Distribs will be watching 'Detectives' at Tribeca

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"Detectives" discussion: The larger than life characters we see in movies don't usually turn up in real life, but what if they did?

That's exactly what happens in writer-director Paul Soter's offbeat comedy "Watching the Detectives" from Plum Pictures and Peace Arch Entertainment. It marks a solo directing debut for Soter, who's best known as a member of the Broken Lizards comedy troupe ("Super Troopers").

"Detectives," which stars Cillian Murphy, Lucy Liu and Jason Sudeikis ("Saturday Night Live") is premiering at New York's Sixth Annual Tribeca Film Festival with screenings May 1, 3, 4 and 6. Liu will be on hand for the film's Tribeca premiere, but Murphy can't be there because he's in Ireland now shooting John Maybury's romantic drama "The Best Time of Our Lives" opposite Keira Knightley.

Produced by Celine Rattray, Daniela Taplin Lundberg and Galt Niederhoffer, "Detectives" was executive produced by Bill Benenson, Irving Schwartz, Randy Simon, Reagan Silber, John Flock, Lewin Webb and Gary Howsam.

Although a screener of the film wasn't available yet for me to see, I did have a look at what I thought were some very good video clips that made me want to see more. The film's domestic distribution rights are available and distributors will get their first chance to be watching "Detectives" at Tribeca where United Talent (UTA's Jeremy Barber is the sales agent) and Peace Arch will be selling it.

Peace Arch, by the way, has a big hit in its 10 hour miniseries "The Tudors" for Showtime. Plum Pictures is also hot, having made two prime sales to The Weinstein Company at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival -- for James C. Strouse's drama "Grace Is Gone," starring John Cusack and Alessandro Nivola (winner of the Audience Award and Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award); and Justin Theroux's romantic comedy drama "Dedication," starring Billy Crupdup, Tom Wilkinson and Mandy Moore.

In "Detectives" Murphy plays Neil, a video store owner who, not surprisingly, is a film geek. Liu plays Violet, a real life femme fatale, the kind we know so very well from the movies, who walks into his life. After that, Neil finds his real life blurring with this movie-like romance.

When I had an opportunity to talk to Soter recently about breaking out on his own as a filmmaker he told me, "In the course of making the films with Broken Lizard I thought, 'You know, it would be fun to do one of these top to bottom.' I mean, we always have a great time, but there's always a lot of decisions by committee going on. I'd had a few ideas and I'd been very lazy about it for a few years and then I just kind of hunkered down a couple of years ago and said, 'I've got an idea for something that's very small and kind of personal. And if I'm going to try to direct something this is what I should do, something very modest so it can be done cheaply and maybe somebody would be willing to take a chance.' So I wrote this (screenplay)."

Focusing on the idea of real life and movie life blurring together, he explained, "I'm one of those kids who grew up in movie theaters and (had) an overactive imagination (that) always sort of blurred that line between watching movies and being a part of movies. As I got interested in girls and stuff I always regretted that I didn't think I would ever meet the kind of woman who is that movie character -- a woman of mystery, a woman of adventure. There was always the longing as a filmgoer that maybe someday I'd meet somebody like that and the more I sort of played around with that idea the more I thought, 'Well, you know, if a woman of adventure and mystery actually did come into your life she'd probably ruin your life because it might be too much adventure, it might be too much mystery.' I don't know if regular people are meant to have their life play out like scenes in movies.

"So I just thought that was kind of an interesting issue, this sort of wish fulfillment of somebody like that coming into your life. But would you really be able to handle it if that somebody was like a character in a movie who believed in living your life as if it were an adventure and a mystery? I sent the script out and found the folks over at Plum Pictures who were interested in making it. And then it was a matter of getting the right two lead characters in there."

When it came to casting, he observed, "I got really lucky in that Cillian Murphy really wanted to do something like this. I think he wanted do something light. American audiences hadn't seen him do something light and he wanted to show off another side of himself. It's funny because he's such a regular guy and the character is such a regular guy. I think people view him as this strange intense guy from the films that most people have seen him in over here (like Danny Boyle's '28 Days Later' and Neil Jordan's 'Breakfast on Pluto'). And then we just really got lucky finding Lucy, who wanted to do something unique and with comedy that was really driven by the female character."

"Detectives" wasn't originally written to take place in New York, but when Soter made his deal with Plum he had to agree to shoot in the New York area. "It was going to be (shot in) Austin or someplace around Denver," he said. "I grew up around Denver and to me the vibe was that you have these sort of hipster enclaves in college towns or in towns where you have a lot of indie record stores, movie stores and book stores and there's (the feeling) of an alternative intelligentsia type of community. That's always where I figured a (film) like this would take place. It's about a guy who basically lives his life watching movies, studying movies, talking about movies and then when he's asked to sort of get his feet wet and live that way, it's so foreign to him. So I wanted something that had a kind of academic community feel.

"I reset it so that it could be shot around New York. I didn't necessarily have to change anything script-wise. I just had to figure out a way to shoot something in and around New York and, hopefully, not have it look like it was shot around New York. It certainly wasn't going to look like Austin, Texas and it certainly wasn't going to look like Denver, but it could look like any town in the Northeast. We ended up shooting a lot in Bayonne, New Jersey, which is very close to the City. What was amazing was I didn't know that there's plenty of places that are still very close to Manhattan within a 45 minute drive where you can really feel like you're just about anywhere (and the same is true) for parts of Brooklyn and parts of Queens. So it ended up becoming this kind of cool project trying to cobble together all those little pockets around the City that can hopefully pass as not (being) New York City."

Shooting around New York, he added, "made more sense for a lot of reasons in terms of Lucy lives there, the production company was based there, I'm somewhat familiar with (the City after living there for 15 years) and Cillian, who lives in London, really didn't want to have to go too much farther into the country. I just can't think of a time where something killed us expense wise because we were on the streets of Manhattan. There are great indie crews that can get things done for a little bit of money. I mean, that's the beauty of (working with people who's) job is to get things done for the least amount of money. I had a great production designer and a great locations guy who found us the way to make this movie without having to spend too much money."

Asked if being an actor himself he likes to rehearse with his actors during production, Soter replied, "My experience had been with the movies I did with the Broken Lizard guys and we always had the luxury of a lot of rehearsal because we're always together. We're together during the whole writing process and we always go to the location a month or six weeks ahead of time together. So we end up rehearsing and we try to bring in people as early as possible. So in my mind that was going to be my approach. I thought, 'Lucy's going to be out there. She lives in New York.' And we were trying to get Cillian out there. He schedule allowed it. But then we got hit by some visa problems getting Cillian into the country and as it turned out he ended up not getting in until like a day and a half before the first Monday of shooting. So my plan really went out the window in terms of really getting to spend a lot of time with these guys."

Murphy, he added, "had to do all his costume stuff on Saturday so I figured we've got Sunday and we'll spend all day Sunday rehearsing. We'll make up for it and we'll get everybody comfortable with each other. And then I had a crisis at home. My wife was pregnant at the time and I ended up having to leave. I think Cillian and Lucy ended up sitting and watching the World Cup finals. So we just didn't rehearse much. I think we just got lucky. They both had really gone through the script a lot. We had had a lot of phone conversations about the characters and they're both really good actors and really responded to each other chemistry-wise. It was a scramble because we shot this thing in 22 days so basically I just tried to have (everything) ready as quick as possible and give the actors as much time on set together as I could.

"Most of the time we just got lucky and they kind of said, 'Oh, let's just shoot it and we'll get a feel for it and we'll play with it.' And it came out really well. I can only think of two times where we had to sort of send everybody away and say, 'Let's sit down. We aren't quite feeling this scene. Let's talk through it. Let's walk through it.' And you figure out of 22 days of shooting (it's not so terrible) if you only have to really do that twice, where you sort of shut down the set and send everybody away. It ended up being that everybody just enjoyed thinking on their feet that way." 

As for how he works while shooting, Soter explained, "Knowing that we had so little time and so little money, I just really tried to prep the hell out of it in terms of knowing my shots very extensively. I got up in New York really early so that the DP and I basically went on all the locations with stand-ins and figured out (how to do the shots). So when we got there (with the actors) I knew the coverage had to be incredibly precise and incredibly thought out. So I tried for it to move along really quickly and it did. We tried to get as many takes as we could, but a lot of it was just moving (so quickly). With the next film that I make I will definitely insist on more days because I think we got lucky in that my leads really were professionals and had great attitudes and never sort of said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we're rushing through this.' They really liked moving at a bang-bang pace.

"For actors the worst part of doing a movie is all this sitting around so actually by keeping everybody moving all the time the actors really enjoyed it. They stayed on the set instead of going back to their trailers. Because they knew they had (only) 45 minutes between every set-up they stayed close. They stayed around and it lent a really nice energy to the environment because then Lucy and Cillian weren't bored. Look, I act in movies. I know how deadly (sitting around waiting can be). The worst part about it is all the sitting around you do. So keeping everybody on their toes, I think, really made it a cool vibe."

The New York weather could have been better, however: "It was a really hot wet summer in New York that year. Having lived there I knew that you could really have some miserable days, but it was an especially sticky summer last year and some of our interiors were unventilated areas. There was one week of shooting where we were (really uncomfortably hot) and it happened to be when everybody was wearing the most clothing in terms of the actors. Like Cillian was wearing t-shirts and jeans for most of the movie, but there was one scene where Cillian was dressed up like Clint Eastwood in 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' so he's got jeans, he's got a denim shirt on, he's got a bandana on his neck, he's got a wool poncho over that and a cowboy hat on top of that. And we're in 95 degree sweltering hot sticky weather. And Lucy's wearing this saloon girl outfit.

"They were both great sports about it. I've seen actors and people on sets really snap under those conditions. I mean, it was ridiculous. We're like toweling these people off and every take we were putting (things like) soaked rags on everybody's head. So there was one week where it really was miserably hot, but -- you know what? -- again, I got really lucky with my people. Nobody snapped. Nobody complained."

Looking ahead, Soter told me, "Hopefully, it's a comedy people will respond to. I don't like to call it a romantic comedy. I tried to make something that was really apart from what you get (with) a romantic comedy these days, something that's a little more adult, something that's a little more clever. It's very different from the movies I've made with Broken Lizard. It's a dialogue-driven film. Hopefully, people will enjoy something that's a refreshing change of pace from the usual very by-the-numbers movies of this genre."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From May, 18, 1989's column: "Keeping up with the Joneses may be an everyday game in Hollywood, but it's not going to be easy to keep up with the boxoffice action that will be generated by the father-son Joneses played by Harrison Ford and Sean Connery in Paramount's 'Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.'

"'Indy III,' as the Lucasfilm Ltd. Prod. is becoming known for short, arrives Wed., May 24 at 2,327 screens, including 200 70mm prints. It played exceptionally well Tuesday night when Paramount showed it to the media crowd at two screenings at Mann's National Theater in Westwood.

"Afterwards, listening to insiders talk about the picture ... it was clear that 'Indy III' is an audience pleaser. One recurring observation was that while 'Indy III' is a sequel, it has a freshness that sequels typically don't have. In large part that freshness stems from the inclusion of Sean Connery as Harrison Ford's father and River Phoenix as the young Indiana Jones.

"Without exception, everyone I spoke to after the 6:30 p.m. screening rated 'Indy III' as being much better than 'Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.' And there were those who liked it more than the original 'Raiders of the Lost Ark.'

"Those at Tuesday's 6:30 p.m. screening received a brief unplanned intermission midway through the picture when the film broke. What they missed seeing was a special effects scene in which an airplane flies into a tunnel pursuing Ford and Connery, who are trying to escape in a car. The plane's wings are chopped off by the impact with the tunnel and the fuselage of the plane with the pilot in it slides past the car. As it does, Ford and Connery look at each other making what's described as a terrific visual moment. Those who attended Tuesday's later screening saw that scene in full because Paramount worked fast to replace the damaged reel..."

Update: "Indy III" opened May 24, 1989 to $29.4 million at 2,327 theaters ($12,614 per theater). It wound up grossing $197.2 million domestically and another $277 million internationally and was 1989's second biggest grossing domestic release (after Warner Bros.' 'Batman' with $251.2 million).

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