'P2' sounds like sequel, but is first for Summit

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Summit starts: "P2" may sound like a sequel, but it's actually an original suspense thriller that takes its name from the parking garage level where all its action takes place.

It's also a first in a second way since when it arrives in theaters Nov. 9 "P2" will be the first film released by the new Summit Entertainment. It was just last April that Summit Entertainment LLC announced it had raised $1 billion-plus in financing to develop, produce, acquire, market and distribute filmed entertainment across all media. The new studio is co-chaired by former Paramount Pictures vice chairman Robert G. Friedman and Patrick Wachsberger, who had headed the old Summit Entertainment LP, which was absorbed into the new venture. Erik Feig, who had headed production for the old Summit, is now president of production and acquisitions for the new Summit.

"P2" marks the feature directorial debut for Franck Khalfoun, whose background includes acting ("High Tension") as well as directing music videos and commercials. Produced by Alexandre Aja, Gregory Levasseur, Patrick Wachsberger and Erik Feig, "P2's" screenplay is by Khalfoun, Aja and Levasseur. It was executive produced by Bob Hayward, David Garrett and Alix Taylor. Starring are Wes Bentley ("American Beauty") and Rachel Nichols ("Charlie Wilson's War").

Summit's timing with "P2" seems excellent considering how well low-budget suspense thrillers are doing at the boxoffice these days. Indeed, Sony's "Resident Evil: Extinction" topped last weekend's chart with its $23.7 million opening and MGM and the Weinstein Co.'s "Halloween" has grossed about $55 million after four weeks in theaters. If "P2" does as well, it could turn into a franchise for Summit with, perhaps, "P3" as its second episode.

For some insights into the making of "P2," I was happy to be able to catch up recently with Khalfoun. "I'm very excited about that," he said about having his film as Summit's maiden release. "They're smart and they love to make movies and really have a passion for it. As I discover in meeting new people -- as this is my first film I'm starting to go out there and meet new people -- I realize how interested and how smart and how passionate they are about movies compared to a lot of other people you meet in this town."

Asked how he came to make "P2" for Summit, Khalfoun told me, "It began when Alex Aja and Greg Levasseur -- who are also producers and who have made 'High Tension' and 'The Hills Have Eyes,' and who I had collaborated with on a couple projects as a writer and a translator and an editor -- had an idea about something that was happening in France which they thought would make a great movie. These women were being attacked in parking lots and they figured what a great setting to have a movie story develop. They asked me to write with them and then direct. I've been sort of directing for the last 20 years (doing) plays and short films and commercials and videos and this was the natural progression for me. I was thrilled about it."

This was about a year and a half or so ago. "The writing process was relatively quick," he said. "The concept in itself is so strong and so universal that it took very little time for people to get interested. Summit was on it immediately. They were on the ball right from the beginning. We didn't talk to many people and they really were pushing to have the film.

While writing, Khalfoun explained, "Greg, Alex and I spent about four days together coming up with the ideas and the concepts for the film as well as the characters. And then I took these notes -- about 10 pages of notes -- and fleshed out a script, developing the characters and developing the action and the dialogue. They were busy doing their other movies so I would send them versions (of the screenplay) and we would talk about it and we would add ideas and remove ideas and that's how we worked. But the base came from the three of us and the writing was mine."

The film is unusual in that all its action takes place in one setting -- a parking garage. "At first, the immediate reaction was, 'Oh, my God, what are we going to do? It's like four walls. What can we possibly do?' It turns out, when you start thinking about it, the amount of avenues there are to go in and out of (the garage) and the direction which you can go in a parking lot is actually pretty huge. There's a lot of things you can do. In the end, we had too many ideas. We couldn't fit them all into the movie. When you think about a parking lot you think it's four walls, but there's all kinds of things. There's ramps and elevators and there's stairs and there's air ducts and double ceilings and all kinds of things that you can exploit in coming up with ideas."

The project got into production very quickly: "It was months. It was very, very quick. I think it took maybe three months before the script literally got out there until we were maybe not in production but until the deal went through with Summit. It went very, very quickly."

One of the film's strengths is its casting. "We do have two great lead actors," Khalfoun noted. "Wes Bentley is a very raw, pure actor, classically trained and a very solid actor. And Rachel is a very intelligent girl who is able to really tap into a wide range of emotions. You know, it was important that he seem as normal as possible and that she seem very intelligent. And they both fit that bill. They were immediately attracted to the project. Wes and I just met once, actually. We saw eye to eye on a lot of things and felt very comfortable. There's something about him that's at the same time very comforting and very scary and I thought this was a very attractive quality about him for this lead character.

"Rachel came in a few times and we read and we discussed it. It took a little longer because it's a more fragile role and it really requires that she go a lot deeper into her character than (he needed to go). He plays a sort of demented character. She's pursued and emotionally strained during the whole thing so it was a more fragile process in picking the actress. She was attracted to the part and she fit in a lot of ways. The fact that she's beautiful and, at the same time, very intelligent was very important for this character -- that the character be smart enough to pull herself out of situations by using her wits and not just her physique."

Why does he think suspense thrillers are doing so well with audiences these days? "To me it's fear," Khalfoun replied. "We all are afraid of each other more than anything else. It's a universal feeling, I think. Thrillers to me are even scarier than horror films or slasher films or terror films because the characters tend to be more real and so we associate with them a lot better. So when we cut them up or terrorize them or scare them it affects the audience a lot more. Fear and laughter, to me, are the things that we respond to the most really and they tend to be the genres that really work the best."

Interestingly, such films appeal not only to men, as you would probably expect, but also play very well to women. "In fact, this movie tested better with women," he pointed out. "The differences were slight but I think it's because, for one, the situation of the movie is something that women have thought more (about) than men -- being trapped in a parking lot affects more women who are alone more than it affects men who are alone in the situation. And the idea that she's a hero in this case and that she battles (is something) women can associate with the way in which she gets herself out of trouble. There's nothing extraordinary about the way she does it. She just has to find her inner strength and overcome the situation and, I think, women associate with that.

"The way the character's established in the beginning is as a young, hard-working woman who's just trying to climb the ladder in her job. From the beginning when that's established, women associate with her. Being scared and going down to get your car by yourself is something women again associate with a strong man and then fighting to protect yourself is something that I think women globally tend to associate with. So I think that's why it scored slightly higher with women, which is very exciting because men love to see these kinds of movies and if women will agree to go with them or will pull them to it, it's fun for us, too."

Moreover, he added, "I think the movie is really not a slasher type. It's horrific in some scenes, no doubt, but there's an intelligent dynamic which happens between the two characters and in their dialogue. It deals a lot with loneliness and with the sort of caste system that we've established in our society of who belongs with who and why is it so absurd that one person should be with one person and not another. I think that that's an extra element to the film that you don't necessarily find in the horror thriller type movies."

Production got underway last summer, he noted, "in late July and early August. We shot in Toronto. The biggest challenge was that we shot in an underground parking lot for 25 days and since those things are hard to find we had to find one that was (willing to accommodate their shooting schedule). The only choices we had were active parking lots and since they were active during the day we had to shoot at night. So we ended up shooting 25 nights underground and that is pretty grueling for not only the crew, but especially for the actors. It's a total mind-change and I think that was what created the most difficulty in terms of producing the movie -- the fact that we locked these two people underground for so many days at night."

The actors, he told me, "had to sleep during the day and it totally, I think, had a shocking effect on their system. It turned out that they brought so much more tension to the screen and everything that was difficult about the movie made it better. The time constraints and the fact that she was barefoot and handcuffed throughout the whole movie was difficult for her, but yet the tension was there. The idea that we had a short time to make the movie and were constantly flipping scenes around to help our shooting schedule made the actors uncomfortable and kind of crazy and that helped. In a movie where you're trying to establish tension and horror, if everybody in the production's plunged into it, it really brings it out."

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Dec. 28, 1989's column: "With the '80s on their way out, this is the proper moment to focus on some of the forces that were at the heart of the film industry these past 10 years and shaped the way it does business...

"Before the '80s, success of any degree seemed to be welcome in Hollywood. As the decade got underway, however, that changed and the quest for blockbuster success took over to the exclusion of lesser levels of success. As that approach came to dominate the way the major studios did business, it changed the nature of the films that were made, their distribution patterns and the way they were marketed.

"Hollywood began chasing blockbuster success at about the same time that studio executives realized their own careers stood to gain from being linked to outstanding boxoffice hits. The '80s were a period of great instability in Hollywood's executive suites. It was a time in which top managers came and went as global superstar financiers with no background in the movie business bought and sold studios -- first for their real estate values and later in the decade for the value of their film libraries.

"These new film executive nomads quickly realized that their own worth could no longer be measured in terms of success of a period of years. As production budgets mounted -- largely because filmmakers came to demand more and more money upfront as they became increasingly skeptical about there ever being any net profits in which to participate -- production chiefs sometimes found themselves being ousted even before the films they made had gone into release. The name of the game became making movies that had a shot at achieving landmark success at the boxoffice -- no matter what their cost in terms of production and marketing...

"In the '80s, studio heads who struck boxoffice oil in this manner became superstars themselves. But now there was a major difference in terms of how that success impacted on their careers. Instead of their success ensuring that they would continue to hold their jobs, it wound up meaning that they would be lured away by weaker studios and paid ever-higher prices to try to perform the very same magic there.

"As the '80s progressed, this led to the view that no matter how much studio heads were paid it wasn't enough because the filmmakers they employed earned so much more. Greed, which was seen to be good on Wall Street, also became the watchword in Hollywood in the '80s."

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