'My Kid' docu examines prodigy painter

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Prodigy painter: We tend to think of documentaries as focusing on geopolitical issues of devastating significance, but that's not always so.

A case in point is Sony Pictures Classics' "My Kid Could Paint That," opening Friday in New York and L.A., which examines the fascinating story of 4-year-old prodigy painter Marla Olmstead. After attracting media attention, Marla became an internationally known celebrity, selling more than $300,000 worth of her abstract paintings. But did she actually paint them herself? Five months into Marla's new stardom, an expose on "60 Minutes" strongly suggested that her amateur painter father had done or, at least, had had a hand in finishing Marla's paintings. Suddenly Marla's career was on hold and collectors' interest in her work began to fade.

Producer-director Amir Bar-Lev had been attracted to Marla's story before the controversy erupted and was, therefore, already filming her at her home in Binghamton, N.Y., when "60 Minutes" dropped its bombshell, unexpectedly providing him with a new and much more compelling story to tell. The Sony Pictures Classics and A&E Indiefilms presentation in association with the BBC is an Axis Films and Passion Pictures production. Executive produced by Richard Klein for the BBC and by John Battsek, it was co-executive produced by Andrew Ruhemann.

"My Kid" premiered last January at the Sundance Film Festival, where it was well-received and generated considerable interest. When it screened in September at the Toronto International Film Festival it also was met with a very positive reception.

"Sometimes truth is more exciting and stranger than fiction," Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics co-president (with Tom Bernard), told me. "We saw a screening of it at the Sundance Film Festival. The picture was not quite done. It was shown there for the very first time and we were just taken with every aspect of it. It's very rare that you see a documentary that's about so many subjects as this one is about.

"We felt in this current era where there is a substantial audience for documentary films that this particular documentary worked on so many levels that we thought it really had an opportunity not only to do business with the public at this moment, but have a great afterlife in video and television and internationally as well."

How is SPC distributing the picture? "We're going to release it on Oct. 5 in New York and Los Angeles," he replied, "and then slowly we're going to open it around the country, probably over the course of the following six weeks. We have had many screenings around the country with arts groups and museums as well as opinion makers from a variety of walks of life. The picture covers so many subjects, including what is the nature of truth, what is modern art and the value of modern art, parenting and, also, there is a public out there that's interested in new documentary filmmakers and Amir Bar-Lev is certainly a major documentary filmmaker in the making and this is a pretty auspicious debut."

Besides having good boxoffice potential, Barker said SPC is bullish about its awards prospects: "We feel the movie has the quality to appear on a number of critics' Ten Best lists at the end of the year as well as being considered for awards not only for the critics groups but, also, hopefully -- fingers crossed -- from the Academy, as well."

After an early look at "My Kid," which is one of the best documentaries I've seen in a long time, I was happy to be able to talk to Bar-Lev about the making of the film and his thoughts about Marla. Bar-Lev made his directorial debut in 2001 with "Fighter," which was cited as one of the year's best documentaries by publications like Newsweek and Rolling Stone. He subsequently created and executive produced several television pilots, including "Remix" for SpikeTV and "Party Crashing in Cannes" for VH1. Another of his television projects, the Weather Channel series "It Could Happen Tomorrow," focused in its pilot episode on the hurricane danger facing New Orleans and was shot only a few months before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city.

"When I first heard about Marla Olmstead I had no inkling of the kind of dramatic turn the film would take midway through when the paintings'
authenticity was called into question," Bar-Lev told me. "When I read about it in the New York Times in late September of 2004 I was immediately intrigued by the idea of a 4-year-old celebrity. That's what drew me to the story initially. And when I met Marla's parents (Mark and Laura Olmstead), they did not at all fit into the mould that I guess I had in my mind of the type of parents who would be behind an international 4-year-old celebrity. I had in my mind a certain 'show parents' stereotype and the Olmsteads were anything but that.

"They were very ambivalent about all the attention and concerned about what it was going to do to their family. They were interested in me knowing that they had really (not had a hand) in this remarkable turn of events, that they hadn't at all thought the paintings were worth money, but one turn of events after another had kind of created this snowball effect where the paintings had migrated from their kitchen refrigerator to being written about as far away as Pakistan and Lima and that if it had been left up to them the paintings would still be there on the fridge."

The story interested Bar-Lev, he explained, "because, No. 1, I thought it would be a really great window into the way the media works, the way that pop culture and celebrity works. No. 2, I thought this isn't going to be a dry academic exploration of those things because here you have a very likable family and that already you can see the fissure developing between the father and the mother about navigating these waters. So I thought (it was) potentially a great family drama.

"Another thing that interested me initially about this story is a little more abstract, so to speak, but oftentimes when we hear about child prodigies it's in a field that has objective standards like chess or math or science and there's an objective way to kind of assess whether or not that kid is a prodigy. But with abstract expressionism, which is what Marla is doing, there are no objective standards in the same way that we have with math or science. And so I saw it as a really interesting way to explore the meaning of art. I used to describe this film as a 'Chauncey Gardner story' -- not to say that Marla's a simpleton, but she was speaking like a child and doing childlike things and the adult world was imbuing it with all this tremendous significance in the same way they did with Peter Sellers' character in 'Being There.' So that's the film I started out to make."

After Bar-Lev approached the Olmsteads about making a documentary about their daughter, he continued, "they said yes after one weekend together. They said yes only after I told them something like, 'The reason you should let me into your house for all this time, granted that you don't even know me, is because my film has an opportunity to get at a deeper truth that some of these other news crews that have just come in and out of your life in a matter of hours may miss and maybe that deeper truth is something you'll be happy for the kids to have in the future.' So when these allegations of art fraud came up, I had to ask myself why on earth would they have ever allowed me into their home if they had something tremendous to hide, especially given my kind of lofty pronouncements at the outset?"

Filming began almost immediately after Bar-Lev had read the New York Times' article about Marla: "I believe the article came out on a Wednesday and I was shooting by Friday. I may be mistaken by a couple of days there, but it was within a week. The nice thing about technology these days is that to film with a small documentary crew is about the least expensive part of the process of making a film. In the case of this film, most of the costs were weighted towards the backend of the project when we were (doing things like) licensing music. What I did was I just grabbed a cameraman and the two of us went up there and shot. In fact, that issue while it seems like it's just background became a plot element a little bit because I wasn't able to finance this film until the hoax issue came up.

"People were not interested in this story and it was only after this expose aired that all of a sudden people were interested in the film. That contributes to this sort of ethical conundrum that happens in my film, but I think in many documentary productions where you may have spent months and months with your subjects, you may have grown to feel affectionate towards them and consider them friends, but if God forbid something terrible should happen to them -- like an expose -- if you're really honest with yourself you are of two minds about it. No. 1, you feel terrible. No. 2, your film just got interesting. That was the case with me where a film that nobody had any interest in suddenly became commercially viable midway through at the expense of this family's reputation. So that's one of the reasons I brought myself into the story -- to kind of explore that ethical dilemma that we journalists often have."

How did shooting go when he got started making the movie? "I was not successful in turning this little 4-year-old girl into a documentary subject from the outset," he replied. "She resisted any attempts to interview her about the meaning of abstraction representation and instead wanted to play, which makes all the sense in the world. She was a very typical 4 year old and a very likeable 4 old and one that even on a personal level I found myself more interested in horsing around with than trying to pin a wireless mic on.

"I had no intention of being in the film at that early stage, but Marla made it challenging to stay outside of the frame because she was acting like a normal 4 year old would. She's not going to just sit there and play in the backyard while you hover around her with a camera crew. She's going to involve you or ask you, 'What are you doing?' I began to be confronted with this sort of conceit of documentary filmmaking that we are somehow flies on the wall and that the action kind of takes place whether or not we're there because of my inability to stay out of the frame with this little four year old."

In February 2005, he said, "I got a call tipping me off that '60 Minutes' was going to run an expose that night. I was filming off and on. I had filmed 20 hours over the course of five months. So I get this call and I grab my cameraman and raced up to Binghamton to film them watching '60 Minutes.' I'm based in Manhattan, which is about three and a half hours south. (The TV report) took seven minutes. When it was over, I found myself in a completely different place. It was a moment in which any sense that I was a fly on the wall kind of evaporated completely because I was very aware of the fact that they were probably wondering whether or not I believed '60 Minutes.'

"I, myself, was very confused by it because I had already filmed Marla painting and my recollection of it was that my camera crew may have interrupted Marla's creative process to a degree, but it didn't seem that that was an explanation for why she didn't paint the way I thought I might see her paint that made sense to me. As I mentioned, Marla was never oblivious to the cameras as you might expect most people cannot be oblivious to cameras, yet alone a 4 year old. After those seven minutes of '60 Minutes' I was very eager to get back to my edit studio and to review the footage."

What he found, he continued, was that, "there was nothing conclusive in the footage, but I found myself beginning to have questions. It was extremely hard for me to believe that '60 Minutes" allegations were accurate. I thought I was sitting on a kind of David and Goliath story where I would eventually get footage that proved that Marla was the sole author of her paintings and exonerate the family."

Did the Olmsteads know how negative the "60 Minutes" piece was going to be? "I don't know how much they knew, but I think they did know at some point that there was going to be some question of the authenticity," he said. "But I'm made to understand that they had assurances from '60 Minutes" team that they would find the piece very balanced."

After the piece aired, he noted, "the family stopped doing most and eventually all press. I think they did one 'Inside Edition' just before refusing to do any more interviews -- except for my documentary. They allowed me to continue. They did so because they believed that the film would clear their name."

In an effort to refute "60 Minutes," the Olmsteads shot their own DVD of Marla at work creating a painting called "Ocean," which we clearly see is her own work. Bar-Lev, however, wasn't there to shoot them shooting it: "I was kicking myself for not getting that scene. I didn't even know that that project was underway until it was done. This is a pretty compelling mystery and I can tell you from a personal point of view that I turned this over and over in my mind for almost a year and every few days or weeks or so I would conclude something very different. That 'Ocean' DVD was very compelling to me. The footage that you see (from the DVD in the documentary) makes a pretty compelling case that Marla is a thoughtful and creative painter.

"But then if you compare that painting and the other painting that was done on camera for '60 Minutes' to some of her other work, it brings up some other questions and concerns for me. But everybody's going to conclude something different, which is one of the gratifying things for me as the director of this film to see in the short amount of time that we've been preview screening it that there are people who watch and conclude that there's no way that Marla did all her paintings. And then there are people who watch the same film and conclude the diametric opposite."

In "My Kid" Bar-Lev uses a split screen to let the audience see "Ocean" side by side with several other paintings by Marla so they can compare the style of each. "I wanted to let people make up their own mind," he pointed out. "It certainly wasn't a question of deliberately setting out to make an ambiguous film or withholding scenes in the edit room simply to evenly stack the evidence in both directions. On the contrary, I have a point of view. Every documentary director does. And my point of view is in the film, but I tried to make it clear that that's only my point of view and you're welcome to have a different point of view as a viewer.

"I think there's a middle ground between 'Marla Olmstead is the next Mozart' and 'Marla Olmstead's parents are the perpetrators of some giant art hoax.' I'm not quite sure exactly where the truth lies somewhere in that middle ground, but I'm pretty sure that it, like many things in life, exists in that sort of grey area. The only issue is that that grey area doesn't necessarily make a great sound bite for television."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 29, 1989's column: "As Hollywood rings out the '80s, some thoughts about the departing decade are in order.

"The '80s was the ... age of sequels. Hollywood's real affection was for films that continued stories or characters that had already done big boxoffice business and, therefore, were presold to audiences. Although some sequels worked, many failed to deliver. That was almost inevitable. Hollywood's orientation toward making sequels dictated that those who created the originals had to be enticed back to plow over the same ground once again. That, in turn, translated into big budgets and, in some cases, the loss of studio control. Filmmakers who had benefited originally from studio executives' creative input were now demanding and getting a free hand with the making of their sequels.

"Hollywood placed great emphasis on research in the '80s. The industry put its faith in focus groups and preview cards, realizing that research was a way to justify decisions that otherwise could only result from studio executives' guesswork, hunches and/or personal taste.

"In the '80s Hollywood celebrated every holiday it could find, recognizing that four-day weekends were a great way to launch films. The industry discovered there could be lots of gravy at the Thanksgiving boxoffice; helped make the most of the new Martin Luther King Jr. birthday weekend in January; pitched in to popularize the new Presidents' Day holiday in February; jumped on the Spring Break bandwagon with youth appeal product; turned Memorial Day into the unofficial start of summer; hyped Halloween into a hallowed holiday for horror hits; and brought forward the start of Christmas to mid-November...

"The '80s became an age of attachment. Material that couldn't get past the readers got a new lease on life if it could be sent back to the studios with something significant attached to it -- like a star or two, a top director or half the money to make it. Hollywood fell in love with packages. This approach was really the reverse of what would have worked best. Instead of finding first-rate material and then finding the right elements to make it, Hollywood was finding elements that already had found material they wanted to make. But the stars and their advisers weren't always good judges of what would work well with audiences and the results at the boxoffice were sometimes very disappointing..."

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