Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this weekly column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.
FLEMING: As one who often complains about the lack of risk by major studios preoccupied with dating sci-fi and superhero spectacles a decade out, I am impressed by what Warner Bros has done with American Sniper. Skeptics questioned Kevin Tsujihara’s decision to replace Jeff Robinov with the triumvirate of Greg Silverman, Sue Kroll and Toby Emmerich; as though there can only be a Highlander outcome (one standing, two beheaded). Emmerich’s final Hobbit is huge. What a job Silverman and Kroll have done with American Sniper, which might alter Boyhood’s frontrunner status following a humungous weekend that could leave it at $108 million after the four-day holiday. If this is emblematic of this regime’s potential, I want to see more.
Silverman’s production division buys a book that screenwriter Jason Hall told me nobody wanted; it was shepherded by lot fixtures Andrew Lazar and Bradley Cooper. Chris Kyle dies the day after Hall turns in a script that told only the fraction of the story he got from Kyle. Warner Bros had the patience to let it play out; the slain Navy SEAL’s widow, Taya, told Hall the real story and the script changed 70% by Hall’s estimate as she added the humanizing elements of the grave toll that sniper work took on Kyle and his wife.
After a Spielberg flirtation — he wanted to humanize the other side through that doppelganger sniper killing U.S. soldiers for the other side — they enlisted Eastwood, who tells a smartly spare anti-war story about the price of bravery in battle. WB’s marketing maven Kroll saw the power the first time she viewed the picture amidst a busy day of meetings; the magic she and her team worked reminds you why filmmakers love her. I am obsessed and so disturbed by this movie’s power and have watched it several times. And each commercial stops me in my tracks, from that first ad where the sniper’s gun is trained on a boy and his mother as she passes a grenade nobody but Kyle sees, as American soldiers approach. It framed the impossible burden of deciding who lives and dies. The spots are all high emotion vignettes; Taya tells her husband it’s a boy, and a firefight interrupts their call; Kyle tells a shrink he is OK and will answer to his maker for every shot he took; his red-rimmed eyes show he is being consumed by PTSD. While so many movies – this weekend’s Blackhat the latest – load familiar images of sex, gunplay and explosions, American Sniper has the most emotionally moving campaign I can remember. My point: this is how major studios should take risks, making gutsy, meaningful, important movies and selling them thoughtfully. They raised the bar.
BART: What got into your oatmeal, Mike — you’re never this exuberant. I would point out that the Sniper strategy represents a throwback in several ways. The notion of nurturing a film in a few select theaters before going wide is a classic ‘70s studio plan. Think about it: A distributor actually wants to build a hit rather than demanding instant gratification. American Sniper, too, is the flip side of Birdman. It is under-written and under-directed. And it makes sense, unlike Inherent Vice (make that Inherent Confusion). So Warner Bros. deserves plaudits with one condition: Why are all Clint Eastwood movies on hold until co-funding kicks in? Why does even Clint have to pass the hat?After all these years (and hits), one would think Warner Bros would be eager to write the whole check. And reap the rewards.
FLEMING: Lets move on to the Oscar noms. I love Selma but hate these simplistic, reactionary stories that the Academy is somehow racist because Ava DuVernay and David Oyelowo weren’t nominated. Let’s review: Paramount saddled up as its Oscar horse the Chris Nolan–Matthew McConaughey time-travel epic Interstellar. Until people found that conceptual confusion overshadowed emotion. Paramount rightly jumps to its comparatively tiny pickup Selma, where DuVernay brilliantly rewrote the Selma speeches to retain fire and brimstone but avoided MLK estate copyright issues, and found a poignantly brief way to handle MLK’s infidelities. She made the first important movie on the seminal civil right leader for a paltry $20 million. But Paramount got out of the gate with this horse. Screeners, late. And the director and cast’s decision to wear “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts at the New York premiere? It was risky and perhaps polarizing to tie a ’60s tale that belongs to all of us to a contemporary controversy that divides. Slow reaction to LBJ flamekeepers also didn’t help. Is the Academy guilty of ageism for excluding Eastwood for American Sniper? Oyelowo hooked me with the British series MI5 and his is a towering and nomination-worthy performance. But we’d have to see the ballots to understand what happened. The Academy should offer this transparency or pad out acting and directing categories like Best Picture to avoid diversity criticisms. Purists would hate that.
BART: I hope Selma will be remembered in future years as an example of talented film making, not for its dubious account of history. DuVernay and Oyelowo did not make the cut as they deserved to, prompting a flurry of speculative media sermons. A “repugnant snub,” scoffed Maureen Dowd in The New York Times. As a result, suddenly Selma has become a movie we are obligated to see and obligated to vote for and none of us respond well to “obligations.”
FLEMING: I felt that vibe on 12 Years A Slave; it was strong medicine I should take but wouldn’t enjoy. I was supposed to see it at three different festivals and somehow found reasons to be busy. The truth? I just didn’t want to see scenes of institutionalized cruelty, especially to children and women. I waited for the screener and fast forwarded past the most cruel scenes. Fine movie, great performances, as enjoyable as root canal. I loved every second of Selma. But I felt that way about American Sniper, Foxcatcher, Boyhood, Grand Budapest Hotel, Imitation Game, The Theory Of Everything, Birdman, and loved many of those performances. Why does an exceptional year for quality movies have to turn into a referendum on race?
BART: Do I think Academy voters are closet racists? No, and I am a long-standing member. The Academy has always refused to give out vote totals but my guess is that the director and star likely lost by a margin of two or three. But they still should not have lost. I thought that DuVernay in particular handled herself gracefully on the awards circuit. Her explanation of the LBJ controversy was cogent: She wanted to build an initial tension between President Johnson and Martin Luther King, which would ultimately take the shape of a productive, if still taut, working relationship. I buy that, even though the overall impression of LBJ emerges as a very reluctant supporter of voting rights, rather than as a forceful advocate. I remember Jack Valenti, once a key LBJ aide, recounting for me the passion that the President brought to the issue of voting rights and racial equality (Valenti became a good friend of mine in later years).
FLEMING: You sugar coat it. LBJ is depicted as benign, at best. If he and MLK manipulated the national outrage and social change that came from televised images of protesters beaten by Alabama racists, then LBJ was done an injustice. Plot wise, it wasn’t necessary.
BART: Talking with Ava about her movie the other day, my feeling was, “What a cool lady, and what a remarkable achievement.” And I respected her desire to avoid making another “white savior’ movie in which whites save downtrodden blacks. The upshot of President Obama’s well-publicized White House screening, however, has been to further enmesh the movie in a racial debate and further discourage people from seeing it. Obama was too busy to get to Paris during the demonstrations; I’d wish he’d been too busy to screen Selma. Am I disturbed by the Academy’s slight? Sure I am. But I think everyone overreacts to these so-called “snubs” – imposed, by the way, not by the Academy but by its various, oft-quarrelsome branches. In a column the other day, Justin Chang, Variety’s normally thoughtful critic, said he reacted to the ‘snub’ of his hero, Christopher Nolan (Interstellar) with “thumb-sucking incomprehension.” Well, I actually am glad Nolan was overlooked, but I wish Ava had made the cut, even though I have no intention of sucking my thumb over it.
FLEMING: You vote. When did your Selma screener arrive?
BART: I never received mine; when I told this to Paramount I did not get another screener; instead I got a letter scolding me that an initial disc had been delivered. So what happened to it? We have a late-arriving cut and a passive studio – not a promising combination.
FLEMING: Lateness also seemed to hurt Unbroken. You can’t vamp a movie until it’s finished. Since Ava and Angelina Jolie got snubbed, is the Academy a bunch of women haters? It’s always healthy to ask the question, and maybe this further diversifies the Oscar voting body, a fitting epitaph to a film about ushering in voting rights and halting all-white juries in the South. Based on all I’ve seen, asking the question doesn’t mean it is true.
BART: Next topic. You’re always all over the Tom Cruise news, Mike, but in view of last week’s story about another team-up with Doug Liman on an action movie called Mena, I wonder if this question crossed your mind: When will Tom start playing his age? Think about it: Cruise, Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp are all 51 years old –George Clooney is 53 — and each is dealing with the aging superstar syndrome in different ways. Clooney looked elder statesman with his elegant wife at the Golden Globes. Pitt presents himself more like a funky middle aged producer type – beret, glasses, facial hair, cool, self-deprecating jokes. Depp seems to have no idea who he is or what he should look like; I doubt if I would recognize him on the street. But Cruise still looks like Tom Terrific, no character lines on his face, no tilt to his posture. He is at least a month away from finishing his fifth Mission: Impossible, and from the sound of it, Mena might as well be replicating his Edge of Tomorrow character. My question to Tom is this: Has Scientology dictated that you have to be stuck in time? Must you, now and forever, be the youthful superhero fighting the forces of evil?
FLEMING: The question of what makes a star has always vexed me. Why does that small handful of guys you mentioned stay on top? Why does someone like Chris Hemsworth–handsome and so good in Rush–soar only if he swings a hammer for Marvel, as evidenced by this weekend’s non-performance of Blackhat? Cruise is the longest tenured superstar and like those other guys and Will Smith, they hang on to their boyish looks. When I did the Playboy Interview with Tom a few years ago, he cited genetics. Clearly, discipline and training are huge factors. Scaling Abu Dhabi skyscrapers on M:I4, sans stuntman, tells you everything about his dedication. As for Scientology, his religion is his business unless he makes it part of business as Mel Gibson did on The Passion of the Christ.
BART: I remember talking with Tom at some length when he was set to become President of United Artists, mobilizing himself to supervise a varied program of movies as well as starring in some character pieces. He was, typically, modest and thoughtful. I think he even let a few gray hairs show through. The UA venture imploded, however, and Tom went back to his superstar persona. My advice to Tom (and to his colleagues) is this: Take a look at the later films of Paul Newman. Study how that amazing guy let himself, and his film characters, age gracefully. In your movies, Tom, you don’t always have to get the girl or kill the heavy.
FLEMING: What if they won’t get old? Pitt has dialed down his striking handsomeness by being photographed with his wife. Clooney, who doesn’t dye his fair but still looks ridiculously well preserved, has done the same with his new bride. By George, she is so strikingly photogenic that Amal makes him look…well, schlubby isn’t the word, but you get the drift. I doubt he would disagree. If she could act, imagine the tension in that household! Fortunately, she busies herself other ways, as Tina Fey told us at the Golden Globes: “Human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, an adviser to Kofi Annan on Syria and was appointed to a three-person commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza strip,” Fey said. “So tonight her husband is getting a lifetime achievement award.” I’ll miss Tina and Amy Poehler, by the way.