'Love' is controlling destiny of your own films

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Callahan conversation: Controlling the destiny of your own movies is every filmmaker's dream, but Mars Callahan has made it reality by writing, directing, co-producing, acting in and distributing his romantic comedy "What Love Is."

While writing, directing, producing and acting are pretty much open to anyone who wants to tackle them, distribution's another matter entirely. Financing the marketing and distribution of the films you make isn't for the fainthearted -- but Callahan clearly doesn't fall into that category.

"Love," opening in Los Angeles and other major markets today (23) via Callahan's Big Sky Motion Pictures, stars Sean Astin, Gina Gershon, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Anne Heche, Tamala Jones, Matthew Lillard and Callahan. It was produced by George Bours, John Hermansen and Callahan and executive produced by Rand Chortkoff.

In the film Gooding's character, Tom, comes home Valentine's Day night with an engagement ring to give his long-time girlfriend Sara (Victoria Pratt). He's invited some of his pals to drop in for a surprise celebration. Sara, however, has unexpectedly bailed out of their relationship, leaving Tom a letter and telling him she'll be over shortly to pick up her last two bags. No sooner does Tom get the bad news than his buddies start arriving, venting about their own problems and sharing their passionate views about love, marriage and women in general. In the midst of all that, five lively ladies suddenly turn up at Tom's door and march in saying they're there for the Valentine's party. Between them all, Tom's got no shortage of advice on what he should or shouldn't do to get Sara back.

Callahan started his career as an actor, appearing in lots of episodic television as well as features like Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do" and Dominic Sena's "Kalifornia," opposite Brad Pitt. He kicked off his directing career with the 2001 comedy feature "Zigs," which he also co-wrote, starring Jason Priestly. Callahan's second feature was the 2002 indie thriller "Poolhall Junkies," which he also co-wrote, starring Chazz Palminteri and Christopher Walken.

After enjoying an early look at "Love," I asked Callahan what prompted him to take his big plunge into film distribution. "I found a big tumor in my right kidney about five years ago," he explained. "I lost my right kidney, my right adrenal gland and I've been in a wheelchair for three out of the last five years of my life. I figured, 'You know, it's about time you don't wait around to ask permission for somebody to give you the opportunity to live.' Anyone who's ever dealt with anything like that knows the immediacy of life and death. I figured, let's do things now. Let's do things the way they need to be done -- cleanly and with integrity and honor.

"If you make a movie and get to release the film you don't have to (deal with the studios') creative accounting and you can put the movie out the way (you want to) without 15 different people giving you notes on how to change the ending or on what you can or cannot say. I think it lends itself to a refreshing way of filmmaking that isn't watered down due to the dilution process in the corporate system."

Callahan launched Big Sky about three years ago and "Love" is the company's first release. "I started writing the script about 10 years ago," he told me. "When I got sick I had a lot of free time on my hands sitting in a wheelchair staring out the window and trying not to die. So I figured I might as well get to the computer and write some scripts. This one had long been unfinished. It's interesting because I started writing (it do long ago that) my perspective on life and things has changed dramatically over the course of time. As a human being, as you evolve and go through different things in life your perspective changes dramatically and I was able to sort of ingest that into the different characters. Part of me was a little more Sal (Tom's womanizer pal played by Matthew Lillard from 'Scream') 10 years ago when I started writing this and I wound up being more Ken (Tom's married upstairs neighbor, played by Callahan) finished writing it. But it allowed for a great perspective shift from different characters and it was almost like having another writer on the movie."

Originally, Callahan wrote his story as a stage play: "I figured I'd never written a play before so I thought I'd write a play. And then so many people were like, 'You should make this as a film. This is an actor's dream. Imagine the cast you could get. Blah, blah, blah, blah.' I originally was going to make the film with Val Kilmer and Colin Farrell. Then due to scheduling problems we wound up not being able to cast them. But I think we got really fortunate to be able to get the cast that we had. I can't see anybody else playing the roles now. The universe has ways of working out the way it's supposed to."

After tinkering with the project for a decade, he added, "finally when I focused on it I was able to wrap it up. It took me 10 years to make 'Poolhall Junkies' so, hopefully, I'll get the time frame a little bit shorter when I make another movie."

How did "Love" finally make the leap from the page to the screen? "I started a company called Big Sky Motion Pictures with a partner, Rand Chortkoff (CEO of the record label Delta Groove Productions and for years a successful investor in film financing and production). I was working on the creative stuff and Rand was working on the financing. He was able to put the financing together and I was able to get the cast together and we were able to make the movie. You know, most independent filmmakers spend all their time and energy scraping up the money to make the movie and getting the cast and they finish and they're panting at what they thought was the top of the hill and then they've got to go see who wants to buy it.

"That's not my approach. The studios don't have that approach. If a movie costs $100 million to make and they've got to go spend another $50 million in advertising, their budget isn't $100 million, it's $150 million. That's how the studios work. So I figured, if we're going to start a company and we're going to grow to be the size of a studio, we should operate as a studio does. And so we said, 'Our budgets include our p&a.' So when we raised the money to make the movie, we included that p&a in our budget because at the end of the day the bottom line is the entire budget. So we had that in mind."

Needless to say, you can't launch a distribution company without somebody on staff who knows the distribution business inside out. "We went out and hired (former MGM worldwide theatrical distribution president) Larry Gleason, a veteran distribution guru. He's been advising us," Callahan said. "We're opening up in a bunch of cities and we're putting our best foot forward. You know, there's always a learning curve when you're doing a first movie, but we're very, very happy with the product. We just had our first premiere in Chicago last night to a standing ovation. At the end of a movie, I'm always amazed that people would clap at the screen (because) there's no actors there to hear you clapping. But the people in Chicago were so moved by the film (it's a funny comedy, but ends emotionally) that they stood up and applauded.

"I'm so amazed at screening after screening at the response to this movie. I even had somebody (from a major studio) call me after one of those preliminary screenings, who said, 'You just saved my marriage.' I said, 'What are you talking about?' He said, 'Well, I was having problems with my wife and thinking about going off and doing this and that the other and the next thing you know I realized I have to live with integrity and honor and honor the commitments I made and I'm going to work it out with my wife.' Those are the things that change the world, you know, one person at a time. You make something that ultimately is artistic in some fashion and hopefully people will be inspired to think differently and, perhaps, try things that you put out there in the world."

Among the markets in Big Sky's first wave of "Love" openings today are Los Angeles, Chicago, Seattle, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Austin, Boston. In the weeks ahead, as word of mouth spreads the film will expand into Washington, D.C., Atlanta and other key cities. "New York is probably going to fall after the second wave," he pointed out. "We're going to move from West to East."

Looking back at production, Callahan noted, "My idea was that I was going to shoot the movie in 24 hours. I figured if we can do a play in two hours, we can shoot a movie in 24 hours. So my idea was that I was going to shoot in three eight-hour shooting days, so it would essentially be 24 hours. People said to me, 'Mars, you're going to make this movie in three days? Are you crazy?' I said, 'Well, we can give it a shot. It's something that's never been done before and I always like to break new ground.' So everybody was geared up for the challenge. We had four cameras choreographed like a ballet (by cinematographer David Stump) around the room moving in and out in and amongst the actors.

"We had an amazing set built by Jay Hinkle, who's a huge production designer for big studio movies (like 'Snakes on a Plane') and agreed to do this little movie for us. He designed it so we could move the cameras into walls that flew (away and did) all kinds of really great technical things to help us execute. We didn't make it in three days, but we made it in six days."

How did he manage to shoot it even that quickly? "Well, I guess it's (because we had) limited locations," he suggested. "We had digital (cameras). We had Viper cameras so we didn't have to reload with film. We were shooting in digital form so that helped. And the actors were very prepared and professional. I mean, you can't get much better than (people like) Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Anne Heche and Matthew Lillard and Sean Astin. They all knew their lines. They basically had to learn the whole script, which a lot of actors nowadays are kind of lazy and don't like to do. They're intimidated or afraid of that kind of work ethic. These guys were top shelf professionals and really came prepared and made us look great. We were able to do 40 minute takes. It was amazing. We averaged 35 pages a day."

When I mentioned that this was even more amazing because Callahan was directing from a wheelchair, he corrected me by explaining, "No. I was in a wheelchair for two and a half years before the movie. I got strong enough and out of the wheelchair to start the company and then make the movie. Then I think the long hours on those days prepping and shooting and then in post-production cutting the movie fried my body and I'm back in a wheelchair again. But I'm getting better. I'm walking around short distances now and, hopefully, will be out of this thing by the summer."

Asked how he works while directing, Callahan told me, "I'm one of those guys who just has it all in my head. Preparation for me is huge, but it's preparation in a different way. All my movies are cut, finished, mixed, sound, editing, everything in my head. So my job and my challenge is to meet with my (key people) and sit down with them and translate what's in this noggin of mine into their noggin so they can execute to their team effectively. So picking the right people to gel with your vision is really key for me in the way that I work. You know, it's no secret. People around town know that I'm a maverick guy. I do my own kind of thing and there are people who are also of like mind and we enjoy each other's company."

Did he rehearse a lot with his actors? "Yeah, we rehearsed extensively," he replied. "And we played with the dance between the actors and the cameras and where'd we be (in a shot). We lit specifically so that when people walked into certain marks they hit their key light and delivered their poignant monologues (about love). It was extremely technical and very, very exacting. And the fact that we were able to pull it off is just a testament to the talent of the people that I was working with because they all made me look like I knew what I was doing."

I had to ask Callahan about how he filmed one of the film's long sequences in which the five girls who turn up at Tom's house thinking he's giving a Valentine's party are all gossiping as they fix their hair in a large bathroom with a sizable mirror on the wall. Shooting with mirrors on a set always poses special challenges. "Well, we tried to use the mirror," he pointed out, "so we shot into the mirror for certain things. And then the mirror was actually on a hinge so it swung away so we were able to move the camera behind the mirror as if the camera was shooting through the mirror. So we actually used it as a device. It was tricky, but we got it done. When you're working in independent film and you're doing the things that we do, we try to take the things that normally would be challenges and use them to our advantage."

What was most challenging? "Just coordinating all the different departments together to execute one thing in such a short period of time," he said. "That was my biggest challenge. But, as I say, the key personnel were so amazing, talented and yet not just good at what they did but wonderful people -- human beings that were a joy to work with on and off the set. They just were wonderful people and came together. It's a fitting title for the movie because there's so much love that went into the making of this movie that I think it really translates to the screen in every way. The actors felt it. We all felt it. It was really wonderful."

As for the rigors of getting a small independent film into a theatrical marketplace that's crowded with big studio brand name productions, Callahan observed, "You know, there are certain challenges when all the big studio films have a monopoly on screens, but again with every challenge there are the theater owners who see the work that we do and celebrate it and say, 'Wow! That's amazing. This is something that doesn't happen all the time.' There are those who respond and there are those who don't. There's an old saying I have always used in my approach to filmmaking (which is that) in anything that we do you've got to go to where the love is.

"You're going to make a phone call to someone (in the media) and some of them are going to say, 'Why do we want to pay attention to this little independent film guy?' And there's going to be guys like you who say, 'Hey, I'd really like to talk to this little independent film guy.' And it's like -- the theater owners that get us and support us and love what we do, we're going to go there. And the interviewers that want to talk about what we're doing, we're going to go there. We're not going to go to the ones who are snooty or rude. You've got to go to where the love is because life is too short."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Apr. 6 and 7, 1989's columns: "Looking at last weekend's boxoffice business, it's evident that all five best picture Oscar nominees benefited significantly from the television exposure they received at the 61st annual Academy Awards.

"'It was the highest-rated Oscar show in five years,' producer Allan Carr told me Tuesday morning. 'The interesting thing is that the ratings went up as the evening went along -- as opposed to dropping off, which shows people loved the show. In Los Angeles 1.9 million homes were watching, which is 56% of all the TVs on. It was 52% in Chicago, 65% in New York, 59% in Philadelphia and 56% in San Francisco...

"At the domestic boxoffice last weekend, 'Rain Man' was up 84%, 'Mississippi Burning' was up 55%, 'The Accidental Tourist' was up 54%, 'Working Girl' was up 40% and 'Dangerous Liaisons' was up 24%, all evidence of the terrific promotional punch packed by this year's Oscarcast.

"Carr, showman that he certainly is, had the right idea in building into the show as much participation as possible from the stars of the films competing for best picture. He also was smart to perceive the benefits of having a fresh look by showing film clips from the nominated films that hadn't already been over-exposed on television...

"'I said, 'I don't want clips that have been sent out since October. We've been seeing a variation of the same scenes now for four months. I want different clips than Siskel & Ebert get and that Rex Reed gets. This is a show that's going to be seen by a billion and a half people' -- and it has.

"'We worked very carefully to present something that has not been seen that will also help sell the picture. It is really putting our best foot forward as far as the town is concerned and for the whole industry it is a great commercial. You know, the Academy has a rule that they do not take commercials for movie companies or any movies specifically within the show...

"The Oscarcast, Carr concludes, is 'the greatest trailer in the world if it's used properly.' He takes the bad reviews in stride laughing, 'The only people who liked it were the town and the public.' The steady stream of congratulatory flowers, telegrams and champagne arriving at Carr's home has, in fact, led him 'to put a secretary on just to answer the mail. You know when that happens, you've touched the town.'"

Update: Allan Carr, one of Hollywood's larger than life showman figures, produced such hit movies as "Grease" and "Grease 2." His production of the 61st Annual Academy Awards telecast was highly controversial at the time because of its opening production number revolving around Eileen Bowman as an unauthorized Snow White singing to Rob Lowe. Carr died of cancer June 29,1999 at the age of only 62.

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