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: So I am back here at Cannes, mainly trying to position myself to break all those hot projects and sizzle reels that foment competing bids, and which almost never get done until 5 AM Cannes time. Saturday morning, it was the $6 million Three Generations deal made by The Weinstein Company. This morning it was the $4 million deal Open Road is closing for Bleed For This, with Miles Teller playing Vinny Pazienza, battling back from a near fatal car crash and broken neck.
I feel punch drunk, jockeying all night for these stories, dozing with the phone stuck to my head. I come away with no shortage of respect for the agents who are selling, and the distributors who are bidding. What intrigues me is how much this is not about trying to get people to overpay. Nobody wants to be responsible for the next Spitfire Grill or Hamlet 2. Some of the prices paid here get mildly inflated in auction, but rare is the conversation I have with these people on both sides where they don’t bring up a responsibility to make a deal that doesn’t damage the indie ecosystem, which pricey flops did before and could do again. That includes the agents, who piece these pictures together from their inception, and feel the burden of making sure each one is linked to the distributor who has the need, and the track record to give it the best ride for the filmmaker and financiers. There were offers up to $5 million for Bleed For This, but the sellers at CAA and WME Global felt Open Road earned a lot of cred for its skillful handling of Nightcrawler out of last year’s Cannes; Bleed For This has that kind of potential, or at least that’s how it felt from 12 minutes of promo reel. I admire these dealmakers for that mindset, and the ability to spend the day stoking the embers on this or that promo—this is clearly the hottest segment of this Cannes marketplace—and then going all night to close smart deals so everybody at least has a chance to win. These all-night ordeals only really happen here, Toronto and at Sundance, but it gets harder every year, even to chase these deals.
BART: I’ve found the job of bidding on movies at festivals to be extraordinarily difficult. Sometimes a film seems to strike all the right notes at a fest — the critics are ecstatic, the buzz is perfect, the interviews go well. But when you see the same film alone in a screening room a week later, the magic somehow vaporizes. Is it timing? Is it alcohol? No, it’s the festival mystique. And it can be expensive.
FLEMING: What you say is true. Seeing a finished film is one thing, and there are plenty examples of buyers catching festival fever and wondering what they were thinking, when they show their prize acquisition to the team back home. Even tougher: How do you watch 12 minutes of highlight footage showing the best parts of a movie, read a script and truly know if a film has the goods or not? The pressure is intense. There will be two more crazy all nighters for me before I leave Tuesday. I get the feeling that Tom Ford might make a deal for Nocturnal Animals after all; he was reticent after presenting to buyers, because he doesn’t have to make a deal and he wants control. But it has to be enticing, particularly those worldwide offers from companies like Focus/Universal, Paramount and Warner Bros, who’ll let Ford alone without the fashion magnate having to carry the budget cost of the movie. If he makes that kind of deal, it will be 8-figures, and far and away the biggest deal of the festival. Aside from that, there is a lot to love here and distribs who haven’t yet bought films have a good menu from which to pick. Green Room, The Lobster, Louder Than Bombs, The Family Fang, Elvis & Nixon, Natalie Portman’s A Tale Of Love And Darkness, the Chadwick Boseman-starrer Message From The King, Maggie’s Plan, the Bryan Cranston-starrer The Infiltrator, the WWII thriller HHHH, Jackie (with Portman as Jackie Kennedy), Sense of An Ending, are just a few. All of these movies will find a home eventually, but the hope is for theatrical release.
Next topic. Orson Welles posthumously celebrated his centennial, and his heirs took to Kickstarter to solicit finishing funds for his last film, The Other Side of the Wind. Awhile back, I’d asked a lot of Hollywood people to name their favorite unmade script. One was Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s classic novel. Rather than dote on the finale from an iconic filmmaker who by then was beaten down by the system and seemed like a tired wine pitchman, I wanted to focus on this 1939 project, which Welles wrote and was ready to direct when he was the blazing genius who was going to change movies. His was as loose an adaptation of Conrad as Francis Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, but what blew me away was that this was going to be Welles’ first movie, which instead became the all-time classic, Citizen Kane. I sent you the Heart of Darkness script that I was slipped. For 1939, I thought it was pretty ballsy stuff, especially the craziest introduction I have ever seen attempted, though obviously he didn’t get it made. What did you think?
BART: Your comments on Orson Welles, Mike, reflect the fact that you unabashedly admire auteurs. Witness your interview last week with Woody Allen – perhaps the longest in journalistic history. Did you give the old guy a bathroom break? (OK, it was a damn good interview and also an orgy of self-deprecation). He made one factual mistake, by the way. He claimed he’d never gotten a script note. Well, I once slipped Woody some script notes on Play It Again Sam (albeit indirectly) and he followed them. Here’s how: When Paramount acquired the rights to Sam from Fox, Bob Evans and I set Herb Ross to direct it. Woody was furious. But Ross did a great job and Woody made some suggested improvements on the script, which were tactfully conveyed by the director. The picture demonstrated how superbly Woody, the actor, works under smart direction.
FLEMING: Woody was talking about films he directed, so that one gets an asterisk. Yeah, Woody ran at the 8,000 words I get when I do Playboy Interviews. But we are not killing trees here online, and this was one of those rare interviews where there was not one flat exchange in the hour and 20 minutes we spent together. So I cut a few thousand words but let it run. I do like auteurs and what are there, five or six guys like Allen, who can tell you so much about how the business was and where it is heading?
Back to Welles. His journey into dark Africa on Heart of Darkness was compelling and a straight narrative, with veiled references to the fascism about to overtake Europe. But the introduction he intended to film, I thought was audacious and outrageous. This where he created a goal for himself that each member of the audience see themselves on that slow boat to find Kurtz. So the warmup was witnessing everything from a prisoner being electrocuted, to another hitting golf balls with Welles telling you how that all felt, to this short vignette which would have opened the film:
“Ladies and Gentlemen, this is Orson Welles . Don’ t worry. There’s nothing to look at for awhile. You can close your eyes, if you want to, but – please, open them when I tell you…First of all, I am going to divide this audience into two parts — you and everybody else in the theatre. Now, then, open your eyes.”
Then the vantage point comes from within a bird cage as it would appear to the bird looking out, the cage filling the entire screen, and beyond the bars is the mouth of a man, tremendously magnified. From which comes the voice of Welles.
“The big hole in the middle there is my mouth. Could you play the part of the canary. I’m asking you to sing and you refuse. That is the plot. I offer you an olive.”
A couple of gargantuan fingers appear from below the cage, and thrust an enormous olive toward camera, through bars of the cage.
“You don’t want an olive. This enrages me,” says Welles to the audience, which sees all this from the bird’s vantage point when it is clear things aren’t going well as the camera shifts and the scowling face of Welles comes into view.
“Here is a bird’s eye view of me being enraged. I threaten you with a gun.” Welles describes that the muzzle of the pistol being placed through the cage bars looks like Big Bertha. “That’s the way a gun looks to a canary. I give you to the count of three to sing.”
In his stage direction, Welles describes the camera moving to focus on his mouth as he slowly counts, one, two, three. “You still don’t want to sing, so I shoot you.” Then he describes the gun going off with a cloud of smoke, a shower of brightly colored sparks. As this vignette fades out, Welles says, “And that is the end of this picture.”
The other examples are equally visceral and I wonder what would have happened, had RKO Pictures had the stones to make this film. I don’t know how it would have held up, but I feel like it would have resonated for its time the way that Christopher Nolan’s techniques on Memento did, or Quentin Tarantino’s shifting chronology in Pulp Fiction did, or Scorsese’s shot in Goodfellas when Henry Hill brought his future wife to the nightclub, or so many others. Why do I have a feeling you are going to tell me that what Welles’ did here was self indulgent? Did you find the 165-page script as compelling as I did? I would have published the whole damn script, but I was not able to get a return call from my old friend Ted Hartley after days of ringing RKO and trying to get permission.
BART: I dutifully read it and I thought the script was all of the above—groundbreaking and monumentally self indulgent. Also a bit onanistic.
FLEMING: Okay, off I go to the dictionary to look up that last word. The horror, the horror.
BART: On Orson, I enjoyed several lunches with the great man at the old Ma Maison restaurant. I was a slow eater and Orson usually ate half my lunch. The script of Heart of Darkness is brilliant, but it’s all about Orson. He is effectively the narrator and the protagonist. He even describes the cinematic tricks he intended to display (I wish he’d had a chance to shoot the film). Orson’s characters speak in rhetoric, not dialogue. In his introduction, Orson pledges that the audience won’t simply see his movie, “this picture will happen to you” (He would have loved virtual reality). Orson Welles fell victim to his own egomania. I wish he’d possessed some of Woody’s self doubt.
FLEMING: That is our way of wishing Mr. Welles a happy 100th!
BART: Since you’re in Cannes, Mike, I will brief you on the important cultural events you are missing. First, the departure of David Letterman has become downright operatic. Tom Hanks, Oprah, Julia Roberts and Bill Murray all lined up to pay homage. Jon Stewart swooned that Letterman’s show was an “incredible epiphany.” Magazines and newspapers are steeped in sentimental bye-byes. Suddenly this hard-ass late-night host has become a national monument. Conan O’Brien won’t even do his show opposite the Letterman Finale – he’ll do a re-run. Or do his show naked. Frankly, I was moved when Carson called it quits. He had become part of our lives. I never felt that way about Letterman.
FLEMING: I appreciated Dave in the day, but he is cold and standoffish by nature and never let the audience get that close to him. Carson, as you’ve told me, was much the same way, but he was the only game in town and so audiences that tuned in nightly felt a warmth and kinship that wasn’t really there. I read a Rolling Stone interview with Dave, and it feels like he’ll disappear from public view as Carson did, and really start living and focusing even more on his son. Carson at the end was taking what, 30 weeks of vacation. Letterman was more of a nose to the grindstone guy and that’s why he was a singular broadcaster. I bet he’ll be happier, away from the limelight and doing the same thing, day after day.
BART: The $64 million opening weekend of Pitch Perfect 2 serves as a vivid reminder of the power of the female audience. I made it a point to attend the first media screening, and instantly recognized that the women in the audience loved the movie, even though it was desperately over the top. And they totally endorsed the raunch. The first Pitch Perfect was kind of ‘sweet’ and was shrewdly directed; the sequel is down-and-dirty (even Judd Apatow would blanch) but the women loved it. All of which is a reminder that sequels in general try too hard. Filmmakers are desperate not to disappoint their legions of true believers. The first Pitch Perfect rang up $115 million worldwide. That was music to Universal’s ears; the second will be, too.
FLEMING: Well, you know that means we are bound to see tons of raunchy movies driven by women, which is already happening. Paramount swooped in pre-Cannes to grab Bad Moms, the Leslie Mann-starrer that The Hangover scribes Jon Lucas & Scott Moore wrote to direct, which has been selling foreign here. That goes up against New Line’s Mean Moms, with Sean Anders directing and co-writing and his Horrible Bosses 2 leading lady Jennifer Aniston possibly starring. I’ll watch anything and everything Melissa McCarthy does—I think she is the preeminent physical comedienne maybe ever—but I wonder how far this trend will play. Women are so much smarter than us dumb-ass guys. Well, not those who use words like onanistic, which, it turns out, is a very naughty sex word. How did I not know that word? I feel like I have been beaten at my own game.