Miramax snapped up for $7.5 million. That buy plus the pre-festival purchase of the horror flick Wolf Creek by the studio's thriller wing, Dimension, sent a booming message: Miramax was still a player, despite its imminent separation from parent company Disney. ''Every competitor assumed that nobody would want to sell movies to Miramax and counted us out of the bidding,'' says Agnes Mentre, head of Miramax acquisitions. ''When we bought Wolf Creek, every competitor freaked out and realized that we're not dead.'' And still very savvy: The two words most often linked to Matador were ''extremely'' and ''commercial'' — the movie's marketability was underlined by the lusty mob who chased Brosnan up Main Street.
As of press time, 14 films landed deals, but aside from Hustle, the festival felt ultimately even-keeled. Sundance 2004 featured the flashy debuts of Napoleon, Open Water, and Garden State (which grossed $45 million, $31 million, and $27 million, respectively), as well as Oscar bait like Maria Full of Grace. Conversely, this year's crop of fictional films was likable, but lacked the manic following of movies past — and was missing obvious award contenders. (As one distributor put it: ''I didn't see anything people should start preparing their speeches for.''
So maybe no Oscars, but hey, at least there was plenty of randy, explicit sex: Inside Deep Throat, about the making of that famed porn flick, should earn an NC-17, as should Michael Winterbottom's sensual 9 Songs, which many clucked was just a high-end porn flick. And there were scares. Wolf Creek, an outback spin on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, forced some filmgoers to flee. Hard Candy, which plops a teenager and her dubious Internet date into a creepy, cat-and-mouse thriller, sold to Lions Gate for around $2.5 million. ''Studios shied away from it, but it's a film that's gonna resonate and has some great marketing hooks,'' says Lions Gate president Tom Ortenberg, who knows about turning low-budget white-knucklers into hits, having shepherded last year's Sawto $55 million.
But it was another genre that dominated: Just consider the fact that all of 2005's nonfiction feature Oscar nominees were Sundance films (including this festival's Twist of Faith). Then factor in Fahrenheit 9/11's $119 million gross. That formula made docs smart purchases. ''Whether you like Michael Moore or not, he helped that happen,'' says Throat codirector Randy Barbato. ''Docs are a way to not spend a lot of money and, if you hit it out of the ballpark, make a lot of it back.'' Thus, Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette's The Aristocrats (featuring comedians telling their versions of the same gaspingly dirty joke) became one of the most coveted tickets. The doc sold to THINKFilm for $1 million.
''It's weird the films you see that are reenergizing,'' says comics scribe-cum-screenwriter Neil Gaiman, whose Labyrinth-esque film MirrorMask debuted at the festival. ''The Aristocrats I'd have never seen without coming to Sundance. I came out of there walking on air.''
While Inside Deep Throat was the splashiest doc—feted with an elaborate party featuring dancing girls in pasties — Murderball, about ferocious quadriplegic rugby players, won an Audience award. Says codirector Dana Adam Shapiro of the THINKFilm-produced doc: ''People go in to watch a movie about the handicapped, and it's a liberating moment when they realize, 'Oh, this movie's going to be funny.' It's okay if I laugh. They don't care.''
But enough of grit and reality! For the star hunters who elbowed into packed parties, there were gaggles of celebs to gawk at. The cast of TV's Everwood, which films in Salt Lake City, was omnipresent, as was Jenny McCarthy, in town to plug her comedy Dirty Love (as of press time, the film had no home). The cast of HBO's Entourage literally stopped traffic as they filmed a Sundance plotline for the series. Crispin Glover — whose Sundance entry What Is It? featured actors with Down syndrome and naked women in monkey masks — circled parties solo, pale and pressed in a series of pin-striped suits. In the behaving-badly category, David LaChapelle — whose hip-hop dance docu Rize earned a $2 million deal — got arrested for disorderly conduct (he pleaded not guilty), and Paris Hilton... sorry, enough ink on her! The frenzy might best be summed up by the cast of Strangers With Candy, who had trouble getting into their own fete. ''We were the honorees,'' says Colbert, ''and they had to smuggle us in in a basket of bread.''
By GABRIEL SNYDER
The Weinstein Co. has put dates to its slate. "Derailed," bowing Oct. 21, will be the first of six films skedded for release before the end of the year.
In addition, Bob and Harvey Weinstein said they are planning eight launches for 2006 including "Grind House," for which Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez each will direct a 60-minute horror tale.
In a statement the Weinsteins said, "We have said all along that we would hit the ground running and we are confident that this slate will represent and deliver the kind of movies that audiences love."
News follows last week's announcement at the Cannes Film Festival that the fledgling company had secured financing from Goldman Sachs and financier Tarak Ben Ammar.
The Weinsteins' last day with Miramax Films is Sept. 30, the day their employment contract with the Walt Disney Co. expires. Releases of several remaining pics at Miramax have moved up so that they will be in theaters before the separation, including "The Great Raid," "Proof" and "Unfinished Life."
The Weinsteins have skedded these pics:
* "Derailed," Oct. 21; suspense tale starring Clive Owen and Jennifer Aniston.
* "Wolf Creek," Nov. 18 under the Dimension banner; horror film debut of Greg McLean.
* "The Matador," platform release starting Nov. 18; black comedy starring Pierce Brosnan with Greg Kinnear and Hope Davis.
* "Transamerica," platform starting Dec. 2; dark comedy starring Felicity Huffman.
* "The Promise," platform starting Dec. 16; epic helmed by Chen Kaige and starring Hiroyuki Sanada, Jang Dong-Kun and Cecilia Cheung.
* "Mrs. Henderson Presents," platform starting Christmas Day; director Stephen Frears' follow-up to "Dirty Pretty Things."
* "The Gathering," Jan. 6; thriller starring Christina Ricci. Pic bowed at the 2002 Cannes market.
* "Feast," Jan. 20 through Dimension; horror pic produced during the most recent "Project Greenlight" skein.
* "Breaking & Entering," early February; drama helmed by Anthony Minghella starring Jude Law.
* "Pulse," March 3 through Dimension; Japanese horror remake starring Kristen Bell.
* "Killshot," March 17; Elmore Leonard adaptation helmed by John Madden.
* "Scary Movie 4," April 14 (Easter weekend); helmed by "Scary Movie 3" director David Zucker.
* "Grind House," spring 2006.
* "Sin City 2," summer 2006; continuation of the Frank Miller stories, helmed by Rodriguez.
Five of the films -- "Derailed," "Scary Movie 4," "Matador," "Breaking & Entering" and "Sin City 2" -- are co-productions with Disney. The Weinstein Co. will distrib the titles domestically, while Disney will handle international.
"An Unfinished Life," which stars Robert Redford and Jennifer Lopez, will bow Sept. 9. "Proof," helmed by Madden and starring Gwyneth Paltrow, will be released Sept. 16. Both pics were once dated for Christmas 2004.
Long-delayed pic "The Great Raid," a WWII rescue adventure directed by John Dahl and starring Benjamin Bratt, is being moved up from Dec. 2 to Aug. 12. Shot in 2002, it was originally slated for a fall 2003 bow.
"Grind House" will be made in the spirit of old Hollywood presentations, including trailers and short extra materials between stories.
Tarantino said he hopes the pic will spawn a series of "Grind House" films.
Rodriguez echoed, "This will be the first of a series of movies we'll be making for the Weinstein Co."
By Timothy M. Gray
The year is half over, but in terms of awards, the fun is just beginning. Only a few serious kudos contenders have so far emerged, such as "Cinderella Man" and "Crash"; the bulk of hopefuls arrive, as usual, in the second half of the year.
Making the current kudos race more interesting are two major quirks: the slight shift in Oscar scheduling and, more significant, a reshuffled deck of players.
Miramax has always been a major force in awards campaigns, and this year, there will be the revised Miramax as well as the Weinsteins' as-yet-unnamed company. And as old stalwart Fine Line steps back, Picturehouse -- the new HBO-New Line venture -- moves into the spotlight, under the stewardship of Bob Berney, an Oscar vet who propelled "Monster" and "Whale Rider," among others, into kudos land.
As for timing, the 78th annual Academy Awards will be held March 5 -- a week later than usual. In light of the accelerated sked inaugurated two years ago, the kudocast would logically be on Feb. 26, but for 2006 the ceremony was postponed one week due to the Winter Olympics. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences hasn't announced other dates on its calendar, meaning there could be an extra week between nominations and awards.)
It's impossible to calculate whether timing affects the outcome, but awards campaigns have a certain rhythm -- campaigners need to carefully time screenings to give voters enough time to see the film, but try to make sure that enthusiasm doesn't peak too early. This year will be interesting because any change in that rhythm can alter things.
Spielberg stacks up
Then there's the Steven Spielberg factor. Like his double whammy in 1993 with "Jurassic Park" and "Schindler's List," this year's two-fer of "War of the Worlds" and the as-yet-untitled Munich Olympics project -- set to open in December for DreamWorks-Universal -- could both get major consideration in all categories.
pics in the past. The question is whether Paramount-DreamWorks'
will be considered for best pic like "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and
or singled out only in tech categories, as "Jurassic" was when
more serious "Schindler's List" opened later in that same year.
Given the accelerated awards schedule in recent years, it might seem logical that studios would follow the "Gladiator" model: Open the awards hopeful in the first half of the year, then launch the DVD with a lot of hoopla during kudos season.
It worked for "Seabiscuit," but this year, the only major studio film to follow that formula is Universal-Miramax's "Cinderella Man." Some have questioned whether the disappointing box office will hurt its Oscar chances. Maybe, but Oscar voters tend to overlook B.O. and vote for their faves and, so far, "Cinderella" has been getting industry thumbs-up.
Meanwhile, Lions Gate's "Crash" is serious and, most important, is the kind of film that inspires great passion from its fans. Like every awards hopeful, those two pics are affected by one key factor -- what else opens this year.
There are only a few other contenders from the January-June period: New Line's performance-rich "The Upside of Anger," as well as plenty of contenders in the tech categories, such as Fox's "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," WB's "Batman Begins," and Dimension's "Sin City."
The year's first half also introduced films that created positive buzz at Sundance, Berlin and Cannes, though these pics are skedded for release in the second half. That list includes Focus Features' "Broken Flowers," directed by Jim Jarmusch and starring Bill Murray; DreamWorks' Woody Allen pic "Match Point"; New Line's "A History of Violence," directed by David Cronenberg; Paramount Classics "Hustle & Flow"; Samuel Goldwyn's "The Squid and the Whale," starring Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney; and the Weinsteins' "Transamerica," with Felicity Huffman.
And, with the accelerated awards season, Venice and Toronto lineups take on even more gravitas in terms of awards timing.
The January-June period saw too many interesting toons and docus to mention. June alone saw the bows of "Rize," "March of the Penguins," "The Last Mogul," "Deep Blue," "Mad Hot Ballroom" and "Rock School." (If the docu race is heating up, why isn't the pic contest?)
Meanwhile, toons from the first half include Fox's "Robots," Disney's "Howl's Moving Castle" and DreamWorks' "Madagascar." They'll be joined by a bevy of others this year, including Disney's "Chicken Little," DreamWorks' "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit" and WB's Tim Burton pic "Corpse Bride."
As for live-action, this year offers several high-profile pics from Oscar-winning directors, aside from Spielberg, Ron Howard and Woody Allen. The list includes TriStar's "Oliver Twist" (Roman Polanski), Universal's "Jarhead" (Sam Mendes) and "King Kong" (Peter Jackson) .
But that is the nature of awards soothsaying. Handicappers study the upcoming films, and many of them look good on paper.
Following are some of the July-December openers -- not including animated features, docus or foreign films -- that will be up in a variety of categories, from tech to best pic.
There are a few disclaimers. Sleepers and last-minute additions always pop up: Last year at this time, "Million Dollar Baby" was not even on the schedule for 2004.
July: DreamWorks' "The Island"; Fox's "Fantastic Four"; Warner Bros.' "Charlie & the Chocolate Factory."
August: Focus Features' "The Constant Gardener" (Fernando Meirelles, Ralph Fienne); Pa Classics' "Asylum" (written by Patrick Marber).
September: Focus Features' "Pride and Prejudice" (Keira Knightley); Miramax's "Proof" (Gwyneth Paltrow) and "The Libertine" (Johnny Depp); Picturehouse's "The Thing About My Folks" (Paul Reiser); Sony Classics' "Capote" (Philip Seymour Hoffman); Warner Independent's Liev Schreiber film "Everything Is Illuminated"; Disney's Jodie Foster thriller "Flight Plan" and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" (directed by Bill Paxton).
October: Disney's "Shop Girl" (Steve Martin); Fox's Curtis Hanson-Cameron Diaz pic "In Her Shoes"; Fox Searchlight's "Bee Season" (Richard Gere, Juliette Binoche) and "Separate Lies" (the directing debut of Julian Fellowes); Lions Gate's "Lord of War" (Nicolas Cage) and "Fierce People" (Diane Lane); Paramount's "Elizabethtown" and "The Weather Man" (Nicolas Cage); Universal's "Prime" (Meryl Streep, Uma Thurman); Warner Independent's George Clooney-helmed Edward R. Murrow pic "Good Night. And, Good Luck" (and, yes, that's the punctuation); Weinsteins-Disney's "Derailed" (Jennifer Aniston, Clive Owen).
November: Fox's "Walk the Line" (Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon as Johnny Cash and June Carter); New Line's "The New World" (Terrence Malick); Paramount's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'?" (50 Cent and director Jim Sheridan); Sony Classics' Merchant-Ivory "The White Countess" (with Natasha Richardson, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave) and "Breakfast on Pluto" (Neil Jordan); Sony-Revolution's "Rent" (Chris Columbus); Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire"; Weinsteins-Miramax's "The Matador" (Pierce Brosnan).
December: Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" ("Shrek" co-director Andrew Adamson's live-action debut) and "Casanova" (Lasse Hallstrom, Heath Ledger); Focus Features' "Brokeback Mountain" (Ang Lee, Ledger again); Sony's Rob Marshall-helmed "Memoirs of a Geisha" and the Jude Law-Sean Penn "All the King's Men"; Universal-Sony's "The Producers"; Weinsteins-Disney's "Mrs. Henderson Presents" (Stephen Frears, Judi Dench).
Several of this year's bows had been penciled in for 2004 release. And Warner Bros. has several contenders opening in the next six months with, so far, flexible dates. They include "Syriana" (George Clooney); the untitled Niki Caro movie with Charlize Theron; Curtis Hanson's "Lucky You"; and Darren Aronofsky's "The Fountain."
Actually, this deep dark comedy has little to do with bullfighters. Rather, it follows the thoroughly detestable Julian (Pierce Brosnan), a bawdy, carousing, sex-mad (the younger the better) assassin. Thing is, Julian's losing his touch, and the story follows the bizarre and amusing events that ensue when he befriends an ordinary American businessman (Greg Kinnear) in a Mexico City resort. ''Hotel bars are a great place for drama because you're anonymous, talking to people you'll never see again,'' says art-flick vet Richard Shepard (Oxygen, The Linguini Incident) of his first mainstream movie, which Harvey and Bob Weinstein bought for $7.5 million at 2005's Sundance Film Festival. ''So the movie started from the idea of, What if you told a secret to someone and then you did see them again?''
Villains' scoundrels, and antiheroes are currently are currently in vogue. Why do actors find the dark side so appealing.
Pierce Brosnan has always excelled at playing characters we have to like, despite ourselves. Even the role that brought him to prominence, Remington Steele, the faux private eye from the television series of the same name, was a bit of a rogue. After years of smooth charm and playful sexual tension with co-star Stephanie Zimbalist, it's easy to forget that Steele wasn't who he claimed to be: He was a character with a shady past who had lied his way into a job at a struggling detective agency. As Brosnan navigated the tricky transition from TV to film, some of his most popular roles would be patterned after this mold: his art thief in The Thomas Crown Affair, his banished spy in The Tailor of Panama, his master jewel thief in After the Sunset — characters who exist outside the law yet are also the people audiences find themselves rooting for. It's probably why Brosnan made such an excellent James Bond; he brought a sense of danger and outlaw to what had begun to turn into a two-dimensional cliché.
With his good looks and natural charisma, it isn't hard to see why moviegoers would get behind any role he plays — which is part of what makes his performance in The Matador, opening Dec. 29, such a revelation. As Julian Temple, an aging assassin who develops a strange connection with a visiting salesman (played by Greg Kinnear) while both are on assignment in Mexico City, Brosnan is earning some of the best reviews of his career. A hit man without the fancy gadgets or government backing of 007, Julian is nevertheless a distant cousin of that famous character. Bitter, burned-out, and constantly barraging others with crude insults, Julian is a mess. It's reflected in his physical appearance, as well: Unkempt and sagging, Brosnan sports a sleazy mustache and lets his gray hair down. He's traded in his tuxedo for an array of startlingly unhip clothing, topped off by a pair of goofy cowboy boots that practically steal scenes on their own. It's a bold, funny performance that recently earned the actor his second Golden Globe nomination — his first in 21 years.
Brosnan had no hesitation about taking on the role; he was so drawn to writer-director Richard Shephard's script that Brosnan's company, Irish DreamTime, helped produce the flick. And he embraced Julian's seamy side. "I was very cognizant that I had created an image for myself on a grand scale with playing James Bond," says Brosnan from the New Mexico set of his upcoming Western, Seraphim Falls. "I suppose there might have been a desire deep down to shake up that image." Still, he worried about whether he could pull it off, specifically the coarse language Julian is prone to use. "I had a weekend where I had a crisis of confidence," Brosnan confesses. "I thought, 'The audience is not going to follow me; it'll look like I'm trying too hard, or I'll distance them with this lewdness.'" In the end he put his faith in the script. "I was aware I was presenting myself in this way, but it was so well-written and well-founded that I thought we could get away with it," he says. "Honestly, the script just made me laugh. I think if I had played it real on-the-nose, angry, it wouldn't have been the same film. There's a heightened theatricality here. Another actor might have played it in a different vein, and you'd have a really dark piece. But I thought [the script] was outrageously funny."
The Matador is a dark comedy full of "one-liners to relish" and hilarious interplay between Brosnan and Kinnear, but, at the end of the day, Julian is still a fairly despicable character, as he warns his friend, "Just because we share a laugh doesn't mean I'm not unsavory." Key to playing the role, says Brosnan, was deciding not to pass judgment. "It wasn't up to me to judge him; I loved him," he says. "I can't begin to imagine the reality of his life. He knows something is going to come crushing down around his ears. I saw him as someone with arrested development. And he made me howl with laughter. He has a wonderful sense of irony and depravity; Julian is the ultimate vulgarian, yet there's a sense of humanity there."
Brosnan cites the sweet family man played by Kinnear as an excellent balance for Julian. "I had a safety net in the great Greg Kinnear," says Brosnan. "If he wasn't so funny and vulnerable and generous and open as an actor, all my ways would have been for naught. We bought into each other's worlds, and it worked."
Brosnan also enjoyed toying with his own image, which included finding a unique and unflattering look for the role. "I've gotten so used to playing the same chords and the same notes and doing the same shtick, I thought, if I don't pull something out of the hat now, I might never start doing it," he admits. He hit upon the idea for Julian's footwear when costume designer Cat Thomas called him up and asked if he had any ideas. "I said, 'Cowboy boots,'" Brosnan recalls. "That's as good as it gets. And she bought me those sick, twisted, goofy, commedia dell'arte cowboy boots. So you could say Julian was built from the ground up. Then Cat came up with the tight shirts and orange jacket." As for the crowning glory — that awful mustache — Brosnan thought it said so much about the character. "I kind of had the mustache in my head from the start," he says. "It sort of furthers this idea [that] his sexuality is kind of ambivalent. Richard calls him a trisexual: He'll try anything. With the mustache and the gold chain and the tattoos…I just thought this was it."
The risk seems to have paid off, with the film and Brosnan earning acclaim. The Matador was also nominated for best picture (musical or comedy) at this year's Globes, and Brosnan couldn't be more proud. He'll be back in Los Angeles for the January ceremonies "with bells on," he says. "I got one of these nominations over 20 years ago, and I thought, 'Well, I'm off to the races; this is great.' It's taken me all this time to come back around."
Former 'smooth git' Pierce Brosnan tells Louise East why he's happy to be cast against type in his new film
The opening scene of Pierce Brosnan's new film, The Matador, induces a strong sense of deja vu. Brosnan wakes amid rumpled sheets, a raised eyebrow letting us know this is not his hotel room. Sure enough, just over his right shoulder is the smooth brown back of a slumbering lovely. So far, so familiar for the man commonly regarded as one of the best James Bonds.
But before the 007 theme music can kick in, Brosnan's gaze falls on his latest conquest's blueberry-painted toenails. Without pausing to adjust his strategically-placed sheet, he scoots out of bed, finds her bottle of polish and, with a crow of contentment, settles down to paint his own.
Welcome to the world of Julian Noble, a foul-mouthed, tequila-soaked hit man who, as he gets older, is increasingly troubled by nasty attacks of conscience. Over the next two hours, The Matador boasts enough explosions to rival any of Bond's missions, but it isn't Blofeld's secret base that's disappearing in a cloud of smoke, it's the 007 iconography.
As Noble, Brosnan curses at children, drunkenly makes a pass at Greg Kinnear's hapless salesman, leers at schoolgirls and daubs his nose with iridescent white sunblock. Gone are the suave double entendres, replaced by extravagantly humorous similes such as: "I'm as tired as a Bangkok hooker on the Sunday morning after the navy leaves town."
Noble is neurotic, needy and, says Brosnan, with great satisfaction, totally filthy. "And I'm totally aware of the effect of that coming out of my mouth after . . ." He trails off, and for a moment it looks as if this interview is going to be tricky. Should Brosnan decide to play it safe in a notoriously precarious industry, he might refuse to talk about his 10 years as the world's most famous secret agent. Or perhaps he's simply touchy, given that he was sacked from the job in 2004 with a single phone call, despite the 3 billion his four Bond films brought in. Luckily, Brosnan is pausing only to savour his words more fully.
"I'm fully aware that this film totally deconstructs the image I've created of myself. I painted myself into a corner with Bond. It wasn't a bad corner to be in, by any stretch of the imagination, and I could probably have made a career out of carrying on being professionally smooth. But, you know, you look around and you realise you've created a look for yourself, an image. It kind of gets boring." He leans forward, suddenly animated. "I was getting bored with myself."
Boring or not, when Brosnan arrived for our talk he definitely looked more James Bond than Julian Noble. Tall, at 188cm (6ft 2in), the 52-year-old actor is wearing a brown suede jacket, black open-neck shirt and jeans, and cowboy boots. He has a deep tan, courtesy of living in Malibu for the past 20-odd years, but is sprinkled with the freckles he owes to his Navan roots. This is the visual equivalent of his accent, which hovers 500 miles west of Galway, on the Hollywood isle of Midatlantica.
Ironically, when he was called on to deliver an Irish accent in 2002's Evelyn, Brosnan came up with an odd hash of Gilligan's Island and Ryan's Daughter, yet when he talks about his latest project, Seraphim Falls, he lapses into a convincing faux de Valera accent to send up the idea that he and Liam Neeson, his co-star, might play cowboys, in the Brokeback Mountain mould. "We don't go camping. There's none of that. Liam. And. I. Do. Not. Do. That."
Yet perhaps Brosnan's elusive Irish accent is no surprise, given what he has described as his "mangled and strange" childhood. Brosnan's father left home when Brosnan was a baby, and by the time he was four his mother had moved to London to find work, leaving him with his grandparents. When they, too, died, Brosnan was shuttled between relatives and boarding houses, enduring a harsh Christian Brothers education, before his mother finally sent for him at the age of 11.
Despite its complexities, Brosnan is proud of his heritage. When he married for the second time, to the journalist Keely Shaye Smith, in 2001, he did so at Ballintubber Abbey, in Co Mayo. More recently, he brought their two sons, nine-year-old Dylan Thomas and five-year-old Paris Beckett, back to Boyne Crescent in Navan, where he photographed them in the small rockery where his First Communion photograph was taken.
"I think I'm very Irish. I'm passionate, and the daftest things come out of my mouth, because I speak before I think. I love people, and I think I travel well, which is a very Irish trait."
Ireland has returned the compliment, bestowing on Brosnan two honorary doctorates; Britain also claimed him as its own with an honorary OBE, and the US offered citizenship in 2004.
Brosnan became the subject of huge goodwill after his first wife, Cassandra Harris, died in his arms the day after their 11th wedding anniversary, following a four-year battle with cancer. Her death, in 1991, left Brosnan, at 38, a widower and the father of three young children: Christopher and Charlotte, Harris's children from her first marriage, whom Brosnan later adopted; and Sean, their son together.
The children have not always had an easy ride, with Christopher in and out of prison and rehabilitation for drugs and drink-driving offences and Sean involved in a near-fatal car crash in 2001. All this makes it particularly poignant that Brosnan frequently calls himself lucky.
Does he really consider himself a lucky man? "Yup," he says, reaching to knock a wooden table leg. "I've had good fortune, I've worked hard and passionately and, luckily, I love what I do. I try to educate my children in the same breath: find something that you are passionate about. It's not easy, but it's certainly doable."
In many ways, Bond was a role Brosnan was born to play; Goldfinger was his favourite film as a boy, his first wife was a Bond girl (she played Countess Lisl von Schlaf in For Your Eyes Only) and he looked the part. Yet the first time he was offered the role, in 1986, he had to turn it down, as he was still under contract to the makers of Remington Steele, the cheesily loveable 1980s television series.
Timothy Dalton got the job instead, and Brosnan did not slip on the tuxedo until 1995, when the franchise was in crisis. His first outing, GoldenEye, changed all that, taking more than 300 million at the box office and confirming Brosnan as worthy successor to Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
"It's a bit like being an ambassador to a small country, that character," he says. "There's a sense of this cinematic legacy that you're part of, that you had a great fondness for. I wanted do the best job possible."
Yet Brosnan never tried to disguise his frustration with the role, describing it as "a straitjacket" and a "period piece" full of "crass one-liners", even though he acknowledges the opportunities it gave him. "I knew I was in the process of creating an international profile for myself, with Bond as a calling card. What do you do after that?"
In a pre-emptive strike, Brosnan formed a film company, Irish DreamTime, and co-produced films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, Evelyn and, now, The Matador. "It was about me having choices. If someone else had been making The Matador, I don't think I'd have been their first choice."
Perhaps not, but when Brosnan read the script, which was initially submitted by the film's writer and director, Richard Shepard, as a writing sample, he knew it was for him. "I just loved it. I thought it was dark, funny, kaleidoscopic. It had this huge vulgar way about it, and yet a tender side, too."
For Shepard, an indie film-maker who envisaged making The Matador on a budget of little more than 200,000, Brosnan's involvement meant a significant upgrade, to a budget of 8.5 million and a 40-day shoot in Mexico. Yet far from being overawed, Shepard exploited the comic potential of portraying the artist formerly known as Bond in the middle of a psychopathic nervous breakdown. In one scene, Brosnan marchesacross a crowded hotel lobby wearing nothing but cowboy boots, a cigar and a pair of black briefs pulled up as high as a sagging pot belly will allow. It is not a scene for the pathologically vain, but Brosnan smiles happily.
"I thought that was rather clever of Richard. He was looking for a simple transitional scene, but you get a much bigger bang for your buck when you see me, who's always been Mr Elegant, walking across a hotel lobby in my knickers. It works for the character of Julian Noble, and it worked for Pierce Brosnan the actor."
The film did well in the US, earning Brosnan a Golden Globe nomination, and Brosnan clearly hopes it will open up new roles. "This has given me confidence to know that I'm going in the right direction and that I can play characters as opposed to being a smooth git."
So what's the next challenge? He thinks for a long time, then laughs. "I'm trying to think of some profound answer, but really I just want to act. I want to stay at the table for as long as I can, work with the best people and make more movies. It's pretty simple."
The Matador is in cinemas now
Source: Financial Times Information Limited - Europe Intelligence Wire.