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What Went Wrong with ‘White Boy Rick’?

Hot enough to be on the James Bond shortlist, Yann Demange delivered a classic studio 'tweener: neither commercial nor arthouse.

“White Boy Rick” star Matthew McConaughey and director Yann Demange at Telluride

Hollywood has courted British TV vet Yann Demange ever since his 2014 Northern Ireland war drama ”’71,” which broke out rising star Jack O’Connell at Berlin and went on to play some 33 festivals, including Telluride. Demange has that magic mix of skills that’s so hard to find: a good eye, a nose for authenticity, and the ability to shoot both sensitive dramatic scenes and visceral action. He can handle actors as well as helicopters and cars. He’s got the whole toolbox.

Jacques Audiard and Darren Aronofsky sent him fan mail. Hollywood executives were so hot on Demange that he wound up on the James Bond director shortlist after Danny Boyle bailed. But “Bond 25” went to the first-ever American director Cary Fukunaga instead. Not long before the James Bond team made their decision, Sony released Demange’s “White Boy Rick” to disappointing reviews  and $21.7 million total at the box office.

“White Boy Rick” premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, and that may have been a mistake. That festival can elevate a discovery, but slams anything that comes up short. Knowing that led Annapurna to launch Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk” at mainstream Toronto. They also sent Jacques Audiard’s offbeat revisionist western “The Sisters Brothers” from Venice to Toronto, dodging the extra scrutiny that comes when the Telluride gaze falls on an awards contender.

Director Yann Demange and Netflix’s Scott Stuber at Telluride

Anne Thompson

It seemed like a good idea at the time. Telluride co-director Julie Huntsinger, an ardent supporter of “’71,” also wanted to play his long-awaited follow-up. “‘White Boy Rick’ is so good,” she told me on opening day. “There’s something about Yann that is joyous and cool and wonderful all at the same time. I hope he keeps working with the right people.”

Demange’s early fans included Lizzie Francke at BFI and Tessa Ross at Film4, who found him just the right first feature. He had been developing his own Algerian story (his parents are French and Algerian). But when Gregory Burke’s script for “’71” turned up, Demange knew it was better than anything he could write himself, and jumped on it. And BFI and Film4 were confident enough to support him with a decent budget.

Sure enough, Demange nailed the immersive war narrative about a young British soldier (O’Connell) who is stranded on the wrong side of Belfast and must find a way to get back to his base. Shot from his perspective (see Nolan’s later “Dunkirk”), we are as lost and terrified as the soldier, who is trying to survive in hostile territory with no rescuers in sight.

After “’71” broke at the Berlin competition, Demange took the film to Telluride and found a film community. “It was a life-changing experience for me,” he told me at the festival. “I met Julie, she was encouraging, gave me confidence, embraced me as a filmmaker. It opened up America to me. It’s the reason why I’m here.”

“’71”

Having committed to making a Hollywood film after “’71” but rather than take on a studio assignment, he flirted with the top producers in town as he tried to find his way. “[“’71”] might be my only film,” he told me at the time. “Once I embraced this one, I felt precious about the next one, it was as important to me. It doesn’t get any easier. There’s more to choose from. But what do I care enough about to really invest time and try to make? It’s such a saturated market. There were a lot of names, new relationships, everyone coming out of the woodwork. What I should do, could do, shouldn’t do. It took me a while to hear my instincts again.”

He was briefly slated to direct Sony’s high-profile documentary remake “The Seven Five,” about corrupt police officers in ’80s New York, to be produced by John Lesher (“Birdman”) and Annapurna’s Megan Ellison. With no pile of scripts in a drawer, Demange insisted on pursuing something homegrown. “I was trying to grow my own food,” he said, “and it wasn’t working out.”

He spent three more years laboring on an L.A.-uprising version of his old untitled “Battle of Algiers” project for Plan B and New Regency. But he was also dabbling with a more engaging mistress on the side, true story “White Boy Rick.” Finally, after visiting Rick Wershe, Jr. in prison, that became the film that Demange couldn’t deny.

Based on an ’80s story from crack-era Detroit, the script was also hard to lick (Andy Weiss, Logan Miller & Noah Miller). Demange tried to balance the sprawling, outrageous saga of how a teenager became an FBI informant and drug dealer clapped in prison in 1984 at age 17 (he won’t get out until 2020, when he’s 51), with the father-son family drama that could carry an emotional throughline. He didn’t want to exploit, sensationalize, or glamorize these real people, but also wanted to give audiences the rollicking good time that Wershe himself had enjoyed.

“I can’t walk away from this. He’s so fucking funny,” said Demange, who said he hates most middle-class portraits of worthy poverty. He wanted this one to have “banter, warmth and humor,” he said, “more ‘City of God’ than earnest kitchen-sink drama. He was a dumb kid.”

“White Boy Rick”

After hearing that McConaughey was a fan of “’71,” Demange went back to the Oscar-winner (“Dallas Buyers Club”) with the script; McConnaughey wanted to play the single hard-scrabble parent of Rick Wershe, Jr. (Merritt) who at age 14 rises in the ranks of local Detroit drug dealers to become the unlikely youngest ever kingpin and FBI informant.

But nobody knew what they were in for when Demange finally did not cast a professional actor as the teenager, but made the risky decision to cast a minor, tough-talking 15-year-old Baltimore inner-city street kid Richie Merritt, whom the casting scout found waiting outside his inner-city high school principal’s office. Merritt had no idea what was going on, no investment in becoming a star. Half the time he was ready to bolt; he kept leaving for school and was bonding with the rehabilitated mother who had left him as a child, now brought on set to supervise him. McConaughey had to use all his wiles to keep the kid emotionally engaged — by not acting. “It was fun, the relationship with him was intense,” he said.

McConaughey recreated a day with Merritt: “Come to set.”

“I don’t need this, man! Don’t tell me what to do! I’m tired. I have to eat.” He starts eating candy.

“No, no, no!”

“You can’t tell me what to do! You’re not my daddy!”

Merritt stuck around, and gave an honest, edgy performance. McConaughey was at his poignant best as his less-than-perfect, struggling father, who tries too hard to be his son’s pal and helplessly allows his addict sister Dawn (excellent Bel Powley) to leave home with her bad-news drug supplier boyfriend. The movie swirls entertainingly around the family, FBI, and drug dealer dramas, but it’s also a serious look at trapped, ill-equipped, and poor people who can’t escape the heartbreak of disappointment.

SEPTEMBER 13, 2018: (l to r) "Boo" (RJ Cyler), "White Boy Rick" (Richie Merritt), "Big Man" (YG), and "Lil Man" (Jonathan Majors) negotiate for guns in Columbia Pictures' and Studio 8's WHITE BOY RICK.. from Sony publicity site

“White Boy Rick”

Scott Garfield

Which the movie also turned out to be, alas. Sony’s rip-roaring trailer bore some resemblance to “The Fighter,” which isn’t a bad comp. But back in 2011, Paramount took that over-the-top David O. Russell movie all the way to seven Oscar nominations and supporting wins for Christian Bale and Melissa Leo and $129.3 million worldwide. That didn’t happen this time.

What went wrong?

Working with a studio, which always seeks to play to the widest possible audience to justify a midsize budget, was probably Demange’s mistake. “White Boy Rick” was set up as a $29-million movie, modest by studio standards. But it’s a genre-bending indie at heart. It’s a common mistake; filmmakers from other countries often follow their best breakout work with something disappointing from the studios. (See: David Michod, Stephen Frears, or Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who followed up his Oscar-winning “The Lives of Others” with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie boondoggle “The Tourist.”)

To their credit, the producers allowed Demange to fashion a sprawling, working-class saga that risked belonging to no genre. It’s not a conventional thriller or procedural mystery or family drama. It’s all of the above, part white-boy fantasy of hanging with the boyz in the hood and becoming a successful drug lord, but also a cautionary tale about the risks of running afoul of the law. It’s set in a time when the law came down hard on drug offenders, most of whom were African-American. That’s how this poor sap ended up living his life in prison for over three decades.

It’s possible that, as an outsider, Demange somehow missed the mark in terms of hitting the mainstream Trump zeitgeist. Instead, he made a smart stylish film that’s neither commercial nor arthouse. That’s a problem. An old-fashioned specialty platform might have built word of mouth; the movie played well to the sophisticated Telluride crowd. But that’s not what you do with a $29-million movie starring McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Bruce Dern.

Clearly, Sony was impressed with Telluride and hoped the festival could boost the fortunes of their feathered fish. In that hothouse environment, critics failed to provide the cred that the film needed. Toronto might have been the better play.

Next up: Demange’s U.S. TV debut will be the first episode of HBO drama “Lovecraft Country,” executive produced by Jordan Peele’s Monkey Paw Productions, J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot, and Warner Bros Television.

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