Pohlad's River Road prefers path less taken

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TORONTO -- Ang Lee's "Lust, Caution" and Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" arrive at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend with more in common than uncompromising directors and Oscar hopes. They reflect the taste of River Road Entertainment president Bill Pohlad, whose company has made some of the most notable specialty films of the decade.

Films backed by the company typically walk a fine line between the traditional and the daring, whether it's a gay Western ("Brokeback Mountain"), a sexually explicit World War II thriller ("Lust"), an improvised film about an old-fashioned radio show ("A Prairie Home Companion"), a bizarrely animated history of '60s political activists ("Chicago 10") or a famed photographer's biopic that turns more surreal than her work ("Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus").

It seemed unlikely that River Road could court more controversy than with "Brokeback," the only film from its two-year co-production/co-financing pact with Focus Features and the distributor's highest-grossing release. But it has come close with "Lust," Lee's follow-up to "Brokeback," likely to be the only NC-17 film in this year's awards-season races thanks to scenes of a young Chinese woman graphically seducing a wartime enemy.

The rating and subtitles might hurt the $14 million film's boxoffice, but Pohlad and Focus braced themselves for that since viewing the first cut in late February. "The script didn't indicate how graphic it would be, and the cuts began to get more and more graphic," Pohlad says. "Ang was aware of the impact on its marketing. (Focus CEO and 'Lust' co-writer) James Schamus and I wrestled with what it meant. There were discussions within Universal, I'm sure. It was a little daunting, but the sex meant something to the storytelling. I think it's a masterpiece."

Pohlad had even more involvement in Paramount Vantage's "Wild" with producer Art Linson. He supported Penn's decision to retrace the journey of real-life adventurer Christopher McCandless. Moving the shoot from Utah to 34 locations around the U.S. raised the budget by several million, making the less-than-$30 million production with an unhappy ending an even bigger gamble.

Pohlad says the death of Penn's brother Chris likely was a motivating factor in the director's decision to follow the late McCandless' path. "Sean has a strong vision and can be a very tough guy to deal with on certain levels, but he looks for input from those he trusts and respects," he says. "I have zero complaints about anything he did."

Jon Krakauer's popular biography raised debate as to whether McCandless was foolhardy or inspired. If it struck a note with Pohlad, that could be because indie film producers often are both. But in conversation, Pohlad seems like the last guy to back anything remotely provocative. He was born and raised in Minneapolis, son of wealthy banker and Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad, and started out writing and directing the little-seen 1990 drama "Old Explorers," starring Jose Ferrer and James Whitmore.

"I was always very conscious of people who go to Hollywood for two years and get taken to the cleaners," he says. "I didn't want to just run through money to entertain my passion."

He found Los Angeles unappealing, so he stayed in Minneapolis, where River Road still has an office, producing and directing commercials and documentaries. "I realized this isn't what I was drawn to the business for," he recalls. So he went to L.A., formed a friendship with a pre-CAA Rick Hess and began River Road's current feature path in 2001. "I don't want to sound schmaltzy," he says, "but I want to make films that have an impact on people's lives."

He doesn't sound schmaltzy. Earnest, maybe, and something a bit rare in Hollywood: authentic.
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