Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business. Fleming was out of town and out of sorts, and that’s why their usual Sunday effort runs today.
BART: It is right that AFM takes place near Thanksgiving. The event in some ways is like an in-gathering of a noisy, rambunctious family, with some major crisis real or imagined to worry about. The DVD business has all but disappeared, AFMers tell you, and VOD revenues disappoint. Upfront guarantees for genre pictures (even splatter, my favorite category) are down. Theatrical distribution windows are shrinking. The Chinese and Russian markets are expanding but rumors persist about protectionist threats. “The Russians hate us,” one AFM vet told me. “They’re thinking of quotas on American films.” “The Chinese are letting in fewer American movies,” said another, who pointed out that new broadcast regulations in China will significantly delay streaming of all foreign shows.
FLEMING: I only spent a couple hours in Santa Monica, to moderate a panel where Quentin Tarantino, Walton Goggins, Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell and Jennifer Jason Leigh regaled foreign distribs about The Hateful Eight, and those guys were mobbed and bids began flying right after. So I saw AFM from the mountain top. But I know that studio movies without spandex only get funded if others pay. That should be a boon to AFM, where these backers can recoup. They should be happy.
BART: When I come upon AFM folks, despite their imagined crises, they always seem in a party mood. The weather is great, the beach inviting and, after all, how seriously can you worry about the fate of a splatter movie? If you miss out on one splat, there will always be another.
FLEMING: I had one clean black suit left, a black tie and white shirt for the Tarantino thing, at the end of a long road trip. He said I looked like a Reservoir Dog. I suggested that if I did well moderating, I’d like him to grant me a color, like the original suit wearers Michael Madsen (Mr. Blonde), Steve Buscemi (Mr. Pink), Harvey Keitel (Mr. White), Tarantino (Mr. Brown), Tim Roth (Mr. Orange) and Edward Bunker (Mr. Blue) got in that crime noir classic. I guess I did OK, because Quentin christened me Mauve. Now, I was tempted, Buscemi-style, to argue for a different shade, maybe a primary color, but when Tarantino began to mull whether eggshell suited me better, I told him, Mr. Mauve it is. Should I change my byline?
BART: Then I will be billed as Mr. Chartreuse.
FLEMING: With all due respect, you cannot simply assign yourself a color. That’s not how it works. Even if it’s a dubious title like Baron of Grey Matter, you need to be properly knighted and this will be the closest I ever get. You ran Variety for two distinguished decades, you lobbied for Francis Coppola for The Godfather at Paramount. Your legacy is safe. This moment belongs to Mr. Mauve.
BART: OK then. Now, here’s the good news about most pictures being shopped at AFM: They are mercifully short. I suppose you can’t ask for too many takes from a Jason Stratham or a Rutger Hauer or the other senior genre action stars. All the so-called “auteur” films being released from the Christopher Nolans, P.T Andersons and David Finchers of the world, on the other hand, seem to run on and on, as though their directors were saying, “My work is so brilliant that I know you won’t want me to stop.” Of course, exhibitors desperately want them to stop. Most filmgoers do, also. But being able to mandate a running time approaching three hours is a badge of prestige among top auteur directors.
FLEMING: I always wondered why that happens. If a director overstays his welcome 45 minutes and the result is Cinematic Sominex, wouldn’t he want someone to be honest before the movie tanks and he can’t get another job? Do these guys just stop listening?
BART: Studio chiefs these days are intimidated about demanding cuts. The producer of a genre film can simply tell his director to stop shooting because he’s run out of money. An executive of Paramount cannot politely tell that to a Chris Nolan without risking being shot into a black hole. So David Fincher kept telling the story of Gone Girl long after we’d learned that she had come and gone. That’s show business! Next topic: Interstellar vs The Theory Of Everything — which side are you on? The films are mirror opposites in most ways, yet I find an interesting debate is taking place among Oscar voters about their respective merits. Both films deal with cosmology and black holes. That’s all they have in common.
FLEMING: I saw Theory Of Everything and think that at least so far, Eddie Redmayne’s Stephen Hawking is the performance to beat, though I haven’t seen everything. Who wins this egghead standoff between Theory and Interstellar?
BART: Interstellar at 168 minutes arrived with customary Christopher Nolan bluster — secrecy, giant premieres, intrigue over publicity and cast availability. Nolan may not intend it this way, but each new film conveys the suggestion of auteur megalomania. Then we have Theory — a quiet, emotional film about a crippled cosmologist, directed by James Marsh, who few of us have ever heard of. Theory’s arrival is a study in understatement. Yet the film is profoundly moving to audiences.
FLEMING: But Nolan consistently plays on a level not seen since Stanley Kubrick. He’s paid to put ambitiously intelligent concepts on the screen and challenge dummies like me to keep up. There is nobody like him.
BART: To be sure, Interstellar is imposing in its grand ambitions, but Theory has another very contrasting asset: that astonishing performance by Eddie Redmayne as Hawking. We all understand why actors love to play blind men or cripples. Putting Oscar intrigue aside, Redmayne, who was singing in Les Mis, is devastating in Theory. And then there’s that issue of understatement. The campaign of Interstellar all but shouts at audiences, “this is the most important movie of the year” with Nolan’s steely dominating presence. By contrast, Theory is the perfect candidate for the “soft sell” trophy. It just kind of appeared. Interstellar represents a media attack. Theory is the gentle stranger who happened to arrive on the scene. I always favor the gentle stranger.
FLEMING: I feel compelled to plug the superb Theory Of Everything script by Anthony McCarten, since he told me at our Contenders event that I’d ruined his Oscar season by making him live a “Two Sheds” nightmare. A little explanation: after the film’s Gotham premiere I wrote about how McCarten pursued the Hawking love story for over a decade, knocking on Jane’s door after he read her memoirs and writing multiple drafts before she granted the rights that made possible this gem. Somehow we got on the subject of his fellow countryman Peter Jackson and McCarten told me how he once played a zombie cameo in one of Jackson’s early homegrown horror films, Brain Dead. By the time we met again weeks later at Contenders, McCarten said reporters wanted to know more about his zombie work than Hawking, and it brought to mind Arthur Two Sheds Jackson, one of his favorite Monty Python skits that didn’t seem quite so funny anymore. In it, a famous composer is interviewed by a newscaster who seems most interested in an obscure nickname. See it here:
Peter, even though you suggest Nolan and his gang should have lightened up a bit with Interstellar press, McCarten reminds us that you veer from the Oscar script at your own peril. By the way, what in your mind is the better nickname, Two Sheds, or Mr. Mauve? Is that really even a color?