'Champ' could put Jackson back in awards ring

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"Champ" conversation: After a long hot summer of popcorn movies, it's encouraging to see that intelligent films with awards potential are on the horizon.

A good case in point is the drama "Resurrecting the Champ," opening Aug. 24 via Yari Film Group Releasing at about 1,500 theaters. Directed by Rod Lurie and written by Michael Bortman and Allison Burnett, it was produced by Mike Medavoy, Bob Yari, Marc Frydman and Lurie and is a co-production of Yari, Phoenix Pictures and Battleplan Prods. It was executive produced by Arnold W. Messer, Bradley J. Fischer, Louis Phillips and Frederick Zollo.

"Champ" stars Samuel L. Jackson as a legendary boxer believed to have been dead for years who's discovered living homeless on the streets of Denver by a sports reporter, played by Josh Hartnett, who's looking to make a name for himself. It's a story that takes some twists and turns that moviegoers aren't likely to anticipate. Jackson, an Oscar and Golden Globe best supporting actor nominee in 1995 for "Pulp Fiction," could find himself in the best actor awards ring this year for his performance in "Champ." Also starring are Kathryn Morris, Alan Alda, Teri Hatcher, Rachel Nichols and David Paymer. "Champ's" songs, by the way, include two -- "Land of Quiet Poems" and "Every Eden" -- that Lurie wrote with Julianna Raye, the first time he's ever written music for a movie.

Having greatly enjoyed an early look at "Champ" and also being a big fan of Lurie's first feature, the 2000 drama "The Contender," I was happy to be able to talk to him recently about his new film. "Champ's" setting in the world of journalism, of course, is one that Lurie is no stranger to having worked earlier in his career as a film critic and on-air personality for Los Angeles talk radio station KABC from 1995-99.

"When I was a film critic I read this article in 1997," Lurie told me, referring to an L.A. Times magazine piece by J.R. Moehringer about the life of "Battling Bob" Satterfield, a heavyweight boxer who missed a shot at a title fight and wound up homeless. "I called my agent and said, 'I want to buy the rights to this' and he told me that Mike Medavoy (former co-founder of Orion Pictures and chairman of TriStar Pictures and founder of Phoenix Pictures in 1996 with Arnold Messer) had them. Medavoy was somebody I respected the hell out of. I went to Mike and said, 'You have the rights. I'd like to try to write the screenplay for you.' At the time, Morgan Freeman was one of the producers of the movie and he was going to play Champ. So it seemed to me like a complete winner.
"I auditioned to write the screenplay with them. I met them four times and after careful consideration they decided to go with Allison Burnett ("Feast of Love," directed by Robert Benton and starring Morgan Freeman, opening Sept. 28), who's a really good writer. Then a couple years after that they were looking to do another draft of the screenplay. I came back again and they again rejected me. They went with Michael Bortman ("Chain Reaction," the 1996 thriller directed by Andrew Davis and starring Morgan Freeman). And then a couple of years after that they brought on Chris Gerolmo (writer-director of the 1995 television movie "Citizen X" and a Golden Globe nominee in 1989 for writing "Mississippi Burning") to write and direct."
Like so many projects, it remained in development for years. "Eventually in 2004 my agent at the time called them and said, 'You know, Rod Lurie still really loves this project and would like to take his own crack at it.' At the time it was set up with Paramount," Lurie continued. "Mike and I and my partner Marc Frydman went and met with Sherry Lansing (then chairman of Paramount). She liked the plot but wanted a completely different approach to it in the screenplay. At that point I had only read Gerolmo's version of the screenplay and I asked to read Allison Burnett's and Michael Bortman's. I remember after reading each one I told Mike, 'These are all good. I would direct any one of these.'
"Sherry wanted a very specific approach to the story. The movie (originally) had dealt with a reporter and his father and I turned it into a movie about a reporter and his little boy. That was what was completely different. In all the other versions of the screenplay his father is a very important character -- his father being an important journalist whose shadow he lives in. That was where I took it, but (Burnett and Bortman) got credits as expected. I used a tremendous amount of Allison and Michael's screenplays in reshaping the whole thing. And Chris Gerolmo has quite a few scenes in it as well."
Throughout this period of time Freeman remained attached to make the movie. "Back then the only guy who would have been appropriate for that role would have been Morgan," Lurie pointed out. "Sam was just too young. Even with aging makeup it would (have been) a little difficult. He's still much younger than the character actually is. But we had some scheduling issues with Morgan. Sam was available both (to make the film and) in terms of appropriateness for the role now (unlike) 10 years ago. It was a wonderful happenstance. We offered him the movie on (a) Friday and on Monday he was in. It was beautiful.
"In the meantime there was all this rigmarole over at Paramount (with the studio's management changing) and we asked to make it independently and we did it with Bob Yari. Bob was immediately attracted to it. You know, I think he's got very good taste in film. I think in the Academy Awards in years to come you're going to start hearing the name Yari over and over. He finds projects that directors or actors are unbelievably passionate about -- like slash-your-wrist-to-make-the-movie passionate about! Because they're so into it, there's a tendency I think for them to be quite good films. That's the way we felt with 'Resurrecting the Champ.'"
To get the film made required speed and sacrifice. The film's budget, according to Lurie, was under $10 million although what's on the screen certainly looks like it cost a lot more. "We made the movie in six weeks and for a pretty small budget with everybody slashing their fees to next to nothing to make it," he explained. "But we were all deeply, deeply enamored of the story and what it stood for and so was Bob. I'll say one thing for (Yari), he really keeps his word about giving you full creative freedom. It's going to be a real haven for directors and their passion projects, I think, for years to come. It sort of explains 'Crash' and explains 'The Illusionist.' Hopefully, people will feel that 'Champ' is at that level of quality."
It was a project, he emphasized, "that I really was desperate to make, especially with this approach that Sherry wanted. But Paramount will only do that (kind of film) with big superstars and it just isn't that kind of film. I went to one actor who's like a fantastic movie star and who really loved the screenplay and told me many times, 'We need to work together because we have similar sensibilities,' but he didn't feel that he could project a guy down on his luck in a drama too well.
"An actor like Josh Hartnett (is perfect for such a film because he's) deeply devoted to being an actor. He's much more interested in being an actor than a movie star, which is one of the reasons I went to him. He's another guy who 10 years ago would have been 19 years old and couldn't have done (the role)."
Lurie feels his own background in journalism was very helpful to him in making the film and working with Hartnett, who plays a sports reporter: "I had a unique situation where I was a journalist for many years. I worked at a newspaper. So I was able to serve as his technical adviser as well as his director on the film. He was deeply ensconced in getting every nuance of (being) a reporter correct -- from the way that when we pick up a phone and a pen at the same time. It was little nuances like that that he was desperately seeking. He was also full of energy. He went running three, four, five, six miles before every day of shooting. It was just lovely to see him be that infatuated with getting it right.
"Josh was also very eager to help get a great performance out of the little boy (Dakota Goyo who plays Hartnett's son). I showed everybody 'Kramer vs. Kramer' at some point, which I think is sort of the antecedent to this film more than any other movie. We watched the movie and then we watched the making of and Dakota was in the room. There's a point where Dustin Hoffman is talking about (how) one of the keys to getting a great performance out of little Justin Henry was that he became like a father to Justin before shooting began and they knew each other very well. At that moment, Josh came and sat down next to Dakota and ruffled his hair, knowing that Josh wanted to participate in getting a great performance out of the kid. He's a very dedicated young man, Josh."
Another of the film's strong performances is by Alan Alda as Hartnett's tough and demanding editor, a role that could put Alda in the best supporting actor Oscar and Globe races. Alda's only Oscar nomination came in 2005 for his supporting actor performance in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." Although Alda's won six Globes for starring in "M*A*S*H," he's only been nominated for work in two feature films -- his debut role in the 1968 sports comedy "Paper Lion" and in 1982 for writing and starring in the comedy drama "The Four Seasons."
"You know, I don't know a nicer guy in the world than Alan Alda," Lurie said. "His agent, Toni Howard (at ICM), called and said, 'How about Alan Alda for the role of the editor?' I thought, 'I'd love him to do it, but there's no chance he's going to do it because Alan works for Woody Allen and Martin Scorsese in big roles and this was a relatively small role.' He's one of my great acting heroes. I think what he did in 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' is nothing short of genius. What he did in "M*A*S*H' is (equally impressive). I didn't think we stood a chance, but Toni Howard said, 'Let's send it to him and let's see what happens.' She called me two days later and said, 'Alan wants to speak to you.'
"So I called up Alan Alda. And you know how it is when you're a fan of somebody and they're voice is very famous and there's that voice on the other end (of the phone)? Your heart sort of skips a beat and that's the way I felt when I first spoke to him. He told me how much he loved the screenplay and loved the character (and) he was in -- 'Let's go make the deal and the deal won't be a big deal.' That's exactly what happened. He was also really into doing something unique. For example, he wanted to shave his head, which I don't think he'd ever done in a movie before. He and his wife, Arlene, came out and she's even more delightful than he is. She's a children's book author. We got along really well. I consider him now one of my good friends."
There's another terrific performance in the picture from Teri Hatcher, who plays a Showtime production executive desperate to sign Hartnett's sports reporter character to work on-air at Showtime and willing to do whatever it takes to close that deal. "Teri is just the coolest chick on earth," Lurie said. "She doesn't know it, but I wrote that role for her. That was a scene that I wrote (not one by Bortman or Burnett). I wanted to find a really cool chick to play that role, who's at once a wonderful actress, amazingly sexy and sexual and could be very smart, also, sort of like Faye Dunaway in 'Network.' That clearly was the model I was using when I was writing it. I -- like everyone else -- have a big crush on Teri Hatcher. She hadn't done a film since she began 'Desperate Housewives.' We called her and asked if she'd do it and she just loved it.
"She was such a trouper because she had to fly to Calgary, where we shot it. She slept for two hours and then shot all through the night in a casino and then left at five in the morning to go catch a plane back to the 'Desperate Housewives' set. So she was a super-trouper and she's one of the few people who I'm vowing to work with as often as I can. I'm happy for her success in 'Desperate Housewives,' but I wish it didn't get in the way of making movies."
Asked how he worked with his actors, Lurie told me, "With Josh we rehearsed for about three days. We just went on the various locations and rehearsed. Rehearsing is more about blocking in the case of movies, I think, and blocking, of course, is very important to the beauty of a scene. Sam Jackson comes with an absolutely fully formed character. There is nothing left unthought of or unconsidered by Sam. Before we start shooting, he assures me how he wants the character to look and how he wants him to walk and how he wants him to talk and his attitudes. If I disagree with something, he's very game to alter it, but he's a master actor so what he comes up with works."
Jackson's character Champ's hair is a good example of this. "Sam creates these looks for himself and they're brilliant looks and they're brilliant performances," Lurie said. "The guy who created that wig (worn by Jackson) is Robert Stevenson. It's part of Sam's team in the end. His makeup was done by Allan Apone. I may have made a point of putting a scar here or there, but it really is Sam all the way. Josh asks a lot of questions. He's very inquisitive and he really is into forming a character with his director. In this case, being both a father and a former journalist, I was able to give more insight than I normally would to (an actor about how) to play a character. But he brought such depth of humanity and pathos and empathy to it and that's all Josh.
"Kathy Morris, who (also appeared in 'The Contender') is my good luck charm, who plays his wife, really likes to talk about the character up until the moment that the cameras roll. So I guess the answer to your question is, because every actor has a different style you can't have a distinct rehearsal style."
Looking back at production, what were some of the biggest challenges he faced? "Well, the boxing scenes we shot were very challenging because what many films will take a month to do, I had three days to do," Lurie replied. "We had to create different arenas, different crowds and creatively shoot boxing scenes that are pretty significant to the film in an amount of time that would shock and repulse the people who normally do this. But we only had a limited amount of time. We had a guy on the film, Eric Bryson, who was our boxing coordinator, and we had a guy, Troy Amos-Ross, who is the Canadian heavyweight boxing champion and was playing young Sam Jackson. Rather stupidly, my way to direct the boxing was to box with them because I did that when I was young.
"So here I'm 44 years old and I'm in the ring with these guys and they're 25 or 30 years old. One time I maybe threw a punch that had too much enthusiasm to it and Troy, the boxing champion, just hit me so hard that I literally did one of those things where I went across the ring and went through the ropes. I didn't know if I was going to get up. It was our last day of shooting the boxing so it was okay. I don't think I'll be doing that again. I think (I felt I was) back in school on the boxing team and that was a mistake."
Having to shoot so quickly was another major challenge he had to contend with: "We shot 31 days and we didn't really have a big budget so you have to be extremely well prepared and your actors have to be very well prepared. On top of that, our contract was for us to shoot Sam out in three weeks so we had to condense everything for him. And also when we were shooting up in Calgary it was what they call the Stampede, which is like Mardi Gras. Nobody warned us about that so we were stuck with a very difficult time to get locations. The other thing we didn't take into consideration before we went up there is that the nights are four to five hours long. It's a very short night and I've got a lot of night scenes. All of a sudden, I find that I have an entire shooting day that I have to finish in four hours because the light's going to come up. That was extremely challenging and rather upsetting.
"One day we were shooting an exterior scene and, first of all, we had an accident with a camera running into Sam and then after that a hailstorm of unimaginable intensity began and then somebody jumped off the building next to us and committed suicide. It was really amazing!"
Despite all the challenges, he added, "We love the way the movie turned out and we're discovering right now that men are naturally attracted to the film and quite enjoy it, but really (women are liking it, too). It's a story about a father and his son and a man learning to become a better man for his son, which is what wives want from their husbands more than anything else -- that they're a good father and a good example to the child you're raising together. I would say the movie has pretty good universal appeal. We're not really hitting the toddler quadrant yet, but we're working on it!"

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Sept. 21, 1989's column: "Moviegoers sent Hollywood a loud and clear message last weekend by spending $10 million to be among the first to see Universal's 'Sea of Love.' Their message is that people go to the movies on a year-round basis, not just during the summer or at Christmas.

"Studios that recognize that moviegoing is an all-year activity are bound to profit from it, just as Universal is now doing and as Paramount has done in past Septembers. A few years ago, a potential hit like 'Sea' would have opened not in September but in October or November because the industry believed no one went to the movies in September. That, of course, became a self-fulfilling prophecy -- no one released any movies likely to do big business in September and none did...

"In the past, Paramount has generated blockbuster success with major September releases like 'Crocodile Dundee' (opening to $8 million in September 1986) and 'Fatal Attraction' (opening to $7.6 million in 1987). If nobody went to the movies in September, where did those grosses come from?

"This weekend Paramount has another likely September boxoffice winner in 'Black Rain,' which opens at approximately 1,400 screens. Produced by 'Fatal Attraction' producers Stanley Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, it was directed by Ridley Scott and stars Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia and Kate Capshaw. Between 'Sea,' which should still be raging at the boxoffice in its second weekend, and 'Rain,' which should be generating its own thunder and lightning, next weekend's grosses should be nicely ahead of last year..."

Update: "Black Rain" opened Sept. 22, 1989 to $9.7 million at 1,610 theaters ($6,010 per theater) and went on to gross $46.2 million domestically, making it the year's 28th biggest film. "Sea of Love" wound up grossing $58.6 million domestically, ranking 22nd for the year 1989.

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