'Charlie' script was writing sample sent to Permut


"Charlie" comments: We all know what writers and directors do and how they do it, but producers are something else.

Hollywood is filled with producers, but not all of them have a lot to do with the making of their films. Real working producers are those who actually go out and find material to turn into movies and then do what it takes to bring in the right directors, actors, financing and distribution.

A case in point is David Permut, who's been involved in the production of more than 30 films and television movies since 1975's "Give 'em Hell, Harry," the film version of James Whitmore's acclaimed one-character stage play about President Harry S. Truman. Among Permut's credits are such features as "Consenting Adults" with Kevin Kline, Kevin Spacey and Forest Whitaker, "Trapped in Paradise" with Nicolas Cage, "Eddie" with Whoopi Goldberg and Frank Langella and "Face/Off" with John Travolta, Nicolas Cage and Joan Allen.

Permut's latest production, the comedy drama "Charlie Bartlett" from MGM and Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, opens wide Friday. Directed by Jon Poll and written by Gustin Nash, "Charlie" is produced by Permut and Barron Kidd and by Jay Roach and Sidney Kimmel. It was executive produced by William Horberg and Jennifer Perini and by Trish Hofmann and Bruce Toll. Starring are Anton Yelchin, Hope Davis, Kat Dennings and Robert Downey Jr.

Having enjoyed an early look at "Charlie," I was happy to be able to catch up last week with Permut to talk about producing in general as well as the making of his new film. "Charlie's" story revolves around a troubled high school student (Yelchin) who, after being expelled from numerous private schools that his wealthy mother (Davis) has sent him to, winds up in a public school where his popularity soars when he starts selling prescription drugs like Ritalin and Prozac to his classmates. Unfortunately, his success story runs into problems when he falls for a beautiful fellow student (Dennings) whose father happens to be the school's tough as nails principal (Downey).

"Charlie's" storyline recalls such classic John Hughes films about high school angst like 1986's "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," starring Matthew Broderick, Jeffrey Jones and Jennifer Grey, and 1985's "The Breakfast Club," starring Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy. By comparison, those films were set in what were clearly much gentler times than we're living in today.

"'Charlie Bartlett' came to life when I acquired the rights to a book called 'Youth in Revolt' by C.D. Payne, which is somewhat of a landmark book amongst teens," Permut told me. "It's got an amazing following. It's a very irreverent comedy, which is written in the style of a boy's memoir, a coming of age story."

When I asked how Permut had found the book, he explained, "It's a wild story. A friend of mine was taking his family on a summer vacation to Costa Rica. His daughter was in high school and had an assignment to read a book and the book had to be a minimum of 500 pages. Every night in Costa Rica, Miranda, would tell her family about the book. She would read chapters of the book and she would share the experiences with her family. Well, she finished the book at the end of their summer vacation, came back here and her father, who happens to be an agent, called me up and said, 'David, my daughter read this astounding book. She shared the story with us every night over dinner during our summer vacation. She wants to come and tell you about it because she thinks -- and I do, too -- that it would make a hell of a movie.'

"So his high school daughter sat in our offices and told us the story of 'Youth in Revolt.' Well, I acquired the book. I announced that we acquired the book. There was a young man who was selling cameras in a mall in Burbank who was in twenties -- he was 28 at the time -- named Gustin Nash. He was a fledgling screenwriter and he heard that we had acquired 'Youth in Revolt.' He had been a huge fan of the material. He loved the book like so many young people and he made certain that a script got its way to our offices as a writing sample of his ability. He was hoping to get the assignment to adapt 'Youth in Revolt.'"

Nash wasn't the only writer hoping to get put on the project: "By this time, we had already set up 'Youth in Revolt' at a studio and, in fact, we were inundated with many seasoned writers coming at it -- really established A List writers wanting to get the assignment to adapt this wonderful book. Well, his script came in and my development executive Steve Longi, who read it shortly after it came in, called me in the middle of the night and he said, 'You've got to read this script.'

"He e-mailed it over to my house and I read it that night and Gustin Nash was in our offices the next day. I said, 'Look, not only are you the voice for 'Youth in Revolt' and you should be the writer to adapt this and we'll convince the studio of that, but this spec script that you sent in as your writing sample -- the name of the script was 'Charlie Bartlett' -- we're going to make this movie.'"

What resulted, Permut noted, was that, "Gustin wound up adapting 'Youth in Revolt,' which is a film we're in production on now with the Weinsteins, which Michael Cera ('Juno') is starring in and we're just in the throes of signing a director. But we wound up making 'Charlie Bartlett' (first). So that's a little bit of the history with respect to Gustin and the evolution of the script. And, by the way, Gustin really nailed a very challenging book because it is a 500 page book. It's a very dense piece of material and it's chock full of great things, but to distill it into a script was a real challenge and he delivered it and hit it out of the ballpark so much so that it now bears a commitment from Michael Cera to star in it and The Weinstein Co. is financing it."

Nash isn't the only person whose career's being launched through "Charlie." "The first director that I had sent it to when we started thinking about marrying it with the right filmmaker (was) Jay Roach, who I had known has a one-sheet in his office and it's not of any of his hugely successful movies ('Meet the Parents,' 'Meet the Fockers' and all three 'Austin Powers' blockbusters). There's only one one-sheet hanging in his office and I was told and it's the one-sheet to 'Harold and Maude' (the classic 1971 Hal Ashby dark comedy starring Ruth Gordon and Bud Cort). So I knew Jay was looking to do a sophisticated comedy and 'Harold and Maude' is one of the films that's also been referenced in our focus groups when we screened 'Charlie Bartlett' in addition to 'Ferris Bueller' and Wes Anderson's movie 'Election.' It has that sophistication. Of course, now there are some similar parallels (with) 'Juno.' I mean, Ellen Page is pregnant and Charlie Bartlett is selling prescription medication (and these are both) serious things -- nothing that Ferris Bueller would have done.

"Jay responded immediately to this script in a big way and Jay was contemplating directing it. In fact, we went through a bit of rewrite with Gustin with Jay. It's kind of interesting how we did that, too, because when it came time to go to rewrite we thought, 'Let's hear it come alive and get a bunch of actors around a table,' which I find is always a great approach. I decided to do it at Beverly Hills High School on a weekend because it's obviously a high school film and I thought that would be fun. So we did. We took over the small theater at Beverly Hills High and we had some great actors come around a table and read it and it was very helpful to Gustin."

What ultimately happened, Permut continued, is that, "Jay was going to go off and do another picture. We started basically meeting other directors once Jay opted out to do another picture. I really didn't want to wait on 'Charlie Bartlett' for at least a year until Jay became available. So we started meeting very seasoned directors who were coming in wanting to do what was a terrific script and a smart sophisticated comedy (which is) hard to come by. Jay called and asked me if I would be open to meeting somebody who hadn't directed his first feature, but nevertheless is a world class editor who worked with Jay and had a very close relationship with Jay (and that was) Jon Poll. Jon had edited 'Meet the Parents' and 'Austin Powers' (as well as such other hits as 'Scary Movie 3' and 'Meet the Fockers').

"Jon had been looking to make the transition to directing in his career and had really responded in a big way when Jay had shown him a copy of Gustin Nash's screenplay. So what started out to be more of a favor to sit down with Jon Poll for the first time, which was probably going to be a 15 or 20 minute meeting, evolved into a two and a half hour meeting. When you're sitting across from somebody who has the vision and everything he said was just spot on you know (he) should be the director of this movie. So we went with Jon beyond all the other more seasoned directors to direct this movie."

It's a movie, Permut said, that he's particularly proud of having made: "I love every frame of it and I obviously have no objectivity. But the good news is that audiences share, I think, our mutual feeling for this film (by) all of us who made this movie. They really embrace it. The audience reception is wonderful and the critical response thus far is just overwhelming. It's a fresh provocative film and I think it's certainly a movie of our times. I think it says something that's very important without hitting you over the head with it and (it does it) in a very entertaining and fun way. It's certainly a comedy first and foremost, but it's a comedy that I think has weight to it. It's not just a surface fluff comedy and I think the audiences who have seen it certainly have recognized that.

"I'm very proud of this movie (also because it launches) a number of careers in front of the camera -- notably Anton Yelchin in the lead, who I think has always done impeccable work. He was our first choice for this movie. Jon was determined that we meet every actor in town because, as you can imagine, every young actor gravitates towards a great piece of material as they did with 'Charlie.' We met a lot of actors, but always in Jon's mind and in our mind Anton was really the one. He goes toe to toe with Robert Downey and Hope Davis, some really terrific seasoned actors, in this film, and I think he's got a major, major career (ahead of him)."

Yelchin was born in 1989 in Leningrad, Russia to figure-skater parents who emigrated to the U.S. when he was only six months old. He made his acting debut in the television series "ER" when he was 10 years old and at age 11 appeared opposite Anthony Hopkins in the film "Hearts in Atlantis." Yelchin will be seen next in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek," which Paramount recently set for release May 8, 2009.

Good producer that he is, Permut managed with "Charlie" to launch Nash as a writer, Poll as a director and Yelchin as a star. "I'm very proud of the fact that the film does launch those careers behind the scenes as well as in front of the camera," he said. "And Kat Dennings, who's great (as Charlie's girlfriend), and a lot of the other young actors in this movie are just wonderful in it. I think it's fresh, provocative, original, distinctive and entertaining. It's all those things. So we hope to marry commerce with art when we open Feb. 22."

Listening to Permut and his enthusiasm for the film, I observed that if I'd asked him to define what producers do his answer would probably have encompassed the same stories he'd just related. "I'm asked that question often," he replied. "I think the first thing a producer does -- and it's an overused word sometimes in the business -- is you have to be passionate. And then you have to be tenacious as a pit bull in heat. I mean, when you really believe in something fervently you've got to stay with the course and protect it in every way you can. And then you put it out in the real world and hope that the real world responds to the same things that you responded to."

How did it go from a script that he saw tremendous potential in to getting financed and made? "Well, Jay Roach came on board and has produced with me," he explained. "And once Jon came on board we started exploring it with different backers and, fortunately, Sidney Kimmel's company was the right fit for this movie. They believed in it. They supported our vision. They supported Jon Poll as a first-time feature film director. He had made shorts in his career, but this was his first feature film and they supported that. And I give them a lot of credit for having done that.

"Then, of course, all the other elements came into place. (Having) Robert Downey as the principal in this movie was just a stroke of luck. To be honest, we really were lucky. That idea came up and fortunately Robert responded. The irony is, of course, that if we were making this movie a number of years ago Robert would have played Charlie Bartlett. Hope Davis brings a really wonderful (performance as Charlie's) mother. In the dynamic relationship between the parent and the child, she's more the child than the parent. Charlie takes on that responsibility. But she was wonderful. We also got a stroke of luck in so many other ways (like with) Tyler Hilton, who becomes his partner in his prescription medication dispensary (and) is a wonderful actor. He was in 'Walk the Line,' in which he played Elvis Presley, and he's also a recording star. He has a great presence on screen as do a lot of the other young actors in this movie, many of whom we were able to cast in Toronto. And we got lucky that way."

Why did they shoot in Toronto? "It was the right fit creatively for us," Permut told me. "Certainly, that's the consideration. The economics of it made sense. Sidney Kimmel has produced a number of movies in Toronto. The fortunate thing for us is there's such a great talent pool behind the camera as well as in front of the camera in Toronto. Paul Sarossy, who shot (Atom Egoyan's 1997 drama) 'The Sweet Hereafter' among many other films, is a world class cinematographer and came on board.

"Jon really surrounded himself with some enormously talented people both below and above the line. And in Toronto when we were up there because a lot of production has been pulled back (into the U.S. thanks to) all the tax incentives in various states, there weren't a whole lot of films (shooting). So we had the cream of the crop in terms of the below the line talent that was assembled on this picture."

Shooting took place during the summer of 2006 for about eight weeks and Permut was there for the duration. "Look, there were other producing partners I had on this project," he pointed out. "Obviously, Jay Roach was terrific and instrumental. Barron Kidd is another producer on the picture. Everybody shares those responsibilities, but, yeah, I was very actively involved and I really am very proud of this film. I mean, the reviews we've gotten from some of the critics who have seen it is overwhelming. As a matter of fact, Jon Poll is on a (15 city) publicity tour where we're screening the movie around the country for various colleges and Jon's doing this Q&A. It's a pretty intensive schedule he's got. He's like a rock star. Every 15 minutes he's doing media interviews and then he's got screenings at night with a Q&A.

"The other thing, which is just the icing on the cake, is what's on the screen is what counts and that's obviously why we're enthusiastic and very proud. But, also, to make a film when you make it with people you really respect and they're just great people is really nice. Jon sets the whole tone and demeanor of the set. A director will always do that. He's the captain of the ship, after all, and (working with) Jon was a great experience. I mean, I've done over 20 movies and I can't think of an experience that was grander and greater than this one. He had great working relationships with people. So he's a great person in addition to being an enormously talented filmmaker. Needless to say, we've been tenacious about trying to find another project to connect with Jon on and so have all the other studios in town now that they've all seen 'Charlie Bartlett.'"

Looking back on the project's road to the screen, Permut noted that it was about four years ago when he first became involved: "In the world of development, they say seven years is the average. That's what I was told for movies that get made. Most of them never get made, but the ones that get made they say it's a seven year average. So I guess we were three years under the average."

The film was originally going to have gone into theaters last summer, he added, "but we just didn't want 'Charlie' to get lost in that summer tentpole blockbuster mentality. We had actually finished the picture and then we pushed it to this date now (which) we thought would be a more opportune time to find an audience."

Permut's busy with several other projects right now. "I'm doing two different movies, which are documentaries," he said. "One of them was announced (recently) with Ben Stiller called 'The Boys.' It's the story about Richard and Robert Sherman, which is based on their very dark turbulent life as brothers and also their working relationship, having created all that music (for numerous films, including 'Mary Poppins,' 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' and 'The Jungle Book'). We're currently in production on that. The other documentary that I've been working on for a while is (about) Rodney Dangerfield, which I've been shooting for over 10 years. And that's in addition to being in preproduction now with 'Youth in Revolt.'"

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Oct. 18, 1990's column: "In this imperfect world, screenings are the imperfect mechanism Hollywood has devised to make the media aware of its product. Screenings enable those of us who cover the industry to get an early look at the films we spend our lives writing or talking about.

"Over the years there have been some unfortunate changes not only in the way films are screened, but also in the way screening audiences behave. Lately, things have taken such a turn for the worse that the industry needs to focus serious attention on improving the situation.

"As the media corps that covers Hollywood has grown, so has the length of the list of people invited to attend screenings. Instead of showing films to small groups of people in studio theaters or at the Academy or DGA as was once the case, today we have large all-media screenings. These events typically take place at theaters in Westwood or Hollywood and attract lines every bit as long as the lines of real moviegoers outside neighboring theaters. One wonders what the professional affiliations are of many of those who turn out to socialize at these circuses.

"Increasingly, many of those attending all-media showings arrive after the film has begun, making it difficult for those who came on time and are already seated to see opening scenes or titles. It's especially annoying to be distracted from seeing how a director begins his film because four latecomers are shuffling through your row of seats, juggling boxes of popcorn and cups of soda...

"Even worse than late arrivals are those who insist on holding loud conversations during screenings. This is said to result from people who are now accustomed to talking while watching television or videos at home...Nor should we have to endure the crying of infants or the babbling of young children at screenings (other than those to which media guests are invited to bring their families)...

"To a degree some of these problems can be solved if studios cut back their screening lists to include only those who really need to be present and then encourage decent behavior from those who are lucky enough to remain on the lists."

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