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by Anthony Kaufman
July 26, 2011 3:02 AM
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Exclusive: Sundance Film Taken from Director; is Werc Werk Works the Hero or the Villain?

"Thin Ice" (aka "The Convincer") stars Greg Kinnear and Alan Arkin. The film had its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

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.

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18 Comments

  • Jeff Gauss | January 25, 2012 5:04 PMReply

    Thank you for including Jill's original cut on the DVD. I hate when any company steals a project from it's artist and makes changes that they claim will enhance the movies appeal. The Sprecher's are amazing artist and all involved in the films production would agree. Can't wait to see both cuts and I'll make my own decision thank you!

  • the crew | October 14, 2011 6:20 AMReply

    i worked on the convincer and saw it at sundance - was proud to be involved

    saw thin ice this week and it is amazing how redleaf and company ruined such a great little movie

    i was talking to someone in their inner-circle while i was there who said selling the sundance version was not an issue with ato, wercs had been looking for any excuse to push out the director from long before sundance

    can't wait to see the director's cut again on dvd

    skip this one while it is in theaters and shame on the producers for cutting off their noses to spite their faces

  • Winnie Cooper | October 9, 2011 12:03 PMReply

    Why would anyone quote The Hollywood Reporter? They're all illiterate dilettantes.

  • insider | October 7, 2011 6:56 AMReply

    SIMPLE: filmmakers work for production company/studio.

    IF they want final cut and TOTAL creative control PAY FOR THE MOVIE YOURSELF!

    STOP all the BS and gossip!

  • todd | September 4, 2011 5:02 AMReply

    While I can't speak about The Convincer, I've heard many other firsthand accounts about WWW and the horrible behavior of Redleaf. This isn't exactly a secret or rumor anymore. Generally it seems her own insecurities, fragile ego and glaring ignorance often sabotage or at very least complicate a project that she might at one time have cared about.

    Unfortunately at the end of the day, the one with the money wins. Yes, it's great that there's a billionaire stepping up and funding challenging films, it's just too bad it's a billionaire who's ignorance and insecurities leave scorched earth in her wake.

  • Not Convinced | August 6, 2011 5:32 AMReply

    ATO Pictures stands for Art Takes Over. Can't wait to see the masterpiece they have created along with the producers and top artists.

  • anonymous | August 6, 2011 4:23 AMReply

    Art Takes Over?!! They got rid of the original creative team. Sounds more like Art Took Off.

  • joseph | July 27, 2011 4:55 AMReply

    easier said than done, often even for the most established filmmakers. i've seen this happen frequently and much to their chagrin. you want your film made and you don't have an option, you tend to take it. compromise? sure but what else do you do in a climate this toxic and problematic.

    a ten year gap between films probably didn't help her cause, even though it was well-received and moderately successful.

  • jimbo | July 27, 2011 2:13 AMReply

    The directors should've insisted on final cut. That's the end of the story.

  • Complicated | July 26, 2011 12:53 PMReply

    Interesting points. Upon re-reading, Redleaf does come off a bully in several instances, the same way Harvey Weinstein is often portrayed. Unfortunately, Redleaf has no financial or critical success to back up her credibility. Future filmmakers will judge. Looks like Christine Walker already decided to scurry from the sinking ship (pet projects? All they've done have been pet projects! ha).

    It's not clear in the article. Was Sprecker forced off the project before or after the movie sold? The sale was announced on Deadline Hollywood back in March. So Sprecker was ousted and re-cutting began after ATO bought the movie. ATO knew they were buying a movie without a director and didn't care.

    People with money pushing around artists! Gasp! Any bets on how little money either version of this mess will make?

  • M Olson | July 26, 2011 12:27 PMReply

    If the cut the Spreckers had in play at Sundance did not sell, and they do not have final cut, why doesn't the author spend a moment highlighting that fact? I understand the Sprecher frustration, but making movies is a business. If WWW couldn't sell the Sprecher cut and they can sell their new cut, isn't that their right as an investment entity?

  • Not Complicated | July 26, 2011 10:28 AMReply

    Complicated? Not really complicated if you read the whole article.

    Composer states the director wouldn't abandon the film. The director can't speak because he is muzzled by the financier.

    Editor left when director no longer involved.

    Director saw new cut and wasn't allowed to give any further input.

    In other words...the so-called filmmaker friendly Redleaf shut out the filmmakers (and has a pattern of doing so according to the article).

    The question isn't whether the film needed to be re-cut. The question is why wasn't the director involved in the re-cut? Guess we'll never know since those allowed to talk won't, and those not allowed to talk can't.

    King kind of summed it up: I never felt the kind of care and mutual respect that is so necessary for any kind of a healthy, functional producer-director relationship.

  • anonymous | July 26, 2011 8:55 AMReply

    I wonder if Alex Wurman 'bawled' when he replaced the composer on Temple Grandin for which he won an emmy or when he replaced the composer on March of the Penguins.

  • jimbo | July 26, 2011 8:05 AMReply

    While I've heard of murkiness from WWW and their lack of communication within the organization (ie Redleaf evaporates into thin air), it should be said that the directors didn't have final cut. This stuff happens, sadly. Per the composer, Focus redid the score (i believe) for KIDS ARE ALRIGHT and no one publicly bawled over it.

  • Complicated | July 26, 2011 7:54 AMReply

    I think these situations are always incredibly complicated and there's nobody ever 'in the right'.

    The reality is that filmmaking is collaborative process involving strong personalities. I'm not suggesting some of the behaviour reported here isn't problematic at face value, but the idea that a director (or writer/director or combination) is the best judge of editorial every time out just simply doesn't hold water. By the time a filmmaker has lived through writing their screenplay and seeing it produced they are often too involved to be able to see the best version possible of their own work - instead they see the editorial process as a process in which they cut the footage to match their original screenplay.

    Look at the bad blood Richard Kelly aired over the fact that the producers of Donnie Darko forced him into editorial decisions he didn't agree with. The theatrical cut of the film is brilliant. His director's cut is blunt and laboured and would never have given the film the cult status it achieved. The creative freedom he was given on Southland Tales (and I'm talking here about his Cannes cut, not the theatrical cut) illustrated that the resistance he came up against in the edit on DD was for his own benefit. There was a decent film buried in Southland's excesses but he'd been given far too much editorial control. He (and Sean McKittrick) will now claim they were rushed to get it into competition etc etc but all the press interviews leading up to those screenings reveal the truth - they thought they were sitting on a masterpiece because they'd lost all perspective.

    Given that the original editor was replaced on Thin Ice (as it's now known), this sounds like a situation where the producers did the right thing. A very TOUGH thing, but the right thing. The film is being distributed. What is worse, that the film has been recut or that the film never be seen by an American audience beyond Sundance?

    I, for one, would suggest that the filmmakers should be celebrating the fact that the film will be seen by infinitely more people than have seen it so far. Including the director's cut on the Blu-ray is a classy move by ATO and I suppose once it's released those of us who care to will be able to objectively compare the two cuts.

    Should they have communicated more openly with the creatives involved in post to avoid the carnage they have seemingly left in their wake? Sure. But do WWW have the right (particularly after backing such eclectic and artistic work in an extremely tough climate for independent cinema) to pursue distribution and monetisation of the film? Yes.

    Call me Satan, but I'm siding with the producers in this instance. I think on other projects they may have been completely in the wrong (or the right) but in this instance WWW have secured the film an audience it otherwise wouldn't have had.

    I would also say it's rare to read such a beat-up on Indiewire. I'm sure the views on WWW are many and varied, but it certainly wouldn't have been beyond the scope of the piece to dig for a few more positive comments to address the balance. Ted Hope may be pissed, but would Todd rather have made 'Life During Wartime' or not made it at all?

  • TexasJack | July 26, 2011 7:18 AMReply

    Walker says, "“Granted, there was a learning curve, after things weren’t as perfect on the Solondz movie as they could be, we really started thinking about how to do things differently.”

    Sounds like the thing they did differently was figure out how to exclude the director from the process after she got the movie into Sundance. I saw it at there and liked it, seemed like the actors did too. It will be interesting to see if they stand with the director or not.

    The fact that Redleaf won't say anything in her own defense and is threatening litigation to others who do talk speaks volumes in and of itself.

    I vote villain... for now.

  • anthony | July 26, 2011 6:29 AMReply

    It was decided on the part of Werc Werk Works that Christine Walker would comment. Redleaf was never made available.

  • anonymous | July 26, 2011 5:26 AMReply

    Since Redleaf is getting beat up here, did the author of this piece try and get an interview with her? I'm not saying she doesn't deserve it, but her voice is kind of missing with no explanation as to why.