'Yuma' could put genre back on track

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Western words: Hollywood's on-again, off-again love affair with westerns is on again with Lionsgate's "3:10 to Yuma" pulling into theaters Sept. 7.

Although westerns have been one of Hollywood's most popular genres since the earliest days of moviemaking, they've also gone through periods when they've taken a backseat to thrillers, dramas, sci-fi fantasies and other genres. Somehow, though, westerns always manage to enjoy a resurgence, and "Yuma" could put the genre back on the Hollywood track.

To begin with, there's "Yuma," starring Russell Crowe, Christian Bale, Peter Fonda, Gretchen Mol and Ben Foster, directed by James Mangold and produced by Cathy Konrad. Its screenplay by Halsted Welles and Michael Brandt & Derek Haas is based on the 1953 short story "3:10 to Yuma" by Elmore Leonard. The film was executive produced by Stuart Besser, Ryan Kavanaugh and Lynwood Spinks. "Yuma" is Mangold and Konrad's remake of the classic 1957 western directed by Delmer Daves, written by Halsted Welles and starring Glenn Ford, Van Heflin and Felicia Farr.

The husband-wife Mangold-Konrad team's credits include such acclaimed films as the Johnny Cash biopic "Walk the Line" and the drama "Girl, Interrupted." "Walk," a Producers Guild of America Laurel Award nominee, won the best picture-musical or comedy Golden Globe. It also brought Reese Witherspoon a best actress Oscar win and a best actress-musical or comedy Globe win and brought Joaquin Phoenix a best actor-musical or comedy Globe win. "Girl" brought Angelina Jolie best supporting actress wins in the Oscar, Globe and Screen Actors Guild races.

On "Yuma's" heels, another high-profile western drama is heading our way in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," starring Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck, opening Sept. 21 via Warner Bros. If either or both of these films do well with moviegoers, the western genre could suddenly mushroom in popularity among studio production executives eager to hop on the bandwagon.

I was happy to have an opportunity to focus recently with Mangold and Konrad on the twists and turns their "Yuma" remake took on its long dusty road to the screen. "I've had an affection for this story and this film since the mid-'80s when Sandy Mackendrick (director Alexander Mackendrick, whose credits include the 1957 classic noir drama 'Sweet Smell of Success'), who was my teacher at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) first showed it to me," Mangold told me. "I was working for him as a teaching assistant and I would analyze the film on an old 16mm analytical projector and break it down for him as we were preparing class notes. It really got in my blood, so years later, when I wrote the film 'Cop Land' that Cathy produced, it was really heavily influenced and a lot of the structures inside it were taken from 'Yuma.' In fact, Stallone's character was even named after Van Heflin. His name in the film is Freddie Heflin."

"I was introduced to the film when I met Jim in 1995," Konrad said. "I was producing 'Cop Land' at the time and as the inquisitive producer working with a new director and always curious about what's next I wanted to know what material he was interested in. And the two movies that he said he'd always wanted to do were the movie about Johnny Cash and he asked if I'd ever seen a movie called '3:10 to Yuma.' I hadn't and he showed it to me. So way back in 1995 was sort of the genesis of both those projects for us."

The idea of remaking "Yuma" first surfaced, Mangold recalled, when he was shooting his thriller "Identity," starring John Cusack, Ray Liotta and Amanda Peet, at Columbia: "So it was like the winter early in 2002 and we were on the lot making 'Identity.' It just occurred to me. Things were going really wonderful with Sony. We were developing 'Walk the Line' with them. We had a deal there at the time. And it suddenly occurred to me as we were rifling through material and ideas for movies that there's something sitting in the vault that isn't even out on video. I think it was one of the best western stories. I knew it was by Elmore Leonard.

"I thought it would be a phenomenal film. I think playing to a modern audience it has some flaws, but I feel like it's a really great script with great actors. We went to Amy Pascal (now co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment) with it and asked whether she'd support developing it as a fresh film and not as a modern update using the structure (of the original) -- just doing it as a western. And they were curious enough to let us get underway."

Asked what accounts for the popularity of westerns ebbing and flowing over the years, Konrad replied, "I think Hollywood is such a circle. I haven't done an analysis on the generational reasons as to why that is per se, but having made, for example, the 'Scream' trilogy (I can tell you that) no one was making horror movies when I sold that to Bob Weinstein. Why that happened at that moment in time and launched a cavalcade of every imaginable horror movie known to man (is anyone's guess).

"I think that given that the last seminal western in Hollywood that was made that did business was 10 years ago -- of course, 'The Unforgiven' (Clint Eastwood's 1993 Oscar winning best picture) -- and that (since then) we've had a glut of super-heroes and comic book characters and many types with super powers and all of that kind of stuff, there is something really interesting about going back to the raw world of man versus man, man versus nature in this kind of really authentic way and letting the man be the hero and watching the struggles and the conflicts. I think there's a really great identification, especially in this political climate that we're in right now, and I think an audience could be very ready for this."

At that point, with Sony agreeing to go forward to develop a remake of "Yuma" a screenplay was the next step. "We hired Brandt and Haas to write the first draft based on Elmore Leonard's story and Halsted Welles' script, which I thought was a really brilliant piece of screenwriting material to begin with," Mangold said. "There was a lot I wanted to keep from the original, but I had ideas about adding a greater sense of journey in the film. There are some aspects of the original film where you almost feel (they were) budget issues more than anything else -- like they literally kind of shot the first town they're in and they kind of ride off screen right and ride in screen left and they're in the second town seemingly after a long journey through the mountains.

"There's a kind of shorthand that's a little 'Playhouse 90' (TV) feeling in the original. However, there are also some really brilliant things we didn't want to lose. For instance, the great claustrophobia in the third act in that hotel. I felt that if we opened up the second act you'd feel that claustrophobia all the stronger because you suddenly were in a 12-by-18 room with all these men trapped after having felt the expanses in the act before."

Mangold and Konrad had other changes in mind as well, he added: "We had thoughts about the relationship between father and son and we wanted to expand on that in our attack and kind of make the role of Dan Evans, Christian Bale's oldest son, much larger in the film. And I also had ideas about the Transcontinental Railroad in kind of framing the journey from Bisbee (where the outlaw Ben Wade, played by Crowe, is taken into custody) to Contention (where Wade is to be put on a prison car train going to Yuma, Arizona where there's a Federal Court) in some way also charting a movement from the completely untamed west, where the story begins, to a place where the industrial revolution and the arrival of the railroad and modern commerce and corporate politics is beginning to infiltrate.

"I thought that would be a really interesting counter-balance -- as people are talking about how evil Ben Wade is there's also this counter-balance of what's coming in the form of, quote, progress, which has its own malevolence, as well."

Work on the screenplay began in 2002 right after they'd pitched the project to Amy Pascal. Although Welles is no longer here, his words live on from the original screenplay. "His script has always been there for us," Mangold noted. "There are passages that I never wanted to touch and there's even passages that I put back in after people did drafts. I put back in a scene verbatim from Halsted's original script because I just felt there was some really wonderful stuff in there that we didn't want to lose."

"I'd say it was about three years of working on the script," Konrad said, "and then as we were in the middle of making 'Walk the Line' there was some polishing going on with the idea that once we were finished with 'Walk the Line' that would be our next movie. It was down for a little bit only because we were in the middle of another movie and then once that movie (was being finished) we sort of proclaimed this is what we want to do as our next film and we want to go after cast. That was in 2005."

Did they have anyone in mind to star in the film while they were developing the script? "Russell Crowe was our first choice," Konrad replied. "I mean, he was the person that we wanted to see in the movie as Ben Wade."

Asked how they wound up getting Crowe, Konrad told me, "He called us actually. We happen to share the same agent -- George Freeman at the William Morris Agency. So George knew how close we were getting to actually being able to realize this and he knows how passionate we are about Russell. We had been talking about Russell for several roles on other projects that we always are perking on and he just happens to be ranked very high on many lists as one of the greatest actors (and someone who's) flexible and can kind of change and be exactly who you need him to be and, at the same time, just totally feel powerful on screen. And, also, he's one of a very few handful of men that can actually get a movie made."

"The other thing was," Mangold added, "that we thought Russell was tied up on (Baz Lurhmann's "Australia," a western type drama set in Australia and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, which Crowe was originally going to star in) so we hadn't submitted it to him as he was seemingly booked for the next year and a half."

"We actually were going to wait (for Crowe to become available)," Konrad said, "and then they pushed their start date further and that made it seem next to near impossible and so then we had to pursue other paths and had gotten word that Tom Cruise was interested. And so we began having conversations with Tom about starring in it. That was right around the time that 'Mission: Impossible 3' was coming out. And then when (it) came out, I think there was a lot of reconsideration on his side and his team's side about what to do next and he sort of hit the pause button. When he hit the pause button it was right at the exact same time that Russell decided to step out of Baz Lurhmann's movie. It was sort of that cross-moment of everything happening in three days and Russell called Jim and said, 'I'm your man.' And there we were!"

And that, as they say, started to make things happen. "At the same time," Konrad pointed out, "things became undone because Sony had decided that, cast aside, it didn't seem to matter whether it was Tom or Russell, they were not going to make the movie. Sony decided that this script and the western (genre) was not something they felt they could make. It was the same experience we had on 'Walk the Line.' You know, you started this conversation by saying, 'The western's making a comeback' and I think oftentimes in Hollywood until someone actually does make the comeback there's a reticence to actually be the first one to dip your toe in to figure out whether or not it's going to work.

"We were very passionate about the material and for the power and the production value that's on the screen we made this movie for a very good price. But the way that the studios need to justify (their decisions is) they run their numbers and they do their things like that and they couldn't come up with a model that made sense to them and with that came the end."

What was particularly complicated about the "Yuma" remake, she explained, "was that we had a screenplay, we had an actor and we had a budget, but unfortunately this particular piece of material also happened to be a library title at Sony and library titles are very rarely allowed to be put into turnaround by other studios because it's an asset of the studio. So we were in a little bit of a triple pinch because we actually had something that we wanted to do that couldn't travel and we had a studio that wouldn't make it. So we were really boxed in in the worst possible way.

"Our savior came in the form of Ryan Kavanaugh, whose company is called Relativity Media and who has a financing deal at Sony. (He) had read the screenplay and had been talked to by Sony -- even prior to us even knowing about it -- about partially financing this movie as well as others on the Sony slate. He loved the movie and when Sony fell out, our agency and we all got together and he said, 'If you can make this movie for the price you say you can and we can shoot in New Mexico and get the rebate involved, I'll fully finance the movie.' With that we got wind back in our sails and were able to start pre-production before we even had a distributor because the window for when we wanted to make the movie was in the fall before the winter got too bad in New Mexico."

The film's budget, Konrad said, was $55 million, which is a terrific price considering that the MPAA's average cost for producing a movie in 2006 is $65.8 million. "If you ask me, it's a bargain," Konrad agreed, considering "Yuma's" level of action "and the level of talent involved and the film was very ambitious, as well. We had our premiere the other night and the feedback I've been getting (is that) people think that it's an $80 million to $100 million movie.

The picture actually got made very quickly. "A year ago to date we were putting the financing together," she said. "We were in pre-pre-production this time last year -- closing the deal while we were simultaneously scouting and putting the crew together and the rest of the cast together. We started shooting in October in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The hard part was putting everything together. The movie certainly had many challenges. The weather, which started out as our friend, became less of a friend in January when we had the worst snowstorm in three decades in Santa Fe. It dumped three and half feet on us and we had to hand dig ourselves out of our set.

"But other than that, I think that putting it together (was the hardest aspect of making the film). Neither Jim nor I had ever made a picture -- I did way, way back in the early days with Harvey Weinstein -- the financing way of putting movies together where it's basically a bank financing the movie. It's a lot of paper. It's a lot of process. It's a lot of things that you don't really experience when you're making a studio picture because all of the mechanics of that get done internally in the studio system. So as filmmakers we were more readily exposed to the rigors of banking."

"When something went wrong, there was no mommy or daddy to run to and talk to," Mangold added. "We got our money and we had to make our movie and that was that. In terms of getting it financed, the startling thing for us also was just that you imagine that after making 'Walk the Line' with the success it had that this would have been easier and yet we were reliving (the same problems). For Cathy and I part of the reason it was so frustrating getting the movie financed was that it felt like an absolute replay of exactly what we went through making a phenomenally successful film our last time out."

"With the same studio," Konrad pointed out.

"With Sony, who passed on that film at a budget point of $25 million," Mangold continued.

"We developed 'Walk the Line' at Sony and we came to them when we wanted to make (it on) a $25 million budget," Konrad said, with "Reese Witherspoon, Joaquin Phoenix, T Bone Burnett, Jim and myself and they passed. I don't need to tell you how much that movie grossed (over $186 million worldwide) and the fortune that Fox is reaping (from having made it). And, of course, after we had that success we said, '3:10 should be easy because why would they let that go away? It's like we're making it for a good price. We've got a movie star. We've got the same thing all over again.' So when they said no to us three weeks out from actually getting underway it was devastating for us."

"But I think it gets to another interesting topic," Mangold said, "which is just the unease with which Hollywood looks at genres and settings that are not necessarily urban and contemporary. I think there was a lot of apprehension on 'Walk the Line' about country music and about the kind of heartland nature of the movie. And I think on this you only have to shift it 18 degrees to see that there was a similar kind of suspicion about, 'Oh, is it going to be dusty? Are they going to be wearing hats? Are they going to have accents? Is it going to be dirty?' You know, there's a lot of apprehension (about such things). And by way, before Ryan saved us we had gone to a lot of studios."

"Every studio passed. I shouldn't put the sole burden on Sony," Konrad noted. "But clearly after Sony passed and Ryan did step in we still had the challenge of finding a domestic distributor for the film because Relativity's not a distribution company. So we did take the same package to every studio in town. Jim and I went to every president's office and gave our pitch and presented our materials and everyone passed."

So how did they finally find a home for the project at Lionsgate? "Lionsgate came in because Ryan has a deal with them on a lot of other projects," she answered. "They were able to work out the numbers and come up with an agreeable p&a that allowed more freedom internationally for Relativity to retain certain rights. So I think it was really just about them being able (to do things) because they're not really a major and they can kind of write their own rules (as to) what they will and will not take. There was a little bit more flexibility in there for a creative deal to be had that was more satisfying for Relativity."

I couldn't let Mangold and Konrad go without asking them how it was working with Crowe, who's generally thought to be very difficult to work with. "He was a joy," they both said one right after the other.

"It is always that thing where you expect something (else) and, in this case, he was fantastic," Konrad went on.

Crowe was, Mangold added, "collaborative, on time, joyful, brilliant, a team player, got along (with everyone). He and Christian and the rest of the cast were great chums. They would go riding together and practice on the weekends. I couldn't have imagined a more convivial set. And to be honest, I've had these moments in the past. When I made 'Cop Land' everyone warned me to fasten my seatbelt for Robert DeNiro, Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta. I have to tell you that I was a pretty young director. That was my second feature. And (as it turned out) it was really easy. In fact, when there's trust between the collaborators on a movie all that power and intensity is used actually to protect the creative core of the movie instead of attacking it. I found that's exactly what happened (on 'Yuma'), which is that I had very, very strong allies not combatants on this film."

"As grueling as the pre-production was because of the financing, what this process certainly allows is the luxury that you get if you do get freedom and a distance (away) from studio watching eyes," Konrad observed. "We were all our own bosses and we were all together doing what we wanted to do and making the decisions together for the best interest of the movie. It was great creatively that way."

"We were very creatively in synch," Mangold said. "We all saw the same movie and worked together to make it."

Looking back, Konrad summed it all up by saying, "Animals are harder to work with than actors. Russell was never the problem. It was the cows!"

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 30, 1989's column: "With the end of the year now in sight, it's astounding to realize how far ahead of last year 1989 is in terms of boxoffice business. No matter what comparisons one makes, business is booming these days.

"The first 43 weekends of the year, for instance, show a gross by key films -- those doing $500,000 or more per weekend -- of approximately $2.2 billion. That's an increase of 15.8% from $1.9 billion during the same period last year. This fall (Weekends 37-43), key films have grossed approximately $268.3 million, up 31.7% from $203.7 million in '88. As for the fourth quarter (Weekends 40-43), key films have taken in $155.7 million, a 28.7% jump from $121 million a year earlier.

"There no longer is any sense of daring -- as there was when I first wrote about it here last summer -- to predict that 1989 will be a record-setting year with a $5 billion-plus gross for the first time. The one question mark that was always attached to that prediction was whether the fall season would bring Hollywood a blockbuster, as was true in 1986 ('Crocodile Dundee') and 1987 ('Fatal Attraction') but was not the case last year. While no one really saw it coming, 'Look Who's Talking' answered that question with a resounding 'Yes!' It's already well on its way to generating $100 million at the domestic theatrical boxoffice.

"Thanksgiving is shaping up as a boxoffice feast with no turkeys. There's very encouraging advance word about Buena Vista/Disney's animated feature 'The Little Mermaid,' which looms as a hit that will play to family audiences, not just youngsters. Distribution sources also anticipate good business for MGM/UA's animated 'All Dogs Go to Heaven.' Both films arrive Nov. 17 and should continue the successful boxoffice trend enjoyed earlier this year by such family product as 'Look Who's Talking,' 'Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,' 'Parenthood' and 'Uncle Buck...'

"Thanksgiving, itself, will revolve around the Wed., Nov. 22 opening of Universal's 'Back to the Future 2,' directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Michael J. Fox. Here, too, there is a strong family appeal story line with Fox visiting himself in the future as a married man with children..."

Update: While it was exciting in 1989 to be talking about the potential of a $5 billion grossing year for the first time, the film industry's growth since then has been astounding. This summer, according to Paul Degarabedian's Media By Numbers tracking service, is the biggest ever with Hollywood grossing $4.0 billion in revenues from May 1 through Aug. 26. It's a 10.2% improvement over last summer's $3.63 billion gross for the same period and attendance is up 5.4%.

With the domestic boxoffice as healthy as it clearly is, what Hollywood needs to do is start restoring the marketing budgets it slashed in response to the disastrous summer of '05. Those cuts were the industry's the-sky-is-falling reaction to the poor performance of some truly rotten movies. Although the public rejected lousy product, it didn't say no to moviegoing in general. That's abundantly clear from how well audiences have embraced this summer's pictures.

A $4 billion summer means that moviegoing is still high on the American public's list of favorite ways to spend their time and money when they want to be entertained. They may own big high-def plasma TV screens and they may be snapping up hit movies on DVD, but they're still going to the movies. Hollywood should start loosening its marketing purse strings and go after the sizable domestic audience that's either not watching network TV as much as they once did or that's just TiVoing through all those 30 second movie spots the studios are still running on the networks.

With an average national ticket price these days of $6.85, a film that grosses $300 million has sold about 44 million admissions. That's a big number, but when you consider that the U.S. and Canada population is over 310 million people, it's clear that there's a huge audience out there that could be sold on moviegoing through broader marketing campaigns. The studio that commits the resources to going after this still untapped domestic audience stands to make boxoffice history.

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