'Water' came to desert via decade old images

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"Water" words: Ideas for movies originate in many ways, but typically their roots are in books, newspaper and magazine articles or other written materials that provide stories for filmmakers to tell.

In the case of Hart Bochner's new comedy "Just Add Water," it was images rather than words that inspired the movie. What prompted Bochner -- who's best known as an actor in films like "Die Hard," "Anywhere But Here" and "Say Nothing" -- to write and direct "Water" were the visuals he still vividly recalled from 10 years earlier while acting in a film shooting in Trona, Calif. on the fringe of Death Valley. When Bochner revisited that desolate desert town a few years ago he was once again struck by the hopelessness, oppressive heat and feeling of danger tied to Trona having become a center for crystal meth production.

All this, he decided, was the perfect setting for a love story! The result is "Just Add Water," which stars Dylan Walsh ("Nip/Tuck"), Tracy Middendorf ("24"), Danny DeVito, Justin Long ("The Break-Up") and Jonah Hill ("Superbad"). Produced by Robin Bissell and Clifford Werber, it was executive produced by Bochner, Jow Amodei, Jeffrey D. Erb, Richard Klubeck, Joe Nicolo and Jonathan Sachar. The film had its L.A. premiere March 18 at the Directors Guild of America, where it became the first movie ever to receive a Green Seal from the Environmental Media Assn.

"We sold the movie to Sony (after) we had a screening at CAA the end of (last) November," Bochner told me when we spoke recently. "It was quite flattering. We had nine companies bidding on the movie. We sold it to Sony -- Columbia/Tri-Star. Then we went up to Slamdance for the festival (in January) and there was no pressure to sell the movie. We just thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and the response to the film was great. So we go out Friday (March  28) in the (Laemmle) Sunset 5 in L.A. (with an opening in New York coming in early April) to see if we can get good enough reviews and strong enough response from an audience. Then I can, hopefully, make an argument to go wider." After an early look at "Water" that left me impressed with how much Bochner got on the screen on a shoestring budget, I hope its first runs do well and lead to a wider release.

The images Bochner couldn't get out of his mind and that led him to write and direct "Water," he explained, were those he saw while making another film 10 years ago. "I was doing a movie (the 1998 thriller 'Break Up') with Bridget Fonda and we were shooting near Bakersfield and Baker," he said. "We were told we'd be shifting locations and heading east to a place that was hell on Earth, but it had a house that we could shoot in very cheaply because we were doing this indie (production) for Miramax. So there we were. We shot two nights in a place that was without question the worst place I'd ever been in my life.

"I've seen Third World poverty before, but I'd never seen this sort of parched, toxic bleakness let alone less than three hours from L.A. And that's what I found so disturbing -- a place that was so close to Mecca and yet so spiritually and physically toxic. The residents were all but forgotten. I found it, obviously, disturbing and heartbreaking, but there was also so much personality in this town, which has been a mining town for over 140 years. But by virtue of sucking the minerals out of this dried lakebed -- Searls Lake has the highest mineral content of any place on Earth -- they've effectively toxified the community. By extracting the minerals you have to use certain chemicals and that's created all sorts of environmental problems."

Over the years the town has lost most of its population: "There's been a huge attrition where this once-proud community had been about 7,000 strong and now I'd be surprised if there's 300 or 400 people (still there). Eighty percent of the houses are torched. What houses are left you can buy for a few thousand bucks. It was a meth haven for a long time. The Manson Gang had been there in the '60s. Unfortunately, there are very proud people who remain in defiance because it is their community and there are those who are there because it's all they can afford. Most people (there) are on welfare.

"This is Trona, which used to be the big town to the neighboring sister community called Ridgecrest, but it's flipped and Ridgecrest is now the big town because, of all things, north of Mojave there's a naval base in the middle of the desert that's larger than the country of Wales. It's really strange that there'd be a naval base in the middle of the desert, but there is."

In any case, he continued, "We had shot there and I couldn't get this place out of my head. I directed a couple of studio movies and I was looking to write something that I could direct. I wanted to write a story about what we've done environmentally to this planet and also a story about the common man and how he struggles for dignity in our culture where we've effectively for the last several years, without getting preachy about it, stolen from the poor and given to the rich. We're constantly reminded in our culture that what we have isn't enough. So I set this character in the center of this community (in) a story about an underdog. It's about the little guy taking on the big guy -- but the big guy in this story is a punk teenager -- and taking back his own life and taking back the community.

"I went back there a few years ago when I thought about writing this to make sure that my recollections of it were accurate and it actually was worse than I had remembered -- more barren and more torched. You never know when you bring a film company to a location if it's going to have the same impact on you, positive or negative, that affected you in the first place. I have a sense of how the community reacted to us, but what I found most touching was that the film company was deeply affected by this place."

It was, nonetheless, the perfect place to shoot his movie. "It was the only place to shoot it," Bochner emphasized. "You know, I'm Canadian and there was some pressure when we were looking for financing to shoot north of the border. I'm on the PAC committee of the DGA and so we deal with the whole notion of outsourcing and not losing jobs to other countries. We shot this movie for under a million bucks and it was painful to have to house people and give them per diem (payments) when a quarter of our budget wasn't on screen, but by virtue of that I got everything I needed. I had all the production values effectively for nothing (shooting in Trona). So it was certainly worth it."

Although "Water" is Bochner's third film as a director, it's the first that he's written as well as directed. "I got into directing in the early '90s," he explained. "I wrote and directed a short film ('The Buzz' in 1992) that starred Jon Lovitz, (which was) a black comedy. He's been a buddy of mine for a long time. But this is the first full-length (feature) that I've written. I was looking to do a movie that better reflected my sensibilities and being a director for hire is a nice life and I'd love somebody to consider me for future projects, but I wanted to sort of reinvent myself because I had directed these two studio comedies ['PCU,' a 1994 comedy starring Jeremy Piven and Jon Favreau, and 'High School High,' a 1996 comedy starring Jon Lovitz and Tia Carrere] that were fairly broad and didn't really reflect stories that I wanted to tell (although) I was happy to have done them."

How did the idea for "Water's" story evolve? "Part of it was that I wanted to do a redemptive story about the common man," he replied, "and the other notion was that I've been an environmentalist my whole life and I wanted to create some kind of parable about what we've done physically to the planet. I thought that setting a love story in hell was a kind of interesting, funny, quirky idea. It's effectively what the movie is. I went back to the location and I got the idea for the bad guys being teenage thugs because at the time when my girlfriend and I drove through the neighborhoods we started snapping (photos) and there was this teenage kid on a bicycle in a parking lot of the market. He had nobody to hang out with and was doing nothing. When I got out of the car I said, 'Hey, man' and I might as well have been a ghost. He didn't respond. He didn't see me and I was 15 feet away from him.

"We went into the market and most of the shelves were barren. Even in the market there was something tragically comical about the fact that butting up against the meat section was the automotive section. So right next to the hamburger meat, literally, was STP motor oil. I mean, it's comical! So I couldn't resist. Once I figured out who these characters were, the story kind of wrote itself. I'd go to my office every day and think, 'Well, how odd can I be today?' because I certainly didn't grow up in an environment remotely similar to this. I most definitely had no interest in making fun of the less fortunate. If anything, I tried to be as empathic as I could, but I also had no problem making fun of the bad guy because dramatically there's nothing wrong with the bad guy getting his comeuppance and being mocked a bit."

While writing the script Bochner knew he was also going to direct it: "There was no compelling reason for anyone else to direct this because when I wrote it the whole thing was in my head (as to) how I wanted to shoot it, what I wanted the performances to be like (and) how I wanted the movie to look. So if someone was going to bribe me not to direct it, there was no point. So many of my writer friends became directors to protect their material. It's one thing to direct someone else's material. As a director there's an extra step in interpreting that material. But when you write something that you've lived with for so long and you know what, specifically, the tone of the piece has to feel like, there's no point in giving up the reins. What was so tricky about this movie was the tone. It was terribly flattering to have the creative elements lining up so nicely.

"(What was hard) was trying to convince the business mind that I knew the kind of movie that I was going to make because they said, 'Well, this movie is really odd. Give me an example of what this movie should feel like. Give me a film that I've seen.' I'd say, 'Well, it's more 'Fargo' than 'Raising Arizona.' 'Raising Arizona's' too broad tonally and stylistically for this kind of story.' You have no idea what a pain the ass it was (to raise the money). It would have been so much easier to walk away. Movies today, especially independent movies, necessitate having a will to get them done. When the budget was $5.5 million and the financing would fall in and then fall out and fall in and fall out, I had these friends, Michael Nozik and Leslie Urdang, who used to run (Robert) Redford's company (Wildwood Enterprises) who said, 'Well, we can show you how to make this movie for under a million bucks.'"

Bochner asked them how that could possibly be done. "We went through the model," he recalled, "and I literally had to cut my schedule in half, which I thought was going to be next to impossible given the fact that this is a nuanced performance-driven story and one thing I wanted to make sure of was that I had the time to get what I needed from the actors. The trick to casting this movie is there is an inherent sweetness to every actor I cast in (it) -- every single one. Actors who were too dramatic would make the story too dark and actors who were too broad would certainly open a fourth wall and this movie would have been far from what I had intended it to be. So that was really tricky."

When I asked Bochner how Nozik and Urdang helped him slash his budget on "Water" enough to get it made, he observed, "They showed me how to make this movie for under a million bucks, which is a painful thing to do. First of all, you get waivers from the unions and you shoot what is called 'modified low budget,' which is under $750,000 and you effectively pay your crew 100 bucks a day and give them 15 bucks a day per diem and a little piece of dollar one gross, so everybody's a gross participant. And you pay your actors 'modified low,' which is about a grand a week. Every dollar hurts. We spent 150 grand on hotel and per diem. We put everybody up at the best motel in Ridgecrest, which was actually pretty nice and drove 25 miles each way every day.

"I had to push every moment to make this schedule. And the actors, fortunately, were on their game. We'd rehearse at night and we'd shoot during the day. The difficulty was getting the coverage. I felt that because there was a simplicity to the story there was a way to shoot it that felt genuine to the piece. My DP, Aaron Barnes, and I looked at small town movies like 'Last Picture Show' and how they were designed and the simplicity and the honesty with which the stories were told, which fed the tone of the piece."

Bochner's roots as an actor were helpful to him in working with his actors. "I wanted to be an actor from the time I was 10 years old," he noted, "and I'd hang out with Jerry Paris on the set of 'Dick Van Dyke.' I set out as an actor to learn the psyche of the actors so for me finally having what I felt was a piece of material that I could sink my teeth into and the actors could sink their teeth into and because I wrote it and understood the characters as well as I feel I did, it was terribly gratifying to be able to work scenes which had complexity to them, pathos and humor. There's a deadpan nature to the comedy. It's extremely satisfying. Look at Dylan Walsh's performance in this movie and he is just exquisite. He gave me more and surprised me more and was on his game better than any actor I had ever worked with. I mean, literally, two or three takes a set-up and he was there. Maybe a tiny adjustment (on top of that). But he was so there from the get-go.

"Now imagine if he weren't. I'd be chasing the light every day -- not that I wasn't anyway (because the budget was so tight). It was extremely satisfying, I've got to say, and everybody was (great). You know, at this budget level it's a labor of love. Don't pull attitude on a movie like this because no one's going to be able to service your request -- right? It was like a family. Shooting this movie in 23 days felt impossible, but I never felt like I had walked away without getting the scenes."

Filming took place a year and a half ago, he explained, "but I had the longest post schedule in history. What happened was, I threw out the first score and hired a new composer, John Swihart, who had done 'Napoleon Dynamite' (and) had done a movie for these friends of mine, Michael and Leslie. I felt he was the guy. I had made a misstep initially so I threw out the first score. I thought I was waiting a month for Swihart, which turned into five months because he was getting real money gigs and he said, 'Look, I don't want to lose this movie' and I said, 'I'll wait for you.' It was more important for me to get it right than hurry it through. And by virtue of having an opportunity to live with it longer than I'd live with a studio feature, there was no compelling rush and the investors were quite patient, which was very generous on their part. I said, 'I got the right guy and just be patient with me.' So we mixed the end of July last year."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Dec. 13, 1990's column: "Although Hollywood is generally regarded as an industry that does well during a recession, that's only true in the broadest sense. While the film industry's primary business of making movies for theatrical exhibition does tend to do well during troubled times, Hollywood has considerable risk exposure in other areas.

"Typically, the areas where the film industry can be quite vulnerable to an economic downturn are areas that are beyond Hollywood's control. Theme parks, for instance, become less attractive destinations as gasoline and jet fuel prices soar and disposable income shrinks. Pay TV, which has already suffered a flattening out of growth, stands to suffer more as people find an easy way to cut their monthly spending.

"Another area where Hollywood now appears vulnerable to an earnings downturn is merchandising, one of the industry's trendiest ancillary activities. Recently published reports make it clear that there's considerable trouble ... this holiday season with toy manufacturers' sales slumping and America's second largest chain of toy stores, Child's World Inc., avoiding bankruptcy only by holding off paying its bills until mid-January.

"A recent New York Times business section article headlined 'Toy Business Not All Fun and Games' noted, 'Nervous about a possible war in the Persian Gulf and a likely recession at home, Americans may not spend much more than the $16.8 billion they did on toys and video games last Christmas.' When you calculate inflation of more than 6.3%, that actually translates into a decline in sales ...

"These tough times in toyland should translate into a headache for Hollywood merchandisers. There's likely to be a more conservative attitude by toy manufacturers toward licensing expensive rights to produce toys based on films coming out well in the future ..."

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