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In our marketing-driven culture, things aren’t always what they seem.
Picking up on that idea was enough to propel Derrick Borte from 20 years of making commercials to writing and directing his first feature, “The Joneses,” which stars Demi Moore and David Duchovny and just premiered at Toronto.
From watching a TV news report about stealth marketing, he learned that “companies were sending models into nightclubs to order a certain drink over and over and over again.” Suddenly, other people around them would start ordering the very same drink.
Or people went to a tourist destination and asked someone to take their picture with a fancy new camera. “Inevitably, people would ask about the camera and when they described it, sales of that camera would go up.”
That’s when the light bulb went on for Borte: “I thought about what would happen if you took this to its inevitable conclusion of placing a fake family into a neighborhood.” They’d be the Joneses that everybody wants to keep up with.
“I had been directing commercials for a long time and wanting to get into the feature world,” he told me. “I knew the only way that was going to happen was if I had material that would give me some leverage.”
The film he wrote to get there, Borte said, is “a dark comedy with some social commentary satire and a love story.”
The story: “This perfect family moves into this perfect McMansion neighborhood and they’ve got the best of everything. They immediately develop a following of people who want to emulate them and begin buying the same things that they have. Then we find out that all is not as it seems in the Joneses’ household.”
And that’s enough story for now, he cautioned: “There are some big spoilers there and I’d rather not be the one to reveal anything.”
So how’d he get to make it? “Through a series of connections I got it to a producer, Kristi Zea (“Revolutionary Road”), who loved it and asked if she could be part of the team.”
After that Borte took 200 or so meetings. “I had some offers to sell it as a TV show. Kristi had shown the script to James Brooks, whom she’s worked with for years. I got a call from him one day. I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke on me.”
No, it really was Brooks. And he loved the script.
Brooks (to Borte): “The only advice I’m going to give you is do not sell this as a TV show. Direct it. Make the film yourself and then you can do whatever you want. But you’ve got to make this film.”
Borte (recalling): “It really validated what I was thinking already myself. When you’re staring at the possibility of a large amount of money to sell something, it is tempting. But I ended up staying the course and writing, producing and directing it for a fraction of what I could have sold it for as a TV show.”
Any regrets? “It’s the smartest decision I think I’ve ever made.”
He’s looking now for a domestic distribution deal following the film’s favorable reception at Toronto, where this year saw much less deal-making than in the past. “Joneses” was one of the fest’s higher profile titles.
“Echo Lake, the production company, and ICM, who’s selling the film, submitted it,” he explained. After seeing a work in progress cut, fest programmers gave it an opening weekend slot at the prestigious Elgin Theater.
Looking back at production, Borte said his screenplay attracted the cast led by Moore and Duchovny and he took to directing easily enough: “They all responded very positively to the script and numerous meetings followed. I just seemed to feel a chemistry with everyone.”
They shot last fall in Alpharetta, Georgia, just outside of Atlanta. The location made sense with its tax incentives, good local crews and actors and help from the Georgia Film Office.
Borte knew this was the right place when he saw “its massive gated communities with these McMansions that I really didn’t see anywhere else.”
As for transitioning from directing commercials to features: “My ideas about what it would be like ahead of time were probably far more difficult to deal with than how things actually went on the days there.”
The challenge in making an independent film, he observed, is that “you can’t always get all the time and all the toys you want. Yet there’s a great sense of camaraderie that everyone is really making some kind of sacrifice for the greater good of the project, which is wonderful.”
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