Production Report: “Bettie Page,” “Cable Beach,” “Happy Endings,” “How To Eat Your Watermelon…,” “Lonesome Jim”
by Jason Guerrasio
“The Ballad of Bettie Page”
Last month, on the second floor of the marble foyer of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall Court House, one of America’s most notorious sex icons waited to testify before a Senate committee investigation on obscenity. But decked out in a demure tan petticoat, with long curly dark hair, Bettie Page looked nothing like the S&M wildcat depicted in her photographs. Played by the sweet-cheeked Gretchen Mol, she, in fact, appeared like your average ’50s girl-next-door.
“Originally, I didn’t even think of her in the role,” director/co-writer Mary Harron (“I Shot Andy Warhol”) told indieWIRE during one of the last New York shoot-days for “The Ballad of Bettie Page.” “The whole thing about Betty is she’s doing all these bondage photos and she’s doing it in this sunny and joyful way,” said Harron, who has been waiting some eight years, along with screenwriter Guinevere Turner (“Go Fish”) and producer Christine Vachon, to bring the famous pin-up’s life story to the screen. “It completely contradicts the material, but Gretchen has that sunny behavior very naturally.”
Produced by Vachon, Pam Koffler, and Katie Roumel‘s Killer Films and financed by HBO, the film was shot by Mott Hupfel (“American Astronaut”) in 80 percent black and white and 20 percent color. Wanting to shoot in black and white was one of many recurrent setbacks for the production, according to Harron.
But the added color sequences (which include a stint in Miami, a number of magazine covers, and home movie footage), along with a cable TV channel ready to fund risky material, have helped “Bettie Page” get made during a cultural moment that is ironically more timely than when it was originally developed. The controversy surrounding Bettie Page, noted Harron, resonates with current fears of “cultural destabilization” and “threats from within,” as voiced by the religious right, even more than it did during the 1990s. The film is being targeted as a theatrical release, but as of press time, no U.S. distributors have signed on. [Anthony Kaufman]
Set in the quiet Canadian fishing town of Cable Beach, Ben Sheffield investigates the murder of a kayaker and realizes he must recount his troubled childhood to find the murderer.
This $1 million Canadian ($729,660 U.S.) murder mystery is the brainchild of scribe Bill Thumm who, with producer Nora Arajs, was chosen out of 785 submissions for the second in a slate of six features produced by Canadian companies CHUM Television and Brightlight Pictures. This past January, veteran TV director James Head came on to direct the project that began shooting in the end of April. “What interested me more than anything is the root of the story is similar to Kurosawa‘s “Rashomon,” says Head from the set. “I’ve always been intrigued by that kind of story where perspectives from different people varies on the same event.” Along with Thumm’s clever story (compared to the style of “Memento” and “21 Grams”), Arajs also praises the film’s shooting location. “It’s not something that could be shot anywhere else,” she says. “The landscape is itself a character and provides for a striking backdrop to an interesting story about truth and perspective.” But she does admit that filming, which is 90 percent exteriors, has been hard at times. “We’ve had to contend with all the weather the West Coast can dish up; rain, wind, hail, and blazing hot sun.”
Currently shooting in Vancouver Island, British Colombia, principal photography (shot by Roger Vernon on 35 mm) wraps this month with picture lock in August. Set for a television release next spring on CHUM TV, Arajs hopes for a festival run or theatrical release before that. The film stars Chris Kramer, Karin Konoval, Tygh Runyan, Nancy Sivak, and Scott Hylands.
“It’s one of those films that when you talk about it doesn’t sound like a comedy,” says Holly Wiersma, producer of Don Roos‘ latest film. Described as a contemporary comedy involving three intertwining stories about secrets, schemes, and sex in Los Angeles, it’s hard to find the humor if you’re not told to expect it. A stepsister (Lisa Kudrow) and stepbrother (Steve Coogan) sleep together. A father (Tom Arnold) and son (Jason Ritter) unknowingly are involved with the same woman (Maggie Gyllenhaal). And a woman (Kudrow), who gave up her baby for adoption, is blackmailed by a documentary filmmaker (Jesse Bradford) who knows the grown child’s whereabouts. “But it’s a comedy,” Wiersma repeats.
Known for crafting stories about human frailties (“Bounce,” “The Opposite of Sex”) and grabbing Hollywood talent to star in them, “Happy Endings” is no exception. The big names in this cast have changed a bit — Ray Liotta was signed on at one time to play Tom Arnold’s role, Gwyneth Paltrow was replaced by another Roos favorite, Lisa Kudrow, and Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped in for Jennifer Garner.
The “under $7 million” Lions Gate production wrapped in L.A. last month and is on track to play in the major fests next year with a theatrical release to follow. Shot on 35 mm by DP Clark Mathis, it’s being cut by David Codron, who’s done Roos’ previous films. Rounding out the ensemble cast are Laura Dern, Sarah Clarke (TV’s “24”), Bobby Cannavale (“The Station Agent”), and David Sutcliffe.
“How To Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy it)”
The effort Joe Angio has put into making a documentary on Melvin Van Peebles has been as exhaustive as explaining to people who the film’s subject is. “Whenever I’ve told Melvin’s story over the years the first reaction is, ‘Ah, that’s great. Why are you doing a film on Mario Van Peebles?’ And then “Sweetback” might ring a bell, ‘Oh, yeah I’ve heard of that. That was the movie that came after “Shaft”?’ No. Actually it’s the reason for “Shaft.” And by the time I get to the Wall Street part they say, ‘OK, now you’re just making this shit up.'”
Best known for his 1971 film that created the “blaxploitation” genre, “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song,” Melvin Van Peebles is more than just a filmmaker, and his renaissance career is recounted in Angio’s doc (the title is from one of Van Peebles unpublished articles on not succumbing to stereotypes). Along with exploring his work as a filmmaker, the doc also reveals he is an author of nine books (five of them in French) and three Broadway plays, recorded three albums, and was the first black options trader on the American Stock Exchange.
For the last five years Angio has flown across the world on his own dime to interview subjects including Melvin, Mario, and Megan Van Peebles, Spike Lee, Gordon Parks, former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell, St. Claire Bourne, French illustrators Gebe and Wolinski, Broadway producer Manny Eisenberg, and Frank Serpico, while juggling his day job as editor-in-chief at Time Out New York. He previously directed two short docs but this is his first feature.
Shot on mini DV, the film, produced by festival programmer Michael Solomon, is budgeted at under $1 million and is currently in post with editor Jane Rizzo (Angio has taken a partial leave of absence at TONY to finish post). They’ve begun showing it around to interested distributors since Sony Pictures Classics recently released Mario Van Peebles’ “Baadasssss!,” a narrative account of the making of “Sweetback.”
Loosely based on screenwriter James C. Strouse‘s experience growing up in Goshen, Ind., “Lonesome Jim” is a comedic drama that follows Jim (Casey Affleck) as he moves back in with his dysfunctional family after failing to make it as a writer in New York City. Directed by Steve Buscemi (who also serves as one of the producers), the film also stars Liv Tyler as Anika, Jim’s romantic interest.
After losing financing a month before pre-production, producer Galt Niederhoffer of Plum Pictures frantically took the project to InDigEnt, which immediately jumped onboard. Shot in Strouse’s hometown of Goshen, Niederhoffer says the Midwestern surroundings played a major role in the feel of the film. “We left New York with a crew of 30 people and we were just embraced by this town,” she says, as the town let them take over a diner and gave them a wing of the hospital to film in. And Niederhoffer says the cast and crew will never forget their lodging for the three-week shoot: an Inn in an Amish village on the outskirts of Goshen. “People that were accustomed to a very high quality of life were literally in the middle of this gorgeous, flat, Indiana farmland with Amish buggies blocking cars. It was very interesting and a refreshing change of scenery.”
Gary Winick and Jake Abraham of InDigEnt are also on as producers with Anna Waterhouse, Regan Silber, Jonathan Sehring, Caroline Kaplan, and John Sloss executive producing. Budgeted at “under $500,000,” production wrapped in April. “Lonesome Jim” was shot on DV by Phil Parmet, with editing by Plummy Tucker. Niederhoffer hopes for a festival run next year.