BIZ: The Academy's Imports; Oscar-Nominated Directors Talk Shop
by Jessica Hundley
(indieWIRE/4.7.00) -- It's just a day before the pomp and circumstance of the 2000 Oscar ceremony and outside the Academy a large crowd is lined around the block, not to catch a glimpse of Gwyneth or Jack, but rather to have the pleasure of listening to Pedro Almodovar ("All About My Mother"), Eric Valli ("Caravan"), Regis Wargnier ("East, West"), Paul Morrison ("Solomon and Gaenor") and Colin Nutley ("Under the Sun"), the directors of this year's Best Foreign Film nominations.
The immense size of the crowd is undoubtedly due in part to the presence of Pedro Almodovar, the charismatic director of the critically acclaimed, "All About My Mother," who has been winning a place for himself in the hearts of American audiences since his last entry into the Oscars race, "Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown" in 1989. His appearance has managed to eclipse any interest in his competitors by the crowd of admirers and press. When the five directors split up for publicity photos, there's a painful moment as a mob of journalists wielding microphones and cameras make a beeline for the Spanish director, leaving the rest of the nominees to stare at their shoes.
The reason Almodovar has unwittingly stole the limelight can be explained by the simple fact that his film "All About My Mother" has actually been screened in the United States, while the other directors are either awaiting stateside premieres or in the case of Nepal's "Caravan" have not yet been picked up for domestic distribution.
Unfortunately, U.S. audiences are more and more being forced into a sort of nationalist tunnel vision, where only domestic films get viewed here. This insularity is what fueled the symposium's opening speech and was a theme touched on repeatedly throughout the talk. Mark Johnson, a producer ("Bugsy," "Rain Man") who served as the symposium's moderator, began by speaking about this displacement. "Foreign films struggle in the US marketplace; their box office pales alongside the standard Hollywood product," he remarked. "And some truly good films don't get distribution." Johnson claimed that U.S. audiences had "little interest in exploring any world but their own," resulting in what he referred to as America's "provincialism."
In the darkened theater there was fierce applause and murmurs of agreement; Johnson was preaching to the converted. Then began a clip from each nominated film, for most of us in the theater our first glimpse at a sampling of what the foreign market offered this past year. Within the 15 minutes allotted each film, it became obvious that these movies were not only beautifully shot, but also well acted, well written and intensely emotional.
European filmmakers have always been especially adept at producing achingly lovely melodramas that rise far above the simple manipulations of American tearjerkers and these films were no exception. Almodovar's "All About My Mother" is a prime example of this facility, a subtle meditation on family and female strength which would go on to win the Oscar the following day. This same emotional intensity was present in the themes of the other nominations; a story of a Nepalese caravan journey ("Caravan"), an exploration of Judaism in 19th century Wales ("Solomon and Gaenor"), the tale of one family's relocation from France to The Soviet Union following the second world war ("East West") and the story of a 40 year old virgin's sexual awakening ("Under The Sun").
The nominated films are certainly philosophically distant from most major studio storytelling. And yet the desire to translate that philosophy was unanimous -- when asked if they would consider making a film in the U.S., the directors all responded with a resounding yes (provided they had a solid script and creative freedom).
"I was educated by American movies," said Almodovar, whose next slated project is the English-language, "The Paper Boy." "But for me, the most important thing is the story. It cannot be a big movie or big stars. That's the only way to keep working with complete freedom and independence, to do a movie in a way that I'm used to."
But it was perhaps Valli who put it best. His film was a Herculean effort, the first fiction feature to be shot in the heart of the Himalayas. Most of the equipment had to be carried by yak and the entire production was in danger of being buried by avalanche. In order to work in Hollywood, Valli explained that he would have to do it in his own way. "I think (Hollywood) tries sometimes, to take a chicken and try to turn it into a pig." he explained. "I think I would be fearful of losing myself, but I would like to experience it, yes!"
While working in the U.S. may be enticing, most of these directors are able to make their films in Europe with an ease and creative control many American filmmakers would envy. Almodovar has had huge success with European audiences and has the benefit of a producer who also happens to be his brother. "Agustin, does all of the dirty parts," said Almodovar, "so that I can concentrate on the story." Valli, who has made several documentaries on the Nepalese caravans was encouraged by his producer to translate his experiences into a fiction feature.
"I met Jacques Perrin, who is a mad producer, with great vision and great courage," said Valli. "He said, 'I would like to be able to give you the means to make a feature on these people, to recreate these experiences and emotions you've been telling me about." Funding, however, did not come easy for "Caravan." "It took Jacques a lot of work to get the money," said the director. "And we went up there without all the money and we worked something like 900 days." Despite the isolation of the film's location and the dilemmas inherent to it, Valli was able to produce an incredible visual spectacle without utilizing costly American standbys such as blue screen and digital enhancement. "There were no special effects," said Valli. "The snowstorm is a real snow storm, the lake is a real lake, the yak is a real yak."
For Colin Nutley, a British-born director working in Sweden, it was his adopted country that he felt most indebted to for his projects. "It's a small country with an incredible history of filmmaking." he said. "The support for film is amazing. I have been making my movies with the same people for years." Nutley's Swedish filmmaking career dates back to 1989's "Annika," a TV-series about a Swedish au pair in England. He has since made multiple Swedish TV programs and features, three of which have been selected by the Swedish Film Institute to represent Sweden as their submission for consideration for a Best Foreign Language Oscar nomination.
Regier Wargnier, ("East West," opening today in New York and Los Angeles from Sony Pictures Classics) found making a French film in Russia, using both Russian and French actors along with a Bulgarian crew, a complex and difficult project. "I was the one who fought to go to the Ukraine," admits Wargnier. "The producers were not enthralled with the idea, but I knew the film would find its identity there."
Paul Morrison ("Solomon and Gaenor," another Sony Classics acquisition) gained his finances from both Film Four and from Britain's lottery for the arts. "We were financed by both the English and the Welsh lottery," said Morrison. "We are very lucky that we have that sort of system for filmmaking."
Despite the benefits of European production, American distribution is understandably desirable. All of the directors hope to parlay their Oscar nomination into American success, but they have understandable reservations. "We will find distribution for the film," said Valli, "but we have to find a company that would know how to market it. I think American distributors don't quite know what to do with it," he confessed.
One would like to think that a film as grand and as stunningly beautiful as "Caravan" will find a place in North American theaters and that distributors will begin to open themselves wider to the potential market of foreign-made films. The success of movies such as "Life is Beautiful," "The Celebration" and "All About My Mother" (also from Sony Classics) should be some indication that there is an existing audience hungry for foreign films. "International cinema is alive and well," said moderator Mark Johnson. "We Americans just need to rediscover it."
[Jessica Hundley is a writer and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.]