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Rudin Talks True Grit, Producing Quality Films at Studios: “It’s harder than it’s ever been”

Rudin Talks True Grit, Producing Quality Films at Studios: "It's harder than it's ever been"

Most weekdays, producer Scott Rudin, 52, starts off with an early breakfast meeting or two at a Madison Avenue cafe. One recent week, he met at 8 AM with Lena Dunham, the young filmmaker he plucked to adapt and direct Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares, well before Tiny Furniture became a film du jour; he met me the following day at the same hour. How did he find out about Dunham? He has a deal with former assistants Jay Van Hoy and Lars Knudsen, producers at Parts and Labor (The Exploding Girl): he covers their overhead in exchange for them sending him their talent discoveries. That’s how he got to see Tiny Furniture. As he was watching it, Rudin realized that he knew Dunham’s artist parents, Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham. Rudin thinks their daughter is “a total star.”

Rudin is fun, because he’s enthused about so many projects. Among them are two Oscar contenders, David Fincher’s The Social Network (which has not only passed $90-million domestic, but is the consensus fave among critics groups), and the Coen brothers western True Grit (Metascore: 82) which opened wide Wednesday.

Fincher’s next, the English-language version of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, adapted by Steve Zaillian, will be filming in Sweden through April with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara (December 21, 2011). In the editing room is Bennett Miller’s Moneyball, based on Michael Lewis’s baseball expose, starring Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Robin Wright, which Rudin has yet to see cut together. Sony plans to open the film on September 23, 2011.

In January in New York, Stephen Daldry (Rudin’s The Hours, The Reader) starts shooting Eric Roth’s adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Tin Drum-inspired Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close with Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock and Kid Jeopardy winner Thomas Horn, for Warner Bros. “That was a hard script to resist,” says Rudin.

And Rudin’s third film directed by Noah Baumbach, While We’re Young, is set to go next summer with Ben Stiller and James Franco as two New York husbands–Baumbach has landed Cate Blanchett for Stiller’s wife and is still casting Franco’s partner (Greta Gerwig’s schedule didn’t work out). Rudin is still finalizing a financing partner and distributor.

On the theater side of the Rudin ledger, his revival of August Wilson’s Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, was a huge hit; the drama ended its run at the Cort Theatre in July with a record-breaking $1,175,626 take. He currently has a hit on the London stage, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, starting Mark Rylance. Next, Jennifer Jason Leigh (Cabaret, Proof) will join Stiller and Edie Falco in Rudin’s revival of John Guare’s The House Of Blue Leaves on Broadway, directed by David Cromer (Our Town), set to open April 25. This season, Rudin is reteaming with Trey Parker and Matt Stone on the musical The Book of Mormon for Broadway, and is producing a new play starring Chris Rock called The Motherfucker with the Hat (which the NYT refuses to advertise).

After some obligatory Oscar chatter (The Social Network vs. The King’s Speech, Jesse Eisenberg vs. Colin Firth, Aaron Sorkin vs. Michael Arndt etc.) Rudin and I dig into True Grit, which cost just $38 million.

The Coens went to Rudin after No Country for Old Men won the Oscar, saying they wanted to adapt the Charles Portis novel, which Paramount had made into a 1969 film that earned John Wayne an Oscar as Rooster Cogburn. So many people were asking the Coens if No Country was a western (it wasn’t, they said), that they decided that they would tackle a real one. True Grit project started at DreamWorks and moved over to Paramount. The Coens hewed close to Portis, complete with framing device and unhappy ending. And they cram the film, for which cinematographer Roger Deakins may finally win an Oscar, with references to John Ford and Anthony Mann. “It’s the first time he only has one movie,” says Rudin.

The Coens cast Jeff Bridges as Cogburn before they had seen Fox Searchlight’s Crazy Heart. Rudin pushed to get that film pushed up to 2009 so that the two projects starring Bridges as an aging boozer would not compete. As Cogburn, “Bridges does more with one eye than most people do with two,” Rudin says. “Rooster’s not dumb. He’s drunk.”

Rudin can’t figure why Matt Damon isn’t getting more credit for his comedic turn as a Texas Ranger who is a “heartbreaking buffoon, so moving and ardent,” he says. “It’s his most beautiful, effortless, loose performance.”

The producer expects the movie to play commercially across the country over the holidays, not only with western fans who tend to be older males, but also with younger women who might respond to Hailee Steinfeld as a smart 14-year-old who’s more literate than the two men who are tracking her father’s killer, and earns their grudging respect. “I want girls to want to see this, the baseline of the movie is a female empowerment story,” says Rudin, who grew up with Steinfeld’s father Peter on the south shore of Long Island; his brother is Jake Steinfeld of Body by Jake fame. The filmmakers found their California rookie “through a long exhaustive search,” says Rudin. “She sent us a tape, from Thousand Oaks. People expect Linda Manz from Days of Heaven. She’s Judy Garland.” Steinfeld’s braids are an intentional homage to Garland as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. “You know exactly what kind of house she came from,” says Rudin, “who her mother and father were from the way she dresses.”

The ad materials have tested well, and the filmmakers managed to land a PG-13 rating, thanks to some MPAA lobbying help from Academy president Tom Sherak after the ratings board deemed the film too violent. Even so the Coens had to cut a few frames, basically some finger chopping. As Rudin feared, the Academy has ruled Carter Burwell’s lovely elegiac score as ineligible, due to its reliance on hymns of the period.

With two and a half years left on his Disney first-look deal (where the Miramax that released No Country and partnered with Paramount Vantage on Baumbach’s Margot’s Wedding is no more), Rudin shops his projects to other studios (especially Sony) while retrieving some of his Paramount-based titles in turnaround (including two lit bestsellers, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) . Rudin is developing several projects with playwright Tony Kushner, including a long-in-the-works script about Eugene O’Neill.

While many see Rudin as a powerful player who can get movies made, many of his projects collect dust because no one will back them, and he has had to adjust to the changing fortunes for sophisticated adult fare. “I’m doing a lot of adapting,” he says. “It’s harder than it’s ever been. I keep my overhead as low as I can. I want to be able to go wherever I want to go, do whatever I want to do. I guard the material and the filmmaker. I do what I feel I know how to do and don’t do things that I don’t. I’m a product of my sensibility.” One career that he admires more than anyone: Dick Zanuck: “That’s what it means to stand for quality.”

The man just can’t help his taste.

Here’s THR’s Rudin profile; plus a collection of the Coens’ 15 best mustaches.

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