'Walker' steps back to classic murder mystery genre

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"Walker" whodunit: Murder mysteries, a Hollywood staple throughout the '30's, '40s and '50s, are rare these days, leaving fans of the genre to satisfy their appetites by watching DVDs of classics like "Laura," "The Thin Man" and Alfred Hitchcock's films.

What Hollywood calls thrillers today are more often than not just horror films about sadistic killers and the biggest thrill is seeing their end credits roll. Happily, Paul Schrader's new murder thriller "The Walker" evokes the old school of mysteries where we're meant to care about finding out whodunit rather than to just sit there and watch whodunit doing it.

"Walker," opening today in New York and Los Angeles via THINKFilm, is written and directed by Schrader and produced by Deepak Nayar. It was executive produced by Willi Baer, Steve Christian, James Clayton, Parseghian Planco and Duncan Reid. Starring are Woody Harrelson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily Tomlin, Lauren Bacall, Willem Dafoe, Ned Beatty Moritz Bleibtreu and Mary Beth Hurt. The THINKFilm and Kintop Pictures presentation is a Deepak Nayar Production in association with Ingenious Film Partners, Asia Pacific Films and Isle of Man Film.

The Washington, D.C. set film revolves around Harrelson's character, socialite Carter Page III, who's the gay best friend to some of the Capitol's best-connected wives. With their husbands busy running the country, the ladies always need someone to escort them to events, round out their card games and share drinks and gossip with them. The term "walker" was created to define such a person.

Without giving anything of importance away here, Carter finds himself accused of murder when he's really only guilty of trying to help his closest friend Lynn (Kristin Scott Thomas) avoid being destroyed by the scandal that would ensue if the media knew she had found the film's dead and very bloody body. Carter tells the police that he found the body, not realizing how that involvement could damage his own reputation.

Having enjoyed an early look at "Walker," I was glad to have an opportunity recently to ask Schrader about how it reached the screen. Schrader has an enviable list of credits as both a writer and director. He wrote "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and "The Last Temptation of Christ" for Martin Scorsese. As a director he's made such films as "American Gigolo," "Patty Hearst" and "Affliction." Although he's never been Oscar nominated, he was a Golden Globe nominee for writing "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull."

"I was just idly thinking about that character in 'American Gigolo' all those years ago and what would be the midlife counterpart of that kind of guy," he told me, referring to Julian, the L.A. escort to older women that Richard Gere played in the 1980 thriller. "You know, what would he be like at 50? And I thought, well, he wouldn't be funny. His skills would be social. He'd probably be out of the closet. He'd be sort of like a society 'walker.' That struck me as a very interesting occupational metaphor. I had made a number of films with occupational metaphors -- (like) 'Taxi Driver,' 'Gigolo' and 'Light Sleeper' about a drug delivery boy. So I thought I now had an interesting occupational metaphor for a fresh character I hadn't seen in movies before.

"I decided to put him in Washington, D.C. because he became more interesting there since Washington's one of the last major cities that mandates sexual hypocrisy. So you're sort of wondering why he's still there, you know. Contradiction is always the essence of character. And then I got the notion of doing a man who uses superficiality as a kind of armor, a protection against reality. In this case, the reality of his lineage -- his father (a former senator from Virginia) and his grandfather (a wealthy Virginia tobacco farmer). I thought that was an interesting kind of character -- to put Clifton Webb in the Dana Andrews role (in 'Laura' Webb plays acerbic newspaper columnist Waldo Lydecker while Andrews plays Detective Mark McPherson who's investigating the murder of Laura Hunt and falls in love with her upon seeing her portrait in her living room). And so then all I needed was some sort of plot that would put him under pressure."

Schrader didn't want to do a conventional Washington thriller plot, he explained, "because then it wouldn't be a character study anymore. So I needed a kind of a plot, but not so much plot that it seemed like a plot movie. That was the thinking process that I worked through. I did some research and wrote the script. When I first wrote it it was the end of the Clinton Administration and it wasn't very political at all. It still isn't political, but it got more political because I had to update it over the years and every time I looked back at Washington, D.C. it had become a more vindictive and mean-spirited place. In order to maintain verisimilitude I had to reflect that contemporary aspect of Washington. It ended up being a little more political than I had intended, but it's essentially a character study."

Casting the film was critically important to making it work. "With Woody I basically just sort of got lucky," he said, "because I was going to do it with another actor and I lost him to another film. I was looking around to replace him and Woody's agent called me up and said, 'Have you thought of Woody for that?' I said, 'No, why would I think of Woody for this? He's never done anything like this. He's not this guy.' And (he said), 'Well, I've been talking to Woody and he's really of a mind to do something completely different and would you be willing to talk to him?' And of course, you know, when an actor wants to take a leap you're a fool not to hear him out. So I met with Woody and he was keen to do it and off we went. I had faith in Woody. There were some moments there when I thought maybe I was jumping into an empty pool, but by the time we started he was into it. You know, he wears that hip kind of beach sort of clothes and I kept saying to him, 'Until you put on those suits Woody (that his character looks so good in in the film) you're not going to understand who this guy is.'"

Harrelson's character, according to Schrader, "is a composite of some people I knew and didn't know. I mean, Jerry Zipkin (the late Washington, D.C. socialite) was responsible for the coinage of the word 'the walker.' John Fairchild always called him 'the walker' (when he was editor of the magazine W). Jerry had the weekly canasta games (like those that take place in the movie). And then there's of course Gore Vidal, who's not from Virginia but (from) a kind of political family (like Harrelson's family in the movie). And (there's also) a little bit of (Truman) Capote, a little bit of Dominick Dunne. I had lunch with Dominick and he turned me on to some people in Washington who helped me out. And then I had a friend from Virginia, who was Old Virginia. His father was a professor at VMI (Virginia Military Institute) and he came and worked with us on the film and he helped Woody out a lot, too."

And what about the film's ladies? "After a certain age, say about 40, there's not that much work out for talented actresses," he replied. "So when you write a script that has good roles for them it's like going into an orchard where every tree is ripe. It's just a matter of picking the fruit. I started with Betty Bacall because our mutual agent, Johnny Planco, is Lauren's defacto walker. He's the guy who has to take her to the red carpet events. So she knew about this early on (and) she was there. And then because we had U.K. money you're trying to spend money in Euros whenever possible. So Kristin, who had played Americans (previously), became a perfect choice. I've always been, like everybody else, such a fan of hers. And then it was just a matter of finding someone in the middle age group and, preferably, someone who had a real comic background. So that's how (Lily Tomlin was cast)."

Rehearsal is a very important part of the process for Schrader: "When you do films on a tight budget you have to rehearse because you just don't have time to reexamine things while you're shooting. So we had a nice rehearsal period. Everybody came to London and we played canasta and explored all the possibilities of the characters and that worked out very well."

How much shooting was done outside of Washington, D.C.? "Well, the Isle of Man is what got this going. The Isle of Man has a program whereby if you shoot half your film on their island (in the Irish Sea) they give you 25% of the budget. My producer Deepak Nayar knew of this program and had exploited it in the past. He said to me, 'Could you shoot on the Isle of Man?' And I said, 'Well, it's a movie about people in rooms talking. I can build those rooms anywhere.' So that's how it got started. And then we found a U.K. partner for the other half (of shooting). So we had to shoot half of it in the Isle of Man and we shot the other half in London and then we shot a week in Washington."

It all fits together beautifully and certainly left me thinking as I watched it that the entire film had been shot in Washington. What makes it work particularly well is that Washington is a city we don't see very much of in movies so the exteriors are visually more interesting than overly familiar exteriors like those in New York and L.A.

"It was 34 days (of shooting)," he said. "When you have a career such as mine, one of the ways you keep it going is you learn the art of making something that costs less and looks like it costs more."

Asked about the style in which he shot "Walker," Schrader told me, "I intentionally shot this in a very old-fashioned manner and it feels old-fashioned intentionally. It owes much more to Max Ophuls (the German-born director known for his tracking shots in 1930s and '40s films) than it does to (contemporary action director) Tony Scott. I've done a film since that was actually shot in a much more contemporary style, but this one could have been made in the '80s. I shot it essentially the same way I shot 'Gigolo.' But that was a choice. It seemed to me that kind of movie -- not too many fast cuts and let the performers do what they do."

The film opens very effectively with us meeting the characters during the credits by hearing them talk as they're playing cards before we get to see them. "In the first several minutes of every film, the director has to kind of tell the viewer how to watch this movie," Schrader explained. "You know, what kind of mind-set should you put yourself into as a viewer? Is this going to be a rumble-tumble kind of screeching car movie? Or is this going to be a talky movie? And this is a talky movie. So I thought, well, let's just hear them talk for a while and the audience will sort of figure out, 'I'd better sink back into my chair and listen.'

Looking back at production and the toughest challenges he faced, Schrader noted, "The biggest challenge was mimicking U.K. for D.C. We had to spend 73% of our money in Pound Sterling so practically all of our dollars went into the actors. So everyone else in the crew had to be British or Euro. That kind of left me as the resident American expert on the whole production. That was kind of tricky because you always think something's going to slip by you -- and in one scene something did. In the editing room, I realized that in one scene they had put the wall sockets upside down so the prong was on top (because electric sockets in the U.K. are different from the way they are in the U.S.). I noticed that in the back of a shot I did. I hadn't seen it before. It was such a minor detail, but it was something that you had to be on the watch for. And to get Brit actors who could do Americans (was a challenge) because there's a number of British actors in there, too."

When it comes to shooting, he said, "You can rehearse quite a bit. I also do blocking rehearsals before I shoot. So you tape off the room. You actually block the scene weeks before you shoot it. You remind the actors how you've blocked it. So you have a kind of shot list before they even arrive on set and that allows you to start the day early. The old American system, which I've worked under, was to bring the actors out there and block the whole scene (and) then send them into makeup while you light, which means that if you have a 7 o'clock call you start shooting at about 11. Whereas, if you pre-block it and send them into makeup first thing, you can start shooting about 8:30. It just comes down to hours.

"Another thing you learn in rehearsals is if you think certain lines are going to go out in the editing room or certain scenes are going to go out, take 'em out right then and there and take that money and put it somewhere where it will actually be on the screen. It's hard to do because you will always make a mistake somewhere along the line. You say, 'Oh, I think we should have shot that thing that we cut out.'"

Schrader knew while he was writing the screenplay for "Walker" that he'd wind up directing it, as well, "because I knew it would be hard to find finance and I knew that I'd probably be the only person who'd have the stomach to hang in there for however many years to get it made. (It took) six or seven years -- about the same time it took me to get 'Affliction' (his 1997 thriller starring Nick Nolte) made.

"You know, a film gets under your skin. And actually, I got involved in this debacle with 'The Exorcist' (the second sequel to the 1973 blockbuster, which was ultimately released as 'Dominion: Prequel to The Exorcist') and that was because of 'The Walker.' I had had the film financed in Germany and we were about to go into preproduction and the film fell apart. I thought that was it and it was never going to come back. And I was in a real funk."

It was at that low point that the phone rang: "It was Morgan Creek saying 'John Frankenheimer is sick (he died a month later in July 2002). We've got a production that's ready to go. We scouted locations. We got Toronto. We got a crew. Would you be interested in meeting with us?' It was such a godsend to do a big budget film that was ready to go that I never really analyzed the situation properly. It was not a film I should have made. It was not people I should have been in business with. They didn't respect me. I didn't respect them. But at the time it was such great therapy that I blundered into it."

To make a very long story short, Morgan Creek brought in Renny Harlin to rewrite and reshoot the picture Schrader made after replacing Frankenheimer. Harlin's film was called "Exorcist: The Beginning." After opening to $18.1 million Aug. 20, 2004 it went on to gross a disappointing $41.8 million domestically. Morgan Creek was going to do a direct-to-DVD release of Schrader's version of the film, but then decided to let him screen "Dominion" at a few festivals. The company gave it a very limited and unsuccessful theatrical release in May 2005 before putting it out in DVD.

"I worked real hard to get that completed -- to get the money from them to compete it," Schrader observed, "because I did not want to go through my life answering that one question over and over again -- 'What was your version like?' So we got a version of it together. We put it out and now if anybody asks me that question I can say, 'Run it.'"

Coming back to "Walker," he said, "I do like these interesting characters. It makes it a kind of a boutique film in a way because it's (about) these interesting men and as they get older they get less commercial. I mean when this character was 20 years old and had gun in his hand and was called Travis Bickell (Robert DeNiro's character in the 1976 classic 'Taxi Driver') he was much easier to sell than when he's 50 and has a lavender necktie."

NBR news: The National Board of Review's awards may not be the best bellwether for the Oscars -- last year's NBR best picture winner was "Letters From Iwo Jima" -- but the group's kudos are valuable for other reasons.

Because NBR is the first awards group to announce its winners, it instantly confers serious contender status on a handful of films. In particular, its best picture award puts a film in the media spotlight and from that point on other awards givers will, whether they admit it or not, give some additional consideration to that title. Depending on the picture, an NBR win can prompt Academy members to see and consider it if they haven't already done so or it can reinforce their existing feeling that it's a worthy contender.

Miramax's "No Country For Old Men," NBR's best picture winner, was already on awards radar screens given its high-profile filmmakers (Joel and Ethan Coen), its critical acclaim (a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes.com) and its early recognition as a Golden Palm nominee last May at the Cannes Film Festival. By awarding "Country" top honors, NBR will reinforce other voters' positive feelings about the movie and that, in turn, will be helpful in what's clearly a wide open Oscar race with multiple worthy contenders this year.

A similar effect on other awards givers will result from the upcoming votes by the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. and the New York Film Critics Circle. Depending on what these groups name as their best picture winners, we could see two or three titles start to emerge as solid contenders. If "Country" prevails in either or both of these key votes it will take on early frontrunner status and could benefit in other critics contests across the country.

Of course, the biggest impact on the Oscar race will come Dec. 13 with the Golden Globes nominations. Given the worldwide media attention the Globes announcement receives, there's no way Academy members aren't going to be influenced by those noms. With so little time in which to do their nominating, Oscar voters always need a short list of what titles to look at and that's exactly what the Globes provides.

Filmmaker flashbacks: From May 11, 1990's column: "Over the years Hollywood has earned a justifiably bad name for not preserving its heritage. Films have routinely been left to fade and crumble in vaults and black-and-white classics have been computer colorized to boost their value for television syndication.

"In great contrast to this is Paramount's new program of film preservation, for which thanks are due chairman and CEO Frank Mancuso. Following its glorious 35mm restoration of Stanley Donen's 1957 musical 'Funny Face,' starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, Paramount has now made new prints for release in key cities of Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 classic 'The Ten Commandments...'

"'The Ten Commandments' can never be made again because of the production costs,' Charlton Heston, its star, told me Wednesday. 'Somebody did a budget run on what it would take to do 'Ben Hur' again and it came out to $124.7 million.' He recalls that 'Hur' was made for about $14.7 million and that three years earlier 'Commandments' had cost approximately $11.3 million.

"'Production costs are a major problem in Hollywood, and the studios that own these films recognize they're the kind of films that can't be made again for that reason. They can't do musicals anymore, either. Paramount wants to take advantage of the improved sound and print technology, which I understand they've done superbly with 'The Ten Commandments' restoration. God knows, audiences see it two or three times every year on television, but there's at least one and probably two generations that have never seen it on a wide screen...'

"Is Hollywood doing enough? 'More and more they're working on it,' Heston replies. 'I'm involved as I have been from almost the beginning of the American Film Institute and that's been a major focus of our work here. The studios have recognized that they not only have crumbling treasures in their archives, but they have a responsibility to save them...'"

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