At a time when it has never been tougher to get a movie made, credit is due to indie producers Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, who have slowly but surely turned out quality indie pics ever since they hung their Bona Fide Productions shingle back in 1993. Their most recent film, romantic comedy "Ruby Sparks," marks the return to the screen of Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton, the husband and wife team who directed sleeper hit "Little Miss Sunshine," released by Fox Searchlight after it broke out at Sundance 2006.
While Big Beach paid for that movie, it was Berger and Yerxa who found the script from eventual Oscar-winner Michael Arndt–his first produced screenplay–and brought in music video directors Dayton and Faris. The movie was a hit, but these producers have never been about making money. Check out their movies: Steven Soderbergh tearjerker "King of the Hill" (1993), Alexander Payne high school satire "Election" (1999), wedding comedy "The Wood" (1999), Anthony Minghella Civil War drama "Cold Mountain" (2003), Scott McGehee and David Siegel's adaptation of bestseller "The Bee Season" (2005), Todd Field's suburban drama "Little Children" (2006), high school comedy "Hamlet 2" (2008) and Miramax's Jennifer Aniston comedy "The Switch" (2010). None of these movies were obvious, or easy. They were pushed up the hill by two stubborn people who never give up.
What makes it so tough to make movies now? "A lot of companies more than ever minimize their risk," says Yerxa. "The main way of doing that is to have some comfort through foreign presales and estimates. You've got to have marketable elements, usually actors, sometimes directors. As revenues decline from DVD and TV, the cowboys of capitalist wealth seem to have decided not to take wild risks, to somehow finance films that are almost risk free."
Thus Bona Fide films can take years–they sit on the back burner until eventually they simmer and come to life. It took seven years for Payne's "Nebraska" to start filming, as one example. And Dayton and Faris never did make "The Abstinence Teacher," which they were developing with author Tom Perotta, which would have been Bona Fide's third Perotta adaptation. (Now Lisa Cholodenko is writing the film at Warner Bros.)
The development process is different for writer-directors like Cholodenko, Payne or Field, says Berger: "With them the script is never the end of the game." Faris and Dayton, on the other hand, aren't writers: they jump on scripts that are ready to shoot, as they did when Berger and Yerxa sent them the submission from actress Zoe Kazan, entitled "He Loves Me," about a novelist who writes a dream girl who comes to life. Suddenly that movie, with Kazan and boyfriend Paul Dano on board to star, was a go at Fox Searchlight–with a different title. "We don't know anyone better [than Faris and Dayton] at getting the most out of the material," says Berger. "That's what they did in both instances. They explored the screenplay every which way, workshopping, staging scenes. On 'Ruby Sparks' they dove into it with Zoe, tried to wring out everything they wanted."
Although she was rehearsing a play, Kazan (the daughter of ace Hollywood screenwriters Nick Kazan and Robin Swicord) happily delivered rewrites. She made improvements to the ending, and deepened and made more elaborate the climactic controlling scene, when Calvin rewrites her over and over again.
Yerxa and Berger are currently filming their latest, psychological mystery "The Necessary Death of Charlie Countryman"(2013), in Romania, where "Cold Mountain" was also shot. They financed the film via foreign sales company Voltage, which sold territories at Cannes last year. Yet again the producers imported a rookie short-form director, Fredrik Bond (Heineken spots), to make a feature debut. "He has a great body of commercial work," says Berger, "visually fresh. And he's funny as hell."
The film starts out with Charlie Countryman (Shia LaBeouf) in Chicago, but as his mother (Melissa Leo) is dying she wants him to go to Bucharest. On the plane he meets a man who before he dies asks him to track down his daughter. Overseas he falls in with a worldly-wise young woman (Evan Rachel Wood) who could easily get him killed, as she is claimed by a violent crime boss (Mads Mikkelsen). Brit Rupert Grint, moving on from "Harry Potter," and German Til Schweiger also star.
The best thing you can do to fortify a rookie film director is to give them a strong script, says Berger. Matt Drake's "Countryman" script was on the infamous Hollywood black list when they first optioned it more than four years ago. LaBoeuf was in, and out, then back in again. Casting can come out on the lucky side, as Mikkelsen just won best actor in Cannes for Thomas Vinterberg's "The Hunt" and has "A Royal Affair" coming out as well. The movie will probably be ready to show in Sundance or Berlin.
As movies get smaller and smaller, says Berger, you have to play close attention to how you cast them. What could command $15 million in the past, "now is less than half of that."
They're in the process of casting for a spring start "Louder than Bombs," the first American film for Norwegian director Joachim Trier ("Reprise"). "We were conscious as we were piecing the cast together what it would mean for the budget, it's a tricky dance," says Berger. "Auteur directors are never casting toward the marketplace, it's about finding that sweet spot where artistically you are going after actors exciting to the director and at the same time you are financially allowed to make the movie you want and need to make."
Finally, after Bona Fide sent the script to him seven years ago for him to possibly produce, Payne starts filming "Nebraska" on October 15 in his home state, with Will Forte and Bruce Dern. Paramount is backing the film. "He didn't want to do three road trip movies in a row," says Yerxa. "We had to wait for him to find his next movie and make it. We took a long break between 'Sideways' and 'The Descendants,' waiting for him to be ready to hit the road again."
"Only Living Boy in New York" is also a seven year project so far that has seen many twists and turns. Allen Loeb worked through several drafts, with various directors including Seth Gordon and Marc Webb, who is still attached.
"Low Down" is based on a memoir about a young girl growing up in LA with her father, a jazz piano player having hard times; John Hawkes is attached. "It has a 'Paper Moon" vibe set in jazz world," says Berger. The team is also developing Elmore Leonard's "Swag," among other projects. And like everyone else, they've turned to HBO, where Damon Lindelof is mapping out a pilot for Perotta's "The Leftovers."
One reason that "Ruby Sparks" got made was that it was inexpensive and recoupable at $8 million. The two leads, both up-and-comers, didn't cost much. "It wasn't a studio movie," says Berger. "We weren't looking to try and make the biggest version of this. This version was truest to itself."
Another was that the script combined the virtues of a studio comedic concept movie (without the usual tired familiarity) with "deeper concerns about relationships and who's in control, how the person in the relationship isn't in control, doesn't have the power," says Berger. "You feel empathy for that character. It was a fresh indie take in the terrain of more accessible entertainment."
The movie added a philosophical/metaphysical dimension to the boy-creates-girl-out-of-his-head idea which was tricky to pull off. "It was addressing metaphysical questions about what level of existence Zoe's character had," says Yerxa, "and also thematic issues. Different people take away different points of discussion from the film. There's a critique of men's controlling tendencies and lack of openness and generosity, either because of deep-down insecurity, or is it more that all people of both genders are self-deluded? They're thinking that they want a certain person or situation for themselves, but are ill-equipped to deal with it in actual life. Calvin really thinks he would embrace a certain kind of woman but when she appears in the flesh he can't deal with it."
Berger adds that one big challenge was the mix of tones. "It starts out comedic, and as the relationship gets muddled the script takes a turn to a drier tone." The filmmakers relied heaviily on Nick Urata's score to help navigate the story.
And Searchlight had to deploy its marketing finesse to sell a romantic comedy with both energy and serious ideas as a summer counter-programmer. The actors and directors went on a cross-country promo tour, but the film opened just OK and has been lagging at the late-summer box office. That's par for the course these days, as no one seems to know how to find that indie sweet spot. One thing we can count on: Berger and Yerxa will keep on trying.