The beauty of success in the movie industry is that it often comes to people who zig when others zag, who have the balls to call something and fight for it. Recession times don’t encourage risk-taking, so I am happy to report that producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has not given up the maverick streak encouraged by his bosses during his glory days running production at Warner Bros. (Training Day, Three Kings, The Matrix). Now a heavyweight producer at Paramount, Di Bonaventura (Transformers, Salt) saw the potential in the dark DC graphic novel Red–about a CIA agent who fights against the dying of the light the only way he knows how–and kept pushing to get it made. That involved trying and failing to get Warners (which has a deal with DC) to back it, extricating the title from DC and finding another financeer, which turned out to be Summit, whose production chief Eric Feig, another smart cookie, saw the gold in Twilight early on, and saw it in Red too.
The problem with Hollywood conventional wisdom: follow it and you won’t take chances and give the audience something they haven’t seen before. Of course we’ve all seen renegade CIA agents going against the establishment and winning. But we haven’t seen older retired CIA agents who have been targeted as Retired Extremely Dangerous by their ex-agency. Di Bonaventura recognized how to add the Oceans Eleven element: assemble a starry ensemble to carry a 60s-style adventure, working for less than their usual rate. They landed a great cast: 50ish Bruce Willis and John Malkovich, 40ish Mary Louise Parker and Karl Urban, 60ish Helen Mirren, Richard Dreyfuss and Brian Cox, 70ish Morgan Freeman and 90ish Ernest Borgnine.
Di Bonaventura did the Q & A after my Sneak Previews class, where the movie played great. He revealed:
The graphic novel was much more violent and dark–the CIA agent is on a bloody revenge mission to get back at the people who done him wrong. All the studios passed. Summit got it. The writers Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber (Whiteout) licked the tone, as did Time Traveler’s Wife director Robert Schwentke.
Mirren was into shooting the guns–although at first she was shy about having her picture taken with one. But she got into gun practice and by the end of the shoot, she was saying, “do whatever you want,” says di Bonaventura. Her agent initially put di Bonaventura off–“why would she want to do that?” But the producer said, “If the movie doesn’t work, she’ll get the best reviews, and if it does, she’ll make a lot of new fans.” Truth is, Mirren wanted to work with Willis: she thinks he’s a subtle interesting actor.
Dreyfuss loved the idea of playing Dick Cheney (again). But Malkovich steals the film; he’s hilarious. “When an idea crosses his face you read it,” says di Bonaventura. “All the actors play it straight, with conviction–that’s what’s funny.”
The star system isn’t over: it’s just going through a generational transition, di Bonaventura thinks. Ensembles work, like Oceans, Red, The Expendables. The greatest skill di Bonaventura learned on the Oceans movies: keep large ensembles happy by taking them out to dinner, and then ply them with booze.
Di Bonaventura wants to do a Red sequel partly because, with the ubiquity of movies on the internet and homevideo, younger audiences recognize and want to see older stars. They love them. Every time he screens the film, there’s a big ripple whenever 93-year-old Borgnine comes on screen, even among younger viewers. The producer can’t wait to put together another cool ensemble.
Di Bonventura reminded the Sneak Previews crowd that when Hollywood does veer off the beaten path to take a risk on a quality movie–and audiences don’t show up–it makes it that much harder to get the next one made. It’s studios execs who have the power to convince their bosses to back something financially. It’s much tougher to do it as a producer.
Here are some Red Clips: