First studio film means big time for Sheridan

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About "August": For most of us the phrase "first time" applies to anything we do that we haven't done before, but it's a different story for movie directors.

When we talk about "first time directors," we typically mean their maiden efforts at filmmaking, which could be short films they've made in film school or after gaining experience directing episodic television, commercials or music videos. After a while we talk about them as "first time feature directors," referring to their feature directorial debuts. Those films are typically independently financed and made on shoestring budgets. Finally, there's a third "first time" for some directors, which is their first major studio movie and means they've hit the "big time."

A case in point is Kirsten Sheridan, whose first studio film, "August Rush," opens today via Warner Bros. at about 2,300 theaters. Sheridan, who grew up in the film business as a daughter of celebrated director Jim Sheridan ("My Left Foot"), began directing short films in 1995 and made five of them. Her first independently produced feature, "Disco Pigs," premiered at the Berlin Film Festival in 2001 to critical acclaim and won awards at festivals throughout Europe. She subsequently co-wrote the screenplay for the 2002 drama "In America" with her father and her sister, Naomi Sheridan, for which they all were Oscar and Golden Globe nominated.

Produced by Richard Barton Lewis ("Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves") and written by Nick Castle ("Escape From New York") and James V. Hart ("Hook"), "August" is a Southpaw Entertainment production in association with CJ Entertainment. It was executive produced by Robert Greenhut, Ralph Kamp, Louise Goodsill, Miky Lee and Lionel Wigram. Starring are Freddie Highmore, Keri Russell, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Terrence Howard and Robin Williams.

An indication of Warners' confidence in "August" is that it sneak previewed the PG rated musical fantasy family film last Saturday night to get word of mouth going prior to the long Thanksgiving weekend when people love to combine moviegoing and overeating. There were 518 sneaks, which Warners said were well attended (80% capacity) and played well (86% in the Top Two Boxes -- excellent and very good). Those on hand were mostly female (60%) and about half the preview audience was over 30.

I was happy to have an opportunity last Friday to ask Sheridan, who was visiting L.A. from her native Dublin, about making the transition from directing small independent pictures to doing a larger studio film. "The producer sent me the screenplay it must be three years ago now," she told me. "He had seen my first feature film, which is called 'Disco Pigs.' In that movie, in the first scene these two babies are born and they kind of magically reach out and join hands.

"That image kind of stuck with him because the image that inspired this screenplay, 'August Rush,' from the producer was when his own son was born nine years ago and he was being carried back to Richard and his hand came out of the baby blanket in the birthing room and started to move to the music that was playing. The doctor started to joke and said, 'Look, your son is conducting already.' That image and the image from 'Disco Pigs' kind of matched. So he sent me the screenplay and we took it from there."

"August's" story begins with a young cellist played by Keri Russell ("Mission Impossible III") and a charismatic Irish singer-songwriter played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers ("Match Point") who meet one night when they're drawn together by a street musician's performance. They fall in love instantly on a moonlit rooftop above New York's Washington Square, but the girl doesn't show up to meet him after their romantic night because her father rushes her off to her next concert appearance. All is lost, or so the boy mistakenly thinks.

The young lovers lose each other and years go by. Meanwhile, August Rush, the musically gifted child played by Freddie Highmore ("Finding Neverland"), resulting from their brief union -- his mother thinks he died unborn in a car accident and his father doesn't know he exists -- comes to New York searching for his parents.

"The thing that first got me was (the image of) this kid in the middle of a wheat field," Sheridan explained. "He has his arms outstretched and he's hearing all the sounds of nature and kind of channeling them through him and into music. I just thought it was such a crazy idea and such a challenge to take something that's invisible like music -- you can't articulate it and you can't touch it and it's just pure emotion -- and to try and visualize that and turn it into the camera and try and make the camera kind of follow the music. Music is such a primal kind of all encompassing thing that (it) attracted me to it from the beginning."

At that point, did she know Warner Bros. was going to distribute the movie? "Not at all," she replied. "Richard, the producer, was trying to gather together some of the finance, himself, internationally (through) pre-sales. So at that point, I don't think he'd (found the) financiers. He got Robin Williams and he got me and then the next person he got was Freddie Highmore (who had previously starred in Tim Burton's 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory' for Warners). I think when he got those three people he went to Warners. The head of the studio, Alan Horn, really loved Freddie."

When Sheridan first read the screenplay, Williams was already on board to play the role of the Wizard, a type of father figure to a group of New York street kid musicians living in the abandoned Fillmore East Theater. "Richard kind of created the part for Robin," she said, "because there's a real duality in this role. On the one hand, there's a human and sympathetic quality to him and Robin, I think, has that inherent kind of empathy in his eyes. He has an inherent humanity to him as a person. And then, on the other hand, the character also had to have quite a bit of edge and quite a bit of conflict and some comedian (aspects), as well. So the part was really made for him."

Asked if Williams is really as zany and crazy to work with as we'd imagine, she replied, "He is and he isn't, I guess. You know, the first couple of takes would always be full of energy and kind of wild and he improvised a lot. And then slowly but surely we'd kind of take it down and we'd pull it back and we'd get quieter. In a funny way, that approach worked for us because sometimes we would use the more energetic takes and other times we'd use the (more restrained) takes and that helped with the unpredictability of the character because he does have that double side to him -- that double edged sword to him -- so it kind of helped. Then you'd always say, 'Robin, just give me one take that is scripted.' And he'd go, "Ohhhhh-kay' and he'd give you one. He loves keeping everybody on their toes. I think Freddie responded really well to that type of improvising."

It was a great group to work with, she added: "Either I've just been so lucky in my life or I don't know what it is, but all the actors I've ever worked with have been incredible and this group was just amazing. Freddie's like the calm at the center of a storm. He's just the wisest person in the room. It's kind of astonishing considering he's so young, but he has this amazing perspective and a kind of fearlessness. And Keri is just so professional and she has that kind of inherent grace and beauty, but she also has a steel spine (as a performer). So it was amazing."

As for working with her actors, Sheridan explained, "I don't actually rehearse. I like their first instincts to be captured on camera. I think rehearsing sometimes can polish it up too much. What I do do is I meet them all and we talk through things a lot. I'd get Keri and Johnny to meet and talk through scenes and get Keri and William Sadler, who played her father, (to meet) beforehand and we'd talk through the intellectual ideas. Then the first primal kind of emotional ideas I always want to get on camera. I'm one of those directors who does a lot of takes and burns a lot of film and drives the UPM (unit production manager) crazy, you know."

When it came time to edit she, therefore, had tons of footage to work with: "The edit on this movie was very intense because we actually restructured the whole movie in editing it. It's a flashback structure now and we wrote VO (voice over narration) in editing. It was one of those stories where you've got so many different strands running. You have the father and mother's love story. You have their back stories. Then you have Freddie's story coming to New York and meeting the Wizard. And then you have the Wizard's backstory and a bit of challenge in Terrence Howard's backstory (as a social worker). So it really was quite a juggling game to keep all the balls in the air. It was just a long process (that continued) until we had all the stories running parallel and pushing forward."

So the film's story wound up quite a bit different than originally written. "It was a linear story in the screenplay," she said. "The mother and father's backstory was quite complicated and it took quite a bit of screen time so by the time you got to (meet) August Rush you were quite far into the movie. Then we thought, 'Let's open with the kid and see if it's stronger' and it proved to be a lot stronger film."

Shooting took place in New York from mid-February through late April 2006. "It was great (filming in New York)," Sheridan noted. "On the one hand, it can be kind of difficult trying to get from place to place and obviously the city doesn't stop for you. It has its own energy and its own pulse and it's a musical movie so that kind of made sense that that energy would try and translate onto the screen. In the screenplay there's like all the iconographic New York locations -- everything from Central Park (to) the arch in Washington Square to Carnegie Hall so there was no way we could have shot it in Toronto and faked it. I don't think it would have worked at all."

Looking back at her toughest challenges in production, Sheridan recalled, "I guess time and money is always the pair, isn't it? The first movie I did cost about two million quid and I had 33 days to shoot it. I had double the amount of scenes to shoot on this movie with a lot of kids who (are) restricted by child (working) hours. So I found myself with less time than I did on a movie that was a low budget independent movie back home. The timing was tough and that was one of the big challenges. And then the other one, I guess, was having the music pre-recorded in prep.

"There was a huge amount of prep work to do and we had to literally storyboard (a lot of the film). There's a seven minute sequence of music and myself and the cinematographer had to shot list it to time code -- so for that four seconds we knew we'd have to be on this shot -- so everything in pre-production to a certain degree is kind of crazy. I think the studio wanted to see my storyboards just to give them (some comfort as to how things were going). I guess I was a bit of a risk in a way, this being my first studio picture."

Weather, too, posed challenges for Sheridan: "We took a lot of risks with the weather. One day we needed snow and we said, 'No, this is not going to happen. It hasn't snowed up there for years,' wherever it was. The night before we were due for our first day of the shoot and we got that huge blizzard that in 20 years there hadn't been. It was amazing. The entire set was just blanketed in white as far as the eye could see. There's no way we could have afforded the snow machine. At the end of the movie in Central Park we had four days of exteriors with no weather cover whatsoever for the huge grand finale of the movie. We were out on a limb because we had no alternative. If the four days were not dry, we had no end to the movie.

"The producer to his credit is kind of crazy. He said, 'Look, I am not moving this inside. It's about music and about music being in the air. You can't contain that and limit it inside so I want it to be in Central Park and on the Great Lawn.' So he kind of inspired everybody to go out on that limb -- and we got the four warmest days in April on record in Central Park. So we never went to weather cover once. It was ridiculously serendipitous. I think my mother was lighting candles for me from the first day of the shoot! Obviously, something happened somewhere. I don't know what, but it was good."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From April 4 & 5, 1990's columns: "With those green 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' from New Line Cinema and Golden Harvest having turned the boxoffice green with their $25.4 million opening, it's no wonder New Line president-CEO Robert Shaye was smiling Monday.

"'Ninja'-sized openings immediately prompt questions about sequels. 'We have sequel rights to the picture, which would be produced again by Golden Harvest. I think it's sensible for Golden Harvest and ourselves to wait a little bit of time -- like the first couple of weeks -- just to get a better sense of where this particular release is going. Then we look forward to being able to sit down with them and discuss further business together,' Shaye told me as we continued the conversation we began live on CNN's 'ShowBiz Today...'

"Obviously, New Line had great faith in 'Ninja,' but did it ever anticipate this degree of success? 'No, I don't think any producer or distributor anticipates this level at the time they make their commitment,' replies Shaye. 'We believed in the concept. We knew of its popularity among a core audience group and it fit very well into New Line's overall business plan -- which is to select a niche market that has an easy-to-market-to core audience and try to present either by production or acquisition material that has crossover potential beyond that. This fit in the same way that 'House Party' and even 'Nightmare on Elm Street' fit. And so far it's worked...'

"'Turtles' boxoffice bonanza sent New Line's stock up sharply in a down market. 'I'm always pleased to see the value of our equity increase,' Shaye tells me. 'I am very ardently trying to demonstrate to the financial community and to our investors all over the world that our company deserves to be valued not only on a multiple of earnings in any particular year, but also the quality, frankly, of management -- I'm not talking about myself, particularly, but of our entire creative, distribution and management team -- and the prospects the company has as a real player in this business...

"'I believe that since the stock began to move six or eight weeks ago, there are very serious investors who are beginning to look at New Line as a public vehicle that has the potential of consolidating its resources into a very strong and effective and profitable communications company in the hear future. I would prefer to be a company that long-term investors place their faith in as opposed to a company that people invested in for a couple of points and then got out. I think that that's not necessarily a wise investment strategy. On the other hand, the people who stick with us have been rewarded in the past and I intend to reward them again, hopefully, with a company that has values that accrue not only from its profit position, but also from the things that it's going to do in the future.'"

Update: The first "Ninja Turtles" film wound up grossing $135.3 million domestically and was 1990's fifth biggest film at the boxoffice. New Line opened "Ninja Turtles II" a year later and did $78.7 million domestically, ranking 13th for the year. "Ninja Turtles III" arrived in 1993 and grossed $42.3 million domestically, making it the year's 34th film at the boxoffice.

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