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Cerenzie conversation: A film’s awards prospects typically benefit from multiple invitations to play key film festivals.
A case in point is Sidney Lumet’s thriller “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” a Unity Prods. and Linsefilm Ltd. production, which has an enviable lineup of festival showings on the horizon. This “Devil” may not be wearing Prada, but it will definitely be in the spotlight. Its world premiere is Sept. 7 at the 33rd Deauville Film Festival where there also will be an official dinner that night for Lumet, a press conference the following day and a Sidney Lumet Master Class Sept. 9. On Deauville’s heels there will be press and industry screenings of “Devil” Sept. 12 in the 32nd annual Toronto International Film Festival’s Masters specialty series as well as public screenings Sept. 13 and 15.
At the 45th New York Film Festival there will be screenings Oct. 12 and 13 and an Oct. 13 interview with Lumet. From there it’s back to Europe for Oct. 17 and 18 screenings at the second annual Rome Film Festival. “Devil’s” U.S. premiere will be in New York Oct. 19 followed by its Oct. 26 opening via THINKFilm.
“Devil” is the latest film in Lumet’s illustrious career stretching back to the 1950s that’s seen him Oscar nominated for directing “The Verdict,” “Network,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “12 Angry Men” and for co-writing “Prince of the City.” Although Lumet’s hasn’t taken home an Oscar yet, he did win a best director Golden Globe in 1977 for “Network.” Over the years he’s received Globe nominations for directing “Running on Empty,” “The Verdict,” “Prince of the City,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “12 Angry Men.”
Written by Kelly Masterson, “Devil” was produced by Michael Cerenzie, Brian Linse, Paul Parmar and William S. Gilmore. Starring are Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ethan Hawke, Marisa Tomei, Albert Finney and Rosemary Harris. Its executive producers are David Bergstein, Jane Barclay, Hannah Leader, Eli Klein Sam, Zaharis Belle Avery, Jeffrey Melnick and J.J. Hoffman.
“Whenever you start to make a film you always hope for the best,” Cerenzie told me, “and with ‘The Devil’ even from the first time I sat with Sidney we felt the material was going to be very evocative and strong. It was on the dark side so a lot of what we hoped for was to attract the kind of talent we felt would also help us tell the story. We didn’t have the original intent that this was going to turn into a big festival film. The thing that Sidney and I came up with (along with) my partner Brian Linse was that we had to make sure that all these actors were from the same cloth and lived in the same world. We felt this was a family unit because it’s so much of the story. With the addition of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke and Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei and Rosemary Harris we were successful in doing that along with Sidney’s mastery of being able to tell the type of story that is character driven and that really involves the audience into the life of that character. If you look back at a lot of his work that’s really what would stand out to me.
“It was a little bit of a shock at first when (the Venice Film Festival approached us). Venice was very aggressive with us and they wanted Sidney to do a retrospective and be there. We ended up having to pass on Venice because we wanted to do Rome (and there wasn’t enough time to also do Venice) because we’re also in pre-production on another movie that we’re doing together right now. Sidney actually wrote a wonderful original screenplay that we’re doing together and we’re in the midst of casting that right now. So the Venice dates kind of (didn’t work for us). Then Toronto came in very aggressively and invited him to the Masters. Deauville, which we decided would be the premiere, is also doing a retrospective of his work in that series and they’re also doing a gala Cinematheque premiere in Paris for him as part of that.
“And then, finally, the New York Film Festival came in just a week ago and said, ‘You know, we would love to have this film.’ So it’s kind of taken on a life of its own. And then we do Rome right after that, which we think has become quite an important festival in a short period of time.”
It’s a very good sign that all the festivals that invited “Devil” to screen have seen and liked the movie and it’s also encouraging that the film’s early media screenings have been generating a very favorable buzz.
“The thing with Sidney is that he’s done so many amazing films,” Cerenzie said. “I think often people at first blush will say, ‘Well, it’s Lumet, you know,’ but it’s a really big deal (to get these festival invites). This is the first time he’s been in the New York Film Festival since 1964 and (this new invitation) was a big deal for him. He was very excited about being back in that festival.
“(New York Film Festival head) Richard Pena (said recently in The Hollywood Reporter) it’s a genre and a picture that the audience has been looking to see Sidney do again. It’s a return to his roots, but with a very modern twist on director’s style. To him, style is not how you edit or cut a film. It’s much more involved from character to plot to everything — how he dresses, how he shoots, how he rehearses. It’s a whole different thing for him. I just think that they’re very, very excited about it because of the film, itself, and of course because of him. And I think it speaks for itself, which is a really great feeling.”
All told, he explained, “We worked on this for almost five years, developing it. Kelly Masterson was a first time writer and had never written anything before. The original form of the screenplay was structurally very similar to where we are now. Sidney made some really important changes in his director’s rewrite, putting characters together and making (the characters played by Hoffman and Hawke) brothers. They weren’t brothers in the original. He took what was a great structure and really heightened the stakes of the film by making it all within the family. And so with the betrayals and the other things that go wrong within this drama they’re much more heightened than they were in the original screenplay. He just kind of turned up the volume on everything. But that’s Sid — right?
“His feeling — and mine and Brian Linse, who was my partner on the film from the beginning — was that we knew we didn’t have a big commercial movie on our hands and that was fine. Originally, we were going to do this as a $3 million film for Artisan and then they got bought by Lionsgate and we were left with no movie. We were going to do it like a Sundance film — a cool, hip, very small indie project with a first-time filmmaker. We ended up losing that position with the filmmaker in the deal and we were sitting at the Four Seasons here in Beverly Hills one day and thinking, ‘What are we going to do?’ Our dream was always to give it to Lumet so we said, ‘You know what? We don’t have a movie to go right now. Let’s take a chance.’ And I called (ICM chairman and CEO) Jeff Berg, who I didn’t really know at all. We had spoken once, I think, a few years ago. Being Jeff, he goes, ‘Come to my office in 20 minutes.’ We went over to his office and we sat with him and pitched him the movie. And Jeff goes, ‘Look, I think it’s a great idea. I’m not sure if Sidney is going to respond to this where he is in his career.’ It was a risky proposition (being) the type of film that it was.”
Lumet called him two days later: “I was in New York and I got a call and he’s like, ‘Hi, it’s Sidney.’ And I’m like, ‘Sidney who?’ and he just said ‘Lumet.’ I hung up the phone because I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke on me. He called back and, of course, then I caught the timbre of his voice because I’d heard him interviewed and watched him so many times doing other stuff. And I’m like, ‘Hi.’ And he goes, ‘I guess we had a bad connection.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you know these cell phones these days.’ He (asked), ‘Do you mind coming by my office and sitting with me and talking about the script? I’m intrigued by what we have here.’ So I sat with him probably for three hours.
“He said, ‘You know, I like this. I’ll be honest with you, it’s a very tricky film because it’s told from different points of view of the four different main characters in a repetitive type of fashion.’ But the way he did the rewrite, he made it very seamless and effortless so you didn’t feel like you were reliving the picture but you were just learning more about one of the characters and going through more of an experience with them. And that would bring you further and further into the character because a lot of these characters on the surface seem kind of despicable. You have to really get into them and find out what is motivating these people to do this. And the idea of the film really is that good people sometimes do bad things. Sometimes they do bad things because of money or because of greed or sometimes they just get caught in a situation that escalates. So Sidney ended up doing a wonderful rewrite for us and when he handed it in — it was very funny — he wrote me a note and (said), ‘I hope you like it — and this is what we’re shooting.'”
Cerenzie and Linse read the screenplay, he continued, “and we both were very happy with the writing. He made it even darker. So we were like, ‘OK. He’s going with us on the ride.’ He always said to me, ‘Michael, the danger is they look at it as a melodrama and it has so much more to it.’ But today’s audience isn’t the same audience that we had in the ’70s and the ’80s when he made a lot of his movies like ‘Network’ and ‘Serpico’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ We’re living in a different time. Our hope was that the audience and the critics really got what we were doing. It’s not a slick film in the sense of quick cutting and editing and then effects and that kind of thing. He actually shot the whole film (digitally) on Genesis HD and it looked remarkable because he had three cameras going at one time. You know, it’s (a technique) from his television days.”
Talking about how Lumet works as a director, Cerenzie pointed out, “He has the whole film cut in his head before he starts shooting. He doesn’t change a location. He doesn’t change anything. I remember I walked in and he said, ‘OK, I have it shot.’ And I thought he was joking, but when you work with him you realize we get to work at 8 in the morning and you leave at 3:30 in the afternoon and at noon on Friday. We got a call from the bond company with a question like, ‘Are you sure you’re getting enough coverage?’ You know, the T-shirts everyone was wearing were called ‘Summer With Sidney’ because no one felt they were working. It was like the Hamptons on the weekend and we were laughing at 3 in the afternoon, which was great for Ethan and Phillip because they both have families.
“We moved this script. It was originally being shot in Chicago and when I sent the script to him from Jeff (Berg), I put a handwritten note on the cover saying, ‘It’s in New York because I knew you wouldn’t go to Chicago.’ But the story really isn’t so much of a New York story. It’s really about this family unit that could be anywhere in America. It’s about a man, the father, who Albert plays, who at the beginning of the film you feel (has) done his best to raise these kids and give them what they want. And at first glance they all seem to have what they want. As we move into the film you realize that there is a lot that we don’t know about the father (and) there’s a lot we don’t know about the son and the relationship between them.”
Asked about the film’s story, Cerenzie replied, “It’s about how within a family unit without us knowing sometimes we can show favoritism and prejudice our children without really even knowing. This is more of a dramatic effect of what can occur — hopefully would never occur — but what could possibly occur when things aren’t really settled and are kind of glazed over. It’s a hard-hitting look at what motivates children’s desires to want the love of their parents. Really, it’s a film about how that goes awry. But I think there’s something in these characters that everyone can relate to whether they want to or not.
“This is the first film that I really feel has my thumbprint on it as a producer. I wanted to do films that left the audience in a place where they saw something about themselves or someone they knew that would be revealed (while) arguing when they left the movie theater — and not in a bad way, but in a good way. I think it’s good to challenge the moviegoing public. We don’t do that as much as we used to. I think we do that in the film very effectively. It’s a disturbing ending to the movie, but I feel there is a reality to it. In essence, it’s somewhat of a modern day Greek tragedy. I don’t know if Sid agrees with that statement, but I really feel it is very tragically Greek in the way it’s written and the way he delivered it as a film — where you have to be responsible for your actions and each action then catapults you into the next. And that’s what really happens in the film. It continually moves very aggressively. You don’t really breathe through the movie. The movie runs almost two hours, but you’d think it runs an hour twenty or thirty minutes.”
When he first read “Devil’s” screenplay, Cerenzie recalled, “I was an actor at one time and when I read the script in its first form I said, ‘Oh, my God! I would die to do this movie.’ As a producer, when I read a screenplay I read it two or three different ways. I first read it just to read it. Then I kind of look at it (as if) I was acting in it. And that’s how we work on developing the character arcs. We had a great process between Brian and myself in doing that. He comes more from a structural world and I come more from a kind of fluid creative world and the combination made us a really very effective producing team on this movie.”
Looking back at how “Devil” finally came together, he told me, “We started preproduction in New York. I have a wonderful partner and friend named Paul Parmar, who I’ve done a few films with since, who came and said, ‘Look, I’ll get behind this movie and make this film.’ Jeff Berg was very instrumental in this film and he brought Capitol Films in, who at the time were already doing the foreign sales for the film. They did the first two movies I did at MGM and they ended up stepping up and actually financing the film and making (it) with us. The budget is approximately $20 million, which I think for the cast we have and the filmmaker and what we’re doing is right on the money.
“It’s interesting what’s going on right now in the studio system. As you know, I’m working with Christine Peters and with Paramount (in the recently announced Cerenzie-Peters Prods.) and that’s been a whole new world because all the films I’ve done up to now I’ve basically self-financed through my partners and we’ve done them totally independently and then sold them to the studios. So I kind of always have worked within my own bubble, I guess, and the reason for that is that coming from theater — which was a writer driven and controlled environment, which I liked a lot — I was trying to create a company that would have the same kind of autonomy when you’re going through the filmmaking process. In today’s marketplace the only way you can really do that is by also adding financing to the deal. So the way we use the money is to use it in a smart fashion and say, ‘Look, we’ll finance this or most of this and use the studios as more of a distribution unit.'”
When it comes to films with larger budgets, he added, “and big effects movies and CGI-driven stuff you need all of that back-up and support and marketing because they know how to build those franchises better than anyone. They’ve been doing it for a hundred years. But on a film like this, I think if you have the ability to bring financing to the table and develop something it really gives you more success. If you look at films we’ve seen over the years like ‘Capote’ and ‘Crash’ and ‘Hustle and Flow,’ I think a reason for a lot of that success is because they did it independently. At the end of the day, you always need the studios to help you and to be working with you. But if you can keep that kind of magic in the bottle long enough, then I think your success rate is a little bit better.
“It’s also very (good) that Paramount’s got Vantage and most of the studios now have these great specialty houses. It’s smart because I think they’re finding that whether it’s Sidney Lumet (with a small film like “Devil”) or Alex Proyas (‘I, Robot’), who does hundred million dollar movies, they’re looking for the same thing. They’re looking for their movie to get made and they’re looking for it to be made the closest to their vision when they began. I was so attracted to working with Christine (because) she has exactly the same philosophy, but she’s within the studio world very effectively having that philosophy. My hat goes off to her because that’s really a tough way to do it, but she’s brilliant at it.
“When we got together to form Cerenzie-Peters Prods. what attracted us to each other was kind of my ability to raise independent financing and (the fact that) we had different skill sets. She was very interconnected with the studios and how it works, so she had that down pat. But our process was literally almost identical. I’d never met another producer in town who really thought that way other than some of the real veteran producers who worked in that (studio) environment and were allowed to have that creativity. Now it’s become a lot different.”
Coming back to “Devil,” he observed, “I think the whole film actually is a miracle. Whenever you’re dealing with independent financing there’s always some bumps along the road. At one time when we were starting to make the movie we stopped pre-production in New York three weeks in. Everyone said, basically, that we were finished because it’s hard to get a show back up. Our money fell apart and usually that’s death. What Brian and I had to do is he had to put up his house as collateral and I (also) had to put up collateral. We had to cover about $1.5 million in payroll to keep the movie going and everyone thought we were crazy. As you know, most producers would have said, ‘OK, this show’s done. This was a good shot.’
“I remember we sat down and we were having a cigar and we said, ‘We have two choices. We could go home and say we got really close to working with one of the greatest casts and directors that we ever dreamt of or we could step up.’ And that really was a defining moment for us as producers to say, ‘OK, we believe in this thing so much we’re willing to put everything in on it,’ which was more or less our life savings at the time. We said, ‘You know what? No one’s going home.’ We kept building and we kept everyone on staff.”
It was at that point, Cerenzie explained, that “Jeff Berg and Hal Sadoff (ICM’s head of international and independent films) became instrumental and brought in Capitol and (its chairman) David Bergstein to pick up the financing of the picture — and they literally did it within 48 hours, which is unheard of in this business. They were in Cannes. We had a call with Jeff and Hannah Leader, who led the company with David, and they said, ‘OK. What’s the number (you need to make this movie)?’ And they got behind us in 48 hours and started financing us, (for) which we’re very indebted. Hal Sadoff is an amazing talent. He’s been a producer and he understood the sensitivity and how quickly it had to move. I think if we’d never had that support there’d be no film today, to be honest with you. ICM was a huge blessing in the deal.” [Link to Martin Grove’s June 23, 2006 column in which Sadoff discussed independent film packaging.]
Cerenzie also credits producer Paul Parmar for his work in bringing in financing for “Devil,” emphasizing that, “Without having the equity you can’t make a movie today. The way most films are made today is people go out and get a domestic minimum guarantee from a studio for say 30% of their film and then they go and raise some other (money from) foreign sales and they put it together. But what we do instead of first going to the domestic market is we don’t make a film unless we really believe in it. We bring in a partner that replaces the domestic position so that that partner is protected because they get their money recouped once we do the American sale.
“So they’re in a very strong position because we make sure that the numbers work. We’re not making a movie for $20 million that should be done for $10 million. So we have to do our homework. We also look at being creative in the financing and the style in which we’re making the film. We’ve made four or five films this year in a climate that’s very difficult. So even though we’re independent and even though I’m working now with Christine, we’re going to continue to raise those monies and those funds and increase our ability to make larger pictures. So when we’re doing a $50 million picture or a $60 million picture with, say, Paramount we still have the ability to bring financing to the table if they want to and if it makes sense to the deal. I think really it’s the future. If you look at the producers who are producing today, outside of a handful they’re usually very multi-tasking and they have a team that actually does more than just creative for them. It’s really film financial, as well. The financing actually is what allows us to have the creative process that we have.”
Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 13, 1989’s column: “The mania for buying movie studios continues to make headlines as the handful of remaining available companies attract new suitors.
“Why all the interest? At the moment, of course, the film business is hot. For the first 41 weekends of the year, key films –those doing more than $500,000 per weekend — have grossed approximately $2.2 billion, up 14.9% from $1.9 billion in the comparable period last year…
“It’s not the sizzling boxoffice, however, that accounts for all the interest in taking over studios. It’s well known that Hollywood is a cyclical business and that at some point the domestic boxoffice is likely to cool down for a while.
“Much of the desire to get into the film business in a major way stems, I think, from the fact that this is one of those rare industries where it’s possible to generate huge sums of money in a very short period of time. Today’s wide openings and sophisticated marketing techniques have made possible huge grosses. Like the oil business, when you strike a movie gusher the money really pours in. Warner Bros., for example, opened ‘Batman’ and grossed $40.5 million the first three days. Columbia’s ‘Ghostbusters II’ did $29.5 million its first weekend. Paramount’s ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ earned $29.4 million its first three days. And Warners’ ‘Lethal Weapon 2’ opened to $20.4 million…
“At the same time that the theatrical grossing potential of movies has expanded, there has been a corresponding explosion in the worldwide ancillary markets for films. Movies that once only had an afterlife of domestic TV syndication now have many additional sources of revenue that greatly reduce the risk of making them.
“The foreign theatrical market, for instance, has experienced a major resurgence recently. A film can founder at the domestic boxoffice but still have an opportunity to earn big money abroad. Worldwide home video has become a key contributor to a film’s revenue stream. And there has been enormous growth in both pay and broadcast TV throughout the world…
“The hunger for buying movie studios is also fed by the availability of money. The world’s leading electronics, publishing and media companies have been thriving and, as a result, have money to invest in expanding their businesses. They see the obvious synergies that can be achieved by combining the making of movie software and the marketing of film libraries with their existing businesses … With so few major studios and film libraries still available, today’s rush to get them while they last is quite understandable.”
Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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