'Club' could attract broader audience than adult females

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"Club" conversation: Anyone who wants to can write a screenplay or have cards printed and call themselves a producer, but getting to direct is something else.

A case in point is Robin Swicord, who over the course of a successful screenwriting career for nearly 30 years ("Memoirs of a Geisha," "Little Women") had always wanted to direct but never quite managed to connect with the right opportunity. That all changed for the better thanks to producer John Calley and the result is Swicord's very engaging maiden directing effort "The Jane Austen Book Club."

Opening Friday via Sony Pictures Classics in New York, Los Angeles and other top markets and expanding Oct. 5, "Club" has been generating a well-deserved buzz as a possible fall sleeper. It's a film I enjoyed personally and not being a big Jane Austen buff myself I think that augers well for its potential appeal to a broader audience than just the obvious adult female demographic that loves Austen's novels. Swicord, a Writers Guild of America best adapted screenplay nominee in 1995 for "Little Women," could attract awards attention this time around for adapting "Club" to the screen.

Produced by Calley, Julie Lynn and Diana Napper, "Club" is executive produced by Marshall Rose. Swicord's screenplay is based on the best-selling novel "The Jane Austen Book Club" by Karen Joy Fowler. Starring are Kathy Baker, Maria Bello, Emily Blunt, Amy Brenneman, Hugh Dancy Maggie Grace and Lynn Redgrave. The film, a contemporary comedy, revolves around six interwoven story lines in which six book club members focus on six Austen books over the course of six months, finding in Austen's characters much that relates to their own terribly entangled lives.

"I wanted to direct pretty much for as long as I've been writing films," Swicord told me. "When I first started writing films I thought that I would be writing and directing films. I didn't know that it would take me this long. I sold my first screenplay in 1980 so it's been a few years and, of course, wonderful things intervened. You know, I got to write movies that I loved and I had a family. My children grew up. And when I was directing 'The Jane Austen Book Club' I realized that actually the timing was perfect for me because it would have been so hard to be the mother I wanted to be and be away directing films. So it actually, I guess, has turned out for the best."

How did she get the opportunity? "Through the auspices of John Calley, who has started many people's careers," she replied. "We had a meeting (about) the book and the idea of adapting the book into a film and in that meeting I told him that I was supposed to be directing a script that I had written for Sony called 'The Jane Prize' and he said, 'Well, let's have you direct this one, too.' And it was as simple as John Calley saying so." At that point, Calley was an independent producer, having left his position as chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2003 after seven years to form John Calley Prods.

"As soon as I was free I started working on my adaptation and having lunch regularly with John because he's hilariously funny to have lunch with," Swicord recalled. "We really built a kind of creative understanding with each other through just getting together. I had some doubts that Columbia would actually make a movie that was this size and John said, 'Don't worry about that. We'll get it made anyway.' So based on his promise I proceeded (with) confidence and when I gave the script to John and he gave it to studio last June, a year ago, almost right away the answer came back with a firm regret from (Sony Pictures Entertainment co-chairman) Amy Pascal that I had been right. They thought that the film was a little small for Columbia, but maybe there would be a home for it someplace else at Sony.

"I believe it was either the next day or two days later -- it was almost immediately -- that John called me up and said, 'Tom and Michael' -- meaning Sony Pictures Classics (co-presidents Tom Bernard and Michael Barker) -- 'want the film. They will distribute. They will finance.' So that is producing! It moved very, very quickly at that point. In fact, I was already out to actors with my film 'The Jane Prize' at Columbia and I had to stand back from the project to proceed with something that was moving full speed ahead. That was June a year ago and by late August we were fully greenlit. We were still pulling together the ensemble, but we had a number of actors committed and I had begun to contact the people that I wanted to be the heads of departments. So between September and our starting shoot date of Nov. 1 the entire film came together."

With Swicord having spent so many years writing scripts for other people to direct, I asked if she wrote any differently knowing that she, herself, would be directing "Club?" "I don't write differently knowing I'm going to direct," she answered, "because so many people have to read a screenplay and understand the movie based on the script. They can't read my mind whether I'm the director or the writer. So I try to write as clearly as I can so that everybody can end up making the same movie."

But what about thinking while writing that it's really going to be murder to make something visual out of all this later on or, perhaps, writing a scene for a sunny day rather than for a rainy day knowing she'd have to wind up shooting it? "I could see getting into that frame of mind if you were writing something that was very, very ambitious in scope," she laughed. "You might have a sudden fear of rain, but in the case of this (film) my only anxiety, honestly, as I was writing it was I knew that -- no matter what John Calley said about 'Don't worry, we'll make it at Columbia or we'll make it somewhere' -- this film very likely would end up as a smaller budget film and that I had long pages of dialogue and group scenes and had a number of locations that I couldn't seem to limit because I had to develop the lives of six different characters. So my only anxiety as I was writing it (was) thinking, 'Wow. I'm probably only going to have 30 or 35 days to do this and I'm going to be really moving (quickly).'"

Asked how she approached Day One as Robin the Director, Swicord explained with a laugh, "Well, my friends will tell you that I'm always a little overprepared and this was no different. I had gone to my director of photography John Toon ('Glory Road,' 'Sylvia'), who lives in New Zealand, who wanted to do this movie and was willing to work as a local. But having him work as a local meant that he had to come to Los Angeles and he had nowhere to live. So he came to live in my house. We had these weekends in the run-up to the filming in which he and I would go through every moment of the film and make a lot of decisions ahead of time because I was going to be shooting with three cameras a lot of time and two cameras all of the time. As we found locations and we would nail them down I would then get a floor plan of that location and we would work with the floor plan. I had little plastic Fisher Price (toy) people to stand in for the actors.

"So I sort of preblocked everything before rehearsals and then I would go into rehearsals and that would be Plan B. I wouldn't present that to the actors. I worked with the actors in rehearsal. We found the blocking and if we got to a tight place I always had Plan B so we were prepared. I wasn't scared, mostly because I felt the support of a wonderful crew and because I had been in rehearsal with these actors and I knew that they were going to be wonderful."

Swicord was fortunate to have had her actors available in time to rehearse with her before shooting started: "I think everyone understood when they read the screenplay that with this kind of an ensemble film rehearsal was absolutely necessary. There was not going to be anything like, 'We'll show up separately. We'll learn our lines separately and hope for the best.' So we did build it in to the prep time and the actors were willing to come and do it. That was the other thing -- that they also understood it was a unique opportunity to work in a true ensemble fashion almost the way people work in the theater and that they were not going to be able to be making it up on the day of shooting.

"We couldn't really afford a rehearsal space and we were working out of John Calley's offices. That was how we managed to make this movie for under $6 million. We just kept cutting corners like that and saying, 'Well, we can't afford the rent on a production office so we're just going to take over three rooms in John Calley's offices.' And, 'We can't afford a rehearsal space,' so we got permission from Sony to rehearse in a building (on the lot) that had been slated for reconstruction. It was an empty office building with extraneous bits of furniture here and there and we just moved into a room that had insulation falling out of the ceiling and dirty carpets, but we would just drag (furniture) around and say, 'OK, this desk is a couch. That chair is a table.' And it was really fun."

Looking back on production, Swicord told me, "It went really well. John Toon had fantastic people that came and worked with him and we could just break down and move very, very quickly. The idea of using multiple cameras was a time saving device that also enabled us to have very enriched performances because the actors didn't get worn out doing multiple takes just to provide coverage for every other person in the circle. There are seven big group scenes and if we had to go over every angle for every actor individually enough to get coverage we would never have been able to make it in 30 days and to keep the freshness of the performances.

"But because I could film the authentic performances as they were happening from three different angles, sometimes I could use it so that three different people were being covered or sometimes I could use it so that in an emotional scene I could have someone's individual performance in two or three different sizes so that in the editing room instead of constructing a performance I was actually cutting together the authentic performance that they gave for that take. I felt like it gave a really strong sense of immediacy to what I ended up cutting in the editing room and it allowed us to move very quickly because we could completely shoot one side of a room and while we were setting up the next shot we could break down that part of the room that we weren't using or showing on film and we could begin to use that side of the room as a different location. We only had to do that about three times. It was definitely sort of the Costco of moviemaking."

Beyond the obvious challenges of having to move so quickly, were there other things she really had to grapple with? "There was one scene that was really hard," Swicord said. "In the film there's a scene in which the character Grigg, (played by) Hugh Dancy, has picked up another member of the Book Club -- Maria Bello, who plays the role of Jocelyn -- and they're going to go to a Book Club meeting that's taking place at a library fundraiser. They're all dressed up and they begin to quarrel on the way. They end up with the car breaking down and having to walk at night. She's in her high heels and very upset about being late because she's concerned about her friend Sylvia, who's already there."

The scene was particularly complex to shoot, she noted, "because we were doing multiple coverage and we were also moving. We were running down a street and it was night. We had our permit to shut down traffic in the city of Long Beach (and that) was a very brief permit. So there were time pressures and it was also very early in the shoot so not everything had gelled in terms of our understanding around the camera. And I had designed it wrong. I had designed it for Steadicam, which is very hard to keep in focus when you're running and, also, (it was taking place) at night and they were giving emotional performances and we had very little time. So everything stacked up against us. When I saw the dailies, sometimes we had focus problems and sometimes I just wasn't happy with other aspects of the filmmaking.

"Initially, I thought, 'Well, on my budget I don't get to reshoot, so that's just it. I have to live with this.' But as the days went on and the actors and everybody else kept turning in such strong work I began to feel that that scene we'd shot just wasn't good enough and that the film really deserved for me to try again. And so I gave up some other things that I had planned that cost money that were intended for the opening montage of the film. I decided to downscale that opening montage and to trade that money to get another day of shooting if the actors would agree. And those two actors did agree and we got to reshoot that scene in downtown L.A. on a Saturday."

And how did things go the second time around? "It turned out very well," Swicord replied, "but in the middle of that shoot was the only night of rain that Los Angeles got last year -- and it was a monsoon! We had a flash flood running over the dolly tracks and the gaffers and the grips (somehow) made it look like it wasn't raining. That was the only truly hard thing. It was complicated because I didn't plan it well. I didn't know what I was doing as a kind of baby director initially. And when I figured it out then the weather definitely made it more difficult. We still were laughing like crazy that night. It was still fun."

With production done and there being so much footage to work with in the editing room thanks to those multiple cameras, editing posed its own challenges. "Early on," she told me, "I said to my wonderful producers, 'I want an action editor.' I don't want to make a static film about people sitting in a room reading books. I want to shoot with multiple cameras and then I want somebody who has cut a lot of action to make these scenes as active and dynamic as possible.' I interviewed several editors and I ended up choosing Maryann Brandon, who had cut 'Mission: Impossible 3' for JJ Abrams and had worked on 'Alias.'

"One of the things I noticed when I got the whole DVD set of 'Alias' -- because they put the credits at the end of the show -- (was that) I could look at the individual episodes and I could pick out which ones she had edited and when the credits rolled at the end it would say 'Maryann Brandon.' She had a very strong voice as an editor. She has a way of always doing all the things you would hope for in action cutting, but she has a way of going to the emotion, which I knew would be a good fit. Other wonderful editors also know to go to the emotion, but it's kind of unusual, I think, to see it in an action editor. She is so much fun. She has a great sense of humor and she just completely got the screenplay. We had a lot of fun in the editing room and I learned a lot from her because she was showing me things that I didn't completely understand. She'd never cut comedy before so that was one thing that we both had to sort of teach each other. But because we shared a similar sense of humor (we would ask each other), 'Is this funnier this way or is it funnier that way?' And we would just kind of try to agree on what was funniest."

Now that Swicord's done all the aspects of filmmaking that go along with directing and writing, I asked what she enjoys doing most. "All of them," she replied. "I love the writing. I love the directing. I love the cutting. I love working with actors. I think the only part I find to be a little odd is this part where I talk to a lot of people about the film. It's hard to articulate everything about the film and about the process of filmmaking."

Actually, though, Swicord's quite good about doing that, which is clear from how she summed up for me what her film's really about: "People don't always know what this film is from the outset because they see the words 'Jane Austen' and they think it's like a costume (period piece). The film is essentially about contemporary lives and that's why it opens with a montage of all the things that drive us so crazy about the contemporary world of technology and our busy lives. It is about people who come together as a way of escaping some of the things that drive them crazy or escaping their troubles at home or the sadness of the loss of a pet.

"They don't know that they are going to be changing their lives in tiny ways through this book club, but as we come to know them and we see what they're going through we see shadows of the elements of Austen's books moving through their lives. But it's really about what it is to be alive today and how we keep community in a world in which we are increasingly estranged from each other."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 30, 1989's column: "On the heels of its outstanding success with Amblin Entertainment's 'Back to the Future Part II,' Universal is gearing up to release the third film in the series next Memorial Day weekend.

"'We anticipate that this picture's going to play well into February and probably into March,' a clearly delighted Fred Mound, Universal's executive vp domestic distribution, told me Tuesday. 'Our exit polls, as you know, have been very good on the picture.'

"'Future II' ... ends with the announcement that its conclusion is coming with 'Future III' next summer. Moviegoers then see a trailer with footage from 'III,' which is set in the Old West. The footage from 'III,' of course, was available because 'II' and 'III' were shot back to back. 'Robert Zemeckis came up with the thought that since we had footage on number 'III' why not whet the public's appetite for 'III?' The trailer that plays at the end of the picture runs just a little over 90 seconds. I've seen the picture now four times and the audience goes crazy when they see that number 'III' is coming,' says Mound.

"The release of 'III' will follow the present sequel by six months. 'We're going to have a trailer playing for three or four and possibly even six months in some situations for the next picture,' Mound observes. What's really unique is that the trailer will be attached to its preceding sequel rather than being on prints for some other film in release at the time.

"'I don't know any other series that has actually shown footage from the next picture,' Mound points out. Indeed, trailers for major films that go into theaters long before those movies open typically aren't able to show moviegoers any footage. 'We've had to do that ourselves -- not only making trailers but when we make product reels that we use at various conventions. All you can do is show stills and try to have a voiceover that tells a little of the story. But this tells you that this next picture is really going to be as much, if not more, fun than 'I' and 'II...'"

Update: "Back to the Future Part III' opened May 25, 1990 to $19.1 million at 2,019 theaters ($9,455 per theater) and went on to gross $87.7 million domestically. It was the year's 11th biggest film. "Part II" had grossed $118.5 million domestically in 1989 and the first film in the franchise had done $210.6 million domestically in 1985. Between them the three episodes took in $416.8 million domestically.

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