With new distrib 'Penelope' arriving Feb. 29

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"Penelope" perspective: Although independent films often struggle to find domestic distribution, it's unusual when those arrangements end and a picture winds up in the hands of another distributor.

A case in point is the romantic comedy fantasy "Penelope," starring Christina Ricci and Reese Witherspoon and marking the feature directorial debut of Mark Palansky. Had things gone according to plan, "Penelope" would have surfaced last summer via indie distributors IFC and The Weinstein Co. Instead, its now arriving in theaters Feb. 29 from the well-funded new studio Summit Entertainment.

Produced by Scott Steindorff (Stone Village Pictures) and Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Simpson (Type-A Films) and by Phil Robertson and Chris Curling (Zephyr Films), "Penelope" was written by Leslie Caveny and executive produced by Dylan Russell. Also starring are James McAvoy, Catherine O'Hara, Richard E. Grant, Ronni Ancona, Peter Dinklage and Simon Woods. In the film Ricci plays Penelope Wilhern, a young woman whose wealthy family has since the mid-19th Century been under a witch's curse that doomed their first born daughter to having the face of a pig.

For some perspective on the changeover in distributors and some insights into the making of the film, I spoke recently to Mark Palansky. "Weinstein and IFC were co-partners," he explained. "What I understood (happened) is that from the time it premiered at Toronto there were several companies that wanted to distribute it. IFC/Weinstein sort of had the best plan. It was X number of screens and X number of monies behind it. The Weinstein Co. had several films that I don't think did what they had hoped. So I think they sort of from that changed their plan of attack. Summit was one of the companies that originally wanted to get involved with it and so they came in and snatched it up."

How did Palansky come to make the film in the first place? "I had done a (2001 short) dark fable called 'The Same' that Josh Hartnett was in and that kind of made the rounds. Someone had seen that and sent me 'Penelope.' It was basically a script at that point that no one was really involved with. I responded to the fairy-tale like tone and the central character of Penelope. I liked the idea that it was sort of a classic mythology of the monster -- whether it's Frankenstein or Elephant Man or anything like that. It was obviously a different world and that the monster in this case being Penelope was self-empowered and was not chained to the wall and was her own strong person. So those were all things I really responded to and for several months the project made the rounds. And then Type A, Reese Witherspoon's company, got involved and I met with them. I guess they liked my vision for the film, which was pretty much how it looks now and how it is now. It just kind of sprung to life from the first time I read it.

"And then there was a bit of a process. I mean, it was independently made and independently financed. Several months after Reese and company had hired me, we started the casting process. Christina was definitely at the top of the list (and) we met. Within that time, really, we had the film financed and with me, Christina, Reese as producer and her cameo, we were off to the faces. Through quite a process, we ended up in London, which I was extremely thrilled about and ultimately very grateful for because London provided me with the locations and the backdrop that I could mold into the fabled city that is in the film. I never wanted it to be a specific city. I think London gave me the flavor that I wanted while I could kind of add my own ingredients and mix and match textures and feels and different metropolises and different kinds of places."

Asked how they came to film in London, Palansky told me, "It was an independent film so everything really becomes about the numbers. We looked at every different city everywhere, honestly, from Vancouver to New Orleans to Brazil, believe it or not, (to see) which place has (what advantages). I was working very closely with the line producer at the time. I'm very specific about what I'll need and what the visuals will be and all those sorts of things. She said after every different city got rejected for one reason or another, 'Mark, where would you really like to make this film?' And I said, 'You know, I think London would be great. There's great talent there (and) great crews there and I just know that the city, itself, (would be perfect)' because on a film like this I can't build all the sets. We just don't have the money for it. So I knew that I would just have to find great places that, hopefully, hadn't been shot before and bring them to life.

"Sure enough, London was within our (financial) reach. It was very quickly, actually, from the time that the budget for London was done and the time that I was there picking crew. I would say it was maybe a four-week period. I was in London for a whole year. Basically, all my preproduction, my production and all my postproduction I did there, too. The tax incentive to shoot in London is that you kind of have to do everything there."

Palansky said it gave him "the greatest thrill to be working with this British crew. We would go to some of these locations and they had never shot there before. It's really great because as a director, the location scouts take you to the same places. They're good for filming for different reasons and they're visual and all this stuff. So it was just really nice to find sort of special places and we found them in some different ways. But I think that it really has informed the picture in a big way. People (on seeing) the film respond to the city and that it's familiar and yet it's a place that they kind of would want to go to. London worked out quite well."

Witherspoon was involved with the film from the start: "This was the first thing that she and her company have produced and to my knowledge it's the only thing at this point. She loved the film's message. She loved what I had to say. She was always going to play the role that she does in the film, which is really essentially Penelope's first friend. Her name, obviously, just helps out tremendously in so many ways. She was extremely supportive and I think she was excited by this new facet of her career and being able to shepherd something like this and see it come to life. I think that it's something that she's quite proud of.

"The funny thing is that I filmed with her three days after she won her Academy Award (for 'Walk the Line' in 2006). It was quite funny because I was about six or seven weeks into an eight-week shoot and (then) she wins the Academy Award and there's sort of this frenzy around her and around our shoot in London and (with) the paparazzi it became a bit of a circus. When she arrived to film, her voice was gone. I shot all the scenes with her and it was quite a challenge, but it all worked out in the end. It was great to have her at that moment, three days after she carried the statuette home."

As for Witherspoon being OK working with a first-time director, something not every star with her elite status in Hollywood would do, he noted, "It's just a testament to her belief in the project and her willingness to take that risk. I think that's one of the reasons why she's so successful in her career. You look at the different types of films she's done and she has done some things that are a bit risky. She's smart to mix it up and go out on a limb and believe in someone -- myself, in this case -- just as someone believed in her at the beginning of her career. It took someone to say, 'I'm going to give Reese Witherspoon her first lead in a film' and she did just that with me. I think by the time she came to film with us she had seen the dailies and she had seen everybody's performances and it was all going really well. I was so blessed to have the cast that I had. It was just incredible and it turned out for me probably my favorite part of filmmaking really was working with all these great actors. You definitely see with her when the film runs through the gate in camera she just pops.

"It's something special, something different that happens. You know, when you're filming there's technical aspects (that you're focusing on). You're not filming and thinking about celebrities or movie stars. You're filming. You're making a film. I remember just seeing her in the first few shots I shot with her and it was just kind of like, 'Wow! That is why she is Reese Witherspoon. She's so charismatic. There's a luminous glow, I think, that just kind of comes out of her pores."

How did he work with his actors? "I did rehearse," he said. "I rehearsed mostly with Christina and James. I wanted them to get comfortable with one another. We only maybe met a few times before filming. It was really for us all to get a feel for the scenes. What's wild (about) Christina is that she's been doing this for 20-something years and for as young as she is now it's incredible when you think about that. And she's so good at what she does. And James McAvoy is just tremendous. I just don't want to get in the way. I want to kind of let them find it. But we did (rehearse). I just sort of isolated scenes that I felt were crucial to really believing in this fable and believing in this situation.

"It was very important to me that these characters were real even though we're in a story where Christina has the snout of a pig. I never wanted it to become sort of larger than life in terms of these characters. I just didn't think that was interesting. I wanted to ground it in reality and both Christina and James are so full of integrity in their work and the way they are as people is a big part of it. So those were big reasons why I cast them -- because I knew that that humanity and that integrity would ground the performances. So (while) rehearsing I quickly saw that we were all very much on the same page. I did a read through with the entire cast of the script and there would be things here and there that we would play around with. But on the day, usually, I would sit with them and work out the scene and all the crew would be off the set (while that was going on). And then I'd bring everyone in and do it."

Ricci and McAvoy have different approaches to acting. "James very much likes to try different things at different times and has a lot of ideas," Palansky said. "And Christina comes with that performance and it's spot on the whole time. Everyone really worked well together though and quickly found that the rhythm and the dynamics were there from the beginning."

The film's story, he pointed out, "is about being born different and ultimately coming to terms with your place in the world. Christina comes from a family that's been cursed several decades before (so its) first-born daughter will have the snout of a pig. Her family believes that the only way to break this curse is to find a like-blooded suitor, so they do. They bring dozens and dozens (of them to see her) and ultimately Penelope decides to break free and escape from the home that she's never left since the day she was born. She finds herself and sees the world for the first time."

As for the snout, "at the beginning of the shoot it took about two hours to put on," he explained. "By the end of filming, Scott Stoddard, the makeup artist, was able to get it down to about an hour. Christina was great. She was still as a statue. As soon as we got Christina I said to the producers, 'I want to be working on the design of the prosthetics now with Christina.' The thing that was always important to me was that it was a deformity. I didn't want it to be so fantastical that that's all you stare at. What I wanted it to be is that you see it and then you see Christina Ricci and that you move past that. I think that it really has achieved that. She's so beautiful in her own way despite this deformity.

"It was quite a process to find that balance because I thought it could make a greater comment on how society views beauty and how society views imperfections if it were on the subtle side because I think that we are so overly preoccupied with those sorts of things -- with someone being 10 lbs. overweight or this woman's pregnant when she's not or all of those things. Obviously, the film itself is a fable, but it's a deformity in the very simplest of terms so you had to believe in it. You had to believe in her. I didn't want it to be presented in such a way that this story happened in some Swiss village a long time ago. This is now. This is something that exists and we must believe in it. It took about five to six months to really come up with the (snout) design that we did. We went through a few different tests."

Looking back at some of the other challenges he faced in production, Palansky said, "It's obviously tougher with a first-time director, but every director has to explain the world that he or she wants to create. We were making a relatively small film, but the images in my mind were big and I wanted this film to look big, to feel big and to look different. And different and big normally come with a price tag. So the challenge of convincing everyone to get on board was a constant driving force. To me in a way it's the most fun, but I wasn't shooting London as London. It was no specific city so we were bringing cars from Russia that were more inexpensive than other cars, but they were unlike anything you've seen.

"We had left-hand drive and right-hand drive and rotary phones and (were) essentially creating and stitching together the fabric of this world from odds and ends and making that one cohesive tapestry. That was definitely a challenge. I think that one of my great thrills was when I showed the producers my director's cut. I was nine weeks into my 10-week cut and they walked out of the theater crying and said, 'Wow! Now we understand what you were doing.' That is quite a challenge. I had it in my mind, but it's about communicating that to everyone and making them all understand. I think that the actors understood that quite quickly, as well, from our early discussions about kind of grounding this film in reality and letting those flights of fancy that pop through every now and then (be) anchored by the performances in the film."

So the challenge, he continued, "really was keeping the tone and the characters and the feel and the look as a cohesive unit so it doesn't feel like any one is floating away from the other. If it's all too over the top in its performance or in its look, then I really think you lose the audience. You lose its relatability. I want this to be a film that we can all see ourselves in and each and every character in the film is extremely flawed. And that's another thing that I think was a challenge to get across and to appreciate them all ultimately in the end."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 12, 1990s column: "The increasingly close relationship between distribution and marketing was very much in evidence at last week's Cinetex conference in Las Vegas where four major studio distribution heads joined me for a panel discussion.

"While distribution was our focus, much of what we spoke about related to the marketing of films. Participating in our discussion were Fred Mound, president, Universal Pictures Distribution; Tom Sherak, president, domestic distribution and marketing, 20th Century Fox; William Soady, executive vp, domestic distribution, Tri-Star; and Jim Spitz, president, domestic distribution, Columbia.

"A key question that I put to the panel was whether marketing budgets had actually reached the $20 million-plus range this summer, as has been widely reported. '$25 million, $30 million. Yeah, I think you did see that,' Sherak observed. 'I can't speak for the other companies, but when you turn on television and see some of these spots for these movies and (see) the newspaper ads, you know that the cost of what they're doing is enormous.

"'TV rates have gone up. Newspaper has skyrocketed. It costs that kind of money to sell a movie. Plus, if it costs you $25 million to gross $100 million, I've got to tell you I think I would spend $25 million...'

"It should be remembered, Soady added, 'that these marketing budgets work to protect rather large (production) budgets. When you've got a picture that cost $50 million or $60 million to produce, then you have to spend money in order to protect that investment. Also, what happened this summer is that for the first time in history the three networks didn't have a 50% share in one week. That means people are watching something else other than network television. Well, how do you reach them?

"'Now instead of (only having) to buy the three networks, you have to buy cable. Because you have to do that, it (increases) your cost -- plus, you still have to come up with the newspaper ads...'

"'A lot of what we do is to create an awareness in a worldwide market that there is an entity out there that people want to come and see,' Spitz pointed out. 'When a picture hits in the domestic market I think with a lot of films there's a direct correlation to what it's going to do in the world markets ... '"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.1
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