On scale of one to 'Ten,' it's funny
Empty"The Ten": Films telling multiple stories aren't unusual, but presenting 10 comic sketches, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments, is definitely unique.
That's what director and co-writer David Wain and co-writer Ken Marino have done with "The Ten," opening Friday, Aug. 3 via THINKFilm in 10 major markets and expanding in the weeks ahead. Wain ("Wet Hot American Summer") and Marino are both veterans of the mid-90's MTV comedy sketch troupe series "The State" so it's no surprise their take on the Commandments delivers more than a few good laughs. On a scale of one to "Ten," the funny factor varies from piece to piece, but several are really hilarious. Others will at least put a smile on your face, which is always welcome in these troubled times.
"Ten" may be a small film, but it's got a big cast of high profile stars, including Paul Rudd, Jessica Alba, Winona Ryder, Adam Brody, Gretchen Mol, Famke Janssen, Rob Corddry, Live Schreiber, Oliver Platt, Justin Theroux and Ken Marino. Produced by Wain, Jonathan Stern and Paul Rudd and by Morris S. Levy, the THINKFilm and City Lights Picture presentation in association with MEGA Films and Inverted Films was executive produced by Danny Fisher and by Sam Zietz, Jack Fisher and Michael Almog.
In reinterpreting the Commandments what Wain and Marino wanted to do is make them meaningful for a contemporary audience that's probably already broken most, if not, all of them. In one of the most amusing segments, a librarian, played by Gretchen Mol, is vacationing in Mexico where she meets a longhaired handyman named Jesus who provides her with exactly the sexual awakening that librarians are typically thought to require. Things get interesting, to say the least, when she notices that her new friend is able to walk on water.
In another of the funniest segments Winona Ryder plays a woman who falls madly in love with a ventriloquist's dummy during a nightclub performance. She winds up stealing the dummy later that night and, to put it very mildly, breaks the no-adultery commandment with him.
Along the same irreverent lines, Wain says in the film's production notes that when he and Marino set out to make "The Ten" they were "thrilled to discover that all Ten Commandments were available -- they'd been optioned by Universal but had reverted back to the writer last year." He also explains tongue in cheek that "The Ten" was "adapted (a.k.a. stolen) from Krzysztof Kieslowski's (1989 Polish television series) 'Dekalog,' which was 10 dark, one-hour dramas set in a Polish apartment building, each inspired by one of the Ten Commandments. Our version is much shorter and much funnier...and (mostly) does not take place in a Polish apartment building."
With all that in mind, I was happy to be able to catch up with Wain to find out what went into bringing "The Ten" to the screen. "Ken Marino, my writing partner, and I had worked together for 20 years and one day we said, 'Let's get something done here' and we sat in a room for a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day with the door locked and made it our business to come out with a first draft of something," Wain told me. "We thought of something for the first day, threw it away and spent the other six days writing this idea, which is premise-wise -- a.k.a. stolen -- from the Krzysztof Kieslowski Ten Commandments movie and more to the point adapted -- slash, stolen -- from the Biblical passage about the Ten Commandments."
After they had a first draft, he said, "we kind of worked on it over the next couple of years while we were working on other projects and then getting it into production. It was surprisingly easier than we had thought (to get the project financed). It's definitely obviously a left of center type strange film in some ways, but we got surprisingly good reactions to the script from the get-go. We hooked up with this great producer, Jon Stern ('Daytrippers,' "Oxygen'), and he got it equity financed relatively quickly."
Shooting took place, Wain explained, "over 28 days, mostly in New York City and a couple of days in Los Angeles and four days in Mexico. The script, itself, has lots of little jokes and tangents and strange random non sequitur moments. We worked very collaboratively and got a lot of input from the cast on the direction things could go and we shot alternative jokes. We did some improv. A lot of things were determined, as with all indie films, (by) the realities of production and location and schedules. But, surprisingly I would say, the finished film is pretty much the movie that we imagined as we were writing."
The film has a huge cast, he pointed out: "There's 80-plus speaking roles. A lot of them are friends and colleagues that we've worked with over and over again over the past 20 years and then some of them are auditions. And we have this big group of name stars that we got. We went through the normal agency channels in most cases, but I think they responded to the fact that it was a different kind of thing and not like what they normally get sent. And we were not asking for huge time commitments from everybody. We were flexible and we were very surprised and happy to get such a great cast."
Asked how he worked with his actors, Wain noted, "Because there were so many different people in different little scenes shot piecemeal over the course of the time, we had very little time for rehearsal. The one piece that we did some rehearsal on was the Oliver Platt, Kerri Kenney-Silver piece about an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator. But for the most part, we kind of counted on the freshness of what we came up with. We rehearsed a little bit while we were shooting, but most of the preparation was in discussions talking with the actors and preparing from a visual point of view. Then on set it was just very collaborative and very open. My style is to try to be extremely receptive to an idea that comes, wherever it may come from, and try to shoot it if we can as an alternative. You never know what you're going to need especially in comedy."
Did having the film broken down into 10 individual segments make it easier or more difficult to shoot? "It definitely presented a lot of challenges," he replied. "We knew that it would be an obstacle to create a movie that felt like a movie and not just a short film festival. We wanted to make sure that it had a cohesive voice and that you knew when it was over it was over. So in using the bracketing material (between segments) with Paul Rudd and Famke Janssen and overlapping characters and overlapping themes and overlapping jokes those are some of the things we focused on to try to make it feel like a cohesive whole. In terms of shooting, it was sometimes confusing because we just kept jumping around shooting everything piecemeal back and forth based on location and actor availability."
Needless to say, editing all of that material wasn't easy. "Editing was challenging primarily because we backed ourselves into an incredibly short period of time (to be done in time) for Sundance," Wain said. "We finished shooting in September and we had to submit a cut in October and have a finished film by January (of '07). Our film has lots of special effects and green screen and tons and tons of music so it was like a very, very fast postproduction process. We had myself and two other editors working three rooms full time the whole time."
"Ten" did well at Sundance, he added: "It was received well. Surprisingly, our big debut screening was not the best in (that) it started very late. It was 12:30 in the morning. It was very hot. It was a shame that the first exposure to buyers was not perfect. But every screening was sold out. People were talking about it (during) the whole festival. It was definitely a big deal. THINKFilm was at Sundance and they picked it up there. It's not the most dramatic story, but that's what happened. They saw the screening and they and some of the other companies messed around all week seeing who was making offers and what the climate was for the film. At the end of the festival, we made a deal with them. It was one of those classic situations where we were getting offers back and forth on Blackberries and then we realized at a certain point that both parties were in the same restaurant in Park City! So we went over and said hello."
As for the badly crowded marketplace for specialized film these days, Wain observed, "I'm not happy about it. Our opening weekend is packed with every kind of movie you'd ever want (to see). There's at least two or three other comedies opening Aug. 3 and the day we expand (Aug. 17) is when 'Superbad' opens. I do think there's a lot of overlap in audience and I just hope that people will find out about our movie. So far, audiences and critics have largely enjoyed it and seem to respond well to it so I think the movie, itself, has the DNA to be a success if the audience can find it.
"THINKFilm is not a giant distributor and we don't have a giant (marketing) budget for it so we definitely have to do everything we can with very limited resources. So we're trying to do grassroots (promotion) and get our cast out there in ways that don't cost money and very carefully buying ads with the money we have. It's not easy. We're not going to compete with 'Hot Rod' or 'The Bourne Ultimatum' so we're just going to try to carve out our little part (of the marketplace)."
Although Wain wears many hats as a writer-director-producer-actor, he told me, "It's funny, I don't even think of them as (being) that many hats. It feels like all parts of the same job for me because that's the way I've always done it. For my whole career I've largely worked with my friends and we kind of all do everything and it all feels like we're creating comedy and telling a story. So whether I'm doing it behind the computer or behind the camera or in front of the camera I really do feel like it's all part of the same whole."
When they were writing, he explained, "Basically, we sit with a computer and it's sort of a classic thing. I type and Ken walks around and paces. We chat and talk it out. We sometimes will just improv out a scene. Sometimes one of us will sit for a minute and think something through and write it out. And we actually live on separate coasts so when we're not together we do a lot of it over iChat or we go to Google Documents where we can both be looking at the same document at the same time, which is a great way to do it. Now we do it on Skype so we can hear each other and we're looking at the same document even if we're 3,000 miles apart. Skype is an Internet application (that's) like a phone line through the computer. It's really great. It's as if we're both sitting in front of the same keyboard."
Looking back at production, Wain said, "We had a great cinematographer, Yaron Orbach, and for what we were trying to bite off the shoot went relatively smoothly. There were definitely some classic weather problems. Mexico was a different ball of wax because it's just a different way of working down there and a different pace and a lot more X factors. So we had to be very flexible. We were told something was going to happen and it just didn't happen. So we'd have to go, 'OK' (and do something else quickly).
"Most of the crew didn't speak English so that was a fun (problem to deal with). The assistant director was bilingual, so that was the main thing that we needed. He was both translator and the guy running the set. I know a tiny bit of Spanish and when you're communicating with the crew you really actually only have to know a few different sentences -- like, 'Louder,' 'Softer,' 'Move this' or whatever. So I learned a little bit and I actually found it a lot of fun to try to communicate with everyone."
In the film's very funny opening segment a character played by Adam Brody parachutes into an open field, but has unfortunately neglected to put on his parachute. He winds up becoming imbedded in the ground. Doctors say that any attempt to move him will kill him, so he remains there with only about half his body above ground. The situation quickly turns into the kind of ongoing live television spectacle you'd anticipate these days and Brody's character turns into a classic obnoxious celebrity.
"When we were shooting on that set," Wain recalled, "it was a blistering hot day and very tough and everyone's sweating. And then the heavens opened up and there was a rainstorm that was so hard it actually knocked down the set, itself. It destroyed the catering tent. It seemed like the day was shot, which on our budget and schedule would have ruined the movie because there was no other way to go back and shoot again and we were going to lose Adam Brody. But the whole rainstorm ended an hour later as quickly as it began and we had to improvise and rebuild the set and pretend and move on.
"I had a lot of experience with that kind of thing because my first feature, 'Wet Hot American Summer' (which starred Janeane Garofalo, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd and Molly Shannon and premiered at Sundance in 2001) was shot entirely outside during the day supposedly to take place on one day in the middle of the summer, but it poured rain really hard every day the entire shoot. So when it was raining (while shooting 'Ten') and everyone was getting into panic mood, I was like, 'This is nothing.' This was on Staten Island in New York. We actually lucked out weather-wise on a lot of other days. If we'd had bad weather on any number of days I don't even know what we would have done. It's a roll of the dice a lot of times."
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Sept. 28, 1989's column: "In the wake of the Sony-Columbia news, I've been busy making the rounds of television programs eager for a point of view on what it all means, especially in terms of a foreign company owning an American major studio. After thinking aloud this week on NBC Nightly News, Cable News Network and Financial News Network, I've formulated some thoughts to share here.
"The issue that seems to have sparked the most media interest in Sony and Columbia is whether foreign ownership of a studio in some way poses a threat to America. There are those who believe that allowing foreign companies to buy American firms weakens our economy and works against our national interest. I don't agree.
"For one thing, this really isn't anything new. Hollywood has been selling itself in various other ways to foreign investors for many years without any harm to our nation or our economy. In fact, not so long ago, when the film business wasn't booming, the influx of capital from abroad played a vital role in helping to keep our industry going.
"For many years, Hollywood benefited from doing tax shelter deals with investors in countries including Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and Germany. Typically, when one country revised its tax laws to do away with such shelters, another country passed new tax legislation to stimulate its film industry and Hollywood found itself with a new foreign partner.
"Without borrowings from foreign banks such as Holland's Credit Lyonnais Bank Nederland, the independent film business in the United States almost certainly would not have been able to grow as it did during the past decade...And, of course, there already are two instances in which Australian interests have purchased major studios -- Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. with 20th Century Fox, and Christopher Skase's Qintex with MGM/UA.
"Such investments do, of course, have the potential of taking profits out of America. More importantly, they have pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into the American economy. The movies those investments financed were, for the most part, made in the United States. The money spent making them has largely gone into the pockets of Americans who work in the film industry. Those dollars, in turn, have been pumped back into other segments of the American economy.
"With Europe's economic union in 1992 now on the horizon, Hollywood is coming closer to facing the likely reality of quotas on how much American filmed entertainment can be imported in Western Europe. It's widely anticipated that one way around such restrictions will be English-language co-ventures between the studios and European companies. Under such circumstances, foreign owned studios like Columbia, MGM/UA and 20th Century Fox could be at an advantage."
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.