By Anthony Kaufman | Indiewire July 26, 2011 at 3:2AM
Jill Sprecher's comic thriller, "The Convincer," has lost a lot since it premiered at Sundance seven months ago.
The film lost its original title; it's now called "Thin Ice." The film lost its editor, Stephen Mirrione, who won an Oscar for his work on "Traffic." The film lost its composers, Emmy-winner Alex Wurman and Grammy-winner Bela Fleck. And it has lost its filmmakers, writer-director Jill Sprecher and her sister/co-writer Karen Sprecher, whose credits include "Clockwatchers" and "13 Conversations About One Thing." They will see ATO Pictures release a new edit of their film this fall, without their participation.
While filmmaking has always had its Irving Thalbergs and Harvey Weinsteins, here the instigator is an unlikely suspect. Werc Werk Works is the risk-taking Minneapolis-based financier that also backed Todd Solondz's "Life During Wartime," Rob Epstein and Jeff Friedman's "Howl" and Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr's "The Turin Horse."
It's hard to deride any company with the vision, if not courage, to finance films like these. Even some filmmakers whose dealings with WWW left them feeling raw admit as much. Director Braden King describes his WWW experience as "damaging and devastating," but says, "The company could be an amazingly powerful force for good in the world of daring, independent art cinema. There is a massive amount of potential there that I would be ecstatic to see harnessed in a positive way."
WWW was founded in 2008 by producer Christine Walker and Elizabeth Redleaf, a trustee of the Walker Art Center and co-chair of its film society. The company has produced five films to date, the most recent of which is Lawrence Kasdan's "Darling Companion." That film's producer, Anthony Bregman, praises Redleaf as "one of the few people around these days making bold, artistic decisions about film financing. Creatively, she was nothing but supportive of Larry during the whole process."
For the team that made "The Convincer," the experience was very different.
The film received mixed to good reviews from its out-of-competition world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Reuniting "Little Miss Sunshine" stars Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin, the official logline said " ''The Convincer' follows a desperate insurance salesman in the Midwest whose scheme to get a hold of a rare violin leads to unforeseen consequences." Variety praised the film as "distinguished throughout by the sharp contributions of a high-caliber cast and crew" and Screen Daily praised it as "a deftly told story," while The Hollywood Reporter dismissed the film as "a poor man's Fargo."
Wurman said he only learned about his score being replaced when his assistant read a press release about the new composer online. "This was surprising to me because my last correspondence with a WWW producer was about getting to the next stage on the soundtrack record deal," Wurman said, via email. "My interaction with them at Sundance gave all indication that they were very happy with the score."
According to WWW, the producers told Wurman's agent that they planned to find a new composer after the original score didn't test well. The new score is by Jeff Danna ("The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus").
In response to questions from indieWIRE, ATO Pictures issued this statement: "Jill Sprecher does not have final cut on 'Thin Ice.' We, along with the producers, felt there were improvements to be made and worked with top artists on a new cut and new score. ATO could not be more excited to release the film. We’re sorry that Ms. Sprecher does not support it and wish her well in her future endeavors."
Mirrione left the project due to the Sprechers' lack of participation in the new version. The Sprechers can't comment on the film due to contract stipulations, but Wurman spoke in their defense. "Jill and Karen have not been involved in changes made to this film for quite some time, and not for lack of collaborative effort," he said. "They care very much about every film they make, and this one is no exception. They would never abandon it."
According to other producers who have worked with WWW, the Sprechers' abrasive experience wasn't unusual. One producer, who asked not to be identified, said that at one point Redleaf asked to be credited, implausibly, as both executive producer and producer on the same project. And on "Life During Wartime," an individual familiar with the production said Redleaf tried to force the filmmakers to cast Pamela Anderson in a minor role.
"My experience was unpleasant," echoed Caveh Zahedi, who tried to set up an Italian production with WWW, "Thomas the Obscure," with Crispin Glover and Vincent Gallo attached.
According to Zahedi, WWW committed to the project and pulled out after he'd begun shooting test scenes. "[Redleaf] asked me to do a rewrite of the rewrite based on her notes, but she never gave me any notes," he explained in an email. "She kept saying 'next week, next week,' and then, without ever giving me a single note -- other than her assistant's note to change all present participles (i.e. 'is walking') to present tense (i.e. 'walks') so as to make the script 'read faster' -- she said she had changed her mind and didn't want to do the film anymore."
Ted Hope, who was a producer on Solondz's "Happiness," was originally on board for "Life During Wartime." However, he left the project early on. "I had a very simple three-page agreement that I've used on other films, an initial deal memo for the financing, and the clauses were being negotiated to death in a way that I've never seen before. It seemed they did not want it closed," he said, adding that at one point he was screamed at for an innocuous clause about cost reports.
Said Hope, "In order for Todd to make his movie, I thought I had to withdraw and surrender my rights to the project."
Writer-director Braden King initially set up his debut feature, "Here" starring Ben Foster, with WWW. Said King in an email, "It seemed like a dream come true. It was thrilling. But things ultimately fell apart in such a damaging and devastating way. It took a long time for me to recover."
"Their original vision and intentions were coming from a truly amazing place. They probably still are," continued King, who eventually produced the film with Parts & Labor's Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen. "But there seemed to be a lack of appreciation for the fact that these films are so fragile, so dear and personal to their makers. To put it mildly, I never felt the kind of care and mutual respect that is so necessary for any kind of a healthy, functional producer-director relationship."
In the company's defense, Walker admitted that WWW might have had a shaky start. "Granted, there was a learning curve," she said. But "after things weren't as perfect on the Solondz movie as they could be, we really started thinking about how to do things differently."
One difference is that Walker resigned as WWW's president last October. She told the Star Tribune that she decided to make the change in order to "devote more time developing some of my pet projects.”
Walker still consults and produces with the company; she's an executive producer on "Darling Companion." And she believes that WWW made the right choices with the Sprechers' film. She told indieWIRE, "We feel strongly that the recut allowed us to secure distribution, which ultimately is in the best interest of the film."
Jill Sprecher has seen the new cut, but had no further input. Her version, however, will be included on the film's Blu-ray DVD.