Producing pictures no picnic even for vet like Nunnari

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Producing pictures: With the year already half over, only four films have managed thus far to join Hollywood's $200 Million Club.

Three of them, which are easy to guess, are the blockbuster franchise three-quels that blossomed in May. "Transformers," which just opened July 3, has already done around $175 million and before long will be joining the group as its fifth member. But naming that fourth film requires thinking back to the quieter days of spring when "300," from Warner Bros. Pictures in association with Legendary Pictures and Virtual Studios, opened March 9 to nearly $71 million. The Mark Canton/Gianni Nunnari Prod. directed by Zack Snyder went on to gross $210.6 million domestically. It goes into DVD release July 31 and should be a big seller for Warner Home Video.

Nunnari, who produced "300" with Canton, Bernie Goldmann and Jeffrey Silver, has been associated with many hits over the years, including as an executive producer of Martin Scorsese's "The Departed" and David Fincher's "Se7en." In the case of "300," Warner Bros.' production notes explain, "Five years ago, producer Gianni Nunnari and Snyder were discussing future projects on which to collaborate when Snyder noticed Nunnari's copy of the graphic novel on his desk. Nunnari championed the project solo for several years. He was able to reach out to convince producer Mark Canton to get involved with him and develop the project in earnest with Snyder as director and co-writer."

Since 1997 Nunnari has been president of Hollywood Gang Prods. He previously served as president of Cecchi Gori USA for over 15 years, during which time he greenlighted such critically acclaimed award winning films as "Il Postino," "Life Is Beautiful" and "Mediterraneo."

Like any serious producer, Nunnari's always juggling projects in development, looking to acquire attractive new properties and working on studio deals to get his pictures made. I was happy to have the opportunity recently to catch up with Nunnari to talk about the challenges these days of being a movie producer.

"I usually don't talk about projects because we live in an industry which is so difficult," he told me, pointing out that producing pictures these days is no picnic even for veteran producers like himself. "You know, every movie is a miracle. So for me to announce a miracle before the miracle happens is difficult. My character is a very realistic, practical person. Even when I was a kid I didn't like to say, 'Hey, come to my house. There's going to be a great party.' I (prefer) to invite you to the house and then let you find out that there's a great party. But I don't like to announce (that there's going to be) something great. You know, I look to do something great. I don't like to talk about it."

And yet Hollywood is the kind of business where success can hinge on getting the right message out, building hype for a project and starting a buzz so Nunnari does play the game. "At the end of the day, we're an industry of communication," he agreed. "So if you cannot communicate and maybe are a little bit introverted, it's a little bit more difficult. But I guess I learned how to communicate, maybe."

In any event, he's got quite a few interesting projects in various stages of development on his plate these days. One of these, "Ronin," is an adaptation of another graphic novel by Frank Miller, whose graphic novel was the basis for the hit "300." "This is a project that is (at) Warner Bros. like '300,'" Nunnari noted. "We are developing it. It's a graphic novel that Frank created around 1985 or '86. It's really a masterpiece of the graphic novel. I remember that when we announced it the next day we had such a reaction from the Internet from fans of Frank and all the people who follow his work that we were surprised -- just (from) announcing it and saying we will turn this graphic novel into a movie.

"We have a director -- Sylvain White, who is doing a movie now at Universal called 'Castlevania.' He did 'Stomp the Yard,' which was a small movie for Sony that did very, very well. The book is a pretty big graphic novel and it would go in many directions. We worked out (as we did with) '300,' a very precise take (on the material)."

Asked when "Ronin" could get into production, Nunnari replied, "The project is in development. When a project is in development we always try to go, maybe, next year. But that's something the studio (will) decide."

It's a project that certainly sounds as though it should appeal to moviegoers who liked "300." "You always need to reach new levels," he explained. "But I think (it will be in) the style of '300,' but probably on a higher level now because I think after '300' we've learned more and you have to always try to achieve a bigger goal. But 'Ronin' is almost like a Frank Miller brand. So it's like 'Frank Miller's '300' and 'Frank Miller's 'Ronin.' That's what we are trying to achieve. (We want) to deliver to the audience the same kind of freshness that they found in '300.'"

Another of Nunnari's projects, "Silence," is to be directed by Martin Scorsese. "That's a book ('Chinmoku' by Shusaku Endo that has been) with Scorsese and myself for a long time," he said. "And, also, we are working on that. I don't know when it's going to go. I think we have another movie that we're thinking about (doing) with Martin before 'Silence.' So if I'm lucky, maybe I can do two movies instead of one with Martin Scorsese -- knock on wood. With 'Silence' I think we have to wait for the availability of a few actors. It's such an important cast that I think we have the time probably to squeeze another great movie (from Scorsese) in between. We're talking about (what that could be)."

Also in development at Hollywood Gang is "Eleven Minutes," based on the best-seller by Paolo Coelho. "I think I spent five years following Paolo Coelho," he pointed out. "That's one of the longest, I think, and hardest (efforts), which is part of our job as producers. He's a very famous writer everywhere in the world (and) for sure he sells a lot of books in the United States, too. He's the guy who wrote 'The Alchemist' and many other books. He didn't want to sell 'Eleven Minutes.' He said, 'No. Gianni, I'm not selling. 'Eleven Minutes' is one of my biggest best-sellers.' I went looking for him in a little town between the border of Spain and France and then he has a house in Paris."

Eventually, Nunnari continued, "I tracked him down in Morocco. I was in Morocco with Oliver (Stone) for the presentation of 'Alexander' (on which Nunnari was one of the executive producers). That night, I remember, it was like magic. He decided to give me this book (and said), 'OK, I'll give you this book, but please don't do (this one) like 'The Alchemist.' It's in development for all these years. Listen, I hate development. I hate to wait. I'm a very impatient person.' (Of course) you need to wait when you do movies. You can't just click buttons and create stuff. So finally I got the rights. We hired the writer of 'Central Station,' Marcos Bernstein, and we got an exceptional script, which is very faithful to the book.

"The project is with New Line and I think it's very close to start moving into something a little bit more than development because, basically, we've got a script. Now we're all happy with the script. We have the financing, of course. We have New Line behind us. So we're going to start looking for a director and cast the movie. I think this movie is definitely going to go -- if not before the end of 2007, for sure (early) in 2008."

Also on Nunnari's current development slate is "Everybody's Fine," a remake of the 1990 Italian drama "Stanno Tutti Bene" that was directed by Giuseppe Tornatore and starred Marcello Mastroianni and won the Ecumenical Jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival as well as being a Palme d'Or nominee. "'Everybody's Fine' is a fantastic project. Kirk Jones ("Waking Ned Devine") is attached to direct. He wrote the script. It's one of my dearest pieces of material. (Jones) is an unbelievable filmmaker. He doesn't make (as many) movies as the audience would prefer. He's very precise about what he wants to do. He turns down many, many things.

"A couple of years ago we decided to develop this material. We have a fantastic cast, which includes (Robert) De Niro and Kate Winslet and probably (will include other stars). I mean, we're in the middle of casting, so those things are subject to every negotiation. De Niro and Winslet had a fantastic read through of the script with the director. They loved the material and we're working on putting it together. De Niro and Winslet definitely want to make this movie."

Is there a type of project he wants to make at Hollywood Gang? "A particular type?" Nunnari asked. "It's action. I was born in 1959, which makes me a kid who basically grew up with movies (from directors like) Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. I am a firm believer that in the first 10, 12 or 15 years of your life is really when your brain adapts itself into this world. So 'The Dirty Dozen' is a movie I remember (from) when I went to see it with my father. Those kind of (films involving) action, glory, honor, romantic stuff is our genre -- like 'From Dusk Till Dawn' (the 1996 action thriller directed by Robert Rodriguez, written by Quentin Tarantino and starring Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, Tarantino and Juliette Lewis). At the end of the day, we do have a brand which is like 'From Dusk Till Dawn,' 'Se7en,' '300.' Those kind of (films)."

Nunnari's also busy with a few very recent projects that are just beginning to take shape: "We're working on (a remake of the 1978 Andrew McLaglen film) 'The Wild Geese,' which was an action movie with Richard Harris, Richard Burton and Roger Moore. We're getting the rights. We're working with rushing the papers. It's something very (recent). The two things I can tell you that are fresh and that I'm very passionate about are this one and another movie we're doing which is basically a biography of (the late recording artist) Barry White. We're also just getting the rights (to that project now)."

Asked why producing movies is still difficult for him despite his enviable track record, Nunnari explained, "It's very hard (and) it doesn't change. (I have) a good track record, but at the end of the day it doesn't (matter). After each movie a producer really needs to start from scratch. So I'm doing (a film about) Barry White. So what does that mean? That means you need to get the rights. That means you need to develop a take (on the material). Then the mission is to find a writer and write a script. In all these little stages you can do something wrong and the project stalls or doesn't fly. The world changes very fast so the idea you started (developing) a year ago maybe is an idea that a year later doesn't work. There are so many elements that need to arrive in the perfect (combination) like a puzzle that it's like a clock. You need to put every single piece in the perfect place so that the clock can start ticking in perfect rhythm."

And, of course, while that clock is ticking, it's costing Nunnari money. "The reality is that people don't understand (about) the money that we spend to go and get the rights, to go and get an idea. For example, I like to do a presentation so when we present an idea of a movie the studios and executives can get a little bit of the feeling (of what we want to do). But that costs money and it doesn't mean that you're going to get that money back. So it's really the risky part of the business, which investors and Wall Street in general hate because it's nothing. It's like air. You can't touch it. At least when a producer comes and spends the beginning of the development money, I can say, 'Listen guys, read. This is a script. This is the cast attached. Do you want to finance it?'

"That is the case with 'Everybody's Fine.' All the money that we invested (to this point is at risk). It's money (spent on) hiring the director, hiring the writer, putting together the cast, flying left and right. And now when you have the project and it's a package it's different because you can go to a studio or an independent company and say, 'OK, do you want to buy this package?' But they have elements that make it easier for them to judge depending on certain parameters they have about (investing) money in this project. When every producer starts there are no parameters. There's nothing. It's just an idea. It's just your desire to go and create the package from an idea into something which is material that people can read or touch."

But difficult as it is, it's still something he enjoys. "I'm very passionate about my job. I'm happy and I thank God every day that I'm doing this job," he told me. "What I'm saying is, after 25 years (it's still hard and it's really more time because) my father was involved in this industry when I was a kid -- when I was 7 years old I started to go and listen to my father -- so basically I have 40 years of career. The point is that if I was born in today's world, I don't know if this is a job or profession that I would desire to be in. When I was born there was this magical almost surreal idea (in Italy and elsewhere in Europe about being a movie producer). In today's world, you're a Hollywood producer -- 'OK, what does that mean?'"

Filmmaker flashbacks:
From Aug. 18, 1989's column: "Summer doesn't end until Labor Day weekend, but today's opening of Columbia's 'Casualties of War' at approximately 1,500 screens is really this summer's last remaining high profile picture with a good shot at doing big boxoffice business.

"Brian De Palma, who directed 'Casualties,' ... was my guest Sunday on The Hollywood Reporter's weekly Movietime cable network series. De Palma read and was immediately interested in filming Daniel Lang's 1969 New Yorker magazine article about how five American soldiers kidnapped, raped and murdered a Vietnamese girl during the war.

"'What I liked about it,' he recalls, 'was that it was an intense drama about an incident that actually happened during the war. The story had very good characters. It had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a highly dramatic situation and it told a lot about our involvement in Vietnam.

"'I tried to get control of the property back in 1970, but by then it had been sold to Warner Bros. and Jack Clayton was going to do it. I ran into Jimmy Woods a couple of weeks ago. He had auditioned back in 1970 for the part that Michael J. Fox plays. So the property got bought and then was developed and not done for years and years. It wasn't until I had great success with 'The Untouchables' that I was able to get Paramount to develop the material. Then we got Sean (Penn) and Michael. And then I got put into turnaround again.'

"After Paramount decided not to make 'Casualties,' Dawn Steel, who by then had left Paramount to become Columbia's president, came to the project's rescue. 'She had always been an admirer of myself and Michael J. and Sean and, consequently, she finally made the picture,' observes De Palma. I was the first film Steel greenlighted at Columbia and, as such, its success would mean a lot to her and to the studio she's turning around. It has, therefore, attracted even more media attention than would normally be the case given its star director, cast and highly controversial story..."

Update: "Casualties of War" became a boxoffice casualty. The film opened Aug. 18, 1989 to $5.2 million at 1,487 theaters ($3,497 per theater) and went on to gross only $18.7 million domestically, making it the year's 58th biggest film.

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