Indies like 'Bill' a magnet for Toronto buyers

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"Bill" buzz: Independent films with star power are a magnet for buyers at the Toronto International Film Festival.

That's especially true this year with important new distributors with deep pockets like Overture Films and Summit Entertainment on the prowl to make acquisitions. Needless to say, the situation should work to the advantage of pictures that are generating some buzz in Toronto as they look for U.S. distribution.

A case in point is GreeneStreet Films' comedy "Bill," whose ensemble cast is led by Aaron Eckhart and Jessica Alba. Directed by Melisa Wallack and Bernie Goldmann from an original screenplay by Wallack, "Bill" is being screened at TIFF today and will receive a press and industry screening tomorrow. Its festival premiere took place Sunday. Produced by John Penotti, Fisher Stevens and Matthew Rowland, "Bill" was executive produced by Tim Williams and Eckhart.

As Bill, Eckhart plays a guy who lacks confidence and is totally dependent on his wealthy in-laws, the Jacobys, who employ him as their bank's human resources vice president. Bill's marriage to their daughter Jess (Elizabeth Banks) satisfies the Jacobys because it presents the right family image, but it's definitely not working for Bill or Jess. In fact, Jess is having an affair with a local news anchor (Timothy Olyphant). When Bill becomes a mentor at his old prep school he winds up working with a self-assured youngster who helps him find new confidence. It also helps that he meets Lucy, a lingerie salesgirl played by Jessica Alba. More than this you don't want to know right now.

To find out about the making of "Bill" I was happy to have an opportunity to catch up with the husband-wife first-time-directing team of Wallack and Goldmann, both of whom are busy these days with higher profile projects. Wallack is one of the screenwriters of the drama "The Dallas Buyers Club," which is being developed by Universal and Plan B Entertainment with Brad Pitt to star. Goldmann, a producer of the blockbuster "300," is a producer of the action adventure romance "Fool's Gold" from Warner Bros. and De Line Pictures, directed by Andy Tennant and starring Mathew McConaughey and Kate Hudson. Goldmann previously was president of production for Village Roadshow Pictures, senior vice president, production for Walt Disney Pictures and president of the Steve Tisch Company.

Given Goldmann's background, I had to ask how he felt about hiring first-time directors when he was a studio executive. "Look, you're always cautious about a first-time director," he replied, "because you're never sure exactly what they bring to the table and how they're going to react to the pressure of the situation and intensity of the experience."

"We just kind of decided," Wallack explained, "that if we didn't get the directors we wanted we would try to direct it ourselves. It kind of happened actually really quickly. It wasn't this very long drawn-out process. We sent it out to a few people and GreeneStreet answered right away and said that they would finance it. And then it got going pretty quickly. I was pregnant so we had to wait until I had the baby and then like two weeks after I had the baby we started working on getting an actor. Actually, that's a good reason to direct together, too -- because we had a newborn and it makes it so much easier just as a whole family to go and deal with it. And now we have another newborn!"

How did Goldmann feel about the transition he and Wallack made to directing? "I felt really confident just in terms of (our having) really complimentary skills," he said, "and we were both excited about the script. I'd read the script a lot as Melisa was writing it and it was something that we were both really passionate about. We got such a tremendous reaction to the script and she knew it so well backwards and forwards.

"One of the great things about my wife is that she's really smart in terms of figuring out how to do things that she's never done before. She learned very quickly (about directing) and she's a really talented person. And I've worked on enough movies so that I know a lot of mistakes you could make (as a first-time director) and we tried to avoid those. It worked out. We had a healthy fear going in knowing that there would be problems, but I think also knowing that we would deal with them."

"There was a very short list of people they would greenlight the movie with," Wallack continued, "and Aaron said yes right away, which helped."

"It actually did come together pretty easily," Goldmann agreed. "It was a really beloved script and it was a really well written script. A lot of people around town liked it and were interested in making the movie. We did search for somebody else to direct the movie and it just didn't feel like we were finding someone who we felt like, 'Wow, they're going to do a so much better job than we were going to do.' And we figured, 'Why not (direct it ourselves)?'"

Pre-production got underway in April 2006, Wallack said: "We started shooting the first week in June. We shot for six weeks. I think I was too naive to be terrified. It was in St. Louis. They had really never had a (lot of movies shot) there before, which made it really difficult for obvious reasons. They'd done like one science-fiction movie there before so they had very limited crew. That's probably the hardest part of being in production. We didn't get our locations sometimes until the day of shooting. And people started calling around and getting kind of Los Angeles prices for houses and that became pretty difficult. It was really tough shooting in St. Louis. It was like over a hundred degrees every day and it was difficult."

"You know, not a lot of movies get made there," Goldmann pointed out, "so the crews don't have a ton of experience. The people we had worked really hard, but you come back and work in Los Angeles or another city that does a lot of film production and you get the benefit of all that experience. So people were learning on -- I'd like to say 'learning on our dime,' but it's more 'on our pennies.'

"That was the best tax deal we could find in a mid-Western city at that point. Melisa wrote it for her hometown, which is Minneapolis. That was the place we wanted to shoot the movie, but there was no tax break there. And at the time, Chicago didn't have a good deal. St. Louis was the best."

Asked if she would have written her screenplay for "Bill" any differently if she knew that she and Goldmann would wind up directing it, Wallack told me, "No. I don't think so. The fortunate part of doing it with GreeneStreet is that there were really no rewrites on it. We kind of just went right into production with the script that I wrote.

"If I had known that it was going to be a low budget movie then I probably would have written a little bit differently because a lot of it in the script is about how sterile corporate culture is and it was impossible to capture that in this low budget film just based on locations. We just could not get permission to shoot at Best Buy and Victoria's Secret and Staples and so that part of the script didn't work. It just faded away. Instead of being at this incredibly corporate place like Victoria's Secret it was a very small kind of boutique lingerie store (where) you don't get that feeling (of the corporate) homogenization of the world. We couldn't get permission from any corporations to shoot (at their stores) or use their name. We couldn't even get permission from Starbucks. (The lack of corporate cooperation stemmed from the fact that) basically it's an R rated movie, I guess."

The film, she said, "is about becoming who you're supposed to become and having to let go of everything in your life in order to discover what you really are about and what you really want to do, what you want to accomplish and who you want to be."

As for working with their actors, Wallack noted, "We had a lot of time to work with Aaron. We had a lot of rehearsals with him and he read with a lot of people. Jessica Alba didn't sign on, I think, until like two days before we shot. So she just came in and read with Logan (Logan Lerman plays the young boy who winds up mentoring Bill) and Logan actually didn't sign on until a couple days before we shot either. But (with) the rest of the people like Elizabeth Banks we had (time) to practice a lot with and rehearse a lot with and she knew the script pretty well. She just read with so many different kids (until Lerman was cast)."

How does it work when you have two people directing a movie? "It actually worked fine," Wallack laughed. "It was really easy. We were a little bit worried before we did it just (in terms of), 'Who's going to talk to the actors? Who's going to do this?' And nothing really was ever an issue. I spoke to the actors for the most part, but it was kind of one voice. There wasn't any kind of disagreement. It was more fun than I think either one of us would have imagined."

But it wasn't all fun all the time. "We were shooting five days and we shot Saturdays," she said. "Our daughter had just turned one years old so there was no down time (at all). You'd be up at 5 o'clock in the morning and come home at 8 and spend two hours with Lilyana and basically go to sleep. It was pretty grueling and it was really, really hot in the summertime there and humid. We would literally stay in our house on Sundays and just kind of try and recuperate. But in a way it's really good because you have this complete support system built in. And, also, everyone on the movie was pretty great and nice and everyone loved having Lilyana there and she would be on set all day."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Goldmann recalled, "The very first movie I produced was called 'Soul Man.' It was (a comedy directed by Steve Miner in) 1984. I was the associate producer on that movie and it cost $4.5 million (nearly 25 years ago). We made 'Bill' for $5 million. I mean, it's a huge challenge to make a movie for $5 million. Luckily, we got a lot of really talented people who were attracted by the material to cut their prices and work on the movie, but still to shoot a movie in 30 days like that is really difficult. It was really rushed. That was definitely the biggest challenge. We didn't sit down. There was no time to think. You just had to keep moving forward."

"It was really just like everything was so bad," Wallack added. "We were doing so many set-ups every day. Our covered set had no air conditioning and it was supposed to be fall and people had wool suits on. There was no air conditioning in the building that we were in and we were just told that like a couple days before shooting so they had to pump it in and, of course, we were on the sixth floor. So it was frustrating. And we had a duck hunting scene where we visited the location six weeks before we (were going to shoot) it at the very end of the movie. And when we got there, of course, the location was completely gone because it was completely overgrown.

"That was typical of the movie. When we'd get there there was no location and you'd have eight hours to get four scenes. And then you also had time restrictions with Logan. I think he was 14 at the time and you have to bank the school hours (required for him every day). You have to have one person focusing on his minutes. It was a busy shoot."

At Toronto, they're looking for a U.S. distributor, Goldmann said: "GreeneStreet's put it in the hands of John Sloss (whose film sales agency Cinetic Media is the leader in selling independent films to distributors and just last week expanded by bringing former CAA agent Bart Walker on board as a partner), who I hear is the best at what he does. And so we'll do what he tells us at this point and try and get the movie sold."

Now that they've directed, do they see it again in their future? "I hope it's something we can do again," Goldmann replied. "That's going to obviously be pretty much up to other people, but we'll see how it goes. I think we're pleased with the way this turned out."

"I love writing, but directing movies just completely informs your writing," Wallack noted. "It completely taught me how to write comedy. And editing teaches you how to direct in a way. So all of it is really interesting to watch when you've written something for it to come to life and then have to put it together. We had a great time making it and we're very thankful that we got to (have) the experience."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 22 & Nov. 27, 1989's column: "Lee Rich, who launched his independent production company at Warner Bros. in September 1988, soon after resigning as chairman and CEO of MGM/UA, is now in post-production on his first theatrical film.

"'It was originally called 'Seven Year Storm.' I think the title will be changed to 'Hard to Kill,' he told me the other morning. The action thriller, directed by Bruce Malmuth and starring Steven Seagal and Kelly LeBrock, opens via Warner Bros. Feb. 16 at 1,000-plus screens.

"'We've tested the movie twice with two different audiences -- one an older audience and one younger. It has been truly amazing, and I must say it's beyond what I ever anticipated, as to the reaction to this picture,' Rich points out. 'I think people will like it. It's not going to win any Academy Awards. It's not like a lot of the pictures I've done in the past (while heading MGM/UA) -- like 'Rain Man,' 'A Fish Called Wanda' and 'Moonstruck.' We should be finished with the picture very soon...'

"Is he happier in his own company than he was running a studio? 'I'm not sure yet,' Rich replies. 'it's a bit too soon. I certainly enjoy what I'm doing. I'm enjoying it a great deal. I'm in the process of doing what Larry Gordon did -- of getting a big fund of (production) money and going in that direction....

"'I'm hooking up with a large partner, but unlike Larry I'll also hook up with a studio because I believe that as far as the distribution of movies is concerned the studios doing the distribution should be involved with their own money. If they have their own money in a picture, I think it's purely logical that they care more about that picture and will give it greater tender loving care than they would give a picture that's just handed to them.'

"Rich has a non-exclusive motion picture deal and an exclusive television deal with Warners. When the studio greenlights Rich projects, it fully finances them. 'What I'm planning to do -- and it looks like this is going to be done -- is put together a goodly fund of money and make my own movies. Warners would be a partner of mine and we would distribute the pictures together,' he explains."

Update: "'Hard to Kill' opened Feb. 9, 1990 to $9.2 million at 1,301 theaters ($7,081 per theater) and went on to gross $47.4 million domestically, making it the year's 25th biggest film.

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