'Bobby' good candidate in wide-open Oscar race

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Emilio Estevez: The similarities between Emilio Estevez's "Bobby" and Paul Haggis's best picture Oscar winner "Crash" are quite interesting when you look closely at the two films.

Aside from obvious things like their both having one-word five-letter titles, there are a number of similarities that link them. Both films are serious dramas from truly independent distributors (The Weinstein Company and Lionsgate, respectively) that focus on critically important American social issues like violence, inequality, racism and fear that cried out for solutions in 1968 when "Bobby" is set as well as in the contemporary world of "Crash."

Both films feature large ensemble casts of familiar faces, all perfectly cast and all working together in the best possible way on screen. Both films are from talented and capable writer-directors who made their reputations in other areas of filmmaking (screenwriting for Haggis and acting for Estevez).

And both films are well described as awards race underdogs. With "Brokeback Mountain" sweeping the critics awards last December, Hollywood handicappers really weren't taking "Crash" seriously. Insiders didn't think "Crash" had a chance to win the best picture Oscar until Lionsgate's brilliant awards campaigning paid off and the film won the Screen Actors Guild's ensemble cast award, the equivalent of a best picture victory from members of the Academy's biggest branch.

At this point in the awards season "Bobby" is starting to emerge as a good candidate in what continues to look like a wide open race in which no single film is dominating. It's overshadowed, of course, by several much bigger and much flashier films from higher profile filmmakers. However, as people start to see "Bobby" -- opening today with exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles through The Weinstein Company and MGM and going wide Nov. 23 -- it should benefit from favorable word of mouth.

"Bobby" should resonate very well with Academy members, many of whom are old enough to remember Robert F. Kennedy and the vision he had for America. It seems a safe bet that more than a few Academy members were among those who found hope in Kennedy's Presidential candidacy at the time only to see that hope wiped out with his assassination. When "Bobby" was screened for Academy members last Saturday I'm told it played to an audience of 367 people who gave it very enthusiastic applause. It's also said to be playing very well at pre-opening q&a screenings in L.A. in which Estevez is participating.

The Weinstein Company and Bold Films presentation, which Estevez wrote and directed, was produced by Michel Litvak and by Edward Bass and Holly Wiersma. It was executive produced by Gary Michael Walters and Dan Grodnik and by Anthony Hopkins. Among its many ensemble cast stars are Harry Belafonte, Laurence Fishburne, Heather Graham, Anthony Hopkins, Helen Hunt, Lindsay Lohan, William H. Macy, Demi Moore, Martin Sheen, Christian Slater and Sharon Stone.

Estevez has been directing features since 1986 and has also directed a lot of episodic television over the years, but nothing he's done before suggested he could make a film with "Bobby's" impact. Having enjoyed "Bobby" so much that I've already reserved a spot for it on my Top Ten list, I was happy to be able to focus on it recently with Estevez.

Making any movie, of course, is difficult, but Estevez faced significant challenges making "Bobby" because of its scope with so many characters and interwoven stories. On top of that, there were major physical challenges posed by the fact that the film's key setting, L.A.'s legendary Ambassador Hotel, was being torn down just as he was starting to shoot.

When I asked how the idea of doing a movie about Robert F. Kennedy's assassination come about, Estevez explained, "Charlie (Sheen) and I were asked to do a photo shoot in 2000 (at the Ambassador) for a picture that I directed called 'Rated X' for Showtime (in which the brothers starred). So we were there and they asked if we wanted a tour. And we said sure, of course. They took us down through the kitchen and that was eerie enough. Then they took us down into the pantry and we stood there at that place where Bobby was shot and fell. And in that moment my entire childhood came rushing back to me.

"I remembered where I was when Bobby was shot. We were in Ohio. I was staying at my grandmother's house and I remember hearing the news on TV and running upstairs and waking my father up. And then when we relocated to the West Coast, we went to Mexico for 'Catch 22' (the 1970 film in which Martin Sheen was cast by Mike Nichols). My folks decided, 'Well, we're going to make a go of it in the movies now and we're going to leave New York behind.' So we took a train to Nogalez, rented a car and drove to Los Angeles and the very first stop we made was the Ambassador Hotel before we even got our own apartment. I remember walking through the hallways and the lobby and the ballroom, holding my father's hand and listening to him explain this is where it happened, this is where the music died."

Estevez was only seven at the time. "Those are our formative years," he said. "I was struck by that. I recognized the significance of it, certainly. So cut to 2000 and there I am standing in the pantry and it all came flooding back to me and I thought, 'My God, why hasn't anybody done this story?'"

Besides wanting to tell the RFK assassination story, Estevez also wanted to make a movie that could only be made in Los Angeles. "In 1999, I had been having some conversations with Roger Avary (the writer-director-producer whose many credits include stories used by Quentin Tarantino in "Pulp Fiction"), who is an old friend. We were lamenting about the fact that there was so much runaway production and there were so many of our friends who were out of work as a result of producers taking their films off to Canada because you could get more bang for your buck (there) or to Australia or New Zealand. A lot of our film technician friends were out of work and having to rethink their careers at 30 and 40 years old. So out of those discussions, there I go off to Toronto to create 'Rated X,' which is a movie that took place all in San Francisco.

"Once again, I'm guilty of it. My patriotism (was) in question at that point because I think a true patriot tries to keep his dollars where they work best and that's at home. So, again, (we had) this discussion about how do we keep this from happening. At the time the Governor had signed some legislation which allowed a break on location (filming), but nothing like we eventually saw happening in (other states) and it seemed odd to us that here it is the film capital of the world and why is it so difficult to shoot here? That was the frustration. So on the day that we did the photo shoot (at the Ambassador) I remember going upstairs, getting on my cell phone and calling Roger Avary and saying, 'I think I found it man. I think I found a location they can't move to Canada.' He said, 'What is it?' I said, 'I'm not sure yet, but think it's about the day Bobby Kennedy was shot. I think I'm going to start with that.' I began to do the research and discovered that there were five other people shot that night in the pantry."

Estevez also discovered that this was the first time the electronic voting machines developed by IBM were implemented in Los Angeles and that there was massive confusion over how to use them. He also found that the night Kennedy was shot there was a Dodger game in which Don Drysdale pitched a shutout and that someone had scrawled 'The Once and Future King' on the wall (of the Ambassador kitchen) prior to the shooting.

"So there were these factoids," he said. "In doing a poll, I discovered that most people didn't know that there were other people wounded that night in the kitchen. And so I said, 'Can I take a leap? Can I create fiction within an historical event and create characters that are emblematic of the time and put them in this hotel, which would be a nod to 'Grand Hotel,' and then have the hotel serve as a microcosm for what was happening in the country at the time and then in the tradition of Irwin Allen cast it with a bunch of stars?' I loved those big mega-wattage movies filled with all your favorite stars."

Taking it from the idea stage to reality began with him writing the screenplay. "I started writing based on the research materials that I had and I started creating characters," he told me. "And then I got a horrible case of writer's block after about 30 pages. That writer's block lasted for about a year. I was paralyzed. Things were not going well for my career. Things were not going well for me personally. I was stuck. I was trying to reinvent myself and trying to pay bills, as well, and trying to earn a living and trying to figure out what the next phase in my career was going to look like. And it looked pretty bleak, frankly. The phone was not ringing. I had done one too many movies with numbers after (their titles) and I wasn't taken seriously.

"I believe that where we end up in our lives and in our careers is the sum total of the choices that we make and I had made some bad ones. But that's alright in terms of a long career. It's something that my father had stressed early on -- that it was important to have longevity and that you would have ups and downs. That's just the nature of this business. So I held on to these 30 pages for about a year. My folks had gotten a little concerned. I know my brother was certainly concerned because he had recently turned his life around and gotten sober. Anyway, he came over to the house and said, 'Can I see those 30 pages?' And I surrendered them and he read them and we had a dialogue about them. He said, 'Look, this is fantastic material and I think you're on to something. I think this has the potential to change your life and you need to finish it. And get out of town to do that."

Estevez left the next day: "I took his advice, which is rare. I got in the car and I drove up north with my five by seven cards and my research material and my computer and cork boards. I wound up in a beach town called Pismo (near) San Luis Obispo. It's a very quaint little town, but it was the middle of summer so there was no vacancy (at hotels) for days. I finally found this ramshackle motel and they did have a vacancy -- no TVs, no phones. I went to the registration desk and there was a woman there in her mid-50s and she recognized me. She said, 'Where've you been and what's been happening? Why don't I see you anymore?' I said, 'Well, I'm writing now and trying to direct.' She said, 'What are you working on?' I said, 'I'm writing a movie about the day Bobby Kennedy was shot.' She took a deep breath and she said, 'Oh, my. I was there.' And in that moment I realized that I was in the right place and that I was doing what I needed to be doing.

"Her name was Diane. She'd been a Youth for Kennedy volunteer. She had spent the day canvassing out in Glendale-Pasadena and came back to the hotel. She described it perfectly. She said, 'It was as if someone had pulled the rug out from underneath our whole generation. We were in freefall.' To honor the legacy and the memory of Bobby Kennedy she ended up marrying two boys to keep them from going to Vietnam. That changed their classification and it worked. These fellas were sent to Germany as opposed to Vietnam and they're still living today. I said, 'Diane, with your permission, I would love to include this in the story, if there's a way to work it in organically.' The Lindsay Lohan character was inspired by her. And the writer's block was gone. The draft ended up being (way too long at) about 152 pages."

He finished writing that draft two weeks before 9/11. "I started in the summer of 2000," he noted, "so the writer's block lasted for about a year. And at that point it just came flowing out of me. Then 9/11 happened and the world, of course, changed and turned upside down. I think the rule of the day was (now) comedy and me going out to the studios to try to make a movie about a national tragedy was not only in bad taste, but it didn't seem like anyone wanted to go anywhere near it -- which made sense.

"In early 2002 when Stewart Till was putting his company Signpost together this script landed on his desk and he said, 'I love this and I'd like to get involved.' So we spent the bulk of 2002 casting. And that's where I met Freddy Rodriguez and Elijah Wood and a lot of other actors. And we were up and running. And then Signpost collapsed, soon thereafter, I think before the end of the year. They had made 'House of Sand and Fog' and that was pretty much it."

After Signpost went out of business, he continued, "we languished for quite a few years. Again, we didn't go the studio route because we just felt that the studios wouldn't be interested. Even the independent route (was difficult because) a lot of the financiers felt that there wasn't anybody that you could really hang your hat on in terms of a lead. They felt that was problematic. They also felt that it didn't have a foreign appeal, that it was purely an American film about an American tragedy and an American icon.

"The interesting thing is that when we did make the film and we took it to the Venice Film Festival and to Deauville the reaction was nothing short of astonishing. We had a nine minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival. It was so overwhelming and so emotional. And then two days later the Deauville festival reacted in the same way (with applause that was) not quite as long. And then we took it back across the pond to Toronto (where) people were just jumping up to their feet. I was kind of dumbfounded and I thought, 'Well, I'd made a purely American film. That's what everyone told me. That's what the studios told me -- that this was too American.'"

An explanation of its foreign appeal came when one of the journalists Estevez met abroad told him, he recalled, "'You made a movie that reminds us of the America that we miss, the America that we used to love so much. And that's why we're embracing it.' I was really moved by that."

Asked how the film was financed, Estevez replied, "In February or March 2005, I got a phone call from one of my old friends and ex-agent, Cassian Elwes (of the William Morris Agency). He and his wife (producer Holly Wiersma) were in the neighborhood and they said, 'We'd like to talk to you about 'Bobby.' We think we may have a financier that would be interested in doing it and would you be interested in having a meeting?' And I said, 'Of course.' I sat down with a couple of the folks over at Bold Films and they said, 'Well, can you do the movie for $5 million?' It was originally budgeted at $20 million and, I thought, even at $20 million we were still paying our actors scale. I didn't see there was any way in the world that we could make it for $5 million because I thought that the scope of the film would suffer enormously. After some cajoling they said, 'Would you rather not make the film at all because that's the only way it's going to happen here?'

"It began to get some momentum and agents began to rediscover it and actors were sniffing around at the possibility of us making it. When it looked like they actually had their funding and it was real, I didn't want to be the director that cried wolf again. We made an offer to Anthony Hopkins and he agreed (in late August 2005). He's one of those actor-magnets. The minute he says yes you are validated in a way that not many actors can do. He became the magnet and other actors just followed suit. He was a great ally of mine and great supporter of mine and stood up for me when there were a lot of people that did not and had other ideas for the film. Anthony came in and fought on my behalf."

In assembling "Bobby's" ensemble cast of about two dozen actors, most of whom are very familiar faces, Estevez told me, "I never wanted to be that guy who's got a script in his car (to show everyone he knows) and says, 'Oh, by the way...' I never wanted to be the guy that many of these people avoided seeing coming down the street or in the post office or in the market. And so I kept it all very, very professional. Everybody was contacted through their agents. I didn't want it to be personal. If they didn't like the material, there wasn't any obligation to do it based on a friendship or previous working experience or being related. But the biggest challenge for us was the schedule. They were absolutely upside down. The schedule was ever-changing to accommodate (the actors' timetables). So it was important to be very, very flexible.

"They're such extraordinary actors. You know, years ago John Huston was doing an interview and some journalist was going after him and said, 'Well, you know, Mr. Huston, the reason movies are successful is because of the casting. Ninety% is the casting.' And Huston said, 'You're wrong, son. It's 99%.' And I feel that that's true with this picture. It's the casting. As a director, you want to make your job as easy as possible. Making a picture all the odds are stacked against you. I felt the better actors I cast the easier it was going to make my life."

Asked how it was directing so many top stars, Estevez observed, "I've been a card-carrying member of the DGA since 1985 and the Writers Guild since 1983 or '84 -- a long time. There was not a day that I didn't feel humbled or overwhelmed or emotional. There were days when the crew would come out of their trucks just to watch some of these actors work. The days that Anthony Hopkins and Harry Belafonte worked together were just glorious. And some days I would forget to yell "Cut.' I would just sit there with my mouth open, it was just so glorious and elegant."

While Estevez was shooting at the Ambassador Hotel the hotel was being demolished to make way for a new school building. "They were literally tearing the building down around us," he pointed out. "In fact, if we were to use a wider lens on some of those shots you would actually have been able to see the bulldozers tearing the building down in the background. It was pretty devastating. The agreement with the L.A. School Board was that we would not get in their way and they would not get in ours. And so we didn't. At one point, I ran over and asked one of the bulldozer drivers to give us one take without the beeping when they go into reverse. And he looked at me like I was speaking Greek. And that was that.

"I thought it was important for us to be there and for the actors to stand on that hallowed ground, the ones that had not been there before, and to carry that sentiment with them to every other location we used to cobble the hotel back together. And it being the first week of production, I believe that that helped."

To account for the rest of the hotel, he added, "we used the stages out at Santa Clarita. We built part of the ballroom out there and we built the pantry as well as all the hotel rooms. We used a location out in Pasadena for interiors. And the old Elks Lodge downtown right across the street from MacArthur Park is our lobby."

When I observed to Estevez that so many of the issues of 1968 remain issues today, he told me, "Indeed, and that is one of the truly sad facts of the timing of this film. It's certainly not something that was planned and it certainly was never my intention to cash in on the current crisis that the whole world finds itself in right now. However, that's the case. The world is upside down again. We think about 1968 (and) it was the year that shook the world up to that point. Here we are 38 years later and it seems like we haven't learned a whole lot. We haven't evolved all that much. And that's what so painful and heartbreaking, I think, about the picture. If people come away from this with anything, I think (it is that) we have to demand more from our leadership. I think that we have to demand them to be better people if they're going to hold that office. Whatever office they're elected to, we've got to hold them to a different standard.

"I think the death of Bobby was in many ways the death of decency in America and the death of poetry and manners and formality. I think we unraveled afterwards. We stopped saying please and thank you and yes, ma'am and no sir. There was something to that. There was an elegance to that. That's what I love about the Hopkins-Belafonte characters. They're an homage to that simpler time, a less cynical time."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From July 1, 1988's column: "The Boston Society of Film Critics, which includes most of Boston's print and broadcast critics, has written to many top studio executives to petition for at least one local screening of new films before they open in that market.

"A copy of that letter...recently came to me with a note from the group's secretary, Nat Segaloff, who observed, 'A few months ago you wrote a column on an unnamed film which had a disastrous radio promotional screening and you argued for proper separate press screenings. We in Boston feel the same way and, with the attached material, are seeing what we can do...We have no illusions, but we do have hope.'

"Since Hollywood's top marketing and distribution executives are among my most avid readers, I thought it might help the Boston group achieve its goal if I passed along these quotes from their letter:

"'An increasing number of new films, including yours, are not being screened for the (Boston) press or are being screened in such a way as to make a reasoned evaluation of them difficult if not impossible. In many cases they are being shown only at promotional screenings the night before opening, or at a suburban theater which is difficult to reach or before a radio station crowd that is not there, as we are, to work, or in a house not equipped to present your film at its best.

"'We are writing you, therefore, to request parity with our colleagues in New York and Los Angeles -- specifically, if you screen your film for them please do so for us. Because New York and Los Angeles newspapers are sold on Boston newsstands our competitors' access and our exclusion raises questions of unfair trade practices. We are asking for at least one in-town Boston screening during business hours in advance of a film's premiere. If your policy is not to screen your film, it's your film and that's your decision, but if you screen it for some, it should be screened for all. We don't want special treatment, merely parity.'"

Update: Distributors have been screening their films in Boston for many years now and I hope my 1988 column on the subject helped bring that about. Since then the Boston Society of Film Critics has become one of the country's most influential critics groups through its annual awards. Last year its best picture winner was "Brokeback Mountain." "Sideways" won in 2004, "Mystic River" in '03, "The Pianist" in '02 and "Mullholand Dr. " in '01.

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.updatehollywood.com
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