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IN FOCUS
Mary Glucksman profiles six new feature films in production.

BE HERE NOW!

Max's Kansas City, circa 1974, in Be Here Now! PHOTO: Bob Gruen

Max’s Kansas City – the joint where Andy Warhol and Mick Jagger preened, starving artists and tomorrow’s stars ran tabs and the Velvet Underground played a regular gig upstairs – is back in the form of a new documentary guided by Yvonne Sewall-Ruskin, ex-wife of late proprietor Mickey Ruskin. Predating Studio 54, the Mudd Club and Danceteria, Max’s ruled New York nightlife and shaped pop culture in a decade-long run from 1965 to 1974. Be Here Now! (working title) puts Max’s story in the context of the era’s social foment.

"Max’s was Mickey’s living room and every night he threw a party," Sewall-Ruskin says. "There’s a lot of history – everyone, from Warhol to Abbie Hoffman to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, came. It was like a private club before there was such a thing, and as a result it was a petri dish for amazing ideas. [Lou Reed’s] "Walk on the Wild Side" is basically about the back room at Max’s. Mickey catered to people who hadn’t been catered to before; he kicked out people who’d have carte blanche at most places and invited, say, some cross-dressing young junkie who would become central to the scene."

To capture her filmic vision, Sewall-Ruskin enlisted the help of director Sam Erickson who has directed feature docs on the Dave Matthews Band and Jon Bon Jovi, his ESP Pictures partners, cinematographer Jojo Pennebaker, son of legendary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker, and producer Jesse Sheppard. With some 20 hours of interviews already in the can and big guns like Lou Reed, Larry Rivers and Bebe Buell yet to shoot, the filmmakers are sending out an appeal for archival footage and assembling a trailer to raise further financing. Erickson says music licensing costs will determine the final budget. Contact: Sam Erickson (director) at [email protected]

 

EXIST

Nic Mevoli in exist. PHOTO: Tracey Goodwin

Esther Bell mixes actors and activists in exist, a "super-low-budget" DV feature about young Philadelphia squatters in the anti-globalization movement. The film unfolds as a mystery about a missing 17-year-old who may have come to harm at the hands of the police. "This is not a protest film – it’s not propagandistic," says Bell, who launched exist after following the story of 500 kids arrested for demonstrating at the 2000 Republican National Convention. "I wondered, ‘At what point do you leave your middle-class existence and decide to put yourself in danger for the sake of people halfway across the world?’ The film is an intimate portrayal of two kids from different backgrounds who are trying to live by their political ideals and the obstacles that stop them."

Although Bell had a script before starting exist, she rewrote it with her actors, newcomers chosen for their activist backgrounds. The film was made by a collective that, for all its guerrilla credentials, also included members like d.p. Tracey Goodwin, a former a.c. for Martin Scorsese. Producer Isen Robbins, who got involved in post after seeing Bell’s raw footage, calls exist a remarkable hybrid. "So often their agendas overwhelm the attempts of political filmmakers to deliver a stong, clear message within the framework of narrative film," he says. "With exist the story leads the agenda."

Bell shot exist off and on for six months while winding up a 25-festival tour of Godass, her first feature, which recently premiered on Showtime. The new film should be ready for festivals this fall. Bell’s next feature is Flaming Heterosexual Female, a "depraved satire" about a woman obsessed with proving the biological impossibility of monogamy, set to star Fairuza Balk. Contact: Esther Bell, [email protected] or www.estherbell.com

 

THE SECRET LIVES OF DENTISTS

Any supine patient who has ever sensed that their dentist’s mind was on something besides teeth should line up now for Alan Rudolph’s new film, The Secret Lives of Dentists. The story’s an x-ray of a group of married dentists who share a practice after it dawns on one partner that the other is having an affair. Campbell Scott and Hope Davis play the dentists. Together since grad school and the parents of three young kids, they’ve got no basis for coping with a calamity of this proportion, and what ensues is variously hysterical and devastating.

Secret Lives’s script has an unusual pedigree – it’s an adaptation of best-selling author Jane Smiley’s novella The Age of Grief by playwright Craig Lucas, whose previous screenplay credits are Longtime Companion, Prelude to A Kiss and Reckless.

"Alan likes to call it a fever dream – [it’s] a study of a good marriage hitting a crisis point that will either wreck it or make it stronger," says producer George Van Buskirk, whose Holedigger Films equity financed Secret Lives. (The company was capitalized two years ago through investor relationships cultivated by partner David Newman, a Wall Street exec.) "The way people try to get films financed today is frightening. We’re under the radar now but, by alternating family films and signature adult dramas, we’re trying to build a brand name people will associate with a certain level of quality."

Secret Lives, Holedigger’s third project after girl-and-a-horse-story Virginia’s Run, and the edgy Roger Dodger, was shot in Westchester county this spring. The script came through Scott, who did a reading of an earlier version that never got financed. But how did a newbie like Holedigger land the likes of Alan Rudolph, an iconoclastic auteur whose early films, Welcome to L.A. and Remember My Name, were produced by Robert Altman? Two words, says Van Buskirk: "Final cut." Contact: George VanBuskirk (producer) at [email protected]

 

SONNY

Nicolas Cage makes his directing debut with Sonny, a New Orleans—set modern gothic that stars "it-boy" James Franco – a recent Golden Globe winner for his starring TV role as James Dean, who also plays Harry Osborn in Spider-Man. In Sonny, Franco stars as a former male prostitute home after an army stint to visit his fading madam mother (Brenda Blethlyn) before moving on to a new life elsewhere. Once his mother’s hottest asset, Sonny finds walking away isn’t as easy as he’d hoped –especially when he’s smitten with the new girl in the house, played by Mena Suvari. Also in the film are Harry Dean Stanton, Scott Caan and Cage.

It’s no big surprise that Cage turned to directing – his uncle is Francis Ford Coppola, and cousins Sophia Coppola (Virgin Suicides) and Roman Coppola (CQ) – nor that he’d choose something as edgy as Sonny for his first effort. He’d already produced two out-there films (Shadow of the Vampire and the upcoming Life of David Gale) through his production company, Saturn Pictures.

Although John Carlen’s script had bounced around Hollywood for years under the title Pony Rides, "Once we decided to [greenlight it]," says producer Norm Golightly, a partner at Saturn, "we were in production in New Orleans [within months]. We brought in key crew but hired a lot of a locals," he adds. Much of the crew was fresh off Monster’s Ball, which shot in Louisiana last year.

Saturn secured Sonny’s $5-million financing from Gold Circle Films. Cage capped production by serving as Grand Marshall of one of the city’s Mardi Gras parades.

Cage’s next project as an actor is Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Projects on Saturn’s front burner include a Neil LaBute—directed remake of classic horror yarn The Wicker Man, a Universal item Cage will star in and produce. Look for Sonny to surface at fall festivals. Contact: Norm Golightly (producer) at [email protected]

 

TIPTOES

Can you imagine Gary Oldman as a dwarf? Freeway director Matthew Bright could, and cast him as Kate Beckinsale’s love interest – and brother-in-law-to-be – in his new movie, Tiptoes. The story starts a little further back, with Beckinsale’s character grilling her boyfriend (Matthew McConaughey) about why she’s never met his family in their three years together, and topping it off by announcing her pregnancy. He flips out and takes off. Cut to a knock on the door and Oldman’s entrance as McConaughey’s diminutive twin brother.

"[Matt’s character] was the freak in his family since everyone else was short," says production exec Tim Peternell. "[Gary] is charming and he and Kate eventually fall in love." The film also has Patricia Arquette as a trailer park wild woman who stirs things up.

So will Tiptoes be as outrageous as Freeway or Bright’s followup, Confessions of a Trickbaby? Absolutely.

Tiptoes started shooting in L.A. on April 23. To transform Oldman into a dwarf, the filmmakers are using techniques like forced perspective and blue-screen head replacement. The film is the latest from Chris Hanley’s Muse Films (Love Liza), which launched with Freeway and also made Trickbaby. Financing came through the film’s co-producers, Studiocanal division Wild Bunch and COPS-creator John Langley’s film company. Also on the way from Muse is music video whiz Jonas Akerlund’s speed-freak fantasia, Spun. Next up, Hanley is scrambling to finance a Charles Manson movie, The Family, and an adaptation of Martin Amis’s London Fields.

"We like the smart writers," Hanley says. "It’s disruptive work that we create, and each time it goes out into the media and creates public awareness, it changes things a little bit."

Contact: Chris Hanley (producer) at chris@mus[email protected]

 

THE UNITED STATES OF LELAND

Matthew Ryan Hoge makes his directorial debut with Leland, a meaty story he also wrote about a teen who kills an autistic child for no obvious reason and the way the crime reverberates through his family and community. Upping the ante for this project are cast members Ryan Gosling in the lead role and Kevin Spacey, also a producer through his Trigger Street Productions, as the teen’s eccentric novelist father. Don Cheadle anchors the film as a teacher who bonds with him at the youth facility where Leland is remanded and becomes obsessed with his case. "It’s a meditation on morality," says Hoge. "It takes a tragic act and explodes it."

Hoge, a ’96 USC screenwriting graduate, says Leland was inspired by two years he spent teaching in L.A.’s juvenile court system. Although he counts Leland as his first feature, he made a "nine-day, $9,000-dollar" project three years ago that he credits as essential prep. "I don’t think I would have been able to pull this off without that," he says. "So much is getting out there and making the mistakes and learning from them."

Still a mystery is exactly how Leland landed at Trigger Street. "The script had been sent out and several people expressed interest but thought it was too dark, and of course they weren’t going to let Matthew direct," says Trigger Street’s Bernie Morris, who’s producing Leland with Spacey. "Kevin and I sat down with him for six hours and hammered him with every possible scenario and he gave us the confidence he could do it. He’d done his homework and had a very clear vision of the film. And Kevin has a track record of working with first-time directors [like] Bryan Singer and Sam Mendes and had the sense he could pull it off."

The $5.5-million Leland wrapped in L.A. in March; co-financing came from Thousand Words’ Palmer West and Jonah Smith. Also in Leland are Jena Malone, Michelle Williams, Lena Olin, Chris Klein, Martin Donovan, Sherilyn Fenn and Ann Magnuson.

Contact: Bernie Morris (producer) at [email protected].

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