Pay TV pays off for 'Relationship'

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Just how much the indie film distribution landscape has changed is hammered home by "The Special Relationship" arriving not in theaters but via pay TV.

"Special," which debuted May 29 on HBO, is the third film in screenwriter Peter Morgan's trilogy about British prime minister Tony Blair. It continues the story that began on a small scale with the 2003 British television movie "The Deal" and three years became a theatrical hit and Oscar contender for Miramax with "The Queen."

Today Miramax is just a film library up for sale and indie distributors are spending as little as possible to acquire and market movies. So it's a sign of our times that "Special" was bankrolled by HBO and BBC Films. Ironically, it just might be the best thing for the drama directed by Richard Loncraine and starring Michael Sheen, Dennis Quaid, Hope Davis and Helen McCrory.

"It is a theatrical movie outside America and the U.K.," explained Loncraine, who previously made two films for HBO. He believes if he'd tried to do them as theatrical releases "we could never have got the money to make them independently."

Moreover, he speculates, movies like "Special" will reach through HBO "a bigger audience than they'd probably ever get in a theatrical mode."

"Special" focuses on the unique political relationship between Blair (Sheen) and Bill Clinton (Quaid). It's Sheen's third time playing Blair. He's now so familiar in that role that when I saw a recent newspaper photo of the real Blair I thought it didn't look like him because it's Sheen's Blair that now comes to mind.

"I've gotten used to it," Loncraine agreed, sharing a similar story from when he was making the 2002 drama "The Gathering Storm" for HBO with Albert Finney as Winston Churchill.

"One day I got to the set very early and was wandering around. The prop man was cutting up pictures to go in photograph frames. I found a picture of Churchill and thought, 'That's exactly what Albert should look like.' I took the picture to his trailer and knocked on the door to say, 'Albert, this is the kind of look' -- and I realized it was a picture of Albert!"

Loncraine became involved with "Special" at the 11th hour when Morgan, who was going to direct, dropped out for personal reasons.

HBO needed someone to step in immediately. Loncraine got a call from Frank Doelger, who'd been a producer on his Churchill project and his 2003 HBO drama "My House in Umbria," starring Maggie Smith.

"We were only four weeks from the first day of principal when I got the phone call. I read it on a Thursday at lunchtime and Friday morning I started work."

They shot last June for six weeks at Pinewood Studios outside London where Loncraine had a crew he'd never met before, "which was exciting and frightening at the same time because at my age you have built your crews up that you know and trust. I'm 63 and there's something rather good about having to live off the land, as it were. It wakes you up a little bit."

He actually only had about 10 working days to prepare to direct "Special" because one week went into technical work and another was for rehearsing.

But a week's rehearsal was just enough.

"You have a read-through, which is always the dark moment of everyone's directing life. It can never get any worse than the read through because everyone's doing it differently, everybody's nervous in different ways."

It helped, he said, that he "wasn't as tired as you usually are. Normally when you do a film you've probably had 12 weeks prep, but you've probably worked on it for six months before that and there's been the thing of arguing with the studio, not enough money, the actors not doing the part they said they would do. So you're 'hanging your rags' a bit by the time you start."

This time around, "there just wasn't time to get upset or nervous or worried about anything. I just had to get on with it. So I was quite lucky, I think."

He also lucked out with Sheen being so comfortable in Blair's skin: "It gave me the freedom to not have to worry about his character. I had to worry more about the things you actually should worry about as a director -- 'Do all the bits join together?' And, 'Does anyone want to watch it?'"

Loncraine lives in London so he could go home at night to get some rest, but even that can pose challenges.

"The problem with living at home when you direct is you tend to bring the troubles of the set home to your family. It's very hard to switch off. So it's not always a blessing. In this instance, because it was a relatively trouble-free shoot and there weren't kids to attend to when I got home, it was fine. But often I would make a choice of going away from my family to direct rather than being in the comfort of my home."

See Martin Grove's Zamm Cam movie previews on www.ZAMM.com.
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