Production begins today on Gambit, a caper comedy that stars Colin Firth as a London art curator who plans to con England’s richest man into buying a phony Monet painting. To do it, he enlists a Texas steer roper (Cameron Diaz) to pose as a woman whose grandfather liberated the painting at the end of WWII. Michael Hoffman is directing, Alan Rickman and Tom Courtenay also star, and it’s Firth’s first big job since winning the Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech. And the script was written by Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen. Isn’t Hollywood great, the way these things just magically come together?
Gambit actually took a remarkable 14 years to get to this point, a case study on how impossible it is for producers to succeed without infinite patience and an inability to comprehend the word “no.” These Don Quixote types are the only ones in the moviemaking equation who don’t cash big paychecks through the development process, collecting serious fees only when their movies get made. They have a harder road than ever, because cost-cutting studios have made first-look producer deals an endangered species. After all, producers are bringing them projects anyway. In the case of Gambit, the driving force has been producer Mike Lobell. A seasoned vet who has gotten 14 pictures made — The Freshman, Honeymoon in Vegas and Striptease among them — Lobell last produced 2003’s Tears of the Sun. He has devoted himself to Gambit, with a script by the Coen brothers that has long been considered one of the great unmade projects in town. I’ve been writing about this film long enough that I never thought it was going to get made. I thought it worth a review of Lobell’s odyssey as I’ve covered it — the nine directors including Alexander Payne and the late Robert Altman, the numerous financiers and actors that include Hugh Grant, Reese Witherspoon, Ben Kingsley, and Jennifer Aniston — as a reminder than even when you have a great script, sometimes this business comes down to a producer’s threshold for pain.
Lobell’s journey began in 1966. Living in Paris, he was running an errand in London and wrangled a ticket to Gambit’s 1966 UK premiere. The film, which starred Michael Caine and Shirley MacLaine, didn’t make much of a dent in the U.S., but Lobell remembered it years later when he signed an overall deal at Universal when his longtime friend Ron Meyer left CAA and took the reins. When Lobell combed through the studio’s catalog for remake ideas, Gambit jumped out. This was 1997, the studio liked it, and assigned him the rights. And the first writer he sent it to, Aaron Sorkin, committed immediately. When Sorkin came in for his first production meeting after making the deal, he told Lobell and the studio that things suddenly were looking good for his TV pilots Sports Night and The West Wing. That meant Sorkin had to back out, without writing a word. It was the first of several crushing close calls.
A trail of writers came and went. Then, Lobell got lucky. Told that the Coens were looking for a little rewrite work between their movies, Lobell went after them. They said yes and did a radical overhaul that gave a dated picture a fresh context. As Lobell sat in his den reading that draft in 2003, he knew he had a movie. “I will never forget that first time I read it, from the opening line I knew I was in for a ride,” he said. “They reinvented about 90% of it, so much so that it didn’t feel like a remake.”
That should have made a production start a snap, right? Alexander Payne loved it and planned to reunite with his Election star Reese Witherspoon. That was until Payne called Lobell and told him he just couldn’t see himself directing a script he didn’t write. Several directors followed, with actors like Hugh Grant and Firth intrigued. Nothing happened.
Things seemed to take a turn for the better when Robert Altman read the script, and was eager to sign on. He’d just directed Gosford Park, and was eager to make another movie in London, especially one that would star Witherspoon. Universal flew him from New York for a meeting. That morning, just before they were supposed to sit down, Altman called with bad news. He’d read the script again on the plane, and realized it just wasn’t right for him. Another pass. The movie finally seemed to find its footing when Bo Welch, the production designer-turned-director, wanted to commit. Firth was in the mix by then, Ben Kingsley was eager to play the mark, and Jennifer Aniston wanted to play the girl. And since Welch was making his directing debut on one of Universal’s biggest films, what could go wrong? Unfortunately, that film was Dr. Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat. It proved to be a pricey disappointment and the studio just wasn’t into an encore. In fact, Universal cooled on the project by then, but because of Lobell’s relationship with Meyer, the studio put it into turnaround and allowed Lobell to shop it elsewhere. That led to several more years of development hell with Mark Cuban’s 2929 Productions and Alcon Entertainment.
By then, even Lobell needed a break. He put the script on a shelf, where it stayed until CAA’s independent film agent Roeg Sutherland called and said, “I think I know how to get your movie made.” Sutherland plugged him into Crime Scene Pictures, an upstart company hatched by former CAA agent Rob Paris and Adam Ripp. They got equity financing from Southeast Asia, planned to make 4-6 films a year, and wanted to get off the ground with something splashy. Lobell’s fuse was lit again, but it started out with more of the same. Doug Liman circled the project and then did another movie. Lobell became intrigued with Hoffman, a director he knew because his ex-partner Andy Bergman had written the Hoffman-directed comedy Soapdish. Hoffman promptly passed, but Lobell kept after him. Finally, Hoffman committed. Firth, who’d always been interested, also signed on. This was before he won the Best Actor Oscar for The King’s Speech, but it was clear he was going to be a serious contender. Diaz then signed on to play a variation of the role originated by MacLaine. CBS Films signed on to distribute in the U.S. and the film sold out in most world territories. Suddenly, it was a reality.
Reached in London, Lobell said that the current incarnation of Gambit is so strong, it was worth the wait. He attributes the long road to shifting realities in the movie business.
“By the time the Coens wrote that script, the business was already changing,” he told me. “Movies that didn’t smell like big blockbusters weren’t priority for the studios. But I knew this was a terrific script, one that had fans all over the business. I figured one day, somebody would step up with the cojones and some dough to do this, and these Crime Scene guys did just that. Now it just has to be good. And by the way, I got one even older than Gambit. It’s a Freddy Raphael-scripted love story about marriage, This Man, This Woman, which once was going to be a go movie with Sean Penn and Meg Ryan. That was the first movie for me that was going and then got stopped. I gotta make that movie, and I’ve got people reading it right now.”